Even the most ardent Manchester United supporter with an encyclopaedic memory might struggle to recall Justin Cochrane’s one and only appearance against the Reds in his journeyman footballing career.
As a jobbing defensive midfielder in the Football League, Cochrane was a Crewe Alexandra player in 2004 when he came across a United team that Sir Alex Ferguson had made sweeping changes to, for an October League Cup tie at Gresty Road. Ferguson made 11 changes, to be precise, as he prioritised Premier League and Champions League commitments.
But of the players who faced Crewe that night, as United won 3-0 with Alan Smith among the scorers, seven came through the United academy. They ranged from the ones who wouldn’t quite stay the distance (Sylvain Ebanks-Blake and Chris Eagles), to the ones who enjoyed stellar United careers (Wes Brown and Darren Fletcher).
If the quality of a second string United was too much for Cochrane and his Alex teammates that night, then the 39-year-old won’t be at all surprised this summer when he steps into the fabled Carrington training take to take on his new academy role.
Cochrane joins United from the Football Association, taking on the job of head of player development and coaching, having been officially unveiled on Tuesday afternoon.
His remit, effectively as Nicky Butt’s replacement at the club, will be to oversee the club’s Under-17s to Under-23s and ensure there is a clear pathway to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first team.
Cochrane hit all the right notes in his first interview and suggested, like Butt, he would very much provide a hands-on presence for the United youngsters.
“I’m so excited,” he said. “I can’t wait to be part of that first day when the boots go on, the players are ready and we can go out on the pitches, getting to work helping these young players make that transition from the academy to the first team.
“Developing young players in this country is very difficult, especially going to a club like Manchester United because they have to replace players who are top internationals. But that’s the challenge we’re all looking forward to.”
Cochrane arrives with a stellar reputation, having taken charge of England Under-15s, 16s and 17s teams while at the FA, having also been a youth coach at Tottenham.
United’s head of academy Nick Cox emphasised the need for Cochrane to do what Butt did before his departure — and carefully manage the development of individual players during that most vital of periods in their career, from stepping out of youth football and into men’s football.
Cox explained: “Justin will have an overview beyond just game days and taking teams, he’ll be thinking about the individual development plans for each player and making sure we have a programme that maximises the potential of every single player that walks through the door in those age groups.”
Butt’s modus operandi for this was to keep numbers small in the United age group teams, prioritising quality over quantity and encouraging them to play as much football as possible.
The Treble-winning midfielder also demanded youngsters be pushed to play in older age groups, with United’s Under-23s operating mainly with players aged 18 and 19, sometimes younger. Loans were selected meticulously — and only when United believed regular game-time would be forthcoming. The gauntlet was laid down to the players themselves, then it was about letting them sink or swim.
Whether or not Cochrane brings an entirely new approach or fits in with the ethos of Butt, Cox and Under-23s boss Neil Wood is yet to be seen.
Yet stepping into Butt’s shoes should be seen as a hurdle to overcome in itself, beyond the obvious challenge of providing Solskjaer with the next Mason Greenwood or Marcus Rashford. Shola Shoretire, Hannibal Mejbri and Anthony Elanga offer hope that the next big talent is not far down the conveyor belt.
Cochrane is proven in youth coaching and has the nous of a former Football League veteran, together with that hands-on approach, to succeed.