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Ones to Watch: Zak Dearnley, making his own way at the start of his career as a professional

At the beginning of last season, Zak Dearnley surely hadn’t thought of or even imagined a scenario where he would be called in the first team and get matchday experience in the last Premier League game against Crystal Palace. An injury earlier in the season was a major blast in his hopes of playing regularly, yet things changed for good in the end and two inspiring games against the London clubs with the Reserves were the right way to drag the manager’s attention.

The Sheffield boy raised in Penistone caught the eye when playing for the Penistone Church U7’s where his father was the manager. It was a golden chance given to the young lad who had the chance to be chosen from 30 players who were all hoping to get into the academy at a big club like Manchester United. It must be said that the player has not reached the stage of his career because of luck, his work rate has been immense. He had to change cities at the age of 13 so he could be in one of the best academies in England. His father tells the story how everything happened and the way Dearnley was given the chance of a trial at Manchester United:

“They won just about every trophy, every competition they entered. We were playing a game at Dodworth when a gentleman, who I later found out was Garry Carr, tapped me on the shoulder and asked who our number seven was. I told him it was my son, and he invited him for trials for Manchester United. I felt ten feet tall; it’s every parent’s dream, isn’t it?”

He then shone during his trial and quickly advanced, making sure that everything was being done correctly and he knew that it was a rare chance, to follow the right way and become a professional player at United. He surely had something to say about this as well:

“We were told early on that this was Manchester United, and we’d be lucky if one boy from our group became a professional. There were 30 boys there. It was basically one-in-a-million, they said.”

Moving to Manchester, adapting to a new life, Dearnley had a hard time but in the end, it was worth it:

“I moved to Manchester at 13, and it was tough – I almost quit at one point. I couldn’t handle being away from home, living with different people, training all the time. I was at a new school, making new friends, away from my family. I’m used to it now, of course, but it’s tough at the time. It makes you appreciate the sacrifices players make to get to the top; I’m a much more confident person because of it. And, to get to where I want to be, it’s just what needs to be done.”

His father also shared an important fact about the player’s time away from home, he had cried every night in his first month something he hadn’t told his father about it. Focusing on the statistics Dearnley made his debut for the U18’s in the 2013/14 season making two substitute appearances despite being an U15 schoolboy. The very next season, he made 22 appearances in total, starting in 15 games, scoring four goals and assisting twice. In the 2015/16 season, he scored six goals in 24 starts, scoring the opening goal of the season during the draw against West Bromwich Albion. An interesting development was stopped because of injury, a similar one in which he suffered at the beginning of last season, preventing him from showing his real potential. The U18’s manager was definitely looking forward to working with him after the Christmas period and he was a lovely addition to the team. In 13 appearances, of which nine were from the start the Englishman scored five goals and assisted one other. As the U23’s were short of players for the two important games against the London clubs, Dearnley was involved with the team, albeit on the bench.

Making his debut as a substitute in London against Arsenal where he inspired a lovely comeback as he and his teammate Ethan Hamilton were both strong in the game. His ability on the wing was noted and had an immediate impact. The same went for the last game of the season in the Premier League 2 where he had no idea that he would be back just a few days later to experience his first match day and enjoying it. Speaking to the official Manchester United website, Dearnley expressed his joy for the experience:

“Obviously, it was great. It’s been a bit of a stop-start season for me as I got injured in August but to be involved was great. Who would have thought with the season that I’ve had, to get the opportunity to be on the bench and to be in the changing room and see what the first team do? It was a great experience and a great day for me and my family.” 

Despite not having the chance of making his debut for the club like Angel Gomes and co, Dearnley, however, won more in terms of professionalism and the way it feels to be around, the importance of dragging the manager’s attention and things only a first team player does. In those terms, that was great for the player:

“It was such a good thing to see the young players in the first team; our families are so proud of us and it was great. It was just such a good feeling to see us all involved and a great experience.

“I think what I learned most was how the senior players look after themselves and how mentally prepared they are for the games, which was quite interesting to see. Everyone is so focused on the game. To see the amount of work going in, it is so professional and so much goes into it. It was amazing to see that and be able to remember it, seeing how the likes of Wayne Rooney actually prepare for the games because it was great.

“It was good, us younger lads seeing the manager and all the stuff he does. It was nice even being in the same room as him and gave us all a good feeling.”

With an early injury during the last two season’s, Dearnley suffered because of lost chances to shine, preventing his further development. It’s not an easy thing to do as the player had to take care of every detail, learning new things and most importantly to be mentally prepared for the change:

“Last season [2015/16], I did the same injury. But that was only three months out. It was the second game of the season and it was horrible to get it again. But it’s made me better as a person and mentally stronger. I learned from my mistakes and I’m learning what things to do. I need to look after my body, keep eating the right foods and all that stuff comes into play.

“Once you’re back, that’s it. You learn what to eat and how to adapt yourself and hope you don’t get it again. So it’s more making sure, in your mind, you’re mentally prepared. I scored a few goals for the Under-18s and it was honestly just great to be back on the pitch, playing. I was playing football and doing well, getting my fitness levels back up and then, a few weeks ago, I played in the Reserves.” 

Dearnley knows well who he has to follow, set the right ideal with his plans and also focus on past history of the debuts:

“I think, in the past years, you’ve seen youngsters make their debuts and go into the first team or go from the Under-18s into the Reserves. The young players are always progressing and going on to become involved.

“It’s good and it’s amazing as a young lad who supported United. All my family support them and most of my friends. It’s a weird feeling but a good feeling. I’ve been 10 years now in the Academy and I’ve gone from being in the Under-18s to not that far away now. Like Marcus [Rashford] has done and Axel [Tuanzebe] has done it. As a Reserves player or a youth player, it’s not that far away – it just depends on a number of things.”

Despite working hard, the youngster thinks that there’s an element to having and getting the chances, luck is as well an important part:

“That’s it [luck is one of them]. You have to have that bit of luck. You can’t do it without that. But you’ve got to go through dedication, mental strength, keeping on going from the Under-18s to the Reserves to the first team and just treating everything the same. It’s about doing everything right and working hard.”

Still at a young age, getting involved in the first team, finding his way in United’s fans heart, Dearnley knows the way things should be done, he must do everything right. Players at his age slip and develop other interests, but if he wants the same as he wanted years ago; the Englishman should only focus on his football, developing his pressing, moving well on the wing and showing his pace, which is a big aspect in his ability. Everything is in his hands and he should take it; an incredible youngster who will have his time, ready to impress the youth fanatics and more importantly the first team manager, Jose Mourinho.

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