Nicky Butt on the task of developing Manchester United's hopefuls

‘You can judge me in hopefully two or three years time when we’re winning titles’: Nicky Butt opens up on developing Manchester United’s next first-team hopefuls and delivering the club back to the top of English football

  • Nicky Butt is currently the head of first-team development at Manchester United
  • Butt was part of the Class of 92′, United’s most famous generation of youths  
  • He says  one of the most difficult things is managing expectations of young stars 

Nicky Butt has reached the point in the conversation where reality bites.

Butt has been talking about the development of Manchester United’s academy players. How not all of them can become superstars on £200,000-a-week. How success can still be judged by their achievements at other clubs, like the United graduates who helped Leicester City win the Premier League title in 2016. How he would be proud to see his own son make it as a footballer in League One.

And Butt is right. It’s impossible for every boy – or girl – to go all the way to the top at United, or anywhere else for that matter. In his job as head of first-team development, and his previous role in charge of the club’s academy, he knows what it is like to manage young players and the expectations that surround them.

Nicky Butt has spoken at length about the development of Manchester United academy stars 

The 45-year-old is not, he insists, a star-maker.

However, a member of United’s fabled Class of ’92, who won a Champions League, six Premier League titles and three FA Cups during a glittering career under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, Butt also knows the reality of his situation. He knows how he was judged then and how he will be judged now.

‘I think the peak of the mountain in my job is when Man United are where they should be – and will be again – and we’re still getting players into the first-team. That’s when you know you’re doing an unbelievable job,’ he says.

‘I think you can judge me and the people who develop for the first-team in hopefully two or three years when we’re winning titles and getting to the later stages of the Champions League.’

Development is Butt’s business now but it’s still hard to get away from the fact that, at some stage, it still comes down to winning. Winning games and winning trophies.

It is, he acknowledges, a reality that will dawn for United’s youngsters on Friday night when they play Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford for a place in the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup. It is, after all, nine years since United won the prestigious competition with Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison in their ranks.

It’s nine years since a United side – including Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba – won the FA Youth Cup

‘We’ve not been this far for a while, but we’ve never really made that point to the kids,’ says Butt, who won it alongside David Beckham, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs in 1992.

‘We always say it’s developing players and getting players to the first-team, which we do first and foremost. The Saturday games, you know, the league games, we don’t put a massive emphasis on winning every game.

‘It’s nice to win, but it’s a part of developing the players. Ultimately, to be a player at the club for a long time, you’ve got to win.

‘I think when it comes to the Youth Cup games, especially at Old Trafford, it’s a chance to say: “OK, developments put aside for one minute, just go and show us if you’re winners”.

‘Certainly for the kids from Manchester and the Man United fans, it’s their dream to play Old Trafford. I’m sure most of the boys in that team grew up loving the club and wanting to play there.

‘Every time you play there it’s a special moment and it’s getting closer to your dream of playing there with the first team. It gives you a feeling of what’s to come – or hopefully what’s to come.’

Butt knows there are no certainties at this stage of a player’s fledgling career. There are many factors that could hinder the path to the top. While the likes of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood burst on the scene and hardly looked back, Jesse Lingard went out on loan to Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Derby before establishing himself as a first-team player at Old Trafford. Many others never get the opportunity.

‘I’m not going to name five or six players who could have a chance,’ says Butt. ‘Some are going to do what Mason or Marcus have done, some might go the Jesse way; going on loan five or six times and getting there. We do it purposely, putting them under the radar.

Butt was part of the class of ’92 side that lifted the FA Youth Cup, alongside Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham 

‘It would be foolish to put them out there too soon because you don’t know what’s around the corner. They’re children. There is a long road to the first-team and big bumps.

‘What is a pathway for a young kid? There are experiences at school that knock them back: divorces, falling out with a girlfriend, silly things.

‘There’s no planning it, no crystal ball. As long as we can get them to the top of the mountain – and that top of the mountain might not be Man United.

‘It might be going and winning the title with Leicester – which four of our academy lads went and did, which is massive for this club. It might be going and playing League One, League Two or the Championship.

‘You’ve got some players coming in that, for whatever reason, aren’t going to get to Man United’s first-team. Is it a failure that they’re going to play in the Championship or League One? No, it’s not.

‘I’ve got a son who’s mad on football and if he wanted to be a footballer and made it in League One, I’d be the proudest dad ever.

‘It’s not my job to make stars. Ultimately, it’s my job to make players for the first-team, there’s no getting away from it. But we have to also know everyone’s not going to get to the first-team. We’ve got to make them be good people that can go and play football, if that’s what they choose.

‘I say to parents, if you can get a job doing what you love, it’s not necessarily making £200,000-a-week and all that. Rather than going on a building site and working at six in the morning until six at night, it’s an amazing chance in your life.

‘Whatever the top of that mountain is and how you get there. It might be going all the way around the mountain and all the way up to the top, and that might be the Jesse way.

‘It might be Rashford, play two or three games and no looking back. There’s no problem to us in the academy how we get them there, the priority is getting them there.’

United’s record on that score can hardly be faulted. In December, the club celebrated the 4,000th consecutive game with a homegrown player in the matchday squad, and the academy influence has rarely been stronger.

Some younger talents, such as Marcus Rashford, have made the jump straight to the first team

Rashford, Lingard, Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira have been joined by Greenwood, Brandon Williams, Axel Tuanzebe, Tahith Chong, Angel Gomes and James Garner this season.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been credited with promoting youth as part of a ‘cultural reset’ at Old Trafford, although Butt believes that Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal deserve some credit too.

‘I honestly think that’s a bit unfair because I never had a problem with the other managers here before with the youth side of it,’ he adds. ‘Jose always had bad press for young players but was great with the young lads and me. The same with Van Gaal.

Butt believes Jose Mourinho got unfair stick for his treatment of United’s younger talents 

‘This club, no matter who’s in charge, develops players and that’s fundamental. I’m sure when a manager gets interviewed by Ed (Woodward) or the board, they get spoken to about that. That’s part and parcel of coming to the club.

‘It’s not changed in any way, we still put a massive emphasis on bringing the best talent into the club and developing them for the first-team.

‘It just happens that we’ve had a lot of debuts over the last two or three seasons. Off the top off my head, I’d guess 14, 15, 16 players.

‘But obviously with Ole knowing the club inside out and being here for a such a long time, it’s a massive help. Because you’re not trying to explain and make it a bigger deal because you know straightaway the minute he walks through the door he knows what’s expected of him. Obviously with the Sir Alex connection as well and Ole knowing the club it makes it 10 times easier.’

Butt says Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a massive advantage as he knows the club inside out 

It was Ferguson who – rather forcibly – suggested that Butt do his coaching badges at a young age. It kept him out of mischief and meant he had something to turn to when a career that also brought 39 England caps, a six-year stint at Newcastle and brief spells with Birmingham and South China came to an end in 2011.

‘I didn’t see myself doing what I’m doing now. To be honest, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was just football, football, football,’ admits Butt.

‘Then when I was about 23 or 24 the manager had a pop at us for messing about in Manchester in the afternoon and wasting our time.

‘He said we may as well do our coaching badges. We all did it together. Roy Keane did it with us as well – Giggsy, Scholesy, Nev, Ole did it with us as well actually.

‘We did it in the afternoons and it was the best thing I did because it focussed your mind on something that you could do eventually without taking your mind off your job.’

Is it even harder for young players these days to focus on their careers, particularly with the distractions of social media? Butt doesn’t hold back in offering an opinion.

‘You don’t have to be on social media,’ he says. ‘I was sat next to Jesse a few months ago and did an interview over at the academy about the 4,000th game.

‘They were talking about social media and I said to Jesse: “You don’t have to be on social media – I’m not on it”. He started laughing.

Adnan Januzaj could have been a world beater at United had he shared the same attitude 

‘The thing is, you don’t have to put yourself out there. You don’t have to read it. It’s harder for them if they’re on it. They’re constantly looking at bad things coming at them.

‘When I was a young lad coming through, yeah you got attention. When you went to Manchester shopping or for a bite to eat or a drink, you got hassle. But you could turn away from it and move out of the way.

‘It’s more difficult for them but in another 10 years something else will come along that will make it more difficult for the next ones.

‘Before us, the likes of Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside, I’m sure they had a lot of problems coming through at this club as well.

‘No matter what era you come through or what social things you go through as a young person, it’s irrelevant to me, because if you’re playing for this club somewhere along the line you’re going to have to control what you listen to, what you don’t listen to, what you’re going to put yourself out there to do.

‘I always remember when we were coming through and Sir Alex said, “don’t be going to the opening of this film at the cinema – if you put yourself out there, you’re going to get attention”. Some people did it, they liked it and embraced it. Same with social media now, if you embrace it and like it and it’s part of your life, then deal with it. If you don’t, then don’t do it.’

Butt cites Adnan Januzaj’s failure to make it at United as his biggest regret since returning to the club to work with younger players, initially as a reserve-team coach. Januzaj, he says, could have been a ‘world superstar’ on a par with Giggs had he shared the same mentality.

But he finds his role rewarding, even though it wasn’t something he planned – and isn’t something he will necessarily continue to do in the long-term.

‘No, I don’t think I’ve found my niche,’ says Butt. ‘You fall into something. I fell into this, and I’m enjoying it. It’s amazing. I just want to be in football and whatever that brings. I’m happy in football.

‘I never expected to come into this kind of job, certainly at this club, but I was lucky enough to get a chance.

Butt insists that youth development isn’t something he sees himself doing long-term

‘Since I’ve been here at the academy, seeing kids get to where they want to be in life is massive. But I never sat down and thought, “right, when I’ve finished football, I want to be in Man United’s academy for five, 10, 15 years”.

‘I never see it as I want to be a manager, I never see it as I want to stay in academy football all my life, or doing what I’m doing now all my life. I just know I need to get out of bed in the morning and I need to get to work and I need to work hard at something I like doing.

‘That’s me as a person and people are different. I was with Gary Neville this morning and he knows exactly what he’s going to be doing for the next 10 years. It’s obvious.

‘I don’t. Scholesey doesn’t. I’m the kind of person that if there’s a challenge that excites me I’ll take it on board and go at it 100 miles an hour. If I don’t, I’ll stop.’

Entry to Manchester United v Wigan in the FA Youth Cup on Friday at 7pm is free of charge via the turnstiles.

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