Manchester United Academy, 2016-
When they’re away on tour together, it’s very normal for Manchester United’s academy players to eat burgers and ice creams.
We take our youngest players all over the world to play in tournaments. Often, you’ll see players at other clubs having protein shakes and cherry juice after games to aid recovery.
The United kids will have burgers and ice creams.
Why? Because they’re kids.
We make sure they understand that a balanced diet is important and they know that, later in their journeys, both diet and nutrition are going to be really important to their careers if they are going to be successful.
But when they are still children, we want them to be children before footballers. We want them to try other sports, play for the school football team and hang out with their mates. We want them to do what kids do.
We make sure things don’t get professional too soon. Yes, academies everywhere – including this one, of course – are far more professional than they were when I started out at Watford in the early 2000s At United, though, we make sure that the programmes don’t feel too professional too young.
If things were too serious too soon, the players could easily get burned out, bored or fed up with being a professional footballer before they even get to be one! If you take the joy out of playing too early, there can be consequences down the line. You can stifle creativity, limit their ability to problem-solve and, ultimately, put a ceiling on their development. I always say you have to take things slow to go fast with youth development.
There has to be balance to the work we do with young players, too. We don’t want to dominate their lives to the point that they can’t embrace their education at school or live a fulfilled childhood.
"one consistent theme throughout is that the individual is the most important thing"
Sadly, I’ve seen too many families over the years who have been in a rush and end up looking back on some of their behaviour with regret.
Football development is naturally our focus and driving force, but we want to give our kids an all-round, varied experience, and a life education they simply wouldn’t get in a normal school environment. I’ve been there when kids have got on an aeroplane for the first time, or seen the sea for the first time, or eaten a meal around a table for the first time. It’s incredibly rewarding. And it’s all because of football.
I love working in an academy, and not just because I’m at a club with such a rich history in producing young players. Yes, we work hard to keep up United’s run of having an academy graduate named in every first-team matchday squad for the past 85 years – more than 4,100 games – but this job is about far more than that.
When Alejandro Garnacho came on to make his debut against Chelsea in April 2022 (above), my phone was going crazy in my pocket. I assumed it was messages about how great Alejandro was doing. When I checked later, it was the academy staff all messaging each other about a 19-year-old we’d released the month before who had just signed a contract at another club. Everyone was delighted for Garna of course – a lot of work from some amazing people led to that moment – but we want everyone we have in the academy to succeed. For us, success comes in many different forms.
I’m in love with the game of football, but the impact you can have on the formative years of the lives of these young people is amazing. That’s definitely the main driving factor for me in my work. I get as much of a kick out of helping a young person develop and planning the development of our players over a period of many years. My world looks very different to that of the first-team staff, where planning is much shorter-term and the main focus is on results. I like to look at the bigger picture, and my role requires me to be strategic.
We work with kids from seven or eight years old right up to 19, 20, 21-year-olds who are looking to make the step up to the first team, or who are heading out for their first taste of senior football on loan. There’s massive variety in what we want from our coaches in each of the age groups.
"United was the first club to try to build a future through developing young, local players"
For the youngest players, we want them to fall in love with the game. And we also look to build some of the fundamentals of football: how to use their bodies, how to manipulate the ball, how to build relationships with their teammates on the pitch, and a bit of game-sense – an understanding of how to play football well. Success for our coaches at this age is creating happy and curious players who can’t wait to come back for the next session or get home and practise some more. It’s important to resist the temptation to treat these players like mini professionals. I was guilty of this in my early career, and I’m not sure it helped the players.
For the older kids and young adults, our focus shifts to high-level tactical work and mastering the requirements of a specific position. The players will do work in the gym, be given psychological support, and work with the performance analysts and athletic development coaches.
But one consistent theme throughout is that the individual is the most important thing. The team is simply a vehicle for individual development. Helping young people to reach their full potential is the main aim, and to do this our coaches have to create a challenging yet supportive environment. We want to create a place where players can try difficult things without fearing failure. Our coaches aren’t under pressure to win games and trophies, although that doesn’t mean we don’t try to develop a winning mentality.
United was the first club to try to build a future through developing young, local players – a history and tradition that dates back 90 years. Youth is at the heart of everything noteworthy in our history. That’s both in our highest highs and lowest moments.
In the Champions League wins, there was a core of youth products in the teams. But then also, when tragedy hit the club in 1958 with the Munich air disaster, we had to rebuild over a 10-year period through youth development. It led us to a European Cup under Sir Matt Busby in 1968.
I think, here at Manchester United, youth development has an extra dimension. Every member of staff understands the privilege we have, and we all have a sense of carrying the baton of the people who came before us. We know the greatness that we are following and want to keep the club’s tradition up. There’s pressure that comes with that – there is always going to be at a club as big as this – but it’s a huge privilege to be the one leading the department here.
"I got incredibly lucky in that I got to try my hand at just about every job they had in the Watford academy"
This job hadn’t always been my aim, though. Just like so many others, I played football to a decent level when I was younger, but I was never going to make it as a player. I started to look into what else I could do, and coaching seemed like the next best thing.
I got a degree in coaching science from John Moores University, and then I was on the inaugural science and football course they delivered. After that, I went into teaching for a few years, in which time I tried to piece together a career of coaching during school holidays and at after-school clubs, as well as working with grassroots junior teams and spending summers coaching in the USA. It was far from glamorous, and extremely hard work.
Eventually I got a part-time job at Watford, working in their community sports and education trust. That was where I really started to learn.
I ended up spending 11 and a half years at Watford. I got incredibly lucky in that I got to try my hand at just about every job they had in the academy, including head of education, coach of every age group and eventually head of academy.
I think that time was what really shaped me as a developer. I say ‘developer’ rather than ‘coach’ because I don’t really see myself as a coach any more, even though I’ve been through the process of coaching on the grass and doing my badges.
I also got very lucky with the people I got to work with. Over that time, I worked closely with Sean Dyche, Brendan Rodgers, Aidy Boothroyd, Mark Warburton, Malky Mackay and then less-known names like John Stephenson, David Dodds and Dick Bate – who I believe was one of the best coach educators in the world. The teams of staff were far smaller back then, so I was fortunate to be able to work so closely with so many talented staff and developers.
"I’m not sure the supporters will ever know how brave the plan was or how hard it was to execute"
Graham Taylor (below) also had a huge influence on me. He was key in me being given the head of academy job, which I had for my final four years at Watford. He was an incredible man. He taught a generation of staff how to treat people; about being fair; the importance of community; behaving with integrity; how to develop young people as well as players. He taught me many of the skills I use in my role today.
Naturally, given I’ve spent so long in academy football, I’ve played a part in the development of a lot of players who have gone on to succeed in the professional game.
My time at Watford was bookended by two big names. When I started, Ashley Young was breaking into the first team, with nobody aware of what was to come for him. And towards the end of my time there, a young Jadon Sancho was proving himself, and he moved to Manchester City shortly after I left. Funnily enough, I was reunited with both here at United.
One of my bugbears is when people claim to have developed players, because their progress would have been down to a vast number of people – not least the player themselves, and their parents. But if a player thinks I have contributed to their development, then that is something I’m very proud of.
Watford was brilliant at producing players for its own first team. The financial state of the club meant that was really, really important. It was in so much debt that there was some consideration put to the idea that if we stopped providing food to the players’ families at matches at Vicarage Road, we might be able to afford to bring in a certain player. There was a constant threat of administration.
We all have to give great credit to John Stephenson and Julian Winter, who had to be really brave in their commitment to youth. A lot of players and staff benefited from this faith.
"Recruiting high-potential talent is every bit as important in my role as development"
We were a Championship club that managed to punch well above its weight for years under Malky Mackay and Sean Dyche. We were playing games with eight or nine homegrown players in the starting line-up – and when I say ‘homegrown’, I’m talking players from within 10 miles of the ground.
I’m proud to have been part of the team that helped produce players like Marvin Sordell, Ross Jenkins, Lee Hodson, Sean Murray, Britt Assombalonga and many, many others. Recruitment was also hugely important, but the players we produced propped up the first team for years.
I’m not sure the supporters will ever know how brave the plan was or how hard it was to execute. It might look like an unremarkable few seasons from the outside, but I’m convinced that that period saved the club.
I wasn’t at Sheffield United for all that long – four years isn’t a long time in youth development – but I still worked with plenty of players who have gone on to succeed in the game. I caught the end of Harry Maguire’s time there. We helped Dominic Calvert-Lewin change his position to get the best out of him, and manufactured a few loans that really helped him.
We recruited David Brooks shortly after his release from City, and he was a really late developer. At 19 he looked like a 14-year-old, so he was never going to cope with under-21 football, and he was too old for youth football. We had to enter specific leagues to find ways of getting matches that would help him specifically. I was also there with Aaron Ramsdale, who we picked up after he got released by Bolton at 16. I was at his final trial game, and was part of the group that decided to sign him up. Recruiting high-potential talent is every bit as important in my role as development.
At United, we have a long line of talented players waiting in the wings, and it’s been really pleasing seeing Alejandro and Kobbie Mainoo (below) making those first steps in the last year or so. Obviously there are also more established players, like Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford, who have made the step up successfully.
"Young people shouldn’t be put on pedestals. They are children"
But I’m not afraid to say that the vast majority don’t reach our first team. So, we are always careful not to get too carried away, particularly with young players who are showing lots of potential. I’m very honest with players and families about how difficult it is to have an established career. Striving for excellence brings about an amazing amount of personal growth, and being in an academy can be life-changing and life-enriching, regardless of whether you make a debut at the end of it or not.
Some parts of the media can get ahead of themselves, and that can be a real problem. They build players up unnecessarily, so there’s an expectation on the youngsters that just isn’t healthy. There will be media outlets that run stories about a 14-year-old being the next world-beater, and then also run stories about the heartbreak that children have felt when they get dropped. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Academies are more accountable now than ever, but I think the duty of care extends beyond our walls. Parents, the media, social media companies – everyone has a role to play.
Young people shouldn’t be put on pedestals. They are children. Whether you’re a highly talented 14-year-old or not, you should be treated for what you are: a young child with a passion and a dream.
We have a duty to keep our players safe. If there’s too much information out there about a 12-year-old or their family, then you have put them at risk.
When it comes to players who aren’t going to make it, we work hard to make sure that we have good exit strategies for them, and teams of experts in place to support them through a challenging period of their life. But my overriding experience is that once the initial disappointment fades, our players will almost always look back on their time at the club fondly. Most of them would say they would do it all again in a heartbeat.
We make it our mission to ensure that all of our players leave us better off, whether they become a footballer or not. Hopefully we help them to create some memories that last a lifetime, too.
"we do everything we can to make sure our kids are ready for what comes next"
I believe we’re good at what we do, and I don’t just mean Manchester United. I think it applies across the country. I think Europe is looking on with envy at the infrastructure that Premier League teams have. It’s about time we start to celebrate the work that is being done across the country and across the leagues. We have come a long way since I started working with young players over 20 years ago. I’m certainly incredibly proud of the work we do.
I think I’ve got the best job in youth football. I certainly didn’t plot my way here consciously, but I feel very blessed to be here.
My job is so varied. No two days look the same. I could be working to recruit a new player, out on tour with a team, leading strategic meetings, supporting an injured player or sitting with a member of staff to support their ongoing development. We’ve got just short of 200 players, and people by their nature are complicated and unpredictable, so there is no typical week.
It can be unforgiving and relentless and unsociable at times, but it’s unbelievably rewarding.
Whether we’re preparing our kids for making the step up to play for United or first-team football elsewhere, or another walk of life entirely, we do everything we can to make sure they’re ready for what comes next.
This week I got a call from a player whose career is now coming to an end, and he wanted advice on how to become a coach. Another sent me a copy of the book he’d just written. Another wants to meet up to tell me about the academy he is setting up in the United States. I see instances like this as the true measure of a job well done. The job goes well beyond your time at the club.
While it’s important to me in this job to support a first team that wins things regularly, the real satisfaction is creating the best possible environment for our young footballers to develop as people and go on to succeed in life.
Author: Ali Tweedale