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Promoting young players has long been integral to the history of United. The club keeps faith by offering a clear pathway to the top level. The injury-hit, one-goal-a-game, eighth-in-the-table first team team have massively underwhelmed so far, but it has given more minutes to academy graduates than any other team in the league.
After too many years of neglect, United have quadrupled the amount they’ve put into the youth system since 2015. There’s an increased games programme, too, to expose players to as many different types of football as possible: the EFL Trophy, more under-18s tournaments and even flying in opponents to play the under-19s, as United did with Hertha Berlin last week. They plan many more.
How would the combative midfielder who played 307 first team games for the club describe the ‘Man United way’?
“Free flowing football which is fast and attacking, fearless and brave,” says the Mancunian of a system that the 23s and the first team are trying to play, the former with more success than the latter.
“We must be able to win any way. There should be no snobbery and only playing pure football. If a team wants to run then we should outrun them. If they want to fight then we should outfight them. If they want to play then we should outplay them. I’m seeing evidence of that with the younger teams but we have to be patient. Look at our squad tonight (at Lincoln), it’s very young. We have got young lads who are going up to the first team. That frustrates the youth coaches when they lose their players, yet at the same time they are proud of their progress.”
“Ole Gunnar is passionate about bringing young players through but it’s hard to do it in a team which is struggling. Everyone talks about our decade (the Class of ’92) but it was a lot easier being around world class players who were used to winning leagues.
“You need experienced players to help young players. At the moment you are looking at Scott (McTominay) to drive the team, Mason (Greenwood) to try and get us a goal. They should be the ones coming on at 1-0, 2-0 and 3-0 and showing how good they are for the future. It’s difficult times for the manager to bring to bring young players in but he’s still been doing it and that indicates how supportive he is of the youth system.”