Inside Manchester United’s academy. Part two: Creating players and people

Andy Mitten


“Retention is bigger than recruitment” — Travis Binnion, under-21s coach.

It’s 4pm in the Jimmy Murphy Centre and one young United player is about to sign his first professional contract, a day after his 17th birthday.

The club won’t publicise this but they understand that young players are proud of their achievements and are all over social media. It’s common for them to ask for their photos soon after a game and put them across their socials.

The player’s family are here, his agent, plus academy support manager Andrew Laylor. Coach Eamon Mulvey is also present as well as head of academy Nick Cox and coach Travis Binnion — some of the most influential people in the player’s life. So is The Athletic for the second part of our access-all-areas article about United’s academy. If you missed part one, you can read it here.

Keeping these players is as important as signing them in the first place. United are aware that the player was allowed to talk to other clubs after he turned 16 and that there would have been dazzling amounts of money on offer.

Cox is smiling as he looks at the player and says: “You’ve been here since you were five. You’ve got yourself to the start line now. The people in this room are the people who matter. We won’t publicise this but we know you will — and you’ll get 100,000 new people who all want to be your mate.

“The challenge for you is how you remain consistent while all this is happening, while the world around you is changing. You’re 17 now. You’ll notice a very different number in your bank balance next month. It’s up to you what you do with that, but make sure you say thanks to your family who’ve helped you.”

The player nods and smiles. You can see with some footballers that they’re supremely confident without being arrogant. Cox is right — the challenge is keeping his feet on the ground amid the attention coming his way.


United’s academy leaders hold a key meeting (Andy Mitten)

A decade or so ago, one player got into United’s first team. Nice lad, good player who had a good career in the top flight, though some of those around him got a bit carried away. He came into training one day and was talking about what they had done at the weekend. Ryan Giggs, a big figure in the dressing room, overheard and asked: “How many of your mates did you know before you became a professional here?” The answer was none.

The Jimmy Murphy building is named after the man who was at the vanguard of youth development for United and his status is now being truly recognised, with a statue unveiled behind the Stretford End.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

‘United wouldn’t exist without him’: Jimmy Murphy, a legend behind Old Trafford statue

United are always looking at their strength in depth within the youth system. Indeed, the club only signed Alejandro Garnacho because there were gaps.

“In an ideal world, you should only ever have three or four gaps to fill to play alongside the eight or nine players who’ve come through,” explains Cox. “So last year we brought in the two Fletcher boys, Harry Amass and Gabriele Biancheri. That feels about right to me. But in the year when Garnacho turned 16, we had more gaps. We’re never trying to build a team, but a healthy pool of talent that is balanced and that can go and support the first team.”

It’s not always easy.

In 2020, United needed a centre-forward in January and ended up signing Odion Ighalo on loan. Senior people at the club got together and said: “This isn’t good enough. We should have had a young centre-forward who was good enough to go on the bench.” They vowed to change that — the same problem surfaced in January 2023 when Wout Weghorst was brought in.

Fans who are pre-disposed to support the youth system often say, ‘Throw in the kids’ in moments of frustration, but most kids are not ready for regular Premier League football and Sir Alex Ferguson, among others, has spoken about the harm caused by placing premature and damaging pressure on young footballers.

Equally, United must ensure young players feel they have a pathway and are learning at the right club.

Finley McAllister has trained with the first team several times.

“It’s brilliant,” he says. “Makes you feel like a better player. The speed of passing is incredible, you can’t get the ball off them.”

A taste of first-team training helps everyone.

So what makes a good youth programme? This is access all areas and The Athletic walks into a meeting with various heads of department. Eight are present, two on Zoom. Reports come into Cox.

“We had two players visit Auschwitz last week,” says head of education Ian Smithson. United’s 2023 academy annual, which is given to players, is packed with such educational outings. In February, players visited Munich to play games and attend the memorial. They travel well too. They’re at the Algarve Cup in Portugal, MLS’s Generation Cup in Florida, the MIC cup in Spain’s Costa Brava, Le Mans, Northern Ireland, Warsaw, Hong Kong and climbing Mount Snowdon in Wales. The youngsters, many who had never been on a plane before, are seeing the world, playing football and garnering life-long positive memories.

“I refuse to allow our boys or our academy to be defined solely by professional debuts,” says Cox.

Jen Mildenhall, from emerging talent, updates on the grassroots participation and the number of local kids using The Cliff training ground. They want every kid in Greater Manchester to experience playing there.


The canteen has legends on the wall (Andy Mitten)

Adam Lawrence updates on an under-15s parents meeting, a game for them at Bolton and the big game tomorrow at Wolves for the under-18s when they can win the league. There’s an update on the under-nines and under-10s, who will play Manchester City.

One staff member will move across to help with travel logistics for the first team around the pre-season tour.

An idea is discussed to get every single academy player in an end-of-season photo together, though the logistics sound as easy as nailing jelly to a wall.

And then there are the academy legends, Dave Bushell and Tony Whelan, with decades of experience teaching and inspiring at United.


Inside the polarising world of youth football


In a side room, we meet up with Smithson. He leads the education provision for players aged nine to 21, including the women’s academy from under-15s upwards. United’s youngsters have long gone to nearby Ashton on Mersey School, a state school where Marcus Rashford attended and Garnacho took a Year 9 Spanish class.

“We also have a partnership with Manchester Grammar School (MGS) and that gives us a more academic offering, so if we’re going up against competitors, we can say, ‘We have two options here’. Parents will scrutinise,” explains Smithson.

United have four boys at MGS. Two are studying for A-levels. All had to pass a tough entrance exam. Jonny Evans’ status as the most intelligent former United student is under serious threat when you hear that Willy Kambwala gained the equivalent of three As at A-level, plus English as a second language.

“He was the only one in my time here who was successful and got to complete all his finals,” says Smithson. “That’s an unbelievable level and required a huge amount of discipline where he was doing the 10 hours of schooling we provided, with another 10 on top of that as well as being a professional footballer. It’s a hell of an achievement.”

“Football collects up from all sections of society,” says Cox. “We have some real high fliers who get A*s and we have others who simply wouldn’t have stayed in education if it wasn’t for football. We’re trying to help them along.”

Ethan Wheatley was called up to the first team this month. “He scored four for the under-18s on Saturday, played for -21s on Monday and was then pulled to play with the first team,” says Smithson. “He has one day off but requested if he could come in this morning to finish his last assignment.”

Conversely, would Smithson, who joined in 2017, have a word with a young player if his schoolwork wasn’t up to scratch?

“Absolutely,” he says. “I had to bring one player down to earth the other day. He has been doing very well on the pitch and it’s fair to say that education is not his main bag. He was late for school so I had to rein him in a bit. He didn’t particularly like it, but it’s important that feet are kept on the ground.”

He adds: “And then there’s Kobbie (Mainoo). He was integrated with the first-team squad last season but we still had to find time for him to finish his qualifications, which he did. That could have been missed, but Kobbie, who is bright, wanted to do it. He’s quiet, unassuming, with that steely determination to do the right thing, get better and he’s been like that since I’ve known him.”

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United offer career advice but also life skills.

“This is just as important,” says Smithson. “We want to help with their formal education, but also with the informal side of them being good people. Can they cook? Understand their bank statement? Drive?”

Aware that there could be a huge disparity in what players earn in the same team, United suggest percentages of their pay which the players should spend and save. Players are taught about car finance, cryptocurrencies, mortgages, though it’s a challenge to get them to follow the club’s advice when they have their own advisors.

But what about the actual football?


McShane played alongside the young players (Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Paul McShane is the lead under-15s coach, a former United academy graduate who played more than 400 games in professional football across England’s top three divisions. He returned to United as a full-time player-coach in 2021 when United also wanted an experienced player on the pitch alongside the under-21s to talk them through games.

“I played with Garnacho, trained with Kobbie — he was tough without having to act tough,” he says. “He had a steel about him and a lot of ability. You see a lot of lads with talent but you never know what will happen because there are so many variables in football and it comes down to a lot more than talent. ‘Garna’ (Garnacho) always had a threat and ability.”

McShane was 35 playing with lads half his age.

“I got on well with them, I was their team-mate and it would carry a lot of weight with them that I was on the battlefield with them. I could get the intensity up using my voice and I was constantly talking to them, but I was also a coach and there was a boundary there.

“There was a nice balance. Players would ask me advice, usually on the mental side and especially the defenders. We formed a brotherhood of centre-halves and they would ask me about confidence, how to get over a bad game, how to deal with it if they didn’t feel a coach liked them.

“I’d also speak to the midfielders, like Charlie Savage and Zidane Iqbal, and give them tips during the game. Sav messaged me at the start of this season to ask about defending a corner kick.”

McShane stopped playing in 2022, replaced by Tom Huddlestone in the same role, and now leads the under-15s and is a coach with the Republic of Ireland Under-21s.

“When I was their age I was still playing Gaelic football, but the game has evolved so much that they need to be drip-fed tactical information without paralysing them. And I tell them that they must give themselves credit after learning how to press in a 4-2-3-1 where the wingers are jumping onto the centre-backs and they have to stop split passes and recover back. And that’s even before they get the ball and they’re learning combination plays, how to run in behind, read the game. It’s a lot to learn and they have a lot of talent. But you don’t get to do the nice stuff without doing the fundamentals first.”

McShane, now 38, wants to manage a club’s first team one day. A few years earlier, Kieran McKenna was coaching United’s younger sides before Jose Mourinho noted his exceptional talent.


European football’s best up-and-coming managers


There’s a lot to celebrate here and the academy hosts an awards event every January with various awards that include being the best citizen and achieving in another sport.

“We want to remind them that they’re brilliant,” says Cox. “Wayne Rooney came in to talk to the players and did a great job.”

“We’re realistic,” he adds. “We’re proud that we produce more footballers than anybody else but we also must be realistic and not promise anything. We can say, ‘Some people in Manchester can play in a Champions League or World Cup final, so why not you?’. It’s OK to dream, but even a dream and a lot of hard work don’t guarantee anything.

“A player must try and be the best version of themselves possible. And if a player is released there will obviously be disappointment, but that can pass quickly and we can look anyone in the eye and say, ‘Are you better for your experience at Manchester United? Have you learned new skills? Are you more resilient?’.”

At 3pm, we go to a ‘performance orientation meeting’. There, Matt Walker, head of performance, leads a meeting. David Hughes, who was head of Cardiff City’s academy, sits on the front row. Andy Jordan is the academy logistics manager, a Manchester lad asking practical questions. Almost all wear the club uniform, predominantly black Adidas tracksuit and trainers. Walker wants the various departments to work together as cohesively as possible and talks about “empowering the players so that they come to the coaches and analysts”.

The players have a journal, an idea from former academy graduate and current first-team third-choice goalkeeper Tom Heaton.

The information the club holds on the players is astonishing. There are graphs showing hamstring strength, the type of training sessions they’ve been exposed to, details on their personality traits and character. Players have worn smart footwear to show where the loads are on the feet in various actions.

Sport science is a big part of what United do — even for the seven- and eight-year-olds.

All the information aims to tell parents United is the best place for them to join — and stay. Last season, United didn’t release any under-nine players, kept 92 per cent of under-10s and 84 per cent of under-11s in the pre-academy programme.


United under-19 midfielder Jack Fletcher, son of former player Darren (Andy Mitten)

It’s a huge commitment for the parents of a child in the academy, with training increasing as they get older — three evening training sessions means three nights the player is likely to miss homework. There are over-zealous parents, absent parents, uninterested parents, foster parents. There is not a one-size-fits-all plan for any player or their family.

We walk over to yet another office where a lot of the academy staff are based. People such as Mark Dempsey, Salford lad, former player, long-time assistant to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and manager himself, are there. There are charts on the walls showing a list of misdemeanours that will result in a fine or sanction.

“Dissent towards an official/staff = Strike.”

Three strikes means you lose a day off.

“Failure to report an injury on time.”

“Use of mobile phone at any time in canteen or during meal times.”

“Unauthorised use of mobile phone in video sessions, team meetings, educations, gym.”

“Hats/hoods in canteen or when travelling.”

We sit down with Binnion, coach of the under-21s. He was in charge when they played Wrexham in front of 34,000 in San Diego last July.

“Our duty is to the players, not the under-21s (team),” Binnion says. “We don’t want over-ripe fruits here who are too good to play for the team — they’re better on loan. That’s why we choose to sail close to the wind with our teams, going young and letting the players face huge challenges. We believe that will ultimately make them better.”

“I can sit here and be brave in the office (by deciding to go young) but Travis is the one who has to face it in real life,” says Cox.

Chelsea and Manchester City, two clubs who have dominated youth football in the last decade, do it a different way. Theirs is a trading model, with less likelihood of reaching the first team and more of being sold. They have surged past United in what they spent on youth after their takeovers in 2003 and 2008 and their brands are about winning at every level. City have brought more money in from youth academy sales than anyone — Cole Palmer being the best example. It’s easier to sell when you’re the champions. And it’s frustrating that a United-supporting youngster from Wythenshawe like Palmer joined City.

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Binnion heads the -21s, yet he’s worked up through the age groups, meaning the players he now coaches in the pro phase are players he worked with in their youth phase.

“Academies need to be joined up,” he says. “You can have a good experience to 16 and then all the coaches change. The academy here is in a good place in terms of staffing and playing style: fast, attacking, brave. Players on the front foot who get you off your seat. This isn’t always possible in every game in the Premier League, so the players we have to produce change slightly to being athletic, dealing with the ball, excellent decision-makers who can stay on the ball for as long as required. Basically, we want our kids to do everything, which is really hard.”

And it’s not straightforward. On the walls of the academy canteen is a picture of a mountain with the words, “There’s no one way to the top. Every route is different. Every journey is unique. Where will your path lead?”

“United’s academy can look any rival in the face now, but it’s important not to stand still because if you stand still — and United did — then you go backwards,” one source tells us. “Kids have changed, they need to be challenged in different ways in the modern-day world and to handle its pressures such as social media.”

The day after Savage and Iqbal made their United debuts in 2021, the club’s internal communications staff, led by George McCaffrey who works with the academy and external experts, did a session for one age group focusing on media questions.


Savage came through the system (Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

At another session, young players were smiling and joking around in the environment before an interviewer cut in and said: “Is it a laughing matter losing to Manchester City?” The players’ faces dropped, they changed their expressions. The message was conveyed forcefully that anything can and will be manipulated to their detriment.

United know they can’t stop players from using social media and don’t want to, they try to see how it can be used as a positive, yet the reality is that social media affords anonymity for some fans who will slaughter them if they don’t play well. That can take some getting used to for players who’ve only been praised for their football as they’ve grown up.

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“Our job is to build resilience in the boys by slowly exposing them to environments that stretch, challenge, stress them out a little bit so that when they’re in that world of having to win, they’ve got loads of reference points that they can lean on that will remind them that they can cope, they have coped and they will cope,” says Cox.

Excellent facilities can be a sign of a good club. Manchester City’s Etihad Campus, which opened in 2013, was superior to United’s at Carrington. City had a 7,000-capacity secondary stadium, floodlight pitches for junior teams, top-class changing facilities, plus spectator facilities.

United had none of those. Lights were finally installed on the pitches at Carrington in 2022, a new £7million ($8.7m) building to house the women’s and academy teams opened in 2023. Another recent addition is the Graduates Lounge where parents and spectators can stay warm and get free food and drinks around games.

Carrington is better but not best. Its faults are a lack of car parking and access is a challenge. That may have suited Ferguson who was happy for it to be away from the chaos of The Cliff in Salford, where hundreds or even thousands of fans would turn up to ask players for autographs and photos, but it’s not ideal now.

The old Cliff training ground is still used by the club’s youngest teams, school events and for sporadic under-15s games, but needs modernising. The nearby exposed Littleton Road fields are used by United’s academy players aged nine, 10 and 11, with the club happy for them not to be too luxurious for young footballers.


United’s first team at the Cliff in 1995 (Albert Cooper/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Altrincham FC, to where Erik ten Hag cycled to see a youth game last season, receive a retainer for occasional use of their Moss Lane pitch. Manchester United’s teams are spread over five and occasionally six sites, of which only Old Trafford is well connected by public transport. Manchester City’s teams use one site.

So will the training ground even exist in 20 years?

Decision-makers at INEOS, the club’s minority shareholder, will do a full review of all the club’s facilities, though Sir Jim Ratcliffe has been very positive about Carrington. Staff at the academy also feel they have everything they need to be successful there.

There’s a case for United having their own secondary stadium like the ones we see at Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester City, which are used by the women’s and reserve teams. Despite a faltering men’s first team, demand for tickets is at an all-time high while women’s attendances continue to increase and the 15,000 crowd for the under-21s game at Old Trafford shows the potential there.

It’s the end of another day at United’s academy. The contract has been signed by the talented player and his family are going for a meal to celebrate with the agent.

“Have you got a game tomorrow as well?” asks his dad, trying to work out the logistics of moving his sons around.

“Yeah, we’re gonna win the league tomorrow,” replies the player. “We’re Man United.”



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