Where are they now? The 15 kids handed Man Utd debuts by Van Gaal
Louis Van Gaal’s two years in charge of Manchester United may not be too fondly remembered, but it was a great time for members of the club’s academy.
United finished fourth and fifth in Van Gaal’s two seasons at Old Trafford, also winning the FA Cup in his final game in charge in 2016.
We’ve looked at the 15 academy players he handed debuts to, to see how their respective careers have developed since.
Van Gaal’s two years in charge of Manchester United, and the subsequent ups and downs, can be neatly illustrated by Lingard.
After the attacker had spent time on loan at Leicester, Birmingham and Brighton, Van Gaal entrusted him with a start in his first competitive match in charge of United.
But Lingard had to be replaced due to injury after just 24 minutes of a defeat against Swansea and by the time he returned to fitness, he was sent out on loan yet again, this time to Derby.
The following season marked Lingard’s breakthrough at Old Trafford, and he ended the campaign scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, which turned out to be Van Gaal’s last in charge of the club.
After making himself a favourite under Jose Mourinho, Lingard fell out of favour under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but he has been revived by another loan at West Ham under David Moyes.
He has nine goals in 14 Premier League games for the Hammers and has even forced his way back into Gareth Southgate’s England squad.
Lingard’s career may not have been consistent, but Rashford’s certainly has.
The striker was thrown in for a Europa League tie with Midtjylland after Anthony Martial suffered an injury in the warm-up and stole the headlines with two goals.
Three days later, the teenager scored twice against Arsenal and also bagged the winner in the Manchester derby later that season. He’s gone on to score plenty more for both club and country – this season he’s netted 21 for United – while also becoming the nation’s darling.
Speaking about his nurturing of Rashford and Lingard, Van Gaal said: “I was very proud that we won the FA Cup with United and with those players.”
The first player signed by David Moyes, Varela had to bide his time to break into the United side, making 11 appearances in Van Gaal’s final season in charge.
A loan to Eintracht Frankfurt the following campaign did not quite work out as planned as the right-back went for a tattoo days before the German Cup final, only to ultimately miss the match after it became infected.
Varela returned to his native Uruguay with Penarol before moving back to Europe with FC Copenhagen in December 2018. In 2020-21, he spent most of the season out on loan at Dynamo Moscow.
“It would be a dream to go back to Old Trafford,” Varela told The Sun in December 2019. “It would be a beautiful moment — I wait for this.
“I’m still only 26. I of course want to go back to the Premier League at some point. In the future, maybe I can come back and play for Manchester United – I hope.”
Varela: “Van Gaal gave me the chance to play so I have to say thank you. He is a crazy coach. He was always angry with the players but it was good. I enjoyed it.” #mufc [Sun] pic.twitter.com/RMU0cJY0xi
— United Zone (@ManUnitedZone_) December 30, 2019
An injury crisis in defence presented McNair with an opportunity in the Red Devils’ starting XI, but he endured a love/hate relationship with Van Gaal.
At one stage Van Gaal suggested McNair could be United’s right-back for the “next 10 years”, but he later criticised the Northern Irishman as “he thought he was a striker” when he gave the ball away high up the pitch in a draw with Leicester.
McNair has since insisted he was played out of position, and his form in midfield for Sunderland in their Championship relegation season led to a move to Middlesbrough in 2018. in the 2020-21 campaign, he played every game for Boro as they finished 10th in the second tier.
Janko’s solitary appearance under Van Gaal was an unhappy one as he was subbed off at half-time in a 4-0 loss at MK Dons in the League Cup.
The right-back joined Porto in 2018 but did not play for the Portuguese club, instead spending time on loan at Nottingham Forest and Young Boys. In the summer of 2020, he moved to Real Valldolid, making 18 appearances as the club battled against relegation from La Liga.
Like Janko, Thorpe made just one appearance for United, coming on as a 94th-minute substitute in a win against West Ham.
The defender then dropped into the Football League with spells at Birmingham, Rotherham, Bradford and Bolton.
Now 28, he has been without a club since leaving Indian Super League side ATK in 2018 and appears to have left football behind for good.
The younger brother of Leicester City midfielder Matty, James is another youngster whose only United experience came in the thrashing at MK Dons.
After loan moves to Carlisle, Rotherham and Huddersfield, the defender eventually found a home at Wigan, but he was released after three years at the club.
He then spent a year at Sunderland before signing for Doncaster Rovers in 2019.
Blackett was one of Van Gaal’s favoured options during the injury crisis, making 12 appearances in 2014-15 and being tipped to become a “great defender” after signing a new deal in 2015.
But a loan spell at Celtic proved unproductive the following season and Blackett was then sold to Reading, where he made over 100 appearances before leaving the club in 2020. He signed for Nottingham Forest, where he made 14 appearances, working his way back into the team towards the end of the campaign.
After Van Gaal’s departure, Pereira had loan spells at Grenada and Valencia in La Liga before returning to Old Trafford in 2018
The attacking midfielder lost his place in the team to Bruno Fernandes and became a much-maligned figure at Old Trafford. Most recently, he has spent the season on loan at Lazio, scoring once in 33 appearances.
— Manchester United (@MUnitedFR) December 31, 2019
Love’s record as a United player does not make for happy reading: two appearances, two defeats, one booking, one admittedly very good name.
David Moyes took the defender to Sunderland, but he struggled to establish himself at the Stadium of Light as the Black Cats suffered back-to-back relegations.
He then joined fellow League One side Shrewsbury Town in 2019 in search of regular first-team football.
Poole made his only appearance for United as a late substitute in the big victory over Midtjylland which marked Marcus Rashford’s breakthrough.
The defender has revealed the likes of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Rashford took him under their wing at the club, telling the BBC: “They know it takes time. I get a bit ahead of myself sometimes and they tell me ‘take your time’ and ‘slow down.'”
After being released by the club in 2019, Poole signed for newly-promoted League One club Milton Keynes Dons on a free transfer, where he stayed for 18 months before joining Lincoln City in January 2021.
— utdreport (@utdreport) June 6, 2019
After making 14 first-team appearances in 2015-16, Borthwick-Jackson was rewarded with a new long-term contract, but the left-back’s career has stalled since then.
Loan spells at Wolves and Leeds United were both terminated early amid questions about his attitude, and the 23-year-old joined Oldham Athletic on loan in January 2020.
After his United contract expired at the end of the 2019-20 season, he returned to Oldham on a permanent deal.
A 95th-minute substitute appearance against Arsenal was all Weir mustered in a United shirt, and a subsequent move to Hull City was derailed by terrible misfortune with injuries.
The midfielder joined Bolton in 2019 but his contract was terminated in January 2020, and he then signed for Pohronie in Slovakia.
The further we go through this, the more the extent of injuries Van Gaal had to cope with becomes apparent. Riley started the 5-1 win over Midtjylland, with his only other appearance for United coming as a substitute against Shrewsbury just a few days before.
An injury ended a loan spell at Sheffield United and the defender spent two years at Bradford City before joining Carlisle United in 2020.
Fosu-Mensah was hailed as the next big thing after making his first-team breakthrough under Van Gaal in 2015-16.
Loan spells at Crystal Palace and Fulham saw the Dutchman earn crucial Premier League experience, but an anterior cruciate ligament injury stalled his progress.
“Who doesn’t want to play for United? So, yeah, I’m definitely eager to come back and to do well and to help the team and to give my all, my heart for this great club,” Fosu-Mensah told the Independent in April 2020.
Unfortunately for him, that proved impossible and he moved to Bayer Leverkusen in January 2021.