‘Twas the night before Jose Mourinho was sacked and Ed Woodward had seen enough. Not of Mourinho, but of the Manchester United Under-18s at Leigh Sports Village. Woodward left early and was maybe the only one who vacated their seat before full-time.
In front of Woodward and first-team coaches Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, United ended Chelsea’s FA Youth Cup hegemony in one of the highlights of a fraught four months for the club. In keeping with Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘don’t make it easy for ourselves’ maxim, United – 4-1 up with seven minutes to play – prevailed 4-3 with 10 men.
Mason Greenwood plundered a heroic hat-trick. The smile upon Carrick’s face had not looked so broad all season. Kieran McKenna embraced Under-18 coach Neil Ryan in the mouth of the tunnel. The U23 manager Ricky Sbragia made a beeline for them. The enthusiastic head of development John Murtough tried to play down the magnitude of the occasion.
“These lads have been brilliant,” Murtough beamed, motioning to McKenna and Ryan. How anti-climactic United ejected the competition at the same venue to Brighton in the next round.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, watching on while awaiting his flight details to Manchester, is reaping the benefits from that evening. Greenwood has appeared six times for the first-team, James Garner debuted at Crystal Palace in February and the captain Brandon Williams travelled to Paris for the Champions League revival against PSG.
Williams was not in the squad but his shirt was hung up with his name above the number 53 and he warmed up on the Parc des Princes pitch. David Beckham travelled to Istanbul and to ‘Hell’ – the Ali Sami Yen Stadium – and was a reserve.
“I probably learnt more in 10 minutes than I had in the previous two years playing for the reserves and youth team,” substitute Gary Neville recalled. Such experiences are invaluable.
The midfielder Garner was indomitable at centre half against Chelsea and was asked to chat with the few media members at Leigh. Still 17 at the time, he ‘didn’t fancy it’. Williams, 18, spoke.
“Obviously Kieran’s gone up to the first team and Carrick’s there,” Williams said. “And they speak to us and we train with the first-team and are always around them, so we look up to them and see what they are doing and try to follow them.
“[Carrick] came in and congratulated us and is happy with us. It’s good to have them up there because Kieran was our manager last year, he knows our abilities and knows what we’re capable of and when we get the chance then we take it.”
McKenna’s presence during first-team matches is becoming more profound after his first year. He is barking instructions as often as Solskjaer or Mike Phelan from the technical area and McKenna’s nurturing of Greenwood, Garner and Williams is now coming to the fore.
United belatedly added Greenwood and Garner to their first-team squad on the club website last week and a second injury in as many months to Luke Shaw, as well as the absence of Diogo Dalot, leaves United short at full-back. Williams turns 19 next week and may receive the message he is required to take that path from the academy building to the main hub at Carrington.
Out the glass double doors, across one road, through the straight pathway beneath the neon ‘Manchester United’ sign and names of the academy graduates to have played for the first-team, past a mellifluous fountain, across another road and towards the sign marked ‘Aon Training Complex’. They can be forgiven for feeling they have arrived.
Williams has made that walk a handful of times already. Solskjaer felt Romelu Lukaku would have blocked Greenwood’s ‘pathway’ to the first-team and it would be nonsensical to suddenly recall Marcos Rojo or Matteo Darmian against Southampton this weekend. Williams may need his Paul Smith suit for the Friday flight.
Mancunian Williams is a right-footed left-back and started there in all four U23 matches during their rip-roaring start. He has already tallied four assists – with his left and right – and earned a penalty through those proactive surges. The intensity Solskjaer is demanding is unlikely to deter the speedy Williams.
Some academy viewers have already decided United have a left-back to challenge Shaw in Williams. He led his age group with striking maturity last season and has retained the captaincy at U23 level.
He could have another night to remember this weekend.
Possible United matchday squad vs Southampton:
De Gea, Romero, Wan-Bissaka,
Maguire, Lindelof, Tuanzebe, Young, Williams, Matic, Pogba, Pereira, McTominay, Mata, Lingard, James, Greenwood, Martial, Rashford