Ole’s out to prove he can win it with kids
SOLSKJAER FOLLOWING FERGUSON’S MODEL WITH KIDS
THE United teenagers only checked into their Nur-Sultan rooms at 5.30am yesterday.
James Garner donned a snood and Luke Shaw resembled the Michelin Man. The weather app clarified it felt like -22 degrees C upon our arrival at the hotel. The nearby Ishim River is frozen.
United supporters received a warm reception before they set foot in the sprawling capital of Kazakhstan. The Air Astana flight announced greetings to the dozens of supporters on the flight from Heathrow prior to take-off and the in-flight meal was accompanied by a small box of Kazakh chocolates. A big screen at Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport promoted tonight’s match as followers queued at passport control.
A remarkable number of United followers have made the 5,200-mile round trek. Familiar faces from Old Trafford’s south stand arrived in time for breakfast at their hotels, though some were well refreshed from the six-and-a-half hour flight.
Like the recent Europa League odysseys to Odessa and Rostov, or the minus temperatures of Vienna in 1996, this is a European away day badge of honour.
With qualification for the knockouts already assured, there is so little to glean from the tie.
The theme of youth could work in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s favour. Provided the four non-teens – Shaw,
Lee Grant, Axel Tuanzebe and Jesse Lingard – start, there will still be four debutants in an XI set to include James Garner, Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood. Nine of the starters will be academy graduates.
United are keen to make a song and dance about the upcoming 4,000th consecutive match with an academy graduate in their matchday squad.
Astana will be the 3,995th, with Everton the 4k due date at Old Trafford on December 15.
Matej Kovar, Max Taylor, Dishon Bernard, Teden Mengi, Ethan Laird,
Largie Ramazani, Ethan Galbraith, Dylan Levitt, D’mani Mellor and Arnau Puigmal – all in Kazakhstan – have never made a first-team squad before. All are guaranteed matchday roles.
Taylor is the headline inclusion, having undergone chemotherapy for testicular cancer earlier this year. Taylor, 19, has appeared twice for the Under-23s this season and his possible participation in Kazakhstan is as uplifting as the former United youngster Joe Thompson – diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma before it returned – scoring the goal to keep Rochdale in League One last year. Solskjaer decided on an inexperienced squad some time ago and Taylor was told he would be travelling to Kazakhstan last week. The Astana Arena’s kaleidoscopic haze that illuminated the wintry darkness on the drive from the airport should enrapture United’s young visitors. Galbraith, 18, has
With qualification already secured, the theme of youth could work in Solskjaer’s favour
already attained a senior Northern Ireland cap and Levitt, 19, has made the Wales bench on four occasions already.
Four United academy graduates – Jonny and Corry Evans, Craig Cathcart and Paddy McNair – are established in the Northern Ireland XI and 12 players who came through at United were listed in Euro 2016 squads.
Solskjaer has placed an emphasis on youth through external and internal talents and Greenwood has vindicated the strategy. He already has as many United goals as Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao.
All three scorers at Sheffield United were academy graduates and not since Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs ran riot against Nottingham Forest in 1996 have three United youngsters aged 22 or under struck in a league match.
The United academy is a convenient tool for Solskjaer too, as the 4,000th match approaches with the spectre of Mauricio Pochettino lurking.
The former Spurs boss has a notable track record with young players and had an unsung role in England’s passage to the World Cup semi-finals last year. United’s is more esteemed and storied than Tottenham’s.
The Astana squad evokes memories of another European away trip to Wolfsburg 10 years ago. Oliver Gill, Cameron Stewart, Magnus Eikrem and Matty James were on the bench and Oliver Norwood travelled.
Sir Alex Ferguson did not send any of the callow quartet on, for there was a little life left in old dog Michael Owen, who plundered a hat-trick.
Ferguson’s use of European dead rubbers as a breeding ground for youngsters took in Galatasaray ‘94 (David Beckham and Simon Davies), Maccabi
Haifa in 2002 (Kieran Richardson and, er, Daniel Nardiello and Mads Timm) and arguably began with Gary Neville’s career debut against Torpedo Moscow in 1992.
More recently, Jose Mourinho let Josh Harrop have his day in the sun against Crystal Palace three days before the Europa League final. Demetri Mitchell, Joel Pereira and Scott McTominay also made their full debuts and Gomes became the fourth-youngest player in United history.
The club photographer seized on the boyish buoyancy by assembling the 13 academy graduates involved for a classroom picture during the lap of honour.
United, synonymous with youth for over half a century, continue to cultivate their identity around homegrown footballers.
More teenagers are about to get their kicks.
James Garner and D’Mani Mellor during United training in Astana