Amid all the joylessness that can come with being a modern football fan, concerned by takeovers, the cost of attending matches and the inevitability that your club is not as successful as you desire, there is one thing that will always bring cheer: a local academy graduate making an impression in the first team.
The latest such Manchester United prodigy is the Stockport-born 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo, who at Newcastle on Saturday night will be aiming to make his second Premier League start. Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood have made an impression in the first team over the past decade but it is rare that a local player progresses through the system there, with the majority coming from further afield. Many have enjoyed fleeting appearances but it is difficult to become a regular at the elite level United are trying to operate at.
Mainoo was a key component in Travis Binnion’s FA Youth Cup winning side of 2022. The central midfielder, playing alongside Dan Gore, scored twice on the way to the final and was a calming influence in front of 67,000 fans at Old Trafford as United defeated Nottingham Forest to secure the trophy. It was an early indication that Mainoo is not fazed by the occasion or the pressure that comes with it.
Since joining United aged nine, Mainoo has impressed the coaches with his attitude and belief he would make it as a professional there. He is quiet and assured off the pitch but expresses himself on it and the club always thought he had a strong chance of progressing with them.
Erik ten Hag, upon arrival last year, evaluated the youngsters and who could make the step up to be part of his squad. Mainoo was soon identified and began training with his senior colleagues last October, earning a place on the bench against Newcastle that month. Last January, aged 17, he was selected to start the Carabao Cup quarter-final victory over League One Charlton, with Ten Hag confident in his player’s ability after witnessing his quality for the under-21s in the EFL Trophy.
But for an injury sustained in July during United’s pre-season tour Mainoo would have made his first appearance of this campaign before November. He was namechecked by Ten Hag in his first Premier League press conference of the season as an important absentee and midfield has been a key issue for the manager to solve.
Gore, also a local, is another whom United believe can be a long-term regular at the club, and Hannibal Mejbri, two years their senior, is a fixture in Ten Hag’s plans. The academy provided eight of the matchday squad in Istanbul on Wednesday, evidence of the success rate it is having.
One issue United have faced with Mainoo is finding his best position. He can play anywhere in midfield, being used regularly as a 6, 8 and 10 for age-group teams. Often in his junior career he played in more advanced roles in midfield as part of his development to make him a more rounded player. The academy coaches ensure aspiring players have experience in different positions to help improve their wider understanding.
For the moment, it is deemed he is most suited to a role in front of the back four, using his composure to stop dangerous attacks and keeping it simple in possession. United believe Mainoo’s short-to-medium-term future will be in defensive midfield because his technical ability, composure and game awareness are already at a high level and he is strong in one-v-one duels.
These traits shone on his first Premier League start against Everton last Sunday. In a hostile atmosphere, Mainoo was arguably United’s best performer. It is a position Ten Hag has struggled to fill this season. Casemiro last featured in early October and until then was looking isolated in the role, regularly unable to cope with opposition midfields. In theory, Sofyan Amrabat should be the Brazilian’s understudy but has done little to suggest he is the right man for the part.
United suffered by allowing opposition midfields to breeze through them in the early part of the season. Against Everton Mainoo provided the stability that had been lacking and was trusted by his manager to make his Champions League debut in the final quarter of the helter-skelter match against Galatasaray in front of 50,000 raucous fans. The result did not go United’s way but it was a fine learning experience for Mainoo.
As others have found to their cost, talent is not always enough to become a Manchester United player, but Mainoo’s added mix of calmness and self-confidence have helped him become the latest local boy to live the fans’ dreams on the pitch.