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Starting XI: A Manchester United U23 Update

Promotion limbo for Neil Wood’s side

Club Brugge v Manchester United U23 Friendly Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

(1) As expected, Project Restart will not apply to the academy system. The 2019/20 season is over. When play was initially suspended in March, Manchester United’s U23s were pushing for promotion from Premier League 2 Division Two, trailing unbeaten West Ham by just three points (with a game in hand, too). Even if the young Reds failed to catch the leaders, they had secured home-pitch advantage for the playoffs.

(2) U23 boss Neil Wood on the season’s early ending:

When they canceled the league, I’m not sure where that leaves us. It’s a shame it ended so abruptly as we would have liked to challenge for that promotion on the pitch. I think the hard work the lads put in, in training each day, and their performances in the games, shows we were desperate, as a group, to get promoted. We’ve done really well and we had confidence we could catch West Ham and get that automatic promotion place.

(3) As Wood mentions, the promotion picture is a little muddy. Ordinarily, the winner of Division Two earns automatic promotion to the top flight, with another spot up for grabs in the playoffs. No word yet on how Premier League 2 plans to handle the situation, although naming West Ham the champions and Manchester United second seems an obvious solution. Shed no tears for West Brom in third — they’re nine points behind United with little hope for closing that gap.

(4) While this pales in comparison to the promotion/relegation controversies playing out across Europe, it’s not exactly trivial for United’s young prospects. Playing in Division One — against the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham Hotspur — will be far better preparation than slumming it in the second tier.

(5) In the meantime, everyone is adjusting to training at home. Neil Wood on this unusual transition:

We’ve been having online workout sessions every Monday and Friday, to get everyone together, and they’ve each got individual programs they’ve been following and doing in their own time.

I think they’re a bit bored and just want to play football. I can imagine they’re frustrated, but we’re trying to keep them busy and their minds active as well as being physically active. Particularly when you’re at that age, 17 to 20, I would say they’re champing at the bit to return.

(6) Mostly, though, management’s attention has turned to the future — and making sure that this disruption to the players’ development doesn’t spill over into next season. Up first, Manchester United agreed a one-year contract extension with defender Max Taylor. The 20-year-old played six times for the U23s in 2019/20 and joined Stalybridge Celtic on loan shortly before the season was suspended. Taylor, who recovered from cancer in 2019, made the first-team bench for November’s trip to FC Astana, but was not called upon to play.

(7) Importantly, too, United are sorting through their loan plans for next season. Neil Wood spoke to the Manchester Evening News about sending his youngsters out on loan:

There’s quite a few players in that group from the 23s this season that would benefit from going out on loan. It’s something that will be assessed when we return because a lot of league clubs are on shutdown as well at this moment in time. So there’s not much movement, not many talks going on at the time. But, yeah, there’s five or six of them that I think are ready to push on — and it depends if the first team want them to be part of their squad or if it seems better for them to go out on loan.

(8) Top among that group is James Garner. He destroyed all U23 competition this season, forcing his way into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first-team thinking — but not quite breaking through as of yet. Garner has already drawn heavy interest from Championship clubs, with Sheffield Wednesday, Swansea City, and Cardiff City among the early leaders to bring in the United midfielder on loan.

(9) Neil Wood on Garner:

Jimmy’s added goals to his game. He’s getting into forward positions a lot more and his goalscoring record for the 23s has been really good this season. But he can also be a defensive midfielder as well. He can break up the play, intercept, and he reads the game very well. So we want him to marry those two things together and that’s his challenge: to keep the attacking side and show that consistency. If he does that, he’ll be a very good player.

(10) For more on Garner, check out my story on his many talents — and his prospects for breaking into the Manchester United first team.

(11) As if the situation weren’t complicated enough, Manchester United are blessed with a strong crop of U17s ready for a larger role at the next level. Hannibal Mejbri, who started just once for the U23s this season, should be a regular next year. Teden Mengi is already there and probably the side’s next captain. The sparkling midfield partnership of Charlie McCann and Mark Helm are also expected to make the step up. All of this should add a little urgency for the club to open up spots by getting the best of this season’s group out on loan.