Man United can’t hold on to Kobbie Mainoo much longer

Rob DawsonCorrespondentJul 24, 2023, 05:00 AM ET5 minute reading

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — Manchester United like to protect their best young players as much as they can, but sometimes the cat just won’t stay in the bag.

At some point ahead of an afternoon of commercial activity organized by the club at a hotel in Basking Ridge, New Jersey on Thursday, Kobbie Mainoo was booked to appear alongside Raphael Varane, Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka at an event run by Marriott Hotels.

In the end, it was decided best to keep the talented 18-year-old midfielder out of the media glare, but when you’re United’s next big thing, attention is never far away.

So when United coach Erik ten Hag sat down to his first news conference of the summer 24 hours later at Pingry School, among the questions about signing a striker, the takeover and Mason Greenwood’s future, there was – perhaps inevitably – one about Mainoo.

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Ten Hag is experienced enough to know that the aim of the game at this stage of any client’s career is to keep the lid on expectations, but around Old Trafford there is enthusiasm about Mainoo’s potential.

“He’s getting his chance because he deserves it,” Ten Hag said in response to the inquiry at Pingry’s Macrae Theatre. “He showed a high level and now he has to show it in matches. So the preseason is perfect to test him.

“He’s an option to get into the squad and get playing time. We’ll see, but I’m confident he can do it and we’ll have to wait and test if that’s going to happen.”

The test came the following day, at the MetLife Stadium, when Mainoo was selected to start against Arsenal and their midfield trio of Martin Odegaard, Kai Havertz and £105m record transfer Declan Rice.

He departed at the break with United 2-0 up, having shown both the composure to slip into the gap between the central defenders to collect the ball and also an attacking instinct which set up the first goal of the game for Bruno Fernandes.

Speaking after the final whistle, just outside the locker room normally reserved for the New York Giants, Fernandes had clearly missed the memo to quell the excitement around his young teammate.

“He’s a great player,” Fernandes said. “He’s good on the ball, strong, he can defend and attack. He’s still quite young, but we see a bright future for him.”

The bright future may not be too far away.

Older academy graduates Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage – both of whom tasted first-team football – have been allowed to leave this summer, in part because Mainoo was already ahead in terms of his development. Meanwhile, the club are open to offers for Brazilian international midfielder Fred, while Donny van de Beek did not play a minute against Arsenal despite being on the bench.

Manchester United like to protect their best young players, but Kobbie Mainoo looks set to be their next big star.Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

There has been a lot of interest in Mainoo from clubs in the Championship and League One to take the teenager on loan, but the response from United has so far been a resounding “no”. Keep playing the way he did against Arsenal and director of football John Murtough won’t even bother picking up the phone. If last season was Alejandro Garnacho’s breakthrough campaign, Mainoo could be at the beginning of his.

Born in Stockport, Mainoo entered the academy before the age of nine. He has been capped by England at under-18 level but is also eligible to play international football for Ghana through his father and has visited the country a number of times.

Always highly rated by his academy coaches, he was playing regularly for the under-18s when he was just 16. He was the second-youngest member of the 2022 Youth Cup-winning squad, a team led by Garnacho, but it wasn’t until the World Cup break last November that he really caught Ten Hag’s attention.

With the first team squad stripped to the bare bones due to commitments in Qatar, Mainoo was taken to a training camp in Spain and scored in a friendly against Cadiz. It was enough to convince the Ten Hag to hand Mainoo a surprise first-team debut less than two months later, aged just 17, in the Carabao Cup quarter-final against Charlton Athletic.

For United, Mainoo is already a success. He is regarded as the type of player they might have lost to Manchester City’s academy as the Premier League champions gobbled up City’s best youngsters, but United improved their youth structure and believe Mainoo has been showing it is working.

The next stage is for Mainoo to become a regular in Ten Hag’s squad and then the team, and it will be up to the Dutchman to decide how best to manage his development.

Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to making the step up from promising youngster to senior star, but one thing is certain – it’s too late to stop talking.

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