Manchester United’s kids are all right after tough love in the lower leagues

<span>Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Ninety-seven percent of Premier League academy players never make a single top-flight appearance. Those who drop out of elite environments can struggle to adapt to the different demands of the lower leagues. Manchester United’s professional development phase players, however, are finding out about life away from Carrington. Youngsters have been sent to train for up to a month at a time with lower-league clubs to open their eyes to the wider football world and enrich their education.

“If a player is in our programme from a really young age to 19, 20, they have only ever seen one version of what football looks like and the version at Manchester United is very different from what it might look like in the rest of the world,” United’s head of academy, Nick Cox, says.

“It is about showing the boys the realities of senior football. The reality of what it means to have to be selected, to be in a team on a regular basis because it is your job and you are fighting for your contract. That helps our boys should they be ready for our first team and it helps our boys if they are not ready for our first team and they have to go find a career away from us.”

Local clubs Stockport and Altrincham have been important allies while Barrow, Doncaster and Ipswich have also welcomed players as part of the programme. Stockport’s training ground is a Peter Schmeichel throw away from Carrington. They have taken on three of the Premier League club’s centre-backs to be part of training, to see what it is like to face physical and wily League Two players on a daily basis.

Stockport County take on Northampton Town at Edgeley Park in January
Stockport County take on Northampton Town at Edgeley Park in January. Photograph: Phil Oldham/Shutterstock

“We have some really interesting stories. We have a goalkeeper who was a lorry driver two and a half years ago, a centre-half that can talk about life in non-league football whereas these lads have almost the opposite of that, having been only at United. They can speak to and learn from our players,” Stockport’s director of football, Simon Wilson, says. “The United players have been technically very, very good and lack physicality or confidence and authority in these situations, as you would expect. You see them grow over a period of time and contribute more.

“The benefit from our side of things is that we will get an early look at players that are potentially available for loan or if they will be available later down the line if they do not get extended at United.”

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Altrincham, a National League side, are in their first season as a fully professional club. They have had a strong relationship with United over many years, hosting matches for their age groups and women’s development side. Since going full-time it has allowed them to take young players into a professional environment. Colin Little, an Altrincham stalwart, works at United’s academy and helped facilitate a move for Dermot Mee, a 20-year-old goalkeeper.

“United were down at every game, coming to Egerton where we train, and I think they realised that our level is better than they expected,” Altrincham’s director of football, Rob Esteva, says. “I think people are beginning to realise it is not just a kick-and-lump-it kind of league.”

Like Stockport, Altrincham have players in to train regularly and signed three on loan in January, two of whom were not allowed to play immediately as United managed their weekly schedule. Sonny Aljofree was originally brought in on “pro experience” but proved he was worthy of signing and awaits his debut. Maxi Oyedele and Joe Hugill are part of the squad that is a game away from Wembley with an FA Trophy semi-final in their schedule.

“It is a great learning experience for all the lads,” says Esteva. “It gives the players exposure to the intensity of playing twice a week in front of fans. We have to utilise the loan market; it is essential for us. This is our first season of going full-time and, while we are 131 years old, we have always been part-time in non-league. Going full-time has helped develop relationships further.”

United have welcomed Stockport to their training ground when conditions have meant they were unable to use their own grass pitches. Salford City have done likewise while the offer is there for Altrincham, too, to do so. “We have a duty to support our ecosystem of clubs around us,” says Cox. “There is some gain for us but we think the greater gain is for those around us.

“That includes grassroots teams, non-league teams, professional teams, because we want to have a really healthy ecosystem in the north-west that is to everyone’s gain. If we can support Stockport or Altrincham with a training pitch and help them to keep going, send a player on loan, share knowledge that we might have or drop a member of staff into their organisation for some professional development, that works great for them and great for us.”

Stockport relaunched their academy after promotion to the Football League, earning Category Three status. This has enabled them to benefit from another of United’s initiatives, the Emerging Talent Programme, that allows children aged between nine and 14 to train at the club’s facilities but not necessarily be part of the squad. It is designed for those United think have the potential to trial or join in the future but allows scouts from other clubs to look at them. Stockport have signed five players directly from the programme.

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“We are all trying to do something similar, to serve the communities and the fanbases,” Wilson says. “Although football is so tribal, there are areas where you can create mutual wins for each other and, rather than working against each other, you are working with each other on some aspects and it makes everyone’s life experience a little bit easier.”

Not everyone at United can be Marcus Rashford or Scott McTominay. “We take great pride in seeing our boys progress and build a career away from us,” Cox says. “As much energy goes into the boys who might fall short of our first team as it does those on track to debut. I am not shy in talking about the fact it will be a minority of boys that become professional footballers out of our academy.“We are really clear with boys when they join us that it is a tough challenge but the challenge is an amazing one because striving for excellence brings about an amazing amount of personal growth and the academy process is one that can be life-changing, life enriching, regardless of whether you make a debut at the end of it or not.”