The making of Kobbie Mainoo: ‘United and City were chasing him when he was six’

Laurie Whitwell

This article has been updated as part of The Athletic’s coverage of Euro 2024 and the Copa America, having originally been published earlier this year.


It is Sunday afternoon and Cheadle & Gatley’s under-14s have just beaten Stalybridge 4-0, with two goals from Aaron Laycock, a 13-year-old who is well aware of his club’s most notable alumnus.

“He’s been really good,” says Aaron. “You can tell he’s humble as well. I’ve seen off the pitch he’s not full of himself and that’s what it takes to get to that next level. When he came through from our team, I was like, ‘It’s possible’.”

The player in question, if you hadn’t guessed, is Kobbie Mainoo, the 19-year-old who has become a regular in Manchester United’s first team. He will make his first start at Euro 2024 for England against Slovakia today.


Kobbie Mainoo impressed against Slovenia (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Mainoo impressed last season with a sequence of mature displays and showing moments of real quality. There have inevitably been a few bumps in the road but his progress is undeniable, and a bright performance against Slovenia in Cologne, where he came on as a substitute at half-time, has been enough to convince Gareth Southgate he is an answer to England’s midfield conundrum.

He was raised in Cheadle Hulme, Stockport, and to those boys turning out for his first club, Cheadle & Gatley, his status offers encouragement.

Aaron, a United fan, got Marcus Rashford’s name on the back of the replica shirt he received for Christmas. Rashford grew up in nearby Wythenshawe but Aaron knows who he will request next. “Mainoo, for inspiration,” he says.

His mum, Karlene, adds: “Aaron is a United fan. I’m City. It’s a divided household. I was born City, so I’m not changing. His dad’s United.”

Aaron laughs: “She tried to get me on the City side, you know. Put a City kit on me when I was young.”


Aaron, with his mum Karlene (Laurie Whitwell/The Athletic)

Karlene says: “We watch Mainoo play. It’s a good incentive to see where you could end up. That’s Aaron’s dream. He just loves the game.”

go-deeper

Aaron’s two goals against Stalybridge both came at the end of gliding dribbles through defenders. The pristine 4G pitch at Seashell Trust, about 10 miles from Old Trafford, invites skilful actions. Aaron had a trial at Everton last year and can play across the attack or in midfield. He says: “Mainoo is really adaptable. That’s the qualities I would like to have — be able to play anywhere.”

Mainoo was very young when he wore Cheadle & Gatley colours. His first coach, Steve Vare, who ran sessions on indoor courts at Cheadle Hulme High School for a couple of hours on Sunday mornings, remembers a four-year-old of special ability.

“We used to have reception on one pitch and Year One on the other, but when Kobbie came in at reception, he was dominating the games, so I started to push him onto the other pitch and play him against the older boys,” says Vare.

“I had to make up all sorts of different things — that he could only score with his weaker foot or he had to pass it to a team-mate.”

Vare is a United fan and was in the stands as Mainoo helped the under-18s beat Nottingham Forest and win the FA Youth Cup in front of 67,492 spectators at Old Trafford in May 2022. Mainoo’s first matches came a little more than a decade earlier. Vare would use old kits to put boys into five-a-side teams based on colours.

Kobbie Mainoo, Manchester United


Mainoo (left), aged seven, after winning a school competition (Courtesy of Cheadle Catholic Infant School)

“What I’d have to do with Kobbie is make sure all the stronger players went on the other team and Kobbie was on his own,” Vare says.

“I’d push him against bigger lads. You’d have to be careful because if they weren’t ready, the physicality would shock them, but it never did with Kobbie. It was, ‘Great, bring it on’. He was straight on the pitch, dribbling in and out.

“I would have liked to push him up to the more established teams, the under-sevens and under-eights, but they were fully subscribed. We literally couldn’t take any more kids on. Kobbie was with us for more than 12 months, but in the end, I said to his dad Felix: ‘I can’t challenge him any more within our setup’.”

Aged six and in search of a test, Mainoo went to Failsworth Dynamos, based in the hometown of Sir Jim Ratcliffe, to play on grass pitches in the Curzon and Ashton league. Despite being a year younger, Mainoo met the higher standard of Ian Kelly’s under-sevens team. But he needed some guidance. “He was all tricks, skill, taking people on,” says Kelly. “It took him a bit to learn how to play in a team — pass and stuff. That was the hardest bit, probably.”

How did Mainoo learn? “You have to raise your voice a bit. Tell them to pass!” Kelly laughs. “After a few months, he got the idea.

“He played on the wing for us or up front, behind the forward. He wasn’t really the defending type like he is now. He wasn’t a tackler. He has grown a bit.”

Kelly has watched Mainoo’s emergence with pride.

“I knew it wouldn’t faze him,” he says. “I could tell when he came to us. Some kids are dead quiet until they get to know people, but nothing bothered him. If I took him off, he’d give me a dirty look, but we had to give everyone a game.”

go-deeper

Kelly is a City fan. Mainoo may have been in the City ranks himself under Pep Guardiola had he been compelled by their approaches.

Paul Newton had also coached Mainoo at Cheadle & Gatley and then strengthened their relationship with sessions at a venue called Shots, in Handforth, from the ages of six to 14. Mainoo played for Shots at the same time as Failsworth before going on to get one-on-one coaching with Newton once he was fully signed up to United’s academy aged seven.

Newton had come through City’s academy in the late 1980s, training alongside David White, Paul Lake, Andy Hinchcliffe and Ian Brightwell, and by the time he met the Mainoos, he did coaching for City’s junior teams, plus some scouting.

“United and City were chasing him from when he was six,” says Newton. “He was that special at a young age. I worked at City, but I’m a very good friend with Felix and he was always adamant about United. I said to him: ‘This is just your decision; you and Kobbie’.”

Kobbie Mainoo, Manchester United


Mainoo during his Premier League debut against Leicester in February 2023 (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

By that stage, Mainoo was trying out both United and City academy setups. His United connection started at six when he attended sessions put on by Manchester United Foundation at Moss Side. Dermot Clarke, a scout for the club, recognised Mainoo’s talent and, after a couple of sessions, invited him to train with United’s academy at The Cliff, the former first-team complex.

At the same time, Mainoo was going to sessions at City’s academy base on Platt Lane in Fallowfield, which was also once used by the senior squad.

After a year or so, at under-eight level, a decision had to be made. Mainoo chose United because of the freedom offered by coaches — the loose structure that allowed boys to get on the ball and make mistakes.

Newton says: “When I was younger, I played with three or four who have gone on to play for England. When Kobbie was six or seven, he ticked all the boxes and reminded me of them.”

As Mainoo got older, he played occasional tournaments for Shots. The midfielder always stood out, Newton says. “Any time we went anywhere — I am not joking — if I turned right, I had eight scouts walking towards me. If I turned left, I had another eight coming. I didn’t know which way to go.”

In 2017, Mainoo scored the winning goal in the final of the North West Junior Champions League. “It was an aim of mine for 10 years to win that tournament,” says Newton. “It’s the biggest tournament in the north west. Teams come from all over. There is no point entering unless you’ve got a top-drawer team. Kobbie scored the winner and he was a year younger.

“It was a really good thing because these lads go to academies at six and seven. They don’t have a childhood. It allowed Kobbie to play with his mates. The number of kids I’ve had who go to academies and by the time they are 13, 14, they’ve had enough because it’s five days a week, they are not seeing their friends.”

At Shots, there were several young boys with famous surnames also under Newton’s care, including Kai Rooney, Jacey Carrick, Ben Aguero, Roman Walker, and Tyler and Jack Fletcher. Newton continued to provide personal sessions for Mainoo to focus on his shooting, tackling and speed until he began to make a bigger impression at United’s academy.

There was a talent Mainoo possessed that couldn’t be taught, however.

“One thing stands out,” says Newton. “I used to have a holiday club and he would come because he could play against lads who were a bit older and better, it was competitive.

“He used to throw the ball up, do an overhead kick and volley it into the net, then somehow land back on his feet. He was about nine.

“From the minute he walked through the door, all the young boys, aged six and seven, would shout, ‘Kobbie’s here! Kobbie, will you do it?’. He’d go on the pitch and do it like three or four times. Every time, blast it in the net, perfect, then land back on his feet. Oh my god. One of those things I’ll never forget. That tells you he is a gymnast.”

Newton was speaking before watching Mainoo as a professional in the flesh for the first time in the Manchester derby at the Etihad in March. “He’s gonna be in the United team and we’ll be at the other end, but when it comes to football, that is really out the window,” he said before the 3-1 defeat for United. “We are just looking forward to seeing him,” says Newton. “City’s team is so good now, he’s going to be playing against some of the best players in the world.”

Back at Mainoo’s first club, Cheadle & Gatley have continued to grow. The number of players on their books has risen from 300 in Mainoo’s time to 750 and includes disability and girls’ teams. Progressing from one of those teams has been Holly Deering, who, at 18, plays for United’s women’s team. Other graduates include Hallam Hope, the Oldham Athletic striker, and George Evans, the Wrexham defender. Vare’s son Frank is heading into his first-year scholarship at Blackburn Rovers.

Richard Hubbard, Cheadle & Gatley’s treasurer, says Mainoo’s emergence is helping. “The ‘Kobbie effect’ is our club sponsor,” he says. “I won’t disclose the sums of money but they are significant for the club. Everybody just wants to get involved.”

In February, Hubbard, an Aston Villa fan, was in the North Stand at Villa Park when Mainoo’s quick feet teed up Diogo Dalot for a cross that was buried by Scott McTominay to get United a vital late win. “I couldn’t react negatively because I’d just seen someone associated with the club help create the goal,” he smiles.


Hubbard, left, and Vare are rightly proud of Mainoo (Laurie Whitwell/The Athletic)

By then, Mainoo had already created memories to last by skipping through the Wolverhampton Wanderers defence and curling in a stoppage-time winner at Molineux.

For a player who has featured almost exclusively as a No 6 under first-team manager Erik ten Hag, it was a goal which caught the wider football world by surprise. Mainoo, from a position of relative safety for Wolves, drove with the ball and finished as if he had been doing that his whole life. That’s because he has.

Mainoo played in advanced roles throughout his academy progression and, as recently as last season, featured out wide and even as a No 9 for the youth sides.

Aged 12, for instance, he scored a hat-trick of superb quality against Crewe Alexandra at Carrington. Nick Cox, United’s academy director, says that was a regular occurrence. “From ages nine to about 12, most games are like 27-27,” he laughs. “They are all-action. The kids are expressing themselves. They’re dead creative. We encourage them to experiment and show flair because that’s what it should look like.”

Regarding Mainoo, Cox says: “We expose players to a variety of positions because you don’t know how they’re going to develop physically or which skills are going to be their most prominent in adult life, so we played him in a range of positions — but he’s always been a creative, attacking player.

He played out wide because he didn’t have a physical advantage, so we protected him a bit, and it probably wasn’t until the youth team that he started playing a little bit more centrally and deeper. “But he’s always played in that front third of the pitch. Creating goals and scoring goals would have been what we had seen in him, that quality.

“We knew he had physical potential, but he certainly wasn’t the biggest, most powerful player, so he had to be very skilful, quite aware of his surroundings, make good decisions. We knew eventually he would have athleticism as a super-strength, which is coming to the fore now.”

At times, Mainoo can appear languid on the pitch, but those who know his conditioning say looks can be deceiving. They insist he is quick and powerful, more than comfortable making drives with the ball. When he stretches out his legs, he can cover distance at speed.

Early in the match at Everton, his first Premier League start, he planted his foot and turned Abdoulaye Doucoure after receiving the ball from Andre Onana. He rode Doucoure’s foul to stride away and play a through ball to Alejandro Garnacho that was a little too heavy. People close to Mainoo recognised that move, which he would execute in the youth teams, and they admired his courage for pulling it off on his league debut.

Kobbie Mainoo, Manchester United


Mainoo celebrates his match-winner against Wolves (Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

That aggression is something Ten Hag said last season he wants to see more often. The United manager reflected on Mainoo’s emergence having first seen him in the autumn of 2022. “I thought he was playing a little bit too comfortably in the under-21s. He should be much more dominant,” Ten Hag said. “We pushed him a lot. He is almost progressing from game to game. It’s wonderful to see and I hope he stays calm like he is. He is determined.”

Ten Hag is aware of the media glare on young players and is mindful of the potential for hyperbole, so tries to manage expectations publicly.

Club sources, who, like others in this piece, have requested anonymity to protect relationships, say Ten Hag felt Mainoo’s game was too static and modest when he first started watching him. Mainoo was good but, in Ten Hag’s opinion, he could have been making a greater impact on games by demanding the ball more, dribbling with it and pressing with higher intensity — but the manager soon sensed Mainoo was very coachable, would listen calmly to instructions, and worked hard.

Those attributes were why Ten Hag gave Mainoo his first-team debut in January 2023 against Charlton Athletic in the Carabao Cup aged 17 and then took him on the club’s pre-season tour of the United States. Mainoo impressed in the first friendly of the trip against Arsenal in New Jersey and Ten Hag’s idea was to pair him with Casemiro in the subsequent games. However, that trial only lasted six minutes against Real Madrid in Houston before Mainoo suffered the ankle injury that kept him out until late October.

Mainoo’s absence altered United’s transfer plans. They had felt the addition of Mason Mount and the promotion of Mainoo would sufficiently add to Ten Hag’s midfield options. Casemiro and Harry Maguire gave ringing endorsements to the coaching staff about Mainoo’s abilities. Instead, with Mainoo sidelined for three months, United dipped into the market on deadline day and signed Sofyan Amrabat on loan for an £8.5million ($10.7m) fee.

Mainoo has been subject to transfer interest himself over the years, notably from United’s rivals across town. City kept an eye on Mainoo’s progress but United were always confident he would stay with them. Clubs in Germany also scouted Mainoo but regulations after Brexit meant a switch to the Bundesliga — like that made by Jadon Sancho, Jude Bellingham and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, who all played for Borussia Dortmund — was not plausible and that prospect faded, with United showing Mainoo a clear route to the first team.

Easing Mainoo into the UEFA Youth League, a competition for under-19s, while he was still a first-year scholar aged 16 was part of the plan. In September 2021, he travelled to Switzerland for the match at Young Boys and was an unused substitute before getting his first minutes against Atalanta and stepping up involvement against Villarreal and the final three group games.

Neil Wood, the manager of that under-19s side, says: “We knew the games were going to be challenging for him because he was playing against guys who were possibly 18 months older than him. And also, you’re playing against good players in European competition.

“It wasn’t ever, ‘He’s just going to come in and rip it up’. He had to find his way in those games. We knew of his high potential but there were times he would come on and it wasn’t easy. He wouldn’t be the star player on the pitch, but at that point of his journey, we weren’t expecting that anyway.”

Kobbie Mainoo, Manchester United


Mainoo in action against Villarreal in the UEFA Youth League in November 2021 (Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

United, as with all their academy players, tried to find the right way to stretch Mainoo without breaking him. “It’s difficult because you’re also not there to kill him,” Wood says. “It’s not like he gets to 16 and you throw him in a 21s game, where he is playing against guys that are five, six years older — bigger, stronger, more physical, fast. There is a methodology behind it. It was about hitting the appropriate challenge at the appropriate time for him.”

As the months went on, Mainoo showed learning and progress. Wood, who himself came through United’s academy to train with the first team when Sir Alex Ferguson was manager, says: “Kobbie was always talked about as a player with high technical ability. He could deal with the ball well and that’s what people meant when, years ago, they said, ‘That’s a Man United player’.

“Look at the way he carries the ball, the way he receives it, the passes he plays, the vision. They were the bits with Kobbie where you’d go, ‘He could be special here if all goes well’.”

go-deeper

That 2021-22 season was when Mainoo shone for Travis Binnion’s under-18s in the FA Youth Cup. Garnacho provided the eye-catching moments in attack, but Mainoo quietly imposed his influence in midfield.

In the stands for the final was Mainoo’s family, including brother Jordan, who was on series five of dating reality show Love Island. A record FA Youth Cup final crowd watched United beat Forest 3-1.

Cox says: “Part of preparing Kobbie was to show him as many experiences as possible that looked like the first team. That’s how you build resilience, by regularly putting boys into environments that are maybe a little bit of stretch, where they feel slightly uncomfortable.

“The FA Youth Cup played a huge role in that, so the fact that our fans turned up in force… yeah, they had a nice day out, but what they were actually doing was supporting the development of Kobbie and the others by creating an atmosphere that was going to scare them a bit, put some pressure on.”

The final piece was integrating Mainoo into training with Ten Hag. “Small doses to start with,” says Cox. “As a first-year scholar, he’d have been over there occasionally. As a second-year scholar, he was over there regularly. Christmas last year, he was consumed into that group permanently, only really coming back to the academy to get some match minutes. For about the last 18 months, we’ve probably known that this was on the cards.”

Kobbie Mainoo, Manchester United


Mainoo (second from left) celebrates winning the FA Youth Cup last season (Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Some players are required to go on loan, but that has never been a serious discussion for Mainoo, who has filled a gap in Ten Hag’s team. Since he became manager, Ten Hag has wanted a player comfortable picking the ball off defenders and resisting opponents’ press. Some who have watched Mainoo’s progress believe he is also capable of playing as a box-to-box midfielder or even a No 10.

There have been a few blips — notably the slip at West Ham United that gave Mohammed Kudus the chance to score and dawdling on the ball against Fulham, which allowed Sasa Lukic to steal in and set up Alex Iwobi — but United sources say Mainoo takes great care in learning from his mistakes so he does not repeat them.

Casemiro has faith in his midfield partner, over 13 years his junior. “Since I play alongside him, I know Manchester United will have one of the best midfielders in the Premier League for the next years, easily,” said the Brazilian veteran. “As long as he keeps his head on straight, just as he’s doing now.”

Gareth Southgate first called up Mainoo to England’s senior squad for the March internationals. Randy Abbey, a member of the Ghana FA, had said that the country was interested in “persuading” the midfielder to switch allegiance, but Mainoo, who represented England at various youth levels up to their under-19s, was said to only be focused on appearing for the nation of his birth. The chance to impress at a major tournament has come sooner than expected, but Mainoo’s story this point suggests he can handle the pressure.

The situation is equally calm around Mainoo’s contract. Previous football director John Murtough recognised the need to tie down Mainoo last February and agreed a deal running to 2027 with the option of an extra year, which included in-built pay rises depending on performance. All parties are in no hurry to talk about fresh terms.

Whether that situation develops depends on Mainoo’s displays, continuing with his first major international tournament, where his upbringing means he will have support from both sides of Manchester as well as the whole country.

(Top photos: Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images; Courtesy of Cheadle Catholic Infant School)





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