It’s an autumnal day at Manchester United’s training complex at the back end of 2017. A scrawny kid, just turned 16, is making his first start as a striker in England’s Under 18 Premier League. Just over an hour later, Mason Greenwood completes his hat-trick, and a special talent has well and truly arrived.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer goes on to make him United’s youngest ever starter in the Premier League era and this week, Greenwood’s three brilliant goals cemented his place in one of the most exciting forward lines in the Premier League right now. Solskjaer called him “an exceptional finisher, a natural footballer who can go as far as he wants to”. Not bad for a boy who doesn’t turn 19 until October.
United have always been proud of their academy set up - and rightly so. Last December they celebrated the 4,000th consecutive game in which at least one youth graduate has been represented in the Reds’ matchday squad. But it’s fascinating that their renaissance of late is underpinned by youth. Playing left-back in Greenwood’s eye-catching game as a 16-year-old was Brandon Williams, who came on in the 3-0 thumping of Aston Villa on Thursday. Scott McTominay has had a break-through season. Marcus Rashford is still only 22. Seven of the starting 11 against Villa were under 25.
So how do you foster a culture where an 18-year-old forward can be a regular starter for the biggest club in the world? Neil Ryan, United’s U18s manager, says it has to come right from the very top.
“Ole has spoken a lot about his intention to play young players should they be worthy of an opportunity, and Mason and Brandon Williams have grabbed the chance with both hands,” he says. “That’s a culture the club has lived by since the Busby era, but Ole has been fantastic in terms of the faith he’s shown.
“We have a dialogue and a long-term development plan for each player, but with someone like Mason, from day one Ole was talking to me about him.
“Honestly, we didn’t think he would have such an immediate impact, but he’s been fantastic. We still do development work with him every day, though, he’s still learning.”
Goals, of course, are the most precious commodity in the game and as the last week has proved, Greenwood is a natural. Marcus Rashford’s meteoric rise as a teenager was very similar. But Ryan is keen to stress that though they might seem like overnight successes, years of work has gone into these players - and some might progress at different speeds.
“Some will be high flyers - Marcus got a chance and never looked back,” he says. “Others might go out on loan. Of course, a goalscorer will catch the eye, but as coaching staff, we’re very clear on what we want and how we analyse a defender, say. It’s at that point we’ll throw them into first team training to see how they handle it. Some will find it hard - but that’s not to say their time won’t come in the future.”
And that’s the delicate balance which United seem to have handled so well this season. McTominay took a long time to break through into the first team but it was finding the right moment where he could best impact games. For all the clamour to play Phil Foden more regularly at city neighbours Manchester City, maybe his emergence at the end of this season will prove to be the right decision.
“Mason and Brandon have been outstanding so far, but the battle now is to stay there,” says Ryan. “You want to be sure that it’s not all about a decent debut but a long career. And you know, for some of the players we develop, that might not be at Manchester United. That’s fine too - our duty is to help them fulfil their potential and how far that takes them isn’t always set in stone.”
Ryan admits they draw on the examples of Rashford or Paul Pogba all the time, but it takes a lot more than high-flying talent alone to make it. Which means the likes of McTominay and Williams are equally as inspiring to his next crop of U18s - “the carrot we dangle to everyone we develop or sign at a young age”.
And when Mason Greenwood smashed in his spectacular goals this week, Ryan admits it felt great.
“It’s amazing to see any of the boys I’ve worked do so well. I get to see them at their most special really, when they’re so in love with the game, ready to take on the world and express themselves. And when they do something outstanding for the first team, well, you’ve known them for years, you know their families and that journey is so rewarding.”
But it never ends. You wouldn’t expect him to name names at this stage, but the moment Mason Greenwood had progressed to the first team, Ryan was busy finding the next player on the production line.
“Actually, success like Mason’s energises you to find the next Greenwood, Rashford, McTominay, Williams, and get back to work to making that happen. And the way we look at it at Manchester United, everyone has the potential to play for the first team.
“It’s up to us to guide their particular pathway, to put them in the right environment to succeed.”
At Manchester United, that environment feels very healthy right now.