When I look back on my return from retirement for Manchester United in the spring of 2012 I sometimes wonder whether coming back into the team contributed to blocking the development of young players who were hoping to break through, and one in particular.
Paul Pogba was a bright young lad who made his debut for United at the end of January that year in a game I played in against Stoke City. He left the following summer after many genuine attempts by the club to persuade him to stay, went to Juventus on a deal that was only worth a training compensation payment to United and now is one of the hottest properties in European football.
Next week, Paul’s club Juventus faces Real Madrid in a Champions League semi-final, and he might be back from injury for the second leg in Spain on 13 May. I have heard his value put at anything up to £70m. He is undoubtedly a very talented boy and there is no question that, given the choice, and on the right terms, United would rather have kept him than not.
Would it have been any different if I had not come back for that last 18 months? I think my return to the team, and the game time Paul got, was a small part of it. From United’s point of view, it is always difficult to tell just when a young footballer is going to mature into a first-class professional ready to play at the highest level, but the story of how Pogba slipped away from United has more than one strand to it.
I should say that Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to keep Paul. We all knew there was a very good player in the making. Little details about young footballers catch your eye when you have been around a big club for a long time. At first it can be minor things, like the way certain young players stand out from the group when the academy lads cross paths with the senior team on their way to training in the morning.
At first sight, Pogba was notable for his size and physicality, and when you got to know him there was also a confidence about him. When he was eventually sent over to train with the first team he was unafraid. Not just in the way that he played but that he had the confidence to come up to senior players and seek out advice. He was dedicated that way. He was absolutely desperate to make it is as a footballer, and he grabbed every chance he had to learn.
He was a very good footballer: technically excellent, and he knew how to strike a ball. He spoke to me about improving his range of passing. So, after training we would spend time pinging the ball to each other from 50 yards’ distance. He had stronger suits to his game than his long passing – his power, his technique at close quarters, his athleticism – but he was determined to get better at what he thought was the weaker part of his game.
When I first retired in the summer of 2011, I spent the start of the next season working with Warren Joyce, the coach of the Under-21s. Paul was in that squad and the truth is that while he obviously had bags of potential, he was not really playing well enough in that period up to Christmas 2011 to warrant a place in the first-team squad on a permanent basis, let alone start games. Nevertheless, he made three Carling Cup appearances before the end of the year and, following that, his Premier League debut before his 19th birthday.
As I recall, the home game to Blackburn Rovers on 31 December 2011, a surprise defeat for United as it turned out, had been a key moment in Paul’s thinking. Injuries meant that the manager played Michael Carrick in defence and in midfield he selected Rafael da Silva alongside Park Ji-sung. Paul was on the bench and very frustrated that he had not started the match.
So by the time I came back into the side in January he might well have made up his mind that he was leaving. But I don’t suppose it helped having an old boy come back into the team in front of him. The reality was that he had not played well enough to deserve a regular place before then because, if that had been the case, our manager would undoubtedly have selected him. He had no problem picking a young player once he was convinced the lad in question was ready.
Although I never spoke to Sir Alex about the details, the understanding in the dressing room was that Paul’s advisers just asked for too much money for his next professional deal. They wanted first-team money for a player who was not in the first team at that stage. United felt that was not right and stuck to their principles. He left that summer and very quickly established himself at Juventus, which can happen. You have to give Juventus credit for giving him the opportunity.
As for United, I don’t feel they should go back to sign Pogba for the sums being talked about having lost him for the compensation payment. I understand that Chelsea did the same when they bought back Nemanja Matic from Benfica, but his fee was nothing like the numbers quoted for Pogba. It would feel wrong to me.
I go back to my earlier point. Did I contribute to blocking Pogba’s route to the first team? Or was it just one of those strange coincidences that he blossomed into a first team-ready player just months after his contract with United expired? Timing is everything with young players and even at a club like United, who have given so many chances to young players, it is possible for events to work against you.
I look at Chelsea now, and I wonder if they might be working against themselves as well. Watching the FA Youth Cup final second leg I was really impressed with the front three of Dominic Solanke, Isaiah Brown and Tammy Abraham, but especially Solanke and Brown. Solanke is only 17, Brown, 18, so time is on their side, but they were not the only ones. The standard was so high. There are more who I could imagine playing for Chelsea’s first team at some point.
Will Chelsea, and Jose Mourinho in particular, make the room for these boys? Will the club keep topping up with experienced players every time they lose one, as they surely will with Didier Drogba at the end of this season?
If, by some chance, Chelsea had a transfer embargo for three years and had no choice but to move these players on to the first team, I don’t believe they would be short of good players. To a lesser extent the same would be true at Manchester City, who have some good youngsters too. It would force their hand with the kids. In the short term it might mean that they lost out but the long-term rewards would be huge.
There was no better manager at developing young players than Sir Alex. He knew just when to bring them in and take them out, and he believed in Paul Pogba. For once, in Paul’s case it did not work out. The timing was wrong and the difference between expectation on the player’s side, and the manager’s idea of his development did not match up. And, yes, perhaps I was a small part of the problem for those five months we were both competing for a place.
But at the very least Pogba got a chance at United. He had seven sub appearances for United, about what his performances at the time for the Under-21s merited. For those young lads who find themselves consistently blocked by a steady flow of more experienced players coming in ahead of them, the first team must seem a very distant place indeed.
I like Bournemouth’s open, attacking style of play
What I like most about Bournemouth is that they are an attacking team. I fancy them to score goals in the Premier League next season. They might also concede a few too but I cannot see Eddie Howe changing the way that they play. I hope he doesn’t, anyway.
I am pleased for Howe, a young English manager who has worked hard to get where he has. When you look at his team it is no coincidence. His biggest strength has been excellent recruitment. I like the look of Callum Wilson and Matt Ritchie. Harry Arter looks a good player and both full-backs bomb on. I believe in attacking football and that teams who play that way will get their reward eventually.
The way Leicester have fought their way out of the relegation zone in recent weeks shows that anything is possible. That promoted teams take a while to adjust but there is no reason they cannot stay in the league with good signings and good organisation.
What caught my eye this week
Player of the week
Cesc Fabregas. A great midfield performance to run the game in the second half against Leicester.
Moment of the week
James Rodriguez’s volleyed goal for Real Madrid against Almeria.
Match of the week
Bayern Munich 1-1 Borussia Dortmund (0-2 on pens). Proof that even the Germans aren’t perfect from the spot.
Manager of the week
Eddie Howe. Great to see a young English manager doing so well.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies