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Manchester United

Man United U23s' relegation offset by breakthrough of Scott McTominay

Ian Darke takes issue with Jose Mourinho slamming his Man United squad for overcelebrating their derby win and "paying the price" against West Brom.

When the Manchester United board were talking about the possibility of launching a women's team, under considerable outside pressure it must be said, the issue of the impact on the club's brand was raised.

United are associated with winning. It is one of the reasons companies from all over the world throw money their way to put a logo on a shirt, tracksuit or advertising board.

A women's team, it was decided, would have to fit in with the brand. Simply put, it would have to win and, therefore, receive enough financial support to make sure that happened. It would not be enough to start a team just to tick a box and put a stop to the awkward questions.

With that in mind, the confirmation on Monday that the club's Under-23 team -- essentially the reserves -- have been relegated from Premier League 2 Division One, the top flight at that level, is an embarrassment. United's brand has been built on the expectation that they finish top, and not bottom, of the league.

Derby County's 1-0 victory over West Ham means the Under-23s, managed by Ricky Sbragia since the Scot returned to Old Trafford in the summer, will spend next season in Division Two alongside Reading, Norwich and Fulham.

It has been coming for a while. They drew 1-1 with Manchester City at the Etihad Campus on Friday, but having won just four of their 21 games, it only delayed the inevitable.

But for those charged with overseeing United's young players, it is not the end of the world.

Nicky Butt, head of the academy, will tell you results are not the most important thing. His job is to produce players good enough for Jose Mourinho's first team.

Scott McTominay, part of the club's youth system since the age of five, has made 20 senior appearances this season in what is his breakthrough campaign.

United's reserves have won the title in three of the past five years, but producing first-team players is considered far more important. This season's relegation is offset by McTominay's rise. Butt would take that scenario year after year.

"We are expected to develop players for Manchester United and bring them into the first team," he told the BBC. "In that respect, I think the academy is thriving massively."

Scott McTominay has broken through to become a regular under Jose Mourinho at Manchester United.
Scott McTominay's breakthrough in the Manchester United first team offsets the embarrassment of the U23 side's relegation.

The Under-23s is, technically, the last stop for a young player before the first team. But there are doubts at United, and many other Premier League clubs, about whether Premier League 2 is fit for purpose.

This season, Butt chose to arrange loan spells for Demetri Mitchell (21), Dean Henderson (21), Matty Willock (21) and Charlie Scott (20) rather than keep them with the U23s.

Mitchell, who impressed with Hearts in the Scottish Premiership before picking up an injury, calls it "man's football". When Butt was coming through the youth setup more than 25 years ago, the reserves was man's football and he would regularly find himself up against experienced pros who needed a game.

In contrast, Matteo Darmian has started just two first-team matches in the past five months but has not been considered for the reserves, even just to maintain his match fitness.

United place far more importance on their U18s, and Kieran McKenna's side clinched the Northern title on Saturday by beating Manchester City. There are high hopes for Angel Gomes (17) and Tahith Chong (18). Mason Greenwood, still only 16, is their top scorer.

"If you are not around the first team at 20 or 21, you're not going to be, it's a fact," adds Butt.

There are exceptions to the rule, like Jesse Lingard, who Sir Alex Ferguson claimed was always destined to be a late bloomer. Lingard had four loan spells in the Championship and wasn't an established member of the senior squad until he was 23.

Marcus Rashford's rise was more dramatic, and it is noteworthy that he barely played for the U23s before being thrown in at the deep end by Louis van Gaal.

Jimmy Ryan, a former United player, first-team coach and academy chief, would tell prospective new recruits that the ultimate aim was to turn them into first-team players. It didn't matter if every player in an age group was a left-back because building a balanced youth team was not the goal. If one of those left-backs made it into the senior squad, it was job done.

The same logic will be applied by Butt and Sbragia to this season. Even a campaign that ends in relegation can be considered a success as long as the conveyor belt of talent is still rolling.

McTominay is the latest to make the jump. For United, that is a win.

Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.


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