If Kobbie Mainoo isn’t involved in the EFL Trophy tonight the consolation could be involvement in the League Cup next week.
The last time Manchester United visited Bolton Wanderers, an academy graduate conducting the midfield had his momentum abruptly halted by the human wrecking ball Kevin Davies.
United have not produced a technician with as instant an impact from the middle third since Tom Cleverley’s purple patch at the start of the 2011-12 season. Cleverley contributed creditably to United’s last championship in 2013 but never reached the heights Davies crudely brought him down from. While injured, Cleverley launched a ‘TC23’ brand. He had appeared seven times for United.
A United side play at the University of Bolton Stadium, née Reebok Stadium, for the first time since that day back in September 2011. Bolton were relegated in 2012 and have plumbed to the depths of League Two. They are now in League One and only hosting United’s Under-21s in the EFL Trophy.
United have a more prodigious conductor than Cleverley in Kobbie Mainoo. The 17-year-old started in three of the United’s previous four ties and has already ensured his breakthrough year has ended on a high, scoring an equaliser for the first-team against Cadiz last week.
Mainoo also acquitted himself well in the second-half against Real Betis on Saturday. Should Mainoo not stride out against League One’s fifth-placed side this evening, the consolation could be involvement against Burnley in the League Cup next week.
Pitting academy prospects against professionals in the EFL Trophy is the first test in their eventual integration into first-team football – not necessarily with United. The club value the competition and the feedback Mainoo, who only turned 17 in April, has received has been encouraging, with coaches impressed by his maturity and ability to compete.
Mainoo is already generating interest in League One, the third tier that stirs nostalgia for Premier League Years enthusiasts: Ipswich, Bolton, Derby, Sheffield Wednesday, Portsmouth, Barnsley and Charlton are buried in it. Ipswich manager Kieran McKenna will have been aware of Mainoo during his five-and-a-quarter years coaching United’s academy and first teams.
Should the midfielder not embark on a loan as a Year 13 pupil, he can expect more training time with the first-team. Mainoo was worthy of a bench role when Christian Eriksen was unwell for the goalless draw with Newcastle in October.
Like in 2011, United have developed a polished midfield trio with their FA Youth Cup winners. Mainoo, Daniel Gore and Sam Mather – scorer in the 3-1 third round win at Crystal Palace on Sunday – excelled whenever they graced Old Trafford last season. They emulated Paul Pogba, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison by prevailing over Nottingham Forest on an uplifting evening in a dispiriting season.
The coaches at United have adapted with the times. Tunnicliffe and Pogba, in particular, were a domineering duo with physical presence that could cow opponents. Mainoo, Gore and Mather are products of the dictatorial midfield Spain pioneered. United regard Mainoo as a natural talent with immense technical prowess.
A season-ticket holder who attended the reserves’ friendly at Altrincham in the summer noted Mainoo had filled out. He has bulked up quickly, increasing his chances of recognition from Darren Fletcher, who tends to pick which academy members are promoted to first-team training on an ad hoc basis.
Mainoo has been training intermittently with the first-team and spent all season with the U21s. It is easy to forget he is only a second-year academy member eligible for a second run at the Youth Cup. Only Louis Jackson was a younger member of last season’s successful squad. Tyler Fredricson, Daniel Gore and Maxi Oyedele flew home from United’s training camp in Jerez and started at Selhurst Park while Mainoo remained in Spain.
United signed Mainoo before he turned nine. and, like Marcus Rashford, Mainoo has regularly played above his age level in the academy and he first played for the U18s as a 15-year-old.