Scott McTominay has made the breakthrough at Manchester United, but how has he done it? Adam Bate speaks to the player’s former coaches to discover the tale of a club’s commitment to youth and one young man’s determination to succeed against the odds…
The scarlet thread. That is how Manchester United’s long-serving coach Tony Whelan likes to describe it. The tradition of youth development that runs right through the entire club. It is now 3908 consecutive first-team squads that have included a home-grown player – a sequence that dates back over 80 years. Scott McTominay is just the latest to emerge.
As the man who helps youngsters make their first fledgling steps within the club, Whelan feels the history acutely. He has spent the past 20 years working full-time within the academy but the association runs far deeper than that. Once a United player himself, he even had his master’s degree dissertation about the Busby Babes turned into a book.
I have been here a long time, Whelan tells Sky Sports. I was here under Sir Alex Ferguson. I worked with Paul McGuinness and some fantastic coaches going back to the days of Eric Harrison, Jimmy Murphy and Sir Matt Busby. I follow in their footsteps in developing young players. When I see a lad like Scott come through, I doff my cap to the mentors of the past.
McTominay embodies that tradition. It is not just that the midfielder has started the last three matches under Jose Mourinho. It is not just that he was preferred to Paul Pogba for the Champions League tie in Seville. It is the fact that he has been here since the beginning, coming through United’s academy from the age of nine. It is some story.
I have known Scott since he first came to the club, says Whelan. For anybody to come through our programme – going right the way through the age groups from under-9s to under-16s to under-18s and under-21s to the first team – it is such a long journey with so many hurdles to get over. In his case, leaving home at an early age was a big thing.
We introduced a schoolboy scholarship system in 2008 which brought boys in for a full-time residency and put them into a school. Scott was one of the first into that programme so in that sense he was a bit of pioneer. Up until the age of 13, he had been commuting all the way from Lancaster so it was a big commitment from his family’s point of view.
He had to deal with the emotional aspect of leaving his home for us but he made the sacrifice and committed to it. He comes from a good family so always had a great attitude. But this was a big decision to make for him and them so they all deserve this and they share in his success. They are as responsible for it as we are. It is down to years of hard work.
Hard is a good word for it. For McTominay, it has been a struggle at times. Even amid the scrutiny at Manchester United, where youth-team games can be watched by crowds that are the envy of some Football League clubs, he was below the radar for much of his development. It was not a question of talent. McTominay simply did not feature that much.
In his first season with the under-18s he was exposed to under two hours of competitive football. There was a bit more action the following season but when he moved up to the under-21 team in 2015, he started only two of their 22 matches. It was not until last year that he got a run of games at that level, culminating in his senior debut last May.
McTominay’s growth problems are already well documented. Now 6’4 tall, he was only 5’7 at the start of 2015. The player himself has since acknowledged that his body was not ready and spoken of his gratitude to coaches McGuinness and Warren Joyce for managing that process, restricting his game time and even his training sessions where necessary.
The good thing about being in a football club is that you have people here who have seen it before and understand it, says Whelan. People like Brian McClair, Paul McGuinness and Colin Little supported him. That is crucial. They knew that talent can sometimes appear to be latent but with a bit more time and patience, a player can grow and get over that.
He was patient with us too remember. It works both ways. He had to trust the club. He wasn’t playing in games because he wasn’t ready but it would have been very easy for him to wonder whether he was being kidded on about one day getting in this team or that team. He went through all of those trials and tribulations and dealt with them well.
We can talk about coaching and programmes but that is just the opportunity. I have always believed that players achieve things because of their sacrifices and because of their dreams and their vision. It is down to him. He never gave up. He kept plugging away and plugging away. Yeah, he was under the radar a bit. But in the end his ability shone through.
It is easy to look at the lack of game time and believe that McTominay was not that highly rated within the club. But those who worked closely with him reject that idea. He always had a lot of talent, adds Whelan. But he always had to play against bigger or stronger boys. At one point his physicality was going to come and the talent would reveal itself.
He has had a similar trajectory to Jesse Lingard in that sense. He had issues with his size. But it goes to show that if you are patient and there is two-way trust, anything can be achieved. Some boys get written off because they are too small but what you can never account for is a boy’s spirit and what is in his heart. That is the great intangible.
Speaking to Danny Welbeck in 2014, he recalled a similar process. When I was growing up there were a lot of players who were bigger and quicker than me, he told Sky Sports. So I had to think of different ways to get past defenders. That still helps me today. McTominay also learnt to protect the ball back then. No wonder it all looks so easy for him now.
Scott is a good example for young players and clubs of the learning and development that can occur when you are restricted by being a late developer, says another source who worked with the young McTominay at United. The constraints of being smaller help develop skills and understanding to thrive against bigger players.
There are not many bigger than McTominay now, something that was seized upon by Ryan Giggs. When I was assistant manager we involved him in a lot of the 11 v 11s with the first team, he explained to Super 6 as part of the Class of ’92 Diary. We used to use him as a target man because of his physical presence and he was actually a really good finisher.
He was occasionally used as an auxiliary forward for Joyce’s under-21 team too and even shared the No 10 role for the under-16s with a certain Marcus Rashford. The pair would play one half each. But Whelan puts this down to development, insisting that McTominay was always going to be a midfield player – and it is there that he has earned Mourinho’s trust.
McTominay boasts the best passing accuracy in the opposition half of any United player this season, ranking among the top 10 midfielders in the Premier League. It is an indication of a risk-averse approach but also evidence that he is technically sound and can be relied upon to retain possession of the ball. The belief is that there is much more to come.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, says Whelan. He has always had a grit and determination to succeed. He has always been prepared to dig in when it matters. He is an intelligent and mature young man, reliable and trustworthy. I think what speaks volumes is how well he has dealt with this recent success. He has dealt with it admirably well.
Mourinho has been keen to stress that McTominay will not play every game but there is a growing feeling among supporters that playing the youngster in a midfield three alongside Pogba and Nemanja Matic may well be the club’s strongest starting line-up right now. The boy from the youth team helping to get the best from British football’s record signing.
For the coaches at Manchester United, that feels entirely appropriate. The history of the country’s most successful club has always been marked by big-money signings. That is nothing new. But even more important at Old Trafford is the tradition of home-grown stars taking centre stage at the Theatre of Dreams. That scarlet thread of youth development.
I call it the scarlet thread because it goes back beyond the Busby Babes, says Whelan. As we commemorate the 60th anniversary, to see Scott in the team is a testament to everyone who has been part of that tradition at this club over the years. It was a different era but the same principles applied and we are just continuing that tradition. The legacy goes on.