Basking in the afterglow of that excellent Champions League victory over Paris Saint-Germain, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer spoke glowingly of Marcus Rashford and the youngster potentially spending the entirety of his career at Manchester United and breaking the club’s goal record of 253 that’s currently held by Wayne Rooney.
It’s not an outlandish thought. He’s already racked up 43 and he’s still just 21 years old. He’s being spoken about as a future icon and words like ‘potential’ and ‘raw’ are long gone. There’s an expectation now, and Rashford seems to be enjoying that responsibility. Still, it’s easy to forget the finer details.
It was Louis van Gaal who gave him his opportunity. Not only that, but it was the Dutchman who allowed him the space and time to develop and offered him plenty of public support. Rashford wasn’t just handed his chance and then hauled off when a more experienced name returned from injury.
Van Gaal was ridiculed for replacing the then-teenager at half-time in a game against Tottenham. But, three days later, Rashford was retained for a Cup quarter-final clash with West Ham, scored a superb goal and was a standout performer. It was basic man-management but it worked well.
“I believe in young players, and at all my clubs I have given them a chance, even when I started out at AZ Alkmaar,” Van Gaal noted at the time of Rashford’s emergence.
“Then I went to Ajax and Kluivert, 18 years old, gave the same sort of performances as we are seeing from Rashford. I can give a lot of other examples of the same thing. Müller at Bayern, Xavi and Iniesta at Barcelona. Age is not the issue, quality is more important.”
Owing to a litany of under-inspiring performances, there was a large faction of United’s support that made their minds up about Van Gaal early on and nothing was ever going to shift their opinion.
When he placed a great deal of trust in young players, praise was hard to come by.
The relatively loud refrain at the time was that Van Gaal really didn’t have a choice because the squad was so threadbare and there was nobody else to turn to in an injury crisis.
Again, the fine print is easy to ignore. Would Jose Mourinho have done likewise?
“It is always a risk when you promote young players to the first team because it is such a step up,” Van Gaal continued.
As a manager you always need guts to put youngsters in the squad. Of course the Manchester United scouts and academy coaches deserve a lot of credit for finding these boys and preparing them; compared to the hours they put in my part is only a little one. But that part is still very important because you need the guts to do it.
That season, Rashford’s consistency was enough to land him a place in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the European Championships while Jesse Lingard scored the winner in the FA Cup final, his sixth goal of a breakout campaign.
The most memorable moments were provided by the squad’s inexperienced faces, most notably Anthony Martial’s magnificent solo strike in the 3-0 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford and his last-gasp winner against Everton in the Cup semi-final. And, there was a general intrigue when highly-regarded underage players like Andreas Pereira started to feature more heavily.
But it went a little deeper than that.
Years ago, I spoke to Werner Kern, a legendary figure in Bayern Munich history and who oversaw the club’s youth academy for decades.
I asked him about youngsters who had slipped through the net and found success elsewhere.
He told me that watching any youngster live out their professional life as a footballer – be it at Bayern or not – was enjoyable, because they’d made it. They were in the 1%.
Even now, maybe some of the players handed their chance by Van Gaal in the 2015/16 season are already easily forgotten. But it’s worth noting that their careers have continued – just away from Manchester.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah is still a registered United player and is currently on loan at Fulham after a solid temporary spell last season with Crystal Palace. Similarly, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson remains tied to the club but is currently at League One side Scunthorpe.
Northern Ireland’s Paddy McNair also tasted Euro 2016 after his performances under Van Gaal and after two seasons with Sunderland (where Donald Love, another ex-United youngster, remains) was signed by Middlesbrough for £5m last summer.
Solskjaer has benefitted enormously from what went before. The outpouring of positivity seems such a heavy contrast to the misery Mourinho created and the perpetual infantile rants and ravings he excelled at. The particular rebirths of Rashford and Martial under the new manager – two players marginalised and consistently criticised by Mourinho – has been a noticeable development, though it’s worth reminding ourselves that they have played with a freedom and energy before.
When United were chasing PSG late on, Solskjaer turned to his bench for reinforcements. He brought on Tahith Chong and Mason Greenwood. His other alternatives were James Garner and Angel Gomes.
Afterwards, Solskjaer spoke to Gary Neville about giving those younger players an opportunity.
“We just said, ‘Go out there and express yourself’”.
The emphasis on youth has been a crucial part of the great Manchester United sides.
Maybe Louis van Gaal’s tenure wasn’t a thrilling, absorbing and exhilarating experience but he should be remembered for believing in and acting on a key principle of the club.