The Manchester United academy, based across from the first-team building at Carrington, is a proud reminder of the importance placed on the players who have come through the system and gone on to glory in the various eras since its formation.
Currently, the United youth product that everyone is talking about is Marcus Rashford.
At 22, he boasts more than 200 first-team appearances and is one goal shy of hitting 70 in all competitions.
Not only has he been performing on the pitch, he has taken it upon himself to stand up for youngsters, who are uncertain where their next meal might come from and is going toe-to-toe with the UK Government on their behalf.
Rashford’s fight has seen him receive praise and accolades from across the nation, plus the honour of an MBE.
And United’s head of academy, Nick Cox, has been left in no doubt where the credit lies.
“We never could have navigated this opportunity for Marcus. Marcus has been surrounded by great family, selected good mates, and surrounded himself with good influences away from the football club,” Cox told Sky Sports News.
“Yes, he has had some really good and committed coaches who helped him and nurtured him and some wonderful developers here as well, but they were all part of the support network that’s been wrapped around him.
“At the centre of it all is Marcus. Marcus is the one who’s achieved these things. He’s had some amazing people who collaborated with him, but really this has come from him, from within him. This is his drive.
“His personal ambition has helped him to achieve what he’s achieved, so we’ve got to be careful not to stake a claim and say the academy has done this. We have supported someone who’s driven, passionate and cares deeply about his community and people that are living through some of the experiences that he lived through.”
There is no doubting the value of the example that Rashford is setting to those trying to follow in his footsteps at United.
For youngsters and their parents, his is a tale of inspiration, of succeeding against all the odds and not forgetting his roots.
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But becoming a role-model at the football club is not something he set out to do. It has been an organic process and one that seems relevant and relatable, something Cox is in agreement with.
“There is a ‘wow factor’ but there’s a normality around that ‘wow factor’, in that Mason Greenwood was hanging out with Marcus, and now we’ve got some other kids in there who used to hang out with Mason.
“So it slowly becomes normal, it slowly becomes just following in the footsteps of a pal rather than trying to follow that which looks impossible, by someone who looks so different to me,” Cox explains.
“You hold up a world superstar who’ve you’ve never met before, who’s 20 years older than you, and you think ‘how do I make the connection between me and that person?’
“But if you’re making a connection with a kid who’s a few years older than you, who lives down the road from you, then that’s a lot more achievable. It’s a lot more powerful, so it’s less of a ‘wow’, it’s just normal.”
Bringing back smiles, and Brexit plans
The demands for those players at the older end of the spectrum remain the same. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to have the best young talent at his disposal, having given so many of the latest academy products their first-team debuts in recent months.
That means decisions have to be made as to where is best for players to be, whether that is remaining at Carrington or being sent out on loan.
However, the focus for those at the other end of the scale has changed because of the coronavirus pandemic, with Cox a firm believer that the pressures and challenges can be put on hold.
“Football now for 10,11,12-year-old boys is a vehicle to recovery in my eyes. There’s no rush, we’ve not missed anything, the whole world has been on pause, we don’t have to race to catch up,” Cox says.
“This is about a football club being able to help young people recover from a period of time when they have not been able to engage in the thing they love. They’ve not had routine, they’ve not had structure, and they’ve not had social interaction.
“We were absolutely clear with our coaches that when young people returned to this football club, the discussions about contracts and development would be put on hold and it would be about rebuilding relationships, playing football with a smile on our face, enjoying ourselves, and giving back the bit that we’ve missed.”
While recruitment has been a hot topic at United since the closure of the latest transfer window, at academy level the club has caught the eye this summer, bringing in more than half a dozen players from home and abroad and beating some of Europe’s major clubs to their signatures.
Part of that strategy has been dictated by a scouting policy that has been honed to seek out youngsters who could be developed into first-team players, but with the unknowns of Brexit looming on the horizon, this summer might also have been an opportunity to recruit in a way that may not exist for English clubs come the turn of the year.
Cox expects Brexit to have a big effect on how Premier League academies will look in the future.
“Brexit will change the pool of players that we can recruit from at various stages, so there will undoubtedly be a greater focus on British-based players up until a certain age,” he says.
“I think we’re still working through what the connotations are and exactly what the details are in regards to the movement of players from outside of this country but absolutely we have to have a robust plan to make sure we have the best players we possibly can have to make sure that we can offer them first-team debuts.
“So we’ve spent a lot of time planning for it as best we can, but I think if you look at the best Manchester United teams, there’s a core of local players complimented by the best talent from outside the local footprint.
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“This wasn’t about a last-chance saloon for us, this was about us assessing a year group of players, seeing what’s available, seeing what we’ve got and having the best possible group we could have this year. It’s what we do every year, it’s not been a knee-jerk reaction, that would be short term thinking and that would be a bit remiss of us.
“This has just been about doing what’s right year on year, regular discussions about how people are doing in the building and how people outside of the building are progressing and assembling a group of boys that complement each other.”
You have to go back more than 4,000 games to find a United matchday squad that didn’t include an academy product, with 18-year-old Teden Mengi being tipped by many inside the club to be involved sooner rather than later.
It is a question that Cox is asked constantly and because of that has adapted a reply that gives nothing away except his pride in a system and group of people that are continuing to produce for United.
“I’m always really cautious about talking about individuals and where they might end up because I think it adds pressure,” he says.
“The discussion around ‘who could be the next one’ could be the discussion that actually derails the next one.
“And also there’s an element of there’ll always be someone in there that no one expects that shows the resilience, that gets there against the odds but it is always the question people ask ‘who’s next, who’s next, what do you think of this player or that player?’
“Fans are desperate to know and so they do come and watch the Under-23s and you’ll see supporter flags up behind the goals and at the Under-18 games too because people are passionate, they fascinated by who’s going to be the next one.
“They’re intrigued, they want to know and again that’s amazing for us to have a fanbase who cares so passionately about what it is we’re up to. It’s just what we do and it’s a habit of some 80 odd years of producing young players and one that we’ve got to make sure we sustain.”
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