Manchester United celebrate youth at awards ceremony with a difference
Written by Simon Austin — January 23, 2024
THIS was a football awards ceremony with a difference, because none of the awards were for football.
Instead, trophies were handed out for commitment to lifelong learning, extra-curricular activities, educational achievement and more.
Manchester United’s Academy Celebration event was held at Old Trafford on Saturday evening and was the brainchild of Nick Cox, the club’s Academy Director.
He told TGG: “I had the general notion of celebrating the young people for what they are, for all the personal growth they go through while they are with us, for the amazing qualities they bring. So not a football awards ceremony in the traditional sense, but a celebration of young people.
“I had an idea and the staff picked it up and ran with it and turned it into something more incredible than I could have imagined.”
Cox has long argued (including on these pages) that Academies should be about enriching the lives of their young people, irrespective of whether they go on to become professional footballers or not.
In his opening address at Saturday's event, he said: “Success is knowing you have done your best to reach your full potential and this will look different for each and every boy.”
In total, 175 of United’s youth players were there, from the Under-9s to U16s, as well as staff, parents and alumni.
There were many highlights across the course of two hours, with the boys themselves taking centre stage.
Joe Williams, from the U14s, read out a poem he had written about the Munich air disaster, ending: “We did rebuild, together as one. Jimmy Murphy at the helm, always fighting on. Manchester United: resilience at its best.”
Williams had recited his poem a year earlier in front of an even bigger audience at the Munich Air Disaster Memorial Service in the German city, which Cox had described as his Academy highlight of 2023.
Among others to take to the stage were a boy who had raised money to buy toys for deprived children in his local area, and another who had made regular visits to the Critical Care Unit at Bolton Hospital. They were the recipients of the Outstanding Contribution to Community Award.
The Achievement Outside School award went to a duo who were not only outstanding footballers, but among the best in the country at cricket and water polo respectively.
As well as the boys, there was a special guest of honour who we should probably mention: Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s all-time record goalscorer. Two of the 38-year-old’s four sons - Kai (14) and Klay (10) - are members of United’s Academy and were sat watching their dad along with team-mates.
Rooney took part in a Q&A about his own Academy journey at Everton and explained how it had enriched his life.
“It gave me the foundation to achieve what I did,” he said.
He added that his parents didn't drive and that he'd never been on a plane until he went abroad with Everton.
Asked about one key learning from his own journey as a young player, he said: “Never to take anything for granted. I remember making my debut against Tottenham at 16 and thinking, ‘I can’t underperform, because this is where I want to be.’ I had that great inner desire to be better than my team-mates, better than the opposition.”
Afterwards, Cox told TGG: “Wasn’t it humbling to hear one of the most successful players of all time saying, ‘My journey meant I got on a plane when my mum and dad couldn’t afford to take me on holiday, made a load of mates, got some wonderful memories.’
“You could just tell he had had a lot of fun and I generally believe that’s the common experience for young Academy footballers across the country, not just at Manchester United.”
CUSTODIANS OF THE CULTURE
Fittingly, this event was held on the 30th anniversary of the death of Sir Matt Busby, the godfather of the modern Manchester United.
There were several threads running back to the past, not least Tony Whelan, United’s Academy Programme Advisor. Whelan grew up in nearby Stretford and joined United as an apprentice, in 1968. Busby was manager then and his assistant was Jimmy Murphy, the man who set up United’s gilded youth programme.
Whelan returned to United as a part-time Centre of Excellence Coach in 1990 and over the course of three decades he has nurtured and developed dozens of young players. His job titles have included Assistant Academy Manager and Head of Coaching, but Cox describes him as “custodian of the culture” at the club. The same is said of Dave Bushell, United's Academy Player Liaison Officer.
Bushell joined United as a part-time U16s coach in 1992 and was their Head of Education and Welfare before taking on his current position. Both Whelan and Bushell are recipients of the Premier League’s Eamonn Dolan Award, for outstanding contribution to youth development, and they had awards named after them at United's event on Saturday evening.
Whelan's was the Alumni Achievement Award, which was won by Fraizer Campbell. After joining United at the age of 10, Campbell made two senior appearances for the club and went on to play for Sunderland, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Hull City and Huddersfield. Now he’s part of United’s Academy Alumni Programme, which was launched last November with the aim of formalising support for former players.
“We talk about resilience - I think Fraizer is a model for that and he is now key in our Alumni Programme,” Whelan said.
In turn, Campbell paid tribute to the “inspirational” Whelan, as well as to his parents, who had made the two-hour trip from Huddersfield to Manchester three times a week so that their son could pursue his football dream.
The Dave Bushell Award for Commitment to Lifelong Learning went to Eddie Johnson, a former United youth player who represented Coventry, Bradford, Crewe, Antwerp and the Portland Timbers. After retiring, he went into coaching and recruitment roles and has also worked for tax and advisory firm KPMG and for the Sporting Chance charity, which helps current and former players with addiction issues. Since August 2021, he has been Academy Support Manager for the Premier League.
After giving the award to Johnson, Bushell highlighted the huge changes there had been in Academy football since he first started with United.
“In the early days, when I started at the Cliff, it was very tight, very small,” he said. “You bumped into people all the time. Even the kids would be bumping into the first team there.
“When we moved to Carrington, the boss (Sir Alex Ferguson) decided we should all stay together. Now we have experience in every area. That obviously helps the young boys coming through, as long as they help themselves.
"The young lads make it themselves, we give a little bit to them. We are doing our best to give them a holistic lifestyle. We mustn’t forget their maths and English. Football will take care of itself.”
The event finished with Tony Walsh reciting his poem 'For Whom', about the legendary Murphy. This was stripped-back storytelling: no music, no images, just the rise and fall of Walsh’s words. Everyone in the hushed room seemed gripped.
“This is Jimmy Murphy, and you need to know his name. And remember that he taught us how the Reds should play the game.
“And remember how he flew the flag when this club hit rock bottom. He will never die, we will never die, he will never be forgotten.”
Walsh, a lifelong Red, was commissioned to write and perform his poem for the official unveiling of Murphy’s statue, outside Old Trafford’s Stretford End, on May 3rd last year.
Earlier this month, Omari Forson became the 249th Academy graduate to play for Manchester United's first team when he came off the bench to replace Marcus Rashford (another Academy graduate) in the FA Cup win against Wigan. United have calculated that half of their player appearances have come from homegrown players.
Cox told TGG: “This football club, in terms of youth development, surpasses all others. That’s in terms of the amount of time we have been doing it and the success we have had at it.
“Over 4,000 games with a youth player in a first team, over 86 years. We’ve been developing players for 91 years. We’ve just seen our 249th debut and know that’s half of all the players ever to play for Manchester United. There ain’t anyone in the world who can talk about those stats.
“They’re not my stats, they’re the club stats and that comes from something more than a strategy or business plan, that’s a way of life that was born long before I got here. My job is to preserve and perpetuate that environment. To have the privilege of carrying on Jimmy Murphy’s legacy is an amazing opportunity for me and the staff.”
The focus of the event was on the person rather than the player though and he added: “We believe it’s our duty to change lives forever and for the better. We want our programme to be an amazing addition to their childhood.
“We want to enrich childhood. We want our players to have an experience with us that no other organisation in their childhood could possibly provide for them. That’s genuinely what we go out to try and achieve.
“I would defy anyone who sat in that room not to be able to feel that sense of our programme being an authentic childlike environment that is changing lives, that is helping young people express themselves, that is giving them an opportunity to develop skills that is going to take them into adult life with half a chance of being successful, on the pitch or off the pitch.
“I think the majority of boys leave football clubs going I had a great time and would definitely do it again and that ultimately is our aim, our job - to make sure every boy who passes through the programme leaves saying that was great and I’m glad I did it."