VISITS_Manchester United

 

INVITED TO UNITED

Thanks to Mark Dempsey, a Manchester United Academy trainer, and former United player, an invitation was extended for me to be a guest of the club for 5 days to observe their famous youth academy which has been responsible for developing some of the worlds most recognizable and exciting players such as Paul Scholes, Phil and Gary Neville, Wes Brown, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and David Beckham to name a few. The Academy has youth teams from U9 through U21.


Youth development has been the cornerstone of success at Manchester United. The principles upon which the Manchester United Youth Academy is founded are not new at the club. From the days of Sir Matt Busby and the Busby Babes, in the 1950's, to the more recent historic successes of Sir Alex Ferguson with the 1992 Youth team, featuring many of the present first team players, the Club has always set out a vision to develop the most talented young soccer players who will ultimately play in the Club's first team, and, in many cases go on to play for England.

The academy has a number of aims which are inter-related and cannot be reached independently. For example the ultimate aim of producing players for Manchester United's first team cannot be reached unless the primary aim of making soccer fun is not maintained along the way.

Also, without enjoyment the third major aim of the academy, producing players/people with high personal standards cannot be reached. The ultimate aim is to produce first team and international players but the primary aim is to make soccer fun. The academy coaches believe that without the vital ingredient of enjoyment the players will not progress. They increase the players enjoyment of the game by:

 

-Improving technique and understanding: As players improve in the basic techniques of the game, passing and receiving the ball, dribbling, crossing and shooting,      tackling and heading, and the more they understand when to use each technique, the more skillful they become and their enjoyment increases.

 

-Improving teamwork: Another way the academy increases enjoyment of the game is through interactions with teammates with skillful and imaginative play. A further aim of the academy is to improve understanding of teamwork and the role of each position in the team. At the younger age groups especially the players play different positions to improve their overall play and knowledge. It is not until their physical and mental characteristics develop fully that their best position can be accurately identified.

 

The Manchester United Academy is just as intent on producing players with what they refer to as 'High Personal Standards'. The academy feels that High Personal Standards are required if the boys are to progress as players but that they also apply to many other professions and hopefully the boys will maintain these standards as part of their general life style in years to come. The academy attempts to produce these standards in the following areas:

 

-Discipline Disciplined behavior both on and off the field is expected and also that the players always represent the club in the correct manner showing respect to officials, opponents, supporters and hosts and guests all the time. Players and their parents are asked to sign an agreement to comply with the Football Academy Code of Conduct.

 

-discipline in timekeeping and dress

 

-discipline in practice: taking control of their own development by hours of repetition in practice of all the techniques of the game.

 

-discipline in taking instruction: by concentrating and listening to coaches.

 

-discipline in working within a team: by playing their role within the team.

 

-discipline in maintaining a healthy lifestyle: by paying attention to the correct levels of training, rest and nutrition.

 

-Social Interaction- The academy feels that a number of ingredients go into making a successful soccer player such as fitness, technique and understanding. Another vital area is personality and how a player reacts in a game, with the team, or to certain situations. Improved social interaction of the player is another aim of the academy. Encouraging teamwork means improving communication skills, leadership, unselfishness, and competitiveness, which are required in life as well as soccer.

 

-Understanding Health and Fitness The academy believes that having an understanding of health and fitness is important to becoming a professional soccer player. The players and their parents are given lectures and instruction in the areas of nutrition, growth and development, procedures when injured, principles of training, hygiene, health and safety and mental preparation.

 

The academy staff stresses to the parents that it is important that all players have a balance between playing, training, school activities and rest. For the physical and mental development of the players it is vital that they do not or train if they are tired and have participated in school games or activities. Parents are expected to support the club in educating the players in the need to be disciplined in the balance between playing and resting.


THE CLIFF

 

I arrived in Manchester on Wednesday morning and was picked up at the airport by Mark Dempsey, who coaches the Manchester United U14 Academy team. Our first stop was The Cliff - the legendary home of the Manchester United Youth Academy. The facility itself consists of an administration building, a full-size pitch with grandstand, and an indoor training facility. We toured the administration building first which houses a physiotherapy room, the assistant Academy Director's office (which, up until two years ago was the office of Sir Alex Ferguson, the head coach of Manchester United), a small cafeteria which overlooks the outdoor field, a weight training room, and changing rooms. Some of the greatest players to have ever played at United spent their formative years at The Cliff.

 

The indoor training building houses a slightly-smaller-than-full-size artificial playing surface. As you walk through the carpeted lobby past sofas and administrative office, towards the door leading to the training field, you notice a sign stating that parents and spectators are not permitted through to the training area. What was once astro-turf has been recently replaced by the new softer, thicker synthetic grass.

There just happened to be a training session going on by two academy staff members for a visiting Australian U15 regional select team from Queensland. Mark is pleasantly surprised because his U14 academy team is scheduled to play them in a friendly match the next night, Thursday, and this will give him a chance to scout the competition . Ross, the Academy trainer doing the session, is working on defensive shape with the group. As the Australians knock the ball around the field Mark sees that the group is of a decent standard and commented that the friendly should be a good experience for his team considering they are a year younger. I commented on the size of the Australians as they seem larger than average for 15 year olds but Mark is not overly concerned. I can only assume that his team is very, very good or very, very big.

 

Along the wall by the door that leads into the training area you find all the equipment you would need to run a session: various colored pinnies (which they refer to as 'bibs'), balls, various sized cones and goals, etc. There are already two full size goals out on the field. I noticed 4 full size goals painted on the walls which would allow for two small-sided games to be played simultaneously across the width of the field. Also, ball-sized targets are painted just inside the 4 corners of these painted goals so that players could practice free kicks.

 


LITTLETON ROAD

 

From The Cliff we headed to Littleton Road, another academy training facility that includes a modest administrative building, 4 excellent full-size fields, and two 'baby pitches', where the youngest academy teams train. Littleton Road, which is hidden within a residential neighbor hood in Manchester, is where you will find most of the academy teams training and playing during the milder months of the year.

 


A TRAINING SESSION AT THE CLIFF

 

After grabbing some dinner it was back to The Cliff to observe two MU Academy training sessions. Arriving a bit late, we found the 90 minute session with the U12 Academy team had already begun. The session was being run not by the head coach but by the recently appointed Manchester United Academy Technical Director, or Skills Development Coach, Dutchman Rene Meulensteen. Rene, who for years worked closely with Weil Coerver developing the famous and respected 'Coerver Method', was appointed directly by Alex Ferguson to take special responsibility for evaluating and improving the youth professionals over-all technical ability.

 

It was a very good session. The content was outstanding and the progression was excellent. As we arrived the team had already completed their warm-up and stretching and was involved in a 2-v-1 dribbling exercise that included goalkeepers. After a pass and an overlap, in a grid approximately 10 x 15 yds, 2 field players would attempt to get past a goalkeeper positioned at the center of the grid. The player on the ball could take the keeper on 1-v-1 or utilize the support player by executing a give and go to beat the keeper. The goalkeeper would try to stop the dribbler by first isolating him from his support and then sliding low as if smothering a breakaway. If the 2 field players beat the keeper they would immediately pass the ball to the next pair of attackers waiting on the opposite endline and the exercise would begin again. A resting goalkeeper would enter the grid for each new attack.

 


OLD TRAFFORD and THE MANCHESTER UNITED MUSEUM

 

On Thursday morning we traveled across the city for my first look at Old Trafford - the magical home of Manchester United. The first thing I noticed was the large number of cars in the parking lot on a Thursday morning. Mark told me that Old Trafford is always a busy place due to the 'Megastore' (where you will find everything from Man U jerseys to hats to underwear to calendars to pencils), the Museum and stadium tours, and regular club business. Although there was not enough time to take the official stadium tour I did take time to go through the Museum which takes up three floors of the recently built massive North Stand. It was awe-inspiring to be witness to decades of Manchester United memories and memorabilia, .the hall of fame with images of the best of the best such as Dennis Law, Bryan Robson, Eric 'the King' Cantona, Nobby Stiles, and Mark Hughes, to name a few, a room dedicated to the Munich air disaster, a wall dedicated to the Academy and the great players who came through it...the incredible trophy room which included several of the Premiership trophies and the European Cup, as well as, hundreds of other match, cup and tournament awards. In the hall leading out of the museum there is a wall that lists every player that ever played for the first team at United and the year they made their debut. I found Mark's name. He was very humble about it.

 


MUFC ACADEMY U14's vs AUSTRALIA

 

After some lunch we headed out for Mark's U14 teams match against the Australians. The match was played at a regional English FA field about an hour from the club so we made our way to Manchester United's new Carrington Training Centre to meet the bus that would take us to the game. Because it was a friendly, the entire team was not required to take the bus so it turned out to be only part of the team, Mark, Tony Whelan, Mandy, one of the Academy physios (athletic trainer), Paul McGuinness, assistant Academy director, and myself. For league matches all players are required to travel to the match on the team bus. Parents are not permitted on the bus. The hour long ride allowed me some time to speak with the players. I found them to be well mannered, well spoken, and respectful. They politely answered my questions and then had a few for me. They were very inquisitive, asking about important American topics such as Allen Iverson and Jennifer Lopez.

 

Upon arrival at the field, the staff and players were escorted inside a building that housed changing rooms, class rooms and regional FA offices. The rest of the team was already waiting in the team room. Each player shook hands with the coaches before being directed out to 'walk the pitch' before getting changed. Somewhat of a custom for visiting teams, they casually walked from goal to goal evaluating the overall quality and condition of the pitch. Despite less than favorable weather over the previous few days the field was in very good condition. It was about 6:30, night had fallen, and there was a chill in the English air. Returning to the team room the players found each of their uniforms laid out on the benches that wrapped around the locker room.

 

For this match they would wear the traditional red Man U jersey, black shorts, and black socks - uniforms identical to that of the first team. As the players sat and waited to hear the lineup and Mark's pre-game talk the only thing that could be heard was some light nervous tapping of cleats on the concrete floor. Once the lineup was given, the coach's pre-game was simply to enjoy yourselves. He mentioned that game under the lights would be good experience for them as most of their matches are played on weekends during the day. He also said playing an older team would be good for them as well. The players were focused and quiet as they headed out for their warm-up. Mark invited me to join him on the bench.

 

An assistant coach took the players through every step of the warm-up. He led them in some static stretching in a group in front of the bench, then an active jog across the field for more stretching at the opposite touchline. The group crossed the field 4 times before the stretching was completed. The Academy team is of average size for U14's and as Mark watched the Australians hit the field he commented that it must be a different team than one we observed, the day before, because he did not recall them being so big. I assured him it was the same group of players. He seemed concerned. Later we would find out that some of their players were as old as 16, with one or two maybe even being 17. After warming up, Mark took the team onto the field for some short sprinting. Players would line up single file in front of Mark, 4 at a time. He would yell commands such as 'up', and the players would jump, 'down', and the players would quickly touch the ground with their hands. He would then quickly yell right or left and the group would have to sprint in the appropriate direction, racing each other for approximately 10 yards. The activity kept the group loose mentally, and some laughs were had by both coaches and players when a player would sprint in the wrong direction. Things really got interesting when Mark instructed the group to do the opposite of what he said. When I asked Mark about the activity later he said it was good for the players before a match because it kept the players focused, but loose, and helped the players be mentally ready for anything that might happen. Once this was done the team went out onto the field with about 5 balls and knocked them around as a group. If a player was open he would call for a ball.

 

The goalkeepers warmed up separately in and around the goalmouth with an Academy goalkeeping coach. One of the two goalkeepers was a not a regular Academy player but a player at the end of a 6 week trial period with the club. Without prior knowledge of this I noted that he appeared nervous in his warm-up. All in all, there were 6 Academy staff members on the bench for the match, plus myself. After the start of the match, Les Kershaw, the Academy Director, and Derek Langley, the Academy's Local Recruitment Officer showed up and watched the match from the spectator side of the field. I would say about 300 spectators were in attendance. Not a bad turnout, I thought, for a U14 friendly.

The Academy team took the lead within the first 3 minutes of the match after taking advantage of a ball that dropped in the box following a cross form the left wing. The player that  crossed the ball was a small  red headed player named James. James was far from the biggest player on the pitch that night but was one of the best players in the match. He had a silk touch on the ball, speed to match, and a great left foot  -  a effective combination for a winger.  The Australian marking him was considerably larger. Had he caught James it may not have been pretty but he was more than the Aussie could handle (who was not a bad player by any means) but James proved to be an elusive target. He was just plain fun to watch.

 

The Academy team did quite well against the foreigners, holding a lion's share of the ball possession but the Australians were able to equalize the playing field with their size and speed. It was a good match up. Man U went into the locker room holding a 1-0 lead but Mark had his concerns and warned the team against getting to comfortable in the second half. In particular he advised the defenders to move the ball quicker out of the back and to not get caught holding the ball at the top of their box - they had a few close calls in the first half. Paul McGuinness, assistant Academy Director, spoke directly with Ashley, one of the teams best players, an attacking midfielder, about getting more involved in the game and working harder to switch the point of attack. Ashley was playing to deep in the midfield so Paul took time with Ashley 1 on 1 to explain what the coaches expected from him.

Tony observed that the game under the lights, and playing up, had created a welcomed 'edge' to that match. He noted that to many of the youth teams league matches, held during the day, lacked enough intensity.

 

The Australians made it more difficult for the Academy team in the second half. Their coach had given sound advice as it was easy to see that they were exerting more of their physical advantage. The high technical level of the U14's allowed them to compensate and they continued to create chances, but without the desired result. They had at least three chances to score in the second half to expand their advantage over the older team but could not convert. Each opportunity, however, was an exciting near miss. The Australian coach gave another piece of valuable advice to his players, which led to the equalizer...pressure Man U's backfield.  Despite Mark's warning to his team, on one unfortunate occasion, one of the center backs got caught holding the ball a bit to long and his late pass was picked off and the Australians took advantage. The game ended a draw 1-1. Following the game a  picture was taken that included both teams.

 

One thing that struck me was how genuinely positive the coaching staff was with the players during the game. When a player did something well, chances were very good that at least one of the coaches would compliment him on it from the touchline. It became suddenly clear to me that it had to be a major reason why the confidence of these young players was so high. The Academy players do not perform without error but the coaches are not overly concerned with mistakes that happen during the match. They don't see any point in reliving a mistake at that particular moment. Back in the locker room after the match the coaching staff was happy with the teams performance and positive with the players. No mention was made of the defensive error and  there was no 'I told you so'. After showering, both teams were invited up to the facility dining room for a post game meal of Lancashire Hot Pot (something like beef pot pie)  -  traditional English fare. I have learned in my travels around Europe that just about every club, including amateur, has a club house that includes a dining area and bar. The walls are usually covered with the club's history and victories and it is where you will find most fans during half time. It is customary to invite the visiting team in for a post game meal, snack, or at the very least, a beverage. The players sat with their teammates as they ate but the two coaching staffs mingled and talked about the match.



CARRINGTON TRAINING CENTRE

On Friday morning I was scheduled to observe the first team train at Manchester United's new Carrington Training Centre. If Old Trafford is the 
magical home of Man U, then Carrington is the mythical one. Even before visiting England, I had heard about the new complex. But apparently not 
many people, outside of  the oldest Academy players and coaches, the first team and staff, and Carrington personnel have seen it. It has been known as "Fortress Carrington" because there is 2.4km of fencing and 30,000 trees surrounding it.

Just off a side road somewhere just outside of Manchester, we turn down a one-lane road and pull up to a  security building where the car is stopped. Mark is quickly recognized and waived through. We travel down the wooded road for about a quarter mile before taking a left turn that brings us to another security building where again Mark is allowed to pass without having to show identification. Suddenly you find yourself at Carrington, a state of the art facility which will, for the first time, bring all the teams of Manchester United together at one location . The 70+ acre facility is still being completed.  What is completed is the main facility, primarily for the first team as well as u17 and 18 youth teams. Inside the facility there is a large synthetic playing surface, rehabilitation and physiotherapy areas, massage rooms and remedial and hydrotherapy pools. There are also squash and basketball courts sauna, steam, weight rooms, a private dining area for players and staff, as well as, conference rooms, offices and classrooms. Outside, half of the 14 full-size fields have been completed. The adjacent indoor facility for the youth is currently under construction and will house state of the art strength training facilities, changing rooms, classrooms, a leisure area for parents, and offices 
as well as a full size indoor playing field. When completed, Carrington will have carried a price tag of over 10 million dollars.


OBSERVING THE FIRST TEAM TRAIN

Training sessions are not usually open to the public. Access to the outdoor training fields is only through the lobby of the new building. When we arrived the 1st team was already training. Since it was the day before a match the session was light. The team would play Chelsea tomorrow, Saturday, and the starting 11 was playing against the substitutes. United fans are always anxious to find out who will be in the starting 11, which is usually not announced to the public until the morning of the match. One way to find out ahead of time is to get into the training session the day before, which is not easy to do. Watching the team play, Mark and I were surprised to see Roy Keane, United's captain, playing in the back four. His primary, and best,  position is in the midfield. The team has been struggling lately and they have found themselves in an embarrassing  7th place. Their problems have been primarily in the backfield since Dutch International Jaap Stam was released by the club after releasing his autobiography that disrespected the club. After winning 7 out of the 9 last Premiership titles,  injury and a string of poor performances has produced low confidence within the first team. Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the greatest mangers of all time, has struggled to find the right combination in his backfield. Moving Keane back is obviously an attempt to shore up the back line.

The goalkeepers, Barthez and van der Gouw, are working separately with a goalkeeper coach in a special keeper training area. The athleticism of these two athletes is incredible.

Once the field players are finished with their exercise all the players, including goalkeepers, move to a small grid that is 30 x 40 with team 
benches laid on their side and used as goals. I am told that the game they are now playing is a tradition that has been carried over from the days even before Alex Ferguson. The game is 11 v 11, old guys against the young guys, and it is mostly for fun. 30 v 40 is an extremely tight area for 22 professional players but the skills were amazing. Similar to an exercise I saw the youth players take part in on Wednesday, it was easy to see the 1st teamers truly had a good time playing this game. Dwight Yorke never moved and Paul Scholes was all over the place and scored 3 goals in about 12 minutes. The goals (benches) were no higher than 12-15 inches but it didn't stop the players from hitting rockets when the opportunity presented itself. The opposition was merciless on any player who missed the target. The young players won and, just like the youth players, many of the players ended the session with smiles on their faces. One player who was not smiling was David Beckham who stepped out of the game early, apparently with some sort of injury.

Following the session, Mark and I went inside to meet with Assistant Academy Director Paul McGuinness to talk about, among other things, the continued support of YPT's Residence Program, as well as, some other possible state-side development projects. We started out in Carrington's private dining area where Fabian Barthez, Roy Kean, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had just sat down for lunch. After a cup of tea ( it was England-what can I say.) we moved into the players lounge and a more comfortable setting to continue our discussions. Out in the carpeted hall, just outside the lounge, there is a thick oak shelf built into the wall that runs about 10 feet long and 18 inches wide, and sits just above waist high. Holes have been cut into the  shelf, where soccer balls are placed each day along with player photo cards, Man U jerseys, and several permanent markers. As the players walk to and from training they are  required to sign whatever is on the shelf - usually charity requests for autographed items. By the number of items on this shelf, it is obvious they get many requests each day. From a sports memorabilia point of view, it would be difficult to estimate the cumulative value of the items that were laid out. Since practice was over, everything had already been signed. I know what you are thinking...and no, I didn't.

 


TEN MINUTES WITH SIR ALEX FERGUSON


Personally, I am not a star-struck individual. When I visit professional clubs around the world I am often in situations where I am in the presence of high-profile personalities but I am there as a professional, to watch them work and to learn. I am not interested in getting my picture taken with them or getting their autograph. I respect their privacy and I believe they appreciate it. There are fanatics in England, and around the world, who would go to great lengths to get as close to United players and coaches as I did, but in truth,  I am indifferent to it. It is my pleasure to meet and to speak with them, but it doesn't go beyond that. There was only one person I was hoping to cross paths with while at Carrington that day, and that was Sir Alex Ferguson. Like Phil Jackson, or Knute Rockne, from a  coaching perspective, it is hard not to be inspired by what this manager has been able to accomplish at such a high level. But unlike Jackson and Rockne, Alex Ferguson's commitment and contribution to youth player development, through the establishment of the Manchester United Academy, is unrivaled in the sporting world.  His own words state it best: 

'Everyone and everything at United is based on dedication to building an entire football club, not just a team. Nowhere is it more present than unearthing and nurturing talented young schoolboys. They form the lifeblood of future success and the club is committed to ensuring the best for it's Academy recruits. There are few managers that have had the courage to invest so much resource and effort in developing the talent of it's youth squad. Thankfully this has never been the case for me  -  in fact the exact opposite. Throughout the whole of my football career both in Scotland and here at Manchester United I have believed in my young players. In fact, if you look at the history of the club, we have produced more top players than any other club in the country, and this is what has created the spirit of Manchester United. But as always, we don't rest on our laurels. This year we have seen the opening of a brand new state-of-the-art training complex to rival any other club. Built entirely for the training requirements of players of all levels, it provides the latest training, remedial, and rehabilitation facilities. Manchester United has always been known for it's pioneering ways, and our continued commitment to developing home-grown new young talent has not changed. We have, and will continue to invest heavily in all support staff and facilities for the overall well-being of the youngsters." 

As I was heading to the door to leave the players lounge I came to the realization that I had missed my opportunity with Sir Alex while out on the training field but I felt it would have been inappropriate to approach him there. I thought I might cross paths with him while inside the building but it was not to be. But then a few minutes later, as if it were fate, as Mark and I entered the lobby area to leave the building, there he was at the reception desk talking with someone! As we were about to pass him, he finished his conversation and turned to face me and I was greeted by a warm Scottish smile and hello. I extended my hand and introduced myself as an American who had been invited to observe the Academy for a few days. He shook my hand and asked me how I was enjoying my time at the club.

 

After answering him I asked him if he had any knowledge of the state of the game in America. He said he was aware of upwards of some 14-million playing the game here and was also aware of the high standard of the some of the young players that were emerging from the states. I asked him if he had any advice for a country who was struggling to get a grip on it's potential. He stressed the importance of establishing an effective academy system that would bridge the gap between the enormous youth population playing the game and the newly formed professional ranks. He eluded to the reality that our younger national teams (U16, 17 and 18) are finding more overall success than our full national team. Something, he said, was being lost after age 17/18. His point was, I believe, that while players in other countries at 16, 17 , and 18 are signing contracts with professional clubs our 17 year olds are going off to college where, to often, the level of competition and training is not far removed from the high school level. But that, my friends, is a conversation for another time. He also placed great importance on not losing focus on what is truly important at the early development stage which is the refinement of all the fundamental techniques of the game. 

 

Mr. Ferguson graciously answered a few more of my questions but I was sensitive to taking to much of his time. I have to say though, he certainly did not seem to be in a hurry and gave me more than my fair share of his day.  We had almost nothing in common except for the passion we shared for developing young talent properly and I think he sensed that. In conclusion, I told him that I knew he was retiring from coaching at the end of the season and I thanked him for everything he had done for the game. I feel he truly appreciated that. He excused himself for a minute, returned, signed a copy of his book for me, put his hand on my shoulder offered his condolences for the lives lost in the September 11th attacks and wished me a safe trip back to the states. It was quite a moment for me - without question the brightest of my trip.
 
Later that night I joined the Academy staff on their annual Christmas outing. About 30 coaches went out to a local restaurant for dinner, at the clubs expense, of course. I was a guest of the Academy and was not allowed to pay for my dinner, which I very much appreciated. It was a great opportunity for me to spend time with some of the best youth trainers in Europe. They were all incredibly nice people who made me feel as if we had known each other for 20 years.  I am sure I am not the first coach from outside of England to observe the Academy  -  but they certainly made me feel like I was.

 


MANCHESTER UNITED vs CHELSEA at OLD TRAFFORD


Saturday would bring another highlight for me...seeing Manchester United play Chelsea at home at Old Trafford.  The atmosphere was absolutely incredible. You felt it as soon as you set foot in the stadium. As Man U's website says:

'When you step into the Theatre of Dreams you're walking into more than just a football stadium. It's been the focus for the passion of millions of fans around the world for nearly 90 years. All the hopes and dreams of the club have been played out here and every blade of grass on the pitch could tell a story.'

United, sitting in 7th place, were looking to turn things around and start their climb back to the top of the Premiership. Chelsea was positioned just below The Red Devils in the table and were having troubles of their own but, as any fan will tell you, Chelsea always play well when they visit Old Trafford. Unfortunately for the home side, things did not go well.

 

Even with Keane in the back their defensive deficiencies continued, Beckham was not 100% and could not finish the match, and Giggs was out with a hamstring injury. Things went from bad to worse when the game ended and United was 3 goals down. Chelsea, therefore,  moved ahead in the standings and United sunk another slot. Winning another Premiership now was practically an impossibility  -  with 15 games to go United can only lose one if they are to win the league. However, it was impressive to hear and see the supporters still supporting their team as the players left the field...obviously dejected. I learned first hand that United fans will voice their criticisms and question things they disagree with, such as line -up and substitution decisions, but they will always support their team.....always.      

 


FINAL THOUGHTS


For someone who spends a great deal of time involved in youth player development in the United States, the chance to visit an Academy the likes of Manchester United was an opportunity I will not soon forget. I do not hesitate to say I came back a better coach. It was not so much about learning drills as it was about learning how to be a professional. When I first started visiting professional clubs a few years ago it was more a technical quest for me, meaning I wanted to learn better training exercises. As I get older I find myself more interested in structure and philosophy. One of the key points of United's Academy philosophy seems to be enjoyment. Everyone involved understands that, regardless of physical and technical ability, if the players do not enjoy themselves they will not progress. United has been successful in finding qualified trainers who do not have to work at making the process enjoyable for the players. It comes natural to them  -  it's part of their personality. When you are there, you are not part of an organization...you are part of a family. Assistant Academy Director Paul McGuinness summed it up the best:

'Whilst we demand the best of players at all times both on and off the field, we do have an enormous amount of fun. There is a real sense of togetherness.'