It’s set to be another busy summer at youth level for Manchester United as the club looks to build on the impressive foundations laid over the past year.
Late cameos for Hannibal Mejbri and Will Fish on the final day of the season at Wolves mean it is now 16 academy graduates who have made their senior United debuts under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’ll be keen to bolster that number in the season ahead.
While many fans will be eager to see new faces emerge from the club’s academy to play a role in the first-team for years to come, it could be returning loan star James Garner who is next to benefit from Solskjaer’s faith in youth.
Garner, 20, was the United youngster who shone the brightest while away from the club this season. He impressed steadily with his performances at Watford before a managerial change convinced him to take a sizeable risk and terminate his stay in favour of a switch to relegation threatened Nottingham Forest.
He never looked back.
Rejuvenated by the confidence manager Chris Hughton showed in him, Garner quickly established himself as a fan favourite in Nottingham, netting four goals in 20 appearances for Forest as they gained momentum and eventually evaded relegation with ease.
Playing as a central midfielder in a league as physical as the Championship was always going to be a huge challenge for a youngster like Garner, but the maturity he showcased demonstrated the belief he is capable of playing a role for United next season.
Interest in the Birkenhead-born playmaker is already high with Brighton, Norwich and Rangers all keen on a potential deal ahead of the new campaign, while his agent is said to be ‘relaxed’ having already held talks with recently appointed football director John Murtough about his client’s future.
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Garner is quietly confident in his own ability and knows a squad role could be a possibility next season, but he is under no illusion as to how difficult the step up would be even if he were to occupy a rotational role in cup competitions and against weaker opposition.
An attractive loan spell in a top-flight league could be the perfect stop-gap before evaluating his true level of progress again in a year’s time.
With fellow academy midfield duo Ethan Galbraith and Dylan Levitt both in contention for loan exits this summer there could well be a promotion on the cards for Garner if he hits the ground running in pre-season.
Nemanja Matic remains the only natural defensive midfielder in the current senior set-up, with Scott McTominay eager to play in a more advanced role while neither Fred nor Donny van de Beek have convinced.
Many supporters will be keen to see investment in defensive midfield this summer, particularly in the wake of an outstanding performance from N’Golo Kante in the Champions League final last weekend, but other areas of the pitch are believed to be taking priority in the transfer window.
With such a glaring vacancy still unfilled there could well be a serious opportunity for Garner to break into the first-team picture in pre-season, but only if a rotational role is something he is happy to occupy at such a young age in his career.
His next step needs to be to build upon the positive momentum which two loan spells in the Championship have given him, in a peculiar turning of tables it might even be down to Solskjaer to convince him why he should stay.