Adrien Rabiot looks as if he is on his way to Manchester to sign for United. If things had turned out differently, the Frenchman could have been the poster boy for a new era on the other side of town but he managed less than a year in City’s academy as a teenager.
In 2008, a City scout spotted a young Rabiot playing for Créteil in France. City sent representatives to speak with the then 13-year-old Rabiot, who was close to joining Paris Saint-Germain, and his mother, Veronique. Her desire to leave the country meant she was happy to be persuaded by City to move to Manchester and help her son realise his dreams.
The young Frenchman, along with his brother, attended St James’ Catholic High School in Cheadle, where they were placed by the club. Rabiot enjoyed life in Manchester on and off the pitch, quickly learning English and impressing at City under the tutelage of Paul Power, whether he was played on the left or in central midfield. City were optimistic they had signed a top prospect who had the potential to play for their first team. Rabiot was not self-confident, however, and City staff had to build him up and convince the player how good he was.
“We liked him very much,” says the former City academy manager Jim Cassell. “It’s always a risk because we are going back to 2008. City were coming away from their very low point of the early 2000s, we were progressing very nicely. It was a new venture attracting boys from further afield. He had a magnificent left foot. It’s unfair to compare him with Arnold Mühren but he was that type of player; not the quickest but a beautiful left foot, could pass it short, could pass it long.”
— EspoirsduFootball (@EspoirsduFoot) April 6, 2016
City’s current owners were doing their due diligence in 2008 when they were looking to buy the club, and the Abu Dhabi entourage stopped to watch a young Rabiot playing in a match for the under-14s at the club’s Carrington training ground. They must have been impressed by the potential at the club.
Although Rabiot was enjoying life at City, where staff saw him as a humble and polite boy, his home life was less settled. Rabiot’s father was in hospital in France after suffering a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. City repeatedly spoke with Veronique, who was seen as difficult to deal with. The club helped her pay rent, bills and even find a car but they could not convince her that Manchester and the club were the best place for her son to develop, and the Rabiot family departed without a word.
“He was not a problem at all, he just loved football. They gave it a real go and it just wasn’t easy for him,” Cassell says. “She has a reputation for speaking her mind. In the end there was no animosity between City and the family – the club handled it very well because we were not the type that would try to restrict anyone.
“Our goals in life were to encourage players to get careers in football and that’s what we did. We would have probably progressed him through at 14 and tried to sign him as a scholar and a pro, but that wasn’t to be. The fact he has done so well shows that we played our part in his development. They moved pretty quickly. If the family weren’t happy, it was a pointless exercise. You have got to be happy to develop, we tried as much as possible.”
Rabiot eventually joined PSG where he would progress through the ranks, making his first-team debut four years after leaving England. Staff at City kept in contact with the youngster until he was 16 in the hope they could convince him to return when he was old enough to travel alone. He has gone on to earn 29 caps for his country, win five Ligue 1 titles and one Serie A with Juventus in Italy but has rarely been heralded as one of Europe’s best midfielders.
“His potential was exciting; being a left-sided player he had a slight advantage because that gives you a balance within the team,” Cassell says. “He was great to have around and it would have been really nice to see if he would have progressed to the first team. We will never know that.”
Rabiot finally looks set to have the chance to show what he can do in the Premier League 14 years on from his first English adventure, after United agreed a £15m deal with Juventus. If personal terms are agreed and the deal is concluded he will be back in Carrington, around the corner at United’s training facilities. Rabiot always had the potential to be a Premier League player and it looks as if he will have the chance to prove himself on these shores. United will be just hoping he stays in Manchester for longer than six months.