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Turning towards youth: Calculated or rolling the dice?

On the 19th December 2018, Manchester United announced that club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was to be appointed as the caretaker manager for the remainder of the season. The man, chiseled in the very fabric of Sir Alex Ferguson, was tasked with the role of settling the ship and aid in returning a sense of harmony to the Theatre of Dreams.

The appointment was met with mixed reviews – mainly attributed to the Norwegian’s lack of top-flight managerial experience. Regardless of this, Solskjaer embraced the opportunity and was quick to remind the general public of United’s history in developing youth.

It is no secret that Manchester United have a number of exciting prospects coming through their much-revered academy. Players including Tahith Chong, Mason Greenwood, Angel Gomes and James Garner – to name but a few. Each of these players has been nurtured in the United Way and have walked in similar footsteps to many of the great names who have gone before them.

A combination of timing, hard work and ability – all required for continuation toward donning the famous red shirt. One need look no further, than toward Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay, for additional motivation as to what is possible.

Fast forward two months and United were preparing for a Premier League trip to Crystal Palace with the prospect of up to 10 first – team players absent. Solskjaer, seemingly unfazed by such, was quick to declare his confidence in youth: paying particular attention to Angel Gomes, James Garner and Tahith Chong.

“They’ve been part of our training for a long time now. I’m sure Angel [Gomes], he’s been successful with England Under-17s, there with [Jadon] Sancho, [Callum] Hudson-Odoi and [Phil] Foden.

So, he has been a big part of that and, Angel, I am definitely sure that if he gets the chance, he’ll do well.

“Jimmy Garner is a Michael Carrick but 20 years younger, so I’m sure he’ll do well. And Chongy [Tahith Chong], he’ll definitely be taking people on if he comes on. But they’re ready, they’re kids.

While this particular occasion may have been forced upon Solskjaer, it was his first public opportunity to exhibit his desire in promoting from within. As the season progressed, team-sheets were frequented with youth and the introduction of the much-desired frontman – Mason Greenwood, had fans salivating. Providing first team debuts to so many, in such a short period of time, epitomizing the words of the great Sir Matt Busby – “if they are good enough, they are old enough.”

United ended the season in somewhat adverse fashion however. Results diminished and performances were deemed lacklustre. Despite this, Solskjaer remained firm in his stance toward youth: ending the season with word of up to six youth players involved in first team preparations. Gomes, Dylan Levitt, Arnau Puigmal, Greenwood, Garner and Chong had all trained with the senior squad ahead of the seasons final outing – a home tie against Cardiff City, on the 12th May 2019.

Following the final whistle, and the end to a season that provided so many ups and downs, Solskjaer had amassed a total of 29 games in charge of the first team. During this short period, he had handed first team debuts to Chong, Garner and Greenwood – while Gomes had also featured on several occasions. It would appear, from an outsider looking in, that Solskjær had delivered on his promise of continuing the clubs proud traditions.

It is at this point we must ask: is this behaviour something that Solskjaer feels obligated to fulfil at United? Solskjaer has never ignored an opportunity to speak about United’s traditions. He is the appointment, that many feel, with the ability to ignore commercial interests and political agenda. Instead, looking to prioritise youth – while being vocal about embracing all that comes with modern footballers.

A keen understanding about the influence of social media and the innocent generation that homegrown. Solskjaer is quoted as recognising that despite the influence of social media and changing times, players values, beliefs and principles don’t change.

Solskjaer’s determination toward the advancement of youth within his ranks is obvious for all to see. The vision that he holds is even more apparent – with talk of young, hungry, homegrown players being added to these ranks. He appears determined to reinvigorate the passion for the badge and what it means to set foot on the hallowed turf at Old Trafford.

Several years of commercially-charged acquisitions have left the squad without an identity. Fan frustration is evident and, as is standard, several players are being held accountable. Solskjaer has spoken candidly about continuing the clubs youthful traditions and solidified such by handing first team debuts to Chong, Garner and Greenwood.

The prospect of mirroring the iconic class of ’92 is tantalising but, considering the commercial cost of continuing decline, are we looking at a masterclass or, simply put, an inexperienced roll of dice?

Written by Shaun Connolly

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