Heart Of Football

Once more, Manchester United are lifted by wings of youth

Louis van Gaal is still standing. Jose Mourinho hasn't, yet, talked his way into Old Trafford. And, hey, should Manchester United win at West Bromwich Albion today, who is to say that the Red Devils will not after all qualify for the Champions League?

All of the above, aside from the West Brom angle because history tells us Man United have not lost there since 1984, contradicts the way things were being written barely one month ago.

What has happened since then?

Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and others, have wound back the clock to the time when United were synonymous with giving youth a chance.

Rashford and Borthwick-Jackson are Manchester boys who, as one United youth coach put it, have shown exciting things "while growing into their bodies".

Marcus Rashford's blooming is Man United manager Louis van Gaal's just reward for being willing to give youth a chance. Whether he goes on to fulfil his potential will be up to both men. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Fosu-Mensah, who turned 18 in January, is an Amsterdammer out of the Ajax school. United had to beat Manchester City and Inter Milan for his signature, but with his height and power, his quickness and eye for a pass out of defence with both feet, he has the makings of a top-class centre-half.

The van Gaal connection is obvious. He cut his managerial teeth as a youth coach at the famed Ajax academy, and then the first team, where he shocked AC Milan's then all-powerful team by putting a teenager, Patrick Kluivert, into the attack during the 1995 Champions League final. Kluivert, a substitute, scored the only goal.

So, I'm guessing, it is Rashford whose name you are familiar with. Scorers gain instant recognition, defenders take a while longer to draw acclaim.

The four goals that make him Man United's third youngest scorer of all time, were born of instinct, of fearless lack of hesitation, of movement and opportunism. You cannot teach all of those qualities. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Rashford excites onlookers the way Michael Owen did, or Gary Lineker did, when they first burst onto the scene.

But two things have thrust them into the fore at United.

One is necessity: With 13 injured players (which some say is due to van Gaal's strenuous training sessions) the club had little option but to dip into their youth resources.

The other is the willingness to dare. That has been a credo at Old Trafford since Matt Busby rebuilt the place, and the team, on the wings of his famous "Busby Babes" in the 1950s.

Indeed, there was an echo of that earlier this season when Paul McGuinness, the coach who made that comment about boys growing into their bodies, was at the club.

McGuinness is the son of Wilf McGuinness whom Busby put into his midfield at the age of 17. Wilf was kept on as a part of the coaching staff when injury terminated his career at 22, and his son Paul spent 24 years in the academy and youth sections of United until he left the club last month.

That followed a root-and-branch overhaul of the youth system which resulted in Nicky Butt - a home-grown United player of the Ryan Giggs-Paul Scholes-Neville brothers era - being put in charge of the youth system.

Almost by accident, certainly out of necessity, the turnaround in United's season has come on the wings of youth.

Van Gaal took on the media this weekend when he said: "Now, I have read that Rashford is saving me. No, no, Rashford is thanks to my policy, and the club of course. You saw that we did not sign anyone in January, that is because we knew what was coming."

Even he could not have known what an impact young Rashford would spring on him. Two weeks ago, he was a mere understudy, limbering up with the big stars before United's second leg against the Danish team FC Midtjylland in the Europa League.

Then Anthony Martial felt pain in his hamstring, and at 20 minutes' notice, Rashford replaced him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Two goals against Midtjylland, and two more against Arsenal last Sunday, sent Rashford into a higher stratosphere.

He is indeed growing into his body. He stands at 1.80m and looks leggy and lean in that frame. But the four goals that make him United's third-youngest scorer of all time, were born of instinct, of fearless lack of hesitation, of movement and opportunism.

You cannot teach all of those qualities. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Rashford excites onlookers the way Michael Owen did, or Gary Lineker did, when they first burst onto the scene.

Being in the right place at the right time is a knack. Remaining level-headed to shoot from eight or 10 metres while all around you hesitate is a gift.

Maintaining both, and being given the opportunity to develop understanding is down to the individual, and to all those coaches who in the growing years have worked with Rashford - or maybe had the wisdom to leave well alone.

Van Gaal said that his instruction to young Marcus halfway through the Midtjylland debut was to stay within the penalty zone, and the goals would come.

That, from a 64-year-old coach to an 18-year-old striker, is priceless.

How it develops from here on is also at van Gaal's discretion. He could start the wunderkind again this evening, or keep him on the bench now that Martial is fit and ready to return.

Meanwhile, fame and fortune are rushing towards the "boy".

Roy Hodgson, the England manager, has already been asked if Rashford is under surveillance with Euro 2016 just months away. Hodgson replied that he has been keeping an eye on Rashford in the youth set-up, and wouldn't rule anything out.

The 18-year-old has spent exactly half his years under United's wing, having started off as a five-year-old at one of Manchester's junior clubs, Fletcher Moss Rangers.

The exploits of the past fortnight have reportedly pushed United to offer to tear up his £1,500 (S$2,930)-a-week contract, and replace it with £15,000 per week, plus bonus money for first-team appearances. And while Rashford's family has handled his contracts so far, the big sharks are lining up to be his agent from here on.

How nice of them. I am not privy to how van Gaal talks to young players, or as to exactly how long he will be manager. But Rashford, van Gaal and United are in this together, for all their benefits.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline 'Once more, Manchester United are lifted by wings of youth'. Subscribe