I suspect the votes that brought Cameron Borthwick-Jackson the Denzil Haroun Under-21 Player of the Year award earlier this week were a result largely of his appearances not for the Under-21s, but for the first team.
Personally, on the strength of his performances for the Under-21s, I voted for James Weir, simply because I believe he had the most significant impact on our victorious title campaign. That’s normally been the basis on which this award has been selected. Andreas Pereira won it last year, and Saidy Janko the year before. The former had only made two appearances for the senior team by that point, and it was as the outstanding player in the Reds’ Under-21 title win that he claimed the award.
That’s certainly not to begrudge Borthwick-Jackson the accolade. He’s a fine young player with a great attitude who’s rarely looked out of place in his first team outings this season. The award, however, is also a reflection very much of United’s season, and of our youth policy under Louis Van Gaal.
We can argue till the cows come home whether the manager blooded so many young players this season out of a genuine desire to give them a chance, or as a result of circumstances. Personally, I’d say it was a combination of both. It allowed Borthwick-Jackson to feature twelve times for the first team to date this season; more than any previous winner of the award since Mark Robins, the inaugural winner in 1990.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Van Gaal has got a lot of things wrong in his time at United, but whether the number of academy debutants has come about by accident or design, youth development is certainly not one of them. From the start at United he made his intentions clear, giving chances to the likes of Paddy McNair in central defence when other managers might have opted instead to field a more senior player out of position.
Since then he has viewed the Under-21s as a genuine second team, with players moving between Warren Joyce’s squad and the senior team on a frequent basis. Although Joyce certainly deserves the lion’s share of the praise for taking this fluctuating squad of players to the Under-21 title, there should be some praise too for the first team boss, because the policy clearly had a galvanising effect on youngsters within the United setup who played with the belief that good performances at Under-21 level were likely to be followed by recognition in the senior team.
In seizing his opportunities within this set-up so well, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson deserves his award. It scarcely needs to be said that the same goes for Marcus Rashford, predictable winner of the Jimmy Murphy Under-18s prize. Would either have even got a chance in the first team this season had there been so many injuries and so much lack of available cover? Probably not. But even after they’d done him proud by plugging those gaps so well, he showed faith in sticking with them, treating them exactly the same way as he would a senior player: you did well, so you keep the shirt. For that, Van Gaal, whatever misgivings we have about his performance as manager of United, deserves great credit.