Louis van Gaal, the former Manchester United manager, seems to be long forgotten already, in spite of it only being a little over three months that the club decided to conclude his contract, a year earlier than its actual fate. No matter what the Dutchman is blamed for, one thing that is part of his legacy at the Theatre of dreams, is bringing up the youth from the academy. It might have been due to injuries or his primary decisions, that’s for another discussion, but he did give a lot of debuts to the players from the academy, Marcus Rashford and Timothy Fosu-Mensah being the cream of the crop. One such player who also got a chance, one that he did not expect going in to the season, was Joe Riley.
Riley, who hails from Blackpool, has been termed as a defender on United’s official website but has played almost everywhere on the pitch for the academy. An “all-rounder” of sorts, Riley has played on the wings, in the central midfield and now has settled in to a full back position. It is not just the different areas of the pitch that he has been played at but also the sides that make him stand out from the crowd at such a young age. He started out as a right-sided player but was slotted in the left side of the field and has adjusted pretty easily.
It is not just the youngster’s flexibility that is his strong point, it is also his hunger to keep the ball and move forward. Having been played much forward in the earlier years, his attacking play is well-developed and has a knack of putting in inviting crosses, one of which landed for Morgan Schneiderlin, only for the Frenchman to hit the post. One statistic that underlines and signifies his game going forward is his number of assists for the U18’s. The youngster was responsible for 10 goals, which was the highest for the team in that season. However, when not on the ball, the 19-year-old has a certain exuberance and urgency in getting the ball back, something that is seen in Rashford, at the other end of the pitch.
Getting comfortable in different positions and trusting your coach for doing so is an important characteristic to look at, in the developing years for any youngster. Riley has shown exactly that and has been completely positive with regards to the change of his position.
“I’ve been training as a left-back for the last week or two so I’m guessing, as Donald [Love] has gone out on loan, Warren maybe does see me as a full-back. I do like playing full-back, to be fair, and I’m enjoying it.
“Warren says one of the positive parts of my game is my running power and he told me to get forward as much as can, if it is on to do so. I guess, as a right footer, I want to cut in on my right foot more often but I’ve being doing more crosses with my left foot in training so it’s alright.
“I can be versatile, I guess, and I don’t mind any position, to be honest, as long as I can get forward and play my part for the team.”
Riley burst onto the scene when he won Player of the Tournament in the Mercedes-Benz Junior Cup in January 2015. Not doubting his talent one bit, fans who follow the academy knew Riley and his prowess, but his sudden “rise to fame” can more or less be attributed to Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s absence, who himself was involved in the first team due to that horrible injury to Luke Shaw. Riley made a substitute appearance against Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup and followed it up with his first start against FC Midtjylland. It is one thing to get an opportunity in the team and whole different level to utilize it and show one’s potential. Riley made an impressive start to his first team career and has had invaluable experience out of it. It is not everyone’s cup of tea to handle expectations that come along with the United jersey, Riley had an excellent outlook towards that too.
“I wanted to try to go out and play my own game, as though it were an U21 match, and did not want to put too much pressure on myself. I wanted to just go out and enjoy the experience and play like I can. It’s definitely more nerve-wracking. I tried not to take the fans in. When you’re actually playing and you’re concentrating on the game, you kind of zone out from the fans. It’s only when you have a throw-in or there’s a stoppage in play that you realise and think ‘wow’. When you’re playing, it’s okay.”
It has been almost a miracle season for the 19-year-old but with the experience that he has had and the performances that he has shown in the U21’s it will be very humble of him to not aim for some first team minutes this season. United now have a different manager who has a good injury record with his previous teams so it won’t be the injuries that will give him his first team place but sheer performances. The season did start out with a little disappointment for the youngster when he was snubbed for the team’s China tour but things looked up at the start of the season. Riley was called upon to train with the first teamers ahead of the Community Shield game against Leicester City. Although he did not get any minutes on the pitch yet, the involvement in the first team means that Mourinho has his eyes on the youngster and as soon as various tournaments kick in, there might be another first team call waiting up. Things are looking up for the teenager and if he takes his chances as he did last season, it might blossom in to a promising career at the Theatre of Dreams.