United’s director of football David Holdsworth spoke this week abut how tough it is for every club when it comes to under-18 second-year decision day, particularly knowing that the young players who aren’t successful have worked so hard in pursuit of their dreams.
“It is a really hard day for everybody,” he said. “Last year – and it’s down to Chris Beech on who he retains and doesn’t – but last year we had a plan for five young professionals to develop, and to give private sessions through our academy and our staff.
“And it hasn’t been able to come to fruition because of the situation we found ourselves in with Covid. They all went out on-loan, did really well, and you could see the smiles on their faces, and then football was blown out of the water.
“It’s heart breaking, I feel for them, they haven’t had the amount of time on the grass, the time to develop in those one-to-one sessions. I feel for those lads.
“Reserve games for them would obviously have been ideal. Unfortunately we haven’t had the chance to play football anywhere else because no-one else isplaying. I would love to have seen those boys flourish this year.
“It’s been very difficult. Gavin Skelton, Mark Birch have tried and tried to get as many games and opportunities but when other clubs have shut down, what can we do.
“We’ve got our pre-season games coming up, we’re looking at those, trying to do those operating in a term when, travel, clubs are open, but we still don’t fully understand where we will be. We’ve got a Plan A, B and perhaps C trying to operate in an environment that’s half closed down still.”
“And in the academy, last week was horrible,” he added. “I’m the proud father of four wonderful children and for someone to say to a young boy who’s desperate to get a career, unfortunately we can’t retain you but will support you, it knocked me.
“I know Eric [Kinder] finds that hard and he’s been in the game long enough and knows how difficult it is. I didn’t enjoy it. We were quiet afterwards because you’re dealing with people’s futures and they’re great kids.
“I told them I will support them as much as I can going forward. They’re wonderful boys. But it’s a business and that’s the reality of the life we lead unfortunately.”
The flip side of the coin was the short-term deal offered to midfielder Keelan Leslie, who joined Lewis Bell as a graduate from the academy system.
“We’ve done that because for the last few months, where I’ve been able to watch him and the boys, I feel he’s done well,” he revealed. “The decision ultimately comes with the academy manager, and they can be tough conversations.
“In the last few months I’ve seen Keelan, and I’ve spoken to Eric, and I think the boy’s got a good nature, he’s a good kid. I want him to be hungry, to come in and step up.
“If he thinks he’s made it, he’ll get what he deserves, because you can’t come in thinking football owes you a favour. You have to have that hunger and desire, and I think the boy’s got it. Rather than us collect players inhumanely, it’s not fair, you’re wasting their time, I felt it was imperative we have a bit more of a look at him.
“He might grow, he’s got a little bit of naughtiness about him, a bit of hunger in his belly, and I like that. I would rather us take the opportunity to say to him come on, roll your sleeves up, do a proper pre-season with the manager and the staff.
“That’s different from playing youth football, and we might see it. I hope we do, and then he’ll get rewarded with a further six months and maybe longer. I don’t want to lose somebody and then regret it.”
“That’s why we look after our young lads when we feel there’s a need,” he concluded. “We’ve got two extremely good young goalkeepers coming through, a centre-forward in our youth team who was included in our squad at Walsall away, he’s going to be one for the future.
“Lewi Bell’s had a tough time with covid but I believe we’ve got some very good youngsters coming through, and hopefully that’s some good news the fans will enjoy.
“If things are done right either the player comes through and plays for us, or he moves elsewhere – but only if the deal is right. We’ve done some good deals that way, we know we’re in good hands, those deals are still ongoing, we still reap the benefits of Jarrad and the other ones.
“Long may that continue. They’re very structured deals that the club will benefit off success – let’s hope Jarrad gets in the Everton team, he does well over a long time, and then they sell him!”