Inside Manchester United’s academy. Part one: Recruitment

Andy Mitten

Seven-year-old boys wearing American football shoulder pads laugh as they run into inflatable obstacles and try to pass adults holding huge tackle-bags on the artificial turf.

There’s music playing, while family members watch from a balcony inside Manchester United’s Carrington Training Centre.

Don’t be fooled by the shoulder pads, these are not UK trials for the Denver Broncos or San Francisco 49ers. This is an early stage of how one of the world’s biggest football clubs recruits footballers into their pre-academy programme.

“The kids here have a choice and they will definitely be attending other clubs,” says Jarrad Ince, from nearby Stockport, who manages the pre-academy. Ince came over from Manchester City four years ago.

“Our approach is relaxed, creating a vibe. They can come once or twice a week. You see their siblings having fun, too. It’s not results-driven. We want the kids to enjoy it, for it to be a safe, fun environment. We’re patient, we give kids time to develop.

Jarrad ran the NFL-style sessions for the young kids (Andy Mitten/The Athletic)

“Today, we have brought in the Manchester Titans (American football team); a few weeks ago, we visited Anthony Crolla’s boxing gym. We embrace multi-sports; we want the children to take on different challenges and environments. You never know, there might be the next (NFL quarterback) Patrick Mahomes out there today.

“We can offer a clear pathway to the first team and we had Kobbie Mainoo down recently. Kobbie stayed for an hour and said he remembered being this age, when Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard came to see him.”

Welcome to this special report on United’s academy.

Earlier this month, I spent an all-access day inside the club and here I will explain how United sign players of all ages, the complications Brexit has brought, the changes that were made when the club’s academy fell behind its contemporaries, and the detail with which the team’s currently brilliant under-18s side are coached and prepared.

Nobody has been allowed this level of access to the academy before. We hope you enjoy the piece.

All the children who have been scouted and invited to attend are from within an hour’s drive (the authorities work it out using an AA route finder). Aside from the Carrington hub, United have four other centres within that hour’s circle: Lancashire, Yorkshire, Winsford in Cheshire (for north of Stoke) and St Helens (for Merseyside) — more than any club. With more professional football clubs within an hour’s drive than anywhere else in the world — Buenos Aires in Argentina is second — competition for local talent is tough. And it’s getting tougher.

By the side of the pitch, one parent leafs through a pre-academy booklet, a prospectus laying out why their child should join United.

“If you are good enough, you are old enough.” This quote from legendary United manager Sir Matt Busby is on the inside front page, followed by pictures of youth players who have become first-teamers with the words: “Over 4,200 consecutive games featuring an academy graduate.”

Under the question ‘What makes our academy different?’, the reasons come with numbers:

  • 1: ranked the leading English club for producing and developing players
  • 85: years of matchday squad featuring academy graduates
  • 46: academy graduates playing in Europe’s highest-ranked divisions
  • 88: academy graduates currently playing professional football
  • 246: academy graduates have made a first-team debut for Manchester United.

The last figure has risen to 249 since the booklet was printed, but by page 13 we’re reading about the murkiest elements of youth football recruitment.

Academy graduates’ pictures on the wall are there to inspire the next generation (Andy Mitten/The Athletic)

“It is AGAINST the rules to offer additional benefit-in-kind packages, promises and/or incentives to a boy or anyone connected with them in order to influence and persuade them to sign for your club.”

Such as?

“Payments. Job offers. Travel expenses. Siblings. Housing. Schooling. Relocation. Extra agreements. Third-party intermediaries. If you are unsure of anything being promised to you, ask for the details to be confirmed in writing.”

It’s not that long ago that United’s famed youth system was a mess; underfunded and falling behind rivals. It wasn’t only a matter of money. While there were good people involved and top players still coming through, the club assumed that their name and reputation would be enough to bring the best youngsters to their door. It wasn’t.

Several first-team players at United chose to send their children to neighbours City’s academy. Rivals were aggressively pursuing United’s best youngsters, sometimes using underhand methods or inducements. That still happens, with recruitment and retention the main points of tension in youth football, but it was more than that.

United’s facilities were good but no longer good enough.

It was something I brought to light in 2015. Then, four years later, I spoke to Ed Woodward, United’s then-chief executive, telling him: “The training ground was cutting-edge when it opened 20 years ago. It has now fallen behind the best — not just the very best like Spurs, but mid-ranking Premier League teams. Youth coaches have used portable buildings. There is no proper show-pitch like other clubs have. There are no floodlit pitches for teams beyond the first team. This is supposed to be one of the three biggest clubs in the world.”

“I agree with you to a point,” replied Woodward. “We’re in a major review of the training ground, The Cliff and Littleton Road (the academy site), which will result in major investment.”

“United’s academy (staff) was full of white, middle-class men who lived in Cheshire,” says a source who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job. “You’d bring streetwise lads up from London who’d look at these males in authority and think, ‘Why should I trust you? Every other person like you has let me down’. So then you had coaching staff thinking, ‘Well, if you don’t want to do what I do, then you don’t fit into my plans’.

“Changes were needed. The modern-day kid is different and you have to find a different way of educating them.”

Older academy players are put through their paces (Andy Mitten/The Athletic)

Thankfully for United fans, there were also some positive signs.

In 2022, United won the FA Youth Cup for the first time since 2011. That side included current United first-team duo Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho, but the youth system has never been just about results.

United have played 4,253 consecutive first-team games since October 1937 with a graduate from their academy in the squad. It’s not merely a historical legacy. United have given nearly three times the number of minutes to teenagers in the Premier League this season (3,637 as of April 9) than the rest of the division’s top six combined.

And it’s not only players. Kieran McKenna (Ipswich Town), Neil Wood (Salford City), Justin Cochrane (Brentford) and Alan Fettis (Middlesbrough) are all coaches who have passed through United’s academy to work in first-team setups elsewhere.

Inside the polarising world of youth football

Inside Carrington’s main reception, the noise from heavy rain on glass is punctured by the repeated greetings of “Morning, Kath!” to longstanding receptionist Kath Phipps as players arrive.

The first-team squad are off today, the mood low after their disappointing 2-2 away draw against Bournemouth. Yet while the results of Erik ten Hag’s senior side set the mood among United fans, the academy is a sizeable operation of its own, with 75 full-time staff and another 150 casual workers, from bus drivers to medics. It operates on a turnover equivalent to the wages of a top first-team player.

We walk along a glass-roofed pathway, under a vast ‘Manchester United’ sign towards the new £7million building where the women’s team and most of United’s younger sides are based, and into the office of Nick Cox, head of the academy.

Formerly of Watford and Sheffield United, Cox came to the club as an assistant to Nicky Butt and took the top job when Butt stepped down in 2022. Butt had long been frustrated over elements of the academy setup, including the lack of investment.

Cox runs through what’s on his desk this Monday morning.

“The man on the street will be thinking that it wasn’t a good weekend for us because our under-21s lost at home (3-0) to Liverpool on Friday night,” he explains. “Couldn’t be further from the truth.

“That Liverpool game saw 15,000 at Old Trafford. We chose to put the toughest game at Old Trafford and we had to do so (despite) losing three players at the last minute to the first team at Bournemouth: Ethan Wheatley, who was told to get his bags to travel two hours before the trip, Harry Amass and Habeeb Ogunneye.

“And at the start of this season, we thought we might have Kobbie Mainoo, Willy Kambwala, Omari Forson and Dan Gore here for that team all season. We could have easily gone for the league (title) with all those players, but the players we’ve sent on loan wouldn’t have thanked us for that.

“Our policy is, ‘Go young and go thin’. On Friday, our team was stretched against a more experienced Liverpool side. Brilliant; that’s what we want. They’ll learn a lot more from that.”

United Under-18s listen to analysis before playing their Wolves counterparts (Andy Mitten/The Athletic)

While United’s young teams very rarely get to put the same side out in repeated fixtures because they want to keep stretching the players, it’s not always straightforward. Given a choice, Ten Hag would keep the best young players at the club as he sometimes needs them to join in training, but in November it was explained to him by the since-departed director of football John Murtough that, while he might want them, it would be better for their development if they went out on loan.

Loans are a key part of player development, though there are outliers such as Rashford and now Mainoo who don’t need one. Lingard had four loans from 2012-15, Scott McTominay took until he was 21 to be physically strong enough for regular senior football. Talent progression is not linear.

There was far more than that under-21s game to occupy Cox and his staff during our visit.

Players from every team between the ages of nine and 18 were down at Old Trafford as part of a Devil’s Advocate programme to create community among players past and present.

In another lounge, 40 of the academy’s alumni who were either at United over the age of 15 or there for more than five years are present. The club wants to bring them together, to socialise, network and feel supported. Joe Thompson is among them on a day news of his cancer returning was in the headlines. Tyler Blackett and Fraizer Campbell are there, too.

On the Saturday morning, United’s 12- and 13-year-old players played away against Liverpool, then attended a Hillsborough education talk where tragedy chanting was among the subjects.

United’s under-16s and under-18s played league games away to Stoke City. The under-14s were in finals across at St George’s Park, England’s headquarters.

“Our world has shifted over the weekend — we’ve loads to learn about players and coaches,” says Cox. “The world defines excellence by a player making his first-team debut, but we’re not going to define success like that. We’ll have a good go at excellence, but there’s more to us than that. We want to make great people.”

The language used to describe young players can irritate staff. Terms like “didn’t make the grade” or “failed to make the cut” are pejoratives for youngsters who can still be hugely successful in football and in life after leaving United.

“We’re much better than we were eight years ago,” says Cox. “Maybe we’d become a little stale and took our eye off the ball a little bit. Maybe we didn’t move as fast as competitors who were innovating. But I’d also say that not everything was wrong here. We still had brilliant people and longstanding staff. We had good players in the system, too, the challenge was just aligning the good bits and freshening up those that went stale.”

At 9.50am, we walk over to the main building at Carrington and into an under-18s team meeting ahead of a game at Wolves the following day. Clips of Wolves’ win over Manchester City from a previous week are being shown, with dangers pointed out.

“There’s the threat in transition,” says coach Adam Lawrence. A Bermondsey boy — Millwall territory in south-east London — who excelled over eight years coaching in Charlton Athletic’s youth system in that area, he moved to Manchester four years ago.

“Look at the minutes of their goals — 18 and 25,” says assistant coach Colin Little, a Wythenshawe lad and former street-smart striking legend in the lower leagues. “They’re aggressive in the press.”

The analyst, Curtis Quinn, asks for feedback from the players as they sit in training kit and sliders and there are no awkward teenage responses.

“The full-backs jump in,” says one. “We can break the line there.”

Mainoo is one of the latest academy success stories (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Examples are shown of how United, who can secure the title with a win, can beat the Wolves press. There’s a lot of information, but the players appear receptive as they are coached on how to build in a controlled midfield three and when to speed up the attack.

“We want 60 per cent ball possession,” says Lawrence. “Controlled possession, quick attacks, then we have the quality to make it happen.”

Afterwards, the players walk back to their gym, which is modelled on the first-team one. Jack Fletcher, one of the two sons of United’s technical director Darren Fletcher in the academy system having moved over from neighbours City, tells us he’s feeling good as he stretches in front of a red, white and black ‘Made in Manchester’ sign. An opposite wall is adorned with ‘Every winner was once a beginner’.

Instructions for their pre-training workouts are up on a big screen, which is surrounded by action photos of academy alumni, including Rashford.

Under ‘Prepare’: ‘Six stations, two sets’. Under ‘Perform’: ‘Weigh-in. Passing Drill. Build up high-press’.

‘Session theme: Recovery’ is under ‘Progress’.

There’s a huge number of support personnel nearby — United Under-18s didn’t have analysts a decade ago, nor psychologists. For Cox, he has to get variety in his staff.

“One person is not going to unlock talent,” he says as he joins us to watch training on an indoor pitch. “We want the best-in-class people — that might be someone who has played the game to a high level, a brilliant youth developer, someone who knows Manchester or United well. Each of our players is a puzzle to unlock.”

Players arriving and leaving is continual, but Brexit is a huge issue, specifically for players aged 16 and over.

Before Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union came into force in 2021, a player holding a European passport could arrive in the UK and be employed.

“Our mentality has always been to try to attract the best locals, but also the best globally,” says Cox. “Local lads like Paul Scholes or Nicky Butt taught players like Cristiano Ronaldo about the club and the history, but at academy level that all stopped with Brexit.”

Now, a player cannot move from outside the UK until they are 18 and must have sufficient GBE (governing body endorsement) approval and pass a totting-up points total. Someone from continental Europe, for instance, could accrue points according to the levels they play at. “Once someone has enough points, they’ll be looking at playing in the first team, not an academy,” says Cox.

There is a way around this. The likes of Manchester City or Chelsea have the multi-club system — City could keep a player at Girona or New York City, for example, until he’s ready for Pep Guardiola’s first team. Perhaps United, with new co-owner INEOS, could link up with Nice?

Brexit has meant clubs looking more at British talent and getting them to join as soon as possible when it’s cheaper — at least in theory.

There are various stages at which a player can move clubs: United signed Forson, and Chris Eagles and Kieran Richardson in past years, when they were 16 — with compensation paid to the selling club. British players cost more money, since the compensation levels are set higher. It was cheaper to get Garnacho from Atletico Madrid for £150,000 than to sign a player from a British club. Now, the rules mean United can’t sign a Garnacho at 16.

“The sad thing is that the changing rooms were better places for lads like Garnacho, Matej Kovar, Alvaro Fernandez or Willy Kambwala, who joined before Brexit,” says Cox. “Players came from different parts of the world and became friends for life with local lads.”

United are trying to develop players good enough to be Champions League class, but there are few of that potential in England and the prices of those who are have been ramped right up because City, Liverpool and Chelsea will push hard for them.

At 16, a player can meet all the clubs he wants for a one-month period. Agents are involved and the numbers can be staggering. One example was given to The Athletic of a player United wanted from a Championship side. Others were in for him and the 16-year-old chose to go to one of those, with a weekly wage of £25,000 and an agent’s fee of £1million.

United are of the view that you shouldn’t drown kids in money and it is better to wait until they break into the first team and then offer a new contract.

Academy graduates Beckham and Phil Neville are celebrated on a wall at Carrington (Andy Mitten/The Athletic)

The market is thus pushed downwards to the next age at which a player can move: 14.

“The market is now obsessed with 14-year-olds,” one club source, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect their job, tells us.

“There’s a kind of arms race which even goes down to the 12-year-olds. And while there are bans against inducements, some parents are hardly in the position to say no. I wonder how effective the authorities are at policing this. What you find is that the clubs are smarter than the league. The league is always playing catch-up.”

One parent told United: “If you’re not prepared to match what we’ve been offered at another club (an apartment, salary and car) then don’t even bother coming to the meeting.”

If United want to try to sign a player from another club, Cox is proud to say they’ll do it the right way.

“We go in through the front door,” he says. “I’ll make the call to my counterpart and say, ‘Listen, I’ve usually been on the other side of these calls for most of my career…’.” Cox will try to work out a deal and the numbers for compensation are clearly set since 2012’s launch of the EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan).

As he talks, players train who have arrived at United from City, Rochdale, Cardiff City and Derby County. Cox is conscious that he needs good relationships with selling clubs, that he might need to loan players back to them, but feels they can work together. United could send a team to play a fixture, coaches can go on exchanges. It adds to a healthier football ecosystem. “We compete and we collaborate,” says Cox. The parameters are always shifting.

Under-21s coach Travis Binnion comes to say hello. A Sheffield boy, he makes a point that many of the players hold dual nationality and that Manchester being an increasingly cosmopolitan city, combined with London’s housing costs, is seeing people moving north, helping the talent pool.

Binnion, formerly head of the youth system at Sheffield United, explains one of his dilemmas: “Every academy player needs to play, but sometimes you must put your best team out. And because we’re Manchester United, people expect us to win and win with style.”

The under-18s train wearing gum shields as part of a Premier League study to assess the impact of collisions.

It’s nine vs nine, then seven vs seven. The size of the pitch gets smaller, though the goals stay full size. The number of touches each player gets increases this way, the amount of goals, too. The theory is that if a player is heavily involved and scores a lot, he goes home from training the day before a game feeling confident.

Three of the lads come over to talk. Goalkeeper Thomas Myles, from Preston, says his ambition is to play 500 professional games. Ruben Curley is happy to be back playing at all after two serious injuries. Captain Finley McAllister is a Salford boy who goes to United first-team away games with his mates when he’s not playing. Darren Fletcher once looked down from the first-team bus and saw him and his mates, singing away. McAllister is 18 and street-smart.

“My favourite away ground is (Leeds’) Elland Road,” he smiles. “The hostility and the three points we get there.”

“Big win. Always nice to beat them lot,” he posted on social media after the under-18s’ recent 9-1 win at Liverpool. His under-18s team are excellent.

Even though he grew up only 10 miles from Carrington, McAllister, like many young players, has been living in digs.

“Maria is the best landlady,” he says of a house on nearby Sale’s Racecourse estate of mainly social housing. “She gets everything right.” Evidently, given former players including Rashford still go around for tea and James Garner still chose to live there when he was playing Premier League football with Everton.

“This is the best youth system,” McAllister says. “And we are the best at our age group.”

From left, Curley, McAllister and Myles (Andy Mitten/The Athletic)

The under-18s sit down for lunch — or ‘dinner’, as it’s known in Manchester. Food is always available and United turn a blind eye if a player wants to stuff some sandwiches in their pockets before going home. They’re aware that some are from families who need food in a city where 150,000 live below the poverty line.

The Athletic’s request for something sweet after a bowl of pasta is laughed at. It’s all healthy and we’re advised to go for strawberries. “Develop good habits,” comes a riposte. “Look after your body.”

We eat with 37-year-old Lawrence, who is also head of player development as well as coaching the under-18s. “We know every player isn’t going to end up in the first team, but we have to help them get as close to that as possible,” he says. “But if a player comes here and he’s self-driven, talented and shows the right attitude, they have every opportunity to fly.”

I ask if he knows his team for Wolves the following day.

“No, I leave it as late as possible. The games are part of our overall programme and players will be moved between teams. We also have a consistent style of play, so we can do that. Plus, you never know what might happen at the last minute with the first team needing players.”

The under-18s have won 19 of their 22 league games this season, losing only once, but went out of the FA Youth Cup in January’s fourth round against their counterparts from fourth-tier Swindon Town.

“A setback, as was one game against Manchester City when we were second best (a 4-1 away defeat last month), but we’ll all learn from both,” says Lawrence. He and the under-18s will have another chance — United and City meet in the Premier League Cup final tomorrow (Tuesday).

The youth system is working right now. Before the weekend, 24 per cent of all United’s first-team minutes this season were by academy graduates and their 10-year average is 20 per cent. No other top-flight club comes close.

One of those players was Fletcher, who went on to play 342 games for United. He’s a conduit between the first team, the under-21s and -18s, a group that includes two of his children. Both are highly rated. When Ten Hag became manager in summer 2022, he told his assistant Mitchell van der Gaag and Fletcher to liaise directly with the academy as he had to focus on the first team.

Fletcher also stays in touch with young players who are sent out on loan — like Amad, who went to Rangers in Scotland and then Sunderland.

Before a player is sent out, loans manager Les Parry carries out an assessment of their destination club, looking at their staff, gym, housing plans, style of play, likely amount of game time the loanee will get and the current manager. And it can still not work out, as happened with Amad’s move to Rangers.

Players can do a form of work experience at other clubs for a week or two to see how the other half live before they go on loan to make sure it’s the right fit.

At Carrington, the under-18s have now gone home and the under-sevens and under-eights are buzzing around, the talents and skills of the children already obvious. Older ones pass in the corridors, shaking hands with visitors.

The past, the present, the future.

“There’s a historical pressure here, a need to perpetuate the work of 100 years of youth development,” says Cox. “Youth gave United some of its greatest ever players, teams, and saved Manchester United in its darkest hour. We can’t drop that baton.”

(Top photos: Getty Images, Andy Mitten/The Athletic; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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