Manchester United have a near-unassailable 4-0 aggregate lead against Real Sociedad and travel to Chelsea three days after their Europa League round-of-32 second leg.
Their starting XI is ripe for rotation so regulars can rest and Amad and Shola Shoretire, last week’s teenage debutants, are certain to be on the bench again this week, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took the unusual step of confirming their roles four days in advance.
“Probably not, Shola and Amad, no,” he replied when asked if either could start. “I’m not sure that would be fair on them, they’ll be in the squad.”
A start for Shoretire, who only turned 17 three weeks ago, always seemed fanciful when he has only just been allowed to start driving lessons.
Amad, 18, has had 89 minutes of competitive football in Italy and England, and is a teenager trying to settle in a new country in lockdown amid a pandemic. He is ferried to and from Carrington in a van like a child taking the bus to school, residing in a city centre that is usually lively but currently lifeless.
It would be remiss of Solskjaer not to give the Ivorian some substantial playing time, particularly with United so limited in attack.
Shoretire’s development has accelerated due to the departures of Jesse Lingard and Facundo Pellistri on loan and the Under-23 coach Neil Wood stressed earlier this month it was ‘too soon’ for Shoretire to embark on a loan.
Shoretire’s work placement may not extend to a day trip to London this weekend if one of Scott McTominay, Donny van de Beek and Edinson Cavani recover. Shoretire is almost two-thirds of the way through his first season with the Under-23s and is all but guaranteed starts, provided he is released from the first-team bubble. He was absent for Monday night’s game at Everton.
In July 2018, United asked the MEN to take down a story after this correspondent reported Shoretire had been included in the academy’s pre-season squad trip to Austria. It was a safeguarding measure to protect a 14-year-old lad under the guidance of Nicky Butt in Obertraun when the squad was mostly made up of U23s and U18s.
Five months later, Shoretire became the youngest player in the Uefa Youth League at 14 years and 314 days against Valencia and the cat was out of the bag.
“I think he’s very mature for his age,” Wood said after Shoretire hit a hat-trick in the 6-4 win over Blackburn earlier this month. “He’s not one spot of bother. He plays for the team, he knows the role he’s got to do to improve himself and he works his socks off every day.
“Anything I ask him to do he’s no problem and he will do it so, yeah, I do think he’s very mature beyond his years and I think that’s helped him to settle into playing 23s football and he’s always played with older players anyway.
“He’s always been stretched in a way, he’s never had it in his own age and been the main guy and the standout, which he easily could have been in the academy if he played his own age group. He’s used to it and it’s probably helped him along the way and he’s taken it to another level now.
“Hopefully he can continue and keep working and let’s see if he can show what he can do with his football.”
Safeguarding academy players is particularly paramount following the tragic case of Jeremy Wisten, the 18-year-old former Manchester City youth teamer who was found hanged in his family home in October.
The coroner, Zak Golombeck, said he had read about Wisten’s time at City and about an injury which reportedly led to him leaving the club in 2019. Mr Golombeck said: “He was someone who clearly had an incredible talent as a footballer.”
Mr Golombeck added he would be ordering a witness statement from City “relating to Jeremy’s time there as an academy player and also the time both leading up to and following his release from the football club, detailing, if any, support that was given to him both from the period leading up to and following his release”.
An area of concern for coaches and representatives of young players is the adulation they now receive on social media. A source who works with teenage footballers described Instagram as a ‘big problem’ due to how easy it is to promote young footballers and gain access to them via the platform’s direct messaging service.
The England Under-18 coach Kevin Betsy did a Q&A with an agency’s youngest clients last year and implored the players not to be distracted by the attention certain accounts give them. A garlanded former England international recently messaged a 16-year-old with the intention of convincing him to switch agencies.
United, infamous for denying access to players at senior and junior level for decades, have been powerless to prevent some of their brightest young things – Shoretire among them – from conducting interviews with Instagrammers.
Shoretire’s chat with a YouTuber was lapped up by some academy teammates, one of whom was later upbraided for doing an interview before signing it off with United or his management. United prevented another academy player from doing something similar.
United need to get their own house in order if they are to discourage that culture. One of the club’s marketing employees appears to have a remit to get influencers to model United merchandise and has trumpeted the influencer’s chat with Shoretire – conducted when the player was still just 16.
The same marketing employee prevented a newspaper from speaking to players at the 2018 launch of the pink away kit, ironically designed to celebrate newspapers.
The United Under-18 captain Teden Mengi laid a wreath in memory of Wisten prior to the FA Youth Cup semi-final in October, a gesture suggested by the players. The United academy head Nick Cox said it had ‘had a real impact on young men in both clubs’.
Shoretire will have to develop coping mechanisms and will be given time by the protective Solskjaer, a man who knows the merits of watching on from the bench.