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Manchester United U23s relegated but Nicky Butt defends the Academy he’s helped to rebirth

Manchester United U23s were relegated from the Premier League 2 Division One on Monday evening after Derby County beat West Ham United 1-0, meaning the club could only finish as high as 11th place, providing they win their last match at home to Everton on Friday and Sunderland are defeated away to Swansea City on Monday. The likelihood is that United finish at the bottom of the table though, the position they have been in for a few months now.

Whilst many were quick to judge the Academy as a failure, without looking at facts or the work that has been done at the lower levels, the bigger picture tells you a lot about what United and Nicky Butt, the head of the Academy, have done to get the youth levels ready for the next decade or more. Two seasons ago, the U18s were the group that were struggling to achieve, losing 12 league matches in a row which saw Paul McGuinness leave the club. Since Butt has been involved in the Academy, recruitment has helped the lower age groups catch up.

Last season, after Butt had made some changes, the U18s finished second to Manchester City in the U18 Premier League North, finishing fourth in the top group in the second stage of the season. A year later, the U18s won the U18 Premier League North, having to face the Southern champions, Chelsea in a final game, with the structure of the U18 Premier League changing, again, ahead of the current season. Looking at the Academy a few years ago, there were changes that needed to be made, and they have.

Many would probably see the U23s as the area needing some help this season but in terms of developing youth, making changes form the top would not be all that beneficial. Players at U23 level only remain satisfied in that structure for a period of time, meaning that any changes would be in effect, pointless. Making the changes a few stages below, mostly at the same time, will garner a much better solution – the players rising through the ranks, solving the problems that way, providing their development continues to head in the right direction.

Whilst the U23s needed to be worked upon, the best way to do that would be to wait until next season and fill the squad with some of the players from the U18 ranks who would soon become too old for that level and the ones who were overachieving at the level, thus needing a bigger challenge. United have promoted both Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong to the U23s this season, the former currently on the sidelines through injury and the latter excelling and showing his abilities in the tougher Premier League 2.

Relegation will appease the ABUs who will assume it is another period of decline for United when in fact it will turn out to be something much different. Swansea City were playing in Division Two of the Premier League 2 last season and currently sit fourth in Division One, which shows that it is not the end of the world. Of course, the likes of Gomes, Chong and possibly even Mason Greenwood would not be playing against the best in the league next season but they will still be playing competitive football at this level.

Defending the entire Academy structure of United, Butt spoke to the BBC about it all, giving his opinions on the players at the clubs perusal, whether they could make it or not and how other clubs are not doing the same thing as United. Butt started by speaking about how he feels the Academy is thriving, saying:

“We are expected to develop players for Manchester United and bring them into the first team. In that respect, I think the academy is thriving massively.”

During a season, if there is an U23 squad of 20 players, Butt has suggested that five might be training with the first team, another five could be out at other clubs on loan which leaves ten players remaining. The team would then need to be bolstered by those at U18 level who need a bigger challenge or have grown out of the U18 league. Butt stated “that is fine if everyone else is doing it,” but it is not the case. Some clubs feel that success at U23 level is about winning games, not developing players.

When Butt was coming through the ranks at United, graduating as part of the famous ‘Class of 1992’ he was playing reserve football in stadiums with around 5,000 supporters, playing alongside the likes of Bryan Robson, Brian McClair, and Clayton Blackmore. That allowed players to learn from those deemed the best, who occupied places in the first team. Robson was a United captain and for a developing player, playing alongside him would have been a massive bonus and something to give the player a boost and want to be good enough to play for the first team. Butt said:

“It was open-age football in a stadium with 5,000 people watching. Flick that over to now: sometimes we go and play at a training pitch on a Tuesday afternoon with no fans and no first-team players.”

Currently, in the United first team, two players from the Academy, who could have still been playing at that level have broken through; Marcus Rashford, who is excelling after being brought through to cover an injury to Anthony Martial, scoring a brace on his UEFA Europa League debut, then again a few days later on his Premier League debut, and Scott McTominay, who was blooded in last season and has been a part of the first team under Jose Mourinho this season, playing a big role during periods of injury to midfield players.

Rashford started just two matches at U23 level before rising to the first team, McTominay played 31. Butt then came up with a fact about some of the U23 players, who know they may not make it at United, saying “if you are not around the first team at 20 or 21 you’re not going to be, it’s a fact.” These players are putting themselves into the ‘shop window’ ahead of a career away from United, with many seem to do well at. Just because it does not work at United does not mean it will never work.

Butt then spoke about Paul Pogba, a player United paid £89 million to bring back to the club from Juventus in the summer of 2016. The Academy chief suggested that Pogba may not have made it if he remained at United. Many have mocked United for letting Pogba leave on a free, with £800,000 compensation payable after the Frenchman refused to sign a new contract at the club in 2012. Butt does not see it as the error some suggest it was, saying:

“If he had stayed here and stagnated, he might never have been a footballer. There are players who go into the reserves for two or three seasons and they tread water. Pogba could have been one of those.

“When he was here, so were Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, who weren’t exactly average players. Pogba left and became probably the best midfielder in the world at Juventus. We were lucky enough to get him back here but it is a massive feather in our cap that we helped him develop.”

It just goes to show that many people are sat there waiting for Manchester United to fail. Anything they think is failure appeases them. But the thing is that nothing is failing. Just because the U23’s have been relegated to Division Two of the Premier League 2 means nothing. The Premier League 2 is not as competitive as some suggest. It is not really a league where players develop. Yes, they can play alongside, or even against, some first team players, but there is a limit of three overage outfield players and one overage goalkeeper. That is not development.

United are a club who hold youth development at the heart of the club. It is the way the club has existed for so long. Half of the players to play for the first team have come from the clubs Academy and there is an over 80-year history having at least one player from the youth setup in a matchday squad. No other club in the top-flight in England have ever come close to that. Manchester United have developed many players, most have continued to play for other clubs after leaving the club, some have been a success, others not so.

Winning the Premier League 2 and the U18 Premier League is great, but it is not essential to develop. Look at the Manchester City side who dominated at U18 level a few years ago. They have not dominated at U23 level and most have not fought their way into the first team, not that many have in all honesty. That is the opposite of player development. If you do not actually help players develop and give them opportunities at first team level, they move on to another club and could become a big mistake – but only United make those, according to some.

I am sure the U23s will have a go in Division Two of the Premier League 2 next season, it will give those promoted from U18 level a chance to adapt, rise to the challenge and see if they are able to win promotion to Division One before the end of next season. The top team will be promoted, the second and third-placed teams will play a final match to win promotion to the top flight of the Premier League 2. United, on the other hand, may decide to loan many players out next season to the lower league, where first team competition for places helps players develop.

Currently, there are ten players on loan with other clubs, some of them are doing well to establish themselves, others will benefit from the time away from the club in order to forge a career in the game, whether it is with Manchester United or not. Whilst another Class of 92 is nothing short of a dream, there will continually be players who are given the chance to train and even play in the first team, whether it is part of the pre-season tour or actual competitive matches. United will continue to develop, nurture and promote young players on the way to becoming the best they can be.

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