At the end of season awards last week, Paul McGuinness was the United coach who had the hardest task. When being interviewed by MUTV he was the sole coach who couldn’t report back completely positively. The first team won the title and the U21s are in the league final but the U18s have won nothing. Winning isn’t everything at Academy level so what McGuinness could confirm was progress.
The new format that we’re so familiar with at U21 level is mirrored at U18 level. United, along with Southampton were the only clubs who had teams at both level make it into the elite group stage. That on its own is a great credit to the quality and depth at both levels, especially as some players will crossover between the two.
For McGuinness, his responsibility is as much to development as it is to silverware. This season he had a relatively old but small squad. Most of the players he’s used regularly are second year scholars who’ll move up to the U21s next season. On the whole, the group are physically small, not necessarily weak but they’ve found themselves up against bigger boys most weeks. Like most United youngsters they’re technically sound and in true United style, they’re at their best going forwards.
A slow start to the season and a defeat in the third round of the FA Youth Cup will go down as the lows but a strong finish and lots of players growing up means there’s lots to look back on and be pleased. United finished one point behind Southampton in National Group 2 and then only missed out on a semi-final place on goal difference to Everton after they finished fourth in the Elite Group.
Some players will be frustrated with their season – injuries have meant that Sean Goss, Ben Barber, Kieran O’Hara and others will have played much less than they would have liked. Some of the younger players such as Ashley Fletcher and Matthew Willock have turned out almost every week for the U16s so they can keep getting some game-time.
At the back, Joel Castro Pereira was added a year ago but has mainly been used from the bench as Sutherland and Gollini have rotated responsibility. Although short, Jonny Sutherland has shown he’s a fine shot stopper and he’s been promoted to the U21s on numerous occasions. After missing most of his first season through injury, Gollini has been one of the fastest developers this time round. Mistakes, often seemingly concentration related, still exist but he’s become increasingly confident under high balls and has made some outstanding and crucial saves. He’s also shown himself to be something of a penalty saving expert.
Like the first team, there’s been plenty of patchwork done in the defence to compensate for injuries. Paddy McNair, a creative midfielder, started and ended the season at centre back as Barber, McConnell, Wilkinson, Dalley and Ioannou all have had injuries. Captain, Liam Grimshaw, has moved into the centre from right back and been a consistently good performer. Callum Evans, naturally a midfielder has filled in the full back positions with Rowley and Love both getting injuries after excellent first halves of the season. Even James Weir has had to drop into right back at times. That the defence has kept nine clean sheets is a better achievement than it may sound, all things considered. Next season, Nicholas Ioannou will be the main man to keep an eye on – he can play at both centre and left back and although injuries have meant he’s had a very stop-start first season as a scholar, his talent’s been very obvious to see.
The midfield is the most experienced part of the team and has had some of the best performers. Ben Pearson and James Weir have been almost ever presents and have both grown up tremendously as the seasons progressed. Pearson won the Young Player of the Year award – he was the outstanding candidate. He mixes tough tackling with an attacking threat and surprisingly delicate passing. Although small, he’s strong and bears similarities in style to Owen Hargreaves, not least because of the hair. Pearson’s ended the season with the U21s and it’ll be interesting to see how he matches up against bigger men next season.
Weir’s style is very similar to Pearson’s – he’s a very willing player and a tireless runner. That they’ve both kept Jack Rudge out the side for much of the season says a lot about their form. If there’s one source of disappointment it’s been the injuries that Joe Rothwell has suffered. He’s such an elegant footballer, much like Carrick, but he’s rarely been fit for more than a few games and he’ll be frustrated that his time in the U18s has never truly got ticking.
The core bunch of central midfielders will all be moving up to the U21s, leaving little behind. Joshua Harrop will get a lot of playing time next year as a result and that’s not a bad thing at all. Although his involvement this season has been mainly from the subs bench his physical development is striking and his performances have been really good. He’s consistently been mentioned in the younger age groups as a player who could have a really positive future so he’ll be expected to pick up the midfield baton next term.
In the more attacking midfield roles, Daehli and Barmby have had a mixed time. Daehli’s first few months of the season were incredible but he’s somewhat tailed off a bit as the campaign’s gone on. Barmby’s done it the other way round with a strong finish after a slow start. He’s broadened out nicely and is starting to resemble a man – a bit of maturity on the pitch is the next step for him. Januzaj, as has been widely reported, has spent much of the season at U21 level and simply used the U18s to get fit after an injury.
Much of the creative burden will now fall on Andreas Pereira. After joining 18 months ago, this has been his first full season at the club. He’s shown glimpses of his talent and is clearly a free-kick specialist but he’s been quite hot and cold, maybe a tad in the shadow of the others around him. Exciting winger, Demetre Mitchell, will join him from the U16s as a scholar next season and how the pair link up could be crucial to the performances and results of the side.
McGuinnes likes to play with one striker up front so Wilson and Byrne have had to share responsibilities. James Wilson’s form has been exceptional with a goal a game and five in one game away to Newcastle alone. He’s been drafted into the U21s at times too, covering for the lack of strikers there, but he still has one more year in the U18s to complete. Byrne is a funny one in that he often does little wrong but his goals record isn’t good. It’s easy to forget he’s one of the youngest players in his year and although he’ll move up to the U21s next season, he only turns 18 in July. His end of the season form has been good though and he’s looking confident as his body has filled out and he no longer looks like a small, scrawny striker. It’s been excellent to see him score with bullet headers and cut in from the left to bend shots in – the perfect end to the season for him.
The challenge next season may be a hard one for Paul McGuinness and his staff – a very small squad with some very small players could well see the club make a few signings at this level over the summer. This time around, they may have won nothing and made lots of mistakes particularly before Christmas, but individual development sets many of the players in good stead for their step up to the U21s. McGuinness should be pleased – he’s helped turn boys into men and played attacking football along the way. Seamless repetition is his thing.