There are many benefits of following youth football, but as a Manchester United fan and a youth historian, there is no better feeling than seeing a youngster develop through our youth system and make it to the first team.
At Manchester United we take pride in the fact that we have been the most successful British club in doing this since the 1930’s.
When David Moyes announced the squad for the pre-season tour, it was with particular delight to see Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Adnan Januzaj amongst those on the list.
As the regular season got underway, I was hoping that we might see more of Jesse Lingard, however the progress of Adnan Januzaj has been a major plus and something regular youth team followers have been predicting for some time.
So after watching the young Belgian take the Premier League headlines on Saturday evening, and rightly so with a magnificent performance, many fans re-opened the Paul Pogba debate. Maybe, it’s never been fully closed, but when Ravel Morrison’s scored a superb solo goal for West Ham today…bloggers, tweeters and forum posters were out in force.
“We can’t afford to lose Januzaj the way we lost Pogba and Morrison…”
“United cocked up in letting Pogba and Morrison go…”
“Fergie should have just paid Pogba whatever he wanted…”
“Is there a buy-back clause?”
As a consequence, I thought I would share my understanding of the facts, why I believe Alex Ferguson was 100% correct in letting both players move on and why the Januzaj situation is very different.
So…Paul Pogba…let’s talk about what really happened…
- Pogba came to the club via Le Havre under some controversy with the French club calling ‘foul’ in our transfer dealings. The fact that UEFA negated Le Havre’s claim put the matter to rest. But Pogba had only been with Le Havre for a short period of time…something he had done with all his previous junior clubs. Track record?
- Immediately at Academy level (while some people may disagree with the definition of ‘youth product’…a debate I will leave for another day…he played in our Academy and is regarded as an Academy product) he showed outstanding ability on the pitch and was destined for a fine future in the game.
- Pogba had an outstanding 2010/11 season helping us win the FA Youth Cup and was a major ‘potential’ talent alongside Ravel Morrison. Both players were standouts in a very, very good side. They had other good players around them that allowed them both to showcase their skills.
- The following season, 2011/12, his form in the reserves was very average. He would have one very good game, followed by an average game, then he was a virtual passenger in the next. Consistency is critical the higher up the ladder you play. Many players have fallen by the way…not because they weren’t talented…but because they were inconsistent.
- Alex Ferguson recognised the need to test Pogba at a higher level, give him a taste of first team football and see how he reacted under more significant pressure. The manager gave him a run out in all three League Cup games that term and he did ok without doing anything brilliant. In fact, in the games against Leeds and Aldershot we were winning quite comfortably and it was a real chance for his to excel…something he didn’t do. He showed glimpses of his talent and was certainly one to watch.
- This brings us nicely to the Blackburn game. Before the match Pogba has been quoted as saying “I told Ferguson I was ready and that he should pick me…”. During the Christmas period we were suffering from terrible injury problems and Ferguson played an experienced international midfielder in Ji Sung Park and took a gamble on Rafael as Carrick played centre half. When it didn’t pay off he brought on more experience at half-time with Anderson making an appearance. Pogba had three substitute appearances behind him and was putting in average performances in the reserves. There was no logical reason why the manager would have started him and if anyone should have been annoyed that Rafael was preferred it was Anderson. Secondly, I wonder how Alex Ferguson reacted at being told who should be playing and who should not by an inexperienced 18 year-old? Interestingly, the game needed a goal and after bringing on Anderson to strengthen midfield…a logical conclusion…Ferguson then brought on Will Keane in a bid to get an equaliser. No-one will ever know the reasons behind Ferguson’s selection that day…maybe he was testing Pogba’s attitude or maybe he just thought the young Frenchman wasn’t ready.
- Ferguson offered Pogba a new contract but the agent wanted a ‘guarantee’ of first team football and a minimum number of first team starts. Ferguson (like most managers) couldn’t guarantee any player a first team place so why would he do so with an inexperienced 18 year-old? You only need to look at how he dropped Wayne Rooney last season to understand that there are no guarantees in football…nor in life come to that matter.
- Ferguson then gave Pogba more first team opportunities in the league and in Europe. In March he made three successive substitute appearances for 20, 30 and 35 minutes each, respectively, as Ferguson gradually introduced him to the ‘hurly-burly’ of first team football. However, the youngster still decided not to sign a contract even though the manager assured him he would get more chances during 2012/13 regardless of his poor showing for the reserves during 2011/12. In addition, in his time on the pitch he was just ok…nothing he did particularly stood out…but you could see the makings of a fine player.
- I repeat…in those first team outings he showed ‘glimpses’ of his talent and potential but was hardly running games.
- At the end of the season Pogba’s agent spoke to numerous clubs and the player and his agent decided a move to Juventus would be better. Only they know why they chose to ignore United’s offer.
- Ferguson once again spoke to the player who refused to budge
- The player moved to Italy.
So, that’s basically it.
I spoke to another agent who looks after youth players at the time and in their opinion Pogba was ‘badly advised’ and the United offer was ‘in line with other players of the same age, experience and potential’.
So either he or his agent was asking for ‘guarantees’ that were not forthcoming – understandably – and Ferguson was reluctant to give someone a start in an important league game whose form didn’t merit it. In addition, breaking wage and pay structures causes all sorts of problems throughout the club.
Some people have also mentioned that Pogba was upset that Scholes returning put him further back in the queue. When Tom Cleverley was asked about Scholes return…he said he was ‘delighted because he had the opportunity of learning from him…’
An interesting difference in attitude compared to that of Pogba. Fundamentally he left because he/his agent were impatient and wanted to dictate terms to the club.
Other more famous players have tried that in the past and got nowhere.
Finally, imagine if the club tripled his wages (or whatever) and guaranteed him 30 starts. Then his form dipped…or he didn’t progress the way everyone had hoped. Playing in the English league is a million miles away from Italian football. What do we do then? His contract would say we HAD to play him. What a ludicrous situation.
Pogba just didn’t want to play for us so the club couldn’t keep him. He was out of contract and you need two parties to sign a new deal. You can’t lose something you never had. We never had his total commitment to our football club.
Now…Ravel Morrison…what a player! His story is much simpler.
In all my years watching youth football you can rarely say “he is a cert…!”
Norman Whiteside was a cert. Ryan Giggs was a cert. Paul Scholes was a cert.
Ravel Morrison was one of the most talented footballers I have ever seen come through the system. Having joined the club at seven years old, a self-confessed Arsenal and Thierry Henry fan, he was special from the start. By the time I started watching him at 13/14 he could do everything.
His talent is unquestionable….he was a ‘cert’.
Unfortunately for the young Mancunian, his problems off the pitch were worrying. Coming from a severely fractured upbringing his teenage years were a catalogue of personal misdemeanors. I won’t go into detail but an average Google search will show reports of gangland fights, witness intimidation, theft, violence, periods of truancy from the club, refusal to train, amongst other episodes, all of which left the lad with a criminal record.
And it was getting worse.
The club tried getting senior professionals such as Rio Ferdinand to help as a role model. They put him is stable digs with other families. They gave him psychological counseling. When everyone had given up on Ravel, Alex Ferguson still wanted to give him another chance…so aware of his precocious talent.
Unfortunately, the type of behaviour being ‘allowed’ or at least being ‘accepted’ was causing problems amongst many of the junior players.
“Why should I come into training if he doesn’t?”
The club is always bigger than any individual and Ferguson eventually decided to transfer him to another club. A change of scenery was probably best for both parties.
So, two highly talented youngsters with exceptional potential were both unable to make the grade at United for two very different reasons. Both were given chances in the first team with Morrison looking the more comfortable at that level.
Which brings us to Adnan Januzaj.
Firstly, the Belgian teenager of Albanian heritage has none of the off the field issues of Morrison, nor does he have the inconsistency of display or attitudinal issues of Pogba.
When he arrived at the club as a skinny 16 year-old in March 2011, his talent was easily recognised. The drop of a shoulder, the short burst of pace, the ball seemingly tied to his boot-laces and the complete nerve-less-ness. So similar in fact to a young Belfast teenager who arrived at the club 50 years earlier.
Januzaj worked his way through the U/18’s and was included in the 2011/12 Youth team before injury curtailed his campaign. The following term saw him progress further as he started to ‘fill out’ and once again saw Youth Cup action versus Burnley in December 2012.
It was a major turning point.
United put in a woeful second half display and Alex Ferguson went into the changing room after the game giving Januzaj in particular the full force of his invective. The manager made it clear that he thought the youngster was ‘coasting’, ‘wasting his talent’ and it was the display of a ‘pussy’. He was told he would be elevated into the U/21’s and he was expected to show exactly what he could do.
The transformation was instant. His displays for the second string were consistently impressive – consistent being the key word – while he also matured off the pitch. He was rewarded at the end of the season when he was named on the bench for Alex Ferguson’s last ever game in charge.
How poignant would it have been if the teenager also became the Scot’s last debutant?
But here is the real difference between Pogba, Morrison and Januzaj…when he got his first team chance he took it.
Januzaj looked good on the pre-season tour. He looked even better in Rio Ferdinand’s Testimonial. He made his competitive debut in the Charity Shield and kept progressing. So when United were looking for a spark in Saturday’s game against Sunderland Januzaj stepped up and made the difference. His first goal was great movement off the ball as much as a clinical finish. His lack of celebration was a sign of his mental toughness. His second strike was a touch of class…beautifully executed…a joy to watch.
Januzaj has made it tough for Moyes to ignore him. He has put greater power into his negotiation kitbag. His performance on the pitch, and his attitude off of it, has allowed him (and his advisors) to lay down the gauntlet to the club. Something neither Pogba nor Morrison were able to do.
We have the best record in the football league of bringing kids through and giving youngsters a chance. We don’t need to look in the mirror at all when it comes to youth development. However, with his contract terminating at the end of this season Januzaj has created a sense of urgency I’ve never seen before at our club…and for once I am with the majority…Manchester United Football Club…David Moyes…just get him signed!
Finally, I hope that Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison have fine careers in the game and go on to fulfill their potential. But they play for other clubs now and I think it’s time for supporters to move on…there is more talent on our doorstep to get excited about.