Will Keane: I watched Marcus Rashford and thought, ‘That could have been me’
For Manchester United, the FA Youth Cup has a special significance. During his time in charge, Sir Alex Ferguson always took an active interest in how the latest crop fared and must have felt like he’d struck gold 10 years ago.
In May 2011, a talented team featuring Sam Johnstone, Michael and Will Keane, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison beat Sheffield United 6-3 on aggregate, leading to excitable comparisons with the legendary class of ‘92.
Considering the fragile nature of potential, there are inevitable cases of what might have been. But, a decade on, and that side’s reputation has been burnished by the great careers that many of those players have enjoyed, including international recognition, major honours and record-breaking transfers.
“It’s weird, because it feels like a long time ago, but I’ve still got quite clear memories of it,” says Will Keane. “A lot of the older pros always used to say that time goes so quickly. When you’re young, you don’t really think much of it. But I’m 28 now, and you think, ‘God, it’s starting to fly past!’”
Keane was one of the stars of that Youth Cup-winning team. A tall and elegant striker with a clinical edge, he scored five goals as the Red Devils reached the final. Coming through the ranks as a supporter of the club, he knew what the competition meant and wanted to stamp his mark on it.
“It was massive. That age group is probably the most important. You know that if you can perform in the Youth Cup, that’s going to get you recognised. You’d always notice that the manager was watching those games and a lot of the senior players took an interest.
“It was a good opportunity to showcase yourself. We knew that if we did well as a team, we could progress to the next level together. We had a strong squad. A lot of lads had the potential to get around the first team but doing really well in that tournament, and winning it, helped give us that bit more exposure.”
After beating Chelsea in the semi-final, everything hinged on a showdown with Sheffield United. The first leg, at a packed Bramall Lane, was full of entertainment as both sides traded blows. The covering Harry Maguire was unable to keep Lingard’s effort out, but the Blades responded on the stroke of half-time through Callum McFadzean’s thumping long-range strike.
Playing in front of a sell-out crowd, Sheffield United’s biggest of the season, with a trophy at stake, spurred on the young prospects. Keane rose to the occasion. Pogba picked out Lingard with a clipped pass, and his low cross was converted from close range.
“A ball came into the far post and I got free and tapped it in. Some of the United fans and my friends and family were behind that goal and I remember being able to see a few of them when I scored,” he says. “I was made up. Everyone was buzzing.
“To be so young, playing in front of a crowd that big was a little taste of what first-team football was actually like.”
Although Jordan Slew equalised two minutes later, Manchester United were well-set ahead of the return leg at Old Trafford. They put on a show for the home fans, running out 4-1 winners, with Morrison and Keane both registering braces, taking their tally of Youth Cup goals to six and eight respectively.
“He was a bit of a maverick,” Keane says of Morrison. “He didn’t really have a set position. He used to play in that free number 10 role for us. He just seemed to be unmarkable.
“When he got the ball, he could dribble left or right. He wasn’t particularly quick, but he seemed to do everything so quickly on the ball. Some of the stuff he used to try was so cheeky, but he could pull it off.”
Skilful and exciting, Morrison was a box of tricks with the end product to back it up. “He was such a gifted player. He could do anything on the ball, and he was so unpredictable. With a lot of lads, if they make a couple of mistakes, they go under, but he had that confidence, which was almost arrogance, just to keep trying stuff.”
After Michael Keane galloped down the right flank and put in a cross, his brother’s miscued shot fell to Morrison, who finished calmly. Will Keane then doubled their lead from the penalty spot, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way.
In the second half, Morrison surged forward and fired in from the edge of the box. Joe Ironside pulled a goal back before Keane decisively finished off the tie. He feigned to shoot, causing the defender to commit, and then tucked the ball home. Joyful celebrations greeted the final whistle.
“It was just great to be part of it with all your mates, who you’d been with since nine or 10. To come through and have that success with them. We were all looking forward to the next stage of our development.”
Will enjoyed sharing the success with Michael too. “It was extra special for us and all our family. I’d always played with him because we were in the academy together. We were so used to it that it was just the norm. They’re obviously fond memories. It was really fun to go through that experience with your brother, who’s also your closest mate.”
On the night, Manchester United’s cause had been helped by Maguire going off injured early in the second half. Keane remembers coming up against the imposing centre-back, who became the world’s most expensive defender when he moved to Old Trafford for £80million in 2019.
“He was a big lad at that age. He was built like a rugby player!” Keane says. “He wasn’t easy to shrug off at times. I played with Harry when he was at Hull. He was always a really good leader, and a strong, solid defender. You could see how good he was at bringing the ball out. He was dead comfortable on it and hard to stop once he stepped in.
“He’s a really good lad, and I’m really pleased for him. I’m sure, when he was at Sheffield United, he always had high hopes, but I don’t know if he ever expected to be [Manchester] United captain, so it’s obviously a massive achievement.”
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Paul Pogba is another player who more than fulfilled the promise he showed during that Youth Cup run. After leaving for Juventus due to a lack of opportunities, he became a global superstar, winning four consecutive Serie A titles and returning to Manchester United for a record fee.
“Pogba was so skilful. He was physically so strong. He’d use his body and hold players off, but also get out of situations because he had such great feet. His passing and his shooting – he was such a complete player that, even at that age, you thought he was ready to go straight into the first team. I knew that he’d be a top player at the highest level.”
Keane believed that Ravel Morrison was destined to do the same. Alongside Pogba, he was perhaps the best player in an outstanding age group. But, while his fellow midfielder has won the World Cup with France, the enigmatic Morrison has flitted between clubs, failing to realise his extraordinary potential.
“He was always a really good lad. I know he had a couple of issues off the pitch. He probably didn’t quite get the support that he needed, but I know that the club did everything to try and help him out. It’s a shame because there’s no doubt that he had the talent to still be playing for United now. But a lot of lads take different paths for one reason or another.”
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Ten years is a long time in life and football, with so many factors besides raw ability shaping a player’s career. Pogba, Lingard and Michael Keane have become seasoned internationals and Premier League stalwarts. Although others have inevitably fallen by the wayside, that 2011 Youth Cup-winning team still has an impressive hit rate.
For Keane, a regular place in the first team was certainly within reach. He impressed for the reserves under Warren Joyce and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and was rewarded with a Premier League debut off the bench against Blackburn Rovers. Even in defeat, it was a proud moment, the culmination of a lifelong dream.
More chances were sure to follow until Keane damaged his anterior cruciate ligament while on international duty with the England Under-19s, which resulted in him missing more than a year of football at a crucial stage in his development.
“It was frustrating. I’d not had any serious injuries until I did my knee and it set me back. When you’re on such a roll as a young lad, you’re fearless and everything seems to take care of itself.
“I had the injury, and it took a while to come back. I went on loan and I wasn’t fully fit. I was in and out of the team and didn’t perform like I knew I could. My confidence was low.”
After that first loan move to Queens Park Rangers, there were further spells in the Championship with Wigan Athletic, Sheffield Wednesday and Preston North End. At 23, Keane made a belated return to the Manchester United first team under Louis van Gaal, a pivotal moment hampered by a now familiar problem.
“I was involved in a couple of games. I came on in the FA Cup and I injured my groin. I was out for another three or four months. It felt like my last chance to break into the first-team squad had come and gone.”
His misfortune benefited another academy graduate.
“Marcus Rashford played that week in the Europa League. He got a couple of goals, and then a couple more against Arsenal.
“Obviously nothing against him, and he was always going to break through, but at the time you’re thinking, ‘Oh, if I wasn’t injured, that could have been me’. At that point, I knew I had to start thinking about my career beyond United.”
Keane had always believed that he would make the grade at his boyhood club, and with good reason, but he was forced to accept that his future lay elsewhere. In August 2016, he signed for newly promoted Hull City, managed by Ferguson’s former assistant Mike Phelan.
Just three months later, a second knee ligament injury again put him on the sidelines for over a year. Managers came and went as Keane struggled to establish himself. His fortunes improved at Ipswich Town, until the disruption caused by the pandemic, and then he returned to Wigan in October.
The Latics overcame administration to preserve their League One status in 2020-21, and the campaign was the most productive of Keane’s career in terms of both appearances and goals. He scored 12 in 34 games despite playing a deeper role. After everything he’s endured, he still has ambitions of making it back to the top.
“It was good to finish the season strongly and get a few goals. I know I’m capable of that. I just want to build on that next year and go again, knowing that I’ve got a lot more to give. I’m still only 28. I’ve had a couple of good years fitness-wise. Touch wood, I can keep that up and keep progressing.
“I’m at the age now where I just want to be playing regularly and enjoying my football, especially with all the setbacks I’ve had in the past. I don’t want to put too much pressure on it, but I’m still confident I’ve got the capabilities. You see examples, like Jamie Vardy, who don’t get into the Premier League until late, so you never know.”
By Sean Cole