National Group 2:
McClair handles changes
Academy manager Brian McClair admits it will take United time to adapt to the new Barclays Premier League youth shake-up, particularly the logistics involved in the new set-up.
The Reds announced fixtures for the Under-21 and Under-18 teams recently but the administration involved has proved difficult with trips to organise to as far north as Newcastle on Tyneside and Southampton on the South Coast. The plans were pushed forward in time for the 2012/2013 campaign and will clearly impact on the youth system at Carrington.
“One thing when there are new rules is that they take a little while for people to comprehend what’s gone on,” McClair explained in an exclusive interview with ManUtd.com. “I think a lot of things happen in the off-season when most people are having a break so, when we start coming towards the start of the games programme, people pay a bit more attention to what the rules are now.
“It’s been decided to have an interim programme for the Under-16s, Under-18s and Under-21s because all the youth development systems in England are going through new categorisation, which involves independent auditing of the clubs. There were 23 who applied for Category One status but the audit is not going to be finished until the end of September. Therefore, they came up with the idea of having an interim games programme including all the clubs who applied.
“So, for this year, 23 clubs have applied for Category One and the games programme for those age-groups, 18s and 21s are compulsory, but the 16s was voluntary, so the Premier League decided they would have three groups and there was a draw made and that’s why there are games all over England.
“I think the travel is one of the things people are only starting to realise in the last couple of weeks. People are appreciating the logistics of it when we have Southampton in our group and also have Sunderland and Newcastle, as well as Spurs and Watford.”
The new plan can perhaps be considered as a work-in-progress with more input expected from the clubs as experience is gained and lessons learned over the course of the season.
“You can see where the idea came from but I think the problem with it is there wasn’t enough opportunity for people to discuss the negative parts of it,” added McClair. “Which I think is mainly the travelling.
“Because it’s time-bound in the sense that they decided they wanted to make a change, there wasn’t enough opportunity for people in Academies internally to interact with other Academies to discuss whether we think it’s a good idea or not. That’s where it is now and we’ll go through the process but, all the way along, they’d said Category One clubs, when they’re decided, would then decide what sort of games programme it is or at least have some discussions on it. So, hopefully, there will be a lot of discussion with the people who actually do these jobs as the administrators’ opinion has to count as well because they’re the ones trying to organise these games and it’s hard.”
The groups are the same for the age-groups until the second phase of action towards the end of the year and there have been some changes to the rules, particularly with the scrapping of the Reserves league.
“The groups are exactly the same until the first weekend of December and then, after that, it’s even more complicated as it depends on where we finish in those sections,” explained the former Scotland international. “Then there will be another group so there is going to be a games programme with a number of games right the way through.
“For us, it’s pretty critical for Paul McGuinness and Warren Joyce to be involved in deciding things as they’re actually doing the job so we’ll discover what they think is the best idea of how the games programme fits in, how it’s refereed, do we have a code of conduct for coaches, is it going to be mentored? There are all sort of issues to resolve to make it as good as possible. We have to comply and make observations as we go along.
“There are now three over-aged players allowed plus a goalkeeper on the pitch at the same time. Statistically, the Reserves were largely an Under-21 side and have been for a number of years but, if you look at the make-up of the opponents we played last year, many of them had a lot of squad players in them. So, for us, as a learning process, it was very, very good.
“I’m not so sure there will be as many games like that. It’s another issue but when there are other people involved in the situation where each club gets a vote and we were left with the majority, all the votes were cast and I was in the minority. You have to fulfil the games programme one way or another and we have to work out what’s the best thing for the players – that’s paramount.
“We will resolve those things as we go along but if we feel it’s best for players to stay here, it’s not because of the games programme but because we think it’s most beneficial to them. The overall picture is not just playing in these games but involves various other experiences for them. If the manager feels it’s the right time for them to go out on loan, they will go out. We may well find next year’s statistics show you the Reserves team is even younger than it was over the last couple of years but, again, we’ll have to look at that.
“One of the things that is frustrating and difficult to understand is playing at 11am at Stoke’s training ground, which doesn’t seem any kind of progression to me. One of the points we like about it is it’s different for the Reserves – usually a night-time game and they may have to wear the club blazer, plus there might be a crowd there at the stadium. Hopefully, that can continue. They’re always talking about bridging the gap between the second-team and first-team squad but I can’t see any benefit at all.”
There have also been rumours that some clubs could look to organise fixtures behind closed doors, but McClair feels this would be a backwards step for the Under-21s.
“For me, that’s nonsense,” he insisted. “I mean ‘Why?’ The rules now say you can watch, as long as you follow protocol, any Academy game so why would you not be allowed to watch the Under-21s?
“If that’s the rule, you can’t have closed-door games. If you talk about the Academy ideally including the second-team now in terms of the rules, they say the Academy have to allow other clubs to come and watch these games and follow them. That’s another thing people won’t really comprehend until they’re suddenly getting lots of requests to come and watch games.”