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Rise To Fame: Joe Riley

Louis van Gaal’s legacy at Manchester United might be determined by the success of the young players in whom he placed such unwavering trust in his final season in charge. While Marcus Rashford has been grabbing all the headlines and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson has already begun to look every bit a United player, there’s another who made his debut under van Gaal who has an exciting future ahead of him.

19-year-old defender Joe Riley was given his first taste of first-team action at Manchester United as a substitute in an FA Cup victory against Shrewsbury Town in February, before his full debut at Old Trafford just three days later.

Marcus Rashford stole the show that night, scoring twice against FC Midtjylland, but Riley was superb. Right-footed but playing at left-back, he soared forwards at every available opportunity. Fleet of foot, brave on the ball and not afraid to make an impact, Riley made a real impression on those inside the ground that night.

“I remember putting in a cross onto Morgan’s head and he hit a post,” Riley recalls. “To hear the fans go ‘Oooh’, it was unbelievable to know it’s all come from you as well.”

His attacking ambition is no surprise considering his education as a winger in his earlier years. Warren Joyce converted him into a full-back just last year when he progressed into the Under-21 team, and while the defensive side of his gaming is improving, it’s his attacking flair that made his first performance in a red shirt such an impressive one.

Promising young players are too often compared to more established stars, with their emergence heralded as a new coming. While it would be foolish and far too early to suggest that this academy graduate is ‘the next Luke Shaw’, watching the speed and power with which he glides across the Old Trafford turf draws plenty of parallels with United’s no.23. Riley is his own man of course, but he is aware of the comparisons and is keen to learn from his teammate.

“If you look at someone like Luke, he bombs forward all the time and is obviously a great left-back. It’s good watching him get forward but also defending as well. I’d like to take that into my game. I’ve not really played as a wing-back before but I definitely think that role could be calling my name, to be honest.”

Putting aside his obvious technical ability, it is his attitude towards the game, coupled with his versatility, that has taken him this far and it is those same attributes that will lead him to great success in the game. To break into the first team at a club like Manchester United is a tremendous achievement for any 19-year-old. To do so in an unfavourable position, on his weaker side, is quite unbelievable really.

For the player himself, though, it’s just water off a duck’s back. He wants to play and he doesn’t really care how the opportunities come about. He ended the 2015/16 campaign playing at right-back for the Under-21’s, a move that might continue into the new season.

“My preference is I’m a right-back definitely. People probably don’t take into consideration that I’m not on my strongest side. I like to cross the ball and to do it on my left side is a lot harder. So preferably I’m a right-sided player who likes to cross the ball but, wherever I’m playing, if it keeps me in the team, I’ll happily always stay at left-back!

So what can we expect from Joe Riley in the next few years? In all honesty, the sky’s the limit because his achievements up to this point have already been so impressive. For a player so recently moulded into a new position to force his way into an older age group like Riley has done takes hard work, great dedication and a whole heap of talent. To make 19 appearances at that higher age level in a championship-winning team AND break into the first team and play on the European stage for an elite club like Manchester United is something else entirely. What is there to stop him emulating his teammates and feature as regularly as Rashford, Borthwick-Jackson, or Fosu-Mensah?

He’s an ambitious young man and one that we should all expect to see more regularly in the coming months. He hopes to impress the new manager and remain involved with the first-team squad during pre-season training. A place on the summer tour might be up for grabs and for Riley that is the next target to aim towards as he gears up for another season at United.

“I’m hoping for that involvement at some point,” he admitted. “I think it’s everyone’s dream to go on a pre-season tour and we saw Gossy [Sean Goss] do it last year. We’ll see how it all goes and, if I get picked to go on tour, it will be an absolute quality experience to go to China.” 

He joined United at just six years of age. He’s risen through the ranks and represented his boyhood club at the highest level of his sport. For some, dreams really can come true.

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