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 one point ahead of an afternoon of commercial activity organised 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, the attention is never far away.
So when United coach Erik ten Hag sat down for his first news conference of the summer 24 hours later at Pingry School, in 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, at this stage of any prospect’s career, the aim of the game is to keep a lid on the expectation, but all around Old Trafford there is an enthusiasm about the Mainoo’s potential.
“He gets his chance because he deserves it,” said Ten Hag in response to the enquiry at Pingry’s Macrae Theatre. “He showed a high level and now he has to show it in games. So preseason is perfect to test him.
“He is an option to get into the game squad and to get play time. We will see, but I am confident he can do it and we have to wait and test if it is going to happen.”
The test came the following day, at MetLife Stadium, when Mainoo was picked to start against Arsenal and their midfield three of Martin Odegaard, Kai Havertz and £105 million record transfer Declan Rice.
He went off at half-time with United 2-0 up, having shown both the composure to drop into the space between the centre-backs to pick up the ball and also an attacking instinct which created the first goal of the game for Bruno Fernandes.
Speaking after the final whistle, just outside the locker room usually reserved for the New York Giants, Fernandes had clearly missed the memo about tempering 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 pretty young but we see a bright future for him.”
That bright future may not be too far away.
Older academy graduates Zidane Iqbal and Charlie Savage — who both had a taste of 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 Brazil international midfielder Fred, while Donny van de Beek didn’t play a minute against Arsenal despite being on the bench.
There has been strong interest in Mainoo from clubs in the Championship and League One to take the teenager on loan but the answer from United, so far, has been a firm “no.” Keep playing in the way he did against Arsenal and football director 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 joined the academy before the age of nine. He’s been capped by England at under-18 level but is also eligible to play international football for Ghana, through his father, and he’s visited the country a number of times.
Always rated highly by his academy coaches, he was playing for the under-18s regularly when he was just 16. He was the second-youngest member of the Youth Cup-winning squad of 2022, a team led by Garnacho, but it wasn’t until the break for the World Cup in November last year that he really caught Ten Hag’s eye.
With the first-team squad stripped to the bare bones because of commitments in Qatar, Mainoo was taken on a training camp in Spain and scored in a friendly against Cadiz. It was enough to convince Ten Hag to hand Mainoo a surprise first-team debut less than two months later, at just 17 years old, in the Carabao Cup quarterfinal against Charlton Athletic.
For United, Mainoo is already a success. He’s viewed as the type of player they would have possibly lost to Manchester City’s academy when the Premier League champions were swallowing up the city’s best youngsters, but United improved their youth structure and believe the fact Mainoo has stayed shows it’s 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 the talking.