How Kobbie Mainoo became Manchester United's main man

Published on: 06 June 2024
How Kobbie Mainoo became Manchester United's main man
Kobbie Mainoo

Kobbie Mainoo's footballing talent is now clear to us all. What the 19-year-old has also proved over the course of this season is his elite sense of timing. A nose for the big occasion.

Calling Mainoo's first Premier League goal a 'late winner' doesn't do it justice. Not when it came in the 97th minute, requiring him to weave past three Wolves players before bending the ball into the bottom corner to snatch a 4-3 victory at Molineux.

Mainoo's first senior goal at Old Trafford was pretty special, too. What better way to announce yourself to your home fans than by whipping a finish into the top corner against Liverpool, your great rivals.

And with United desperate for a shock win over noisy neighbours Manchester City to end a tough season on a high, of course it was Mainoo who stepped up to score the winner at Wembley.

Mainoo is no stranger at the national stadium - he'd already been named player of the match on his first start for England in March.

Still a teenager, Mainoo is already vital to United's future and looks ready to shine for England at this summer's Euros.

But through interviews with those who watched Mainoo's rise, Sky Sports delves into his past to trace a journey that looks set to end at the top.

Kobbie Mainoo is Next Up.

'He just used to glide through games'

Most of us had to wait until Mainoo was in his late teens before witnessing his talent. But Steve Vare - who was Mainoo's first coach at Cheadle and Gatley, just south of Manchester - saw it up close.

"It was apparent from a very early stage that he was an exceptional kid," Vare tells Sky Sports. "It's hard to say when they're so young but you could just tell from the minute he came in."

Mainoo grew up in nearby Cheadle Hulme and joined Cheadle and Gatley when he was just four.

"What struck me was how strong and wiry he was," recalls Vare. "He had a really hard shot on him for such a young kid.

"He was just really powerful - he'd be scoring goals from everywhere. He could just do things that I've not seen kids of that age do."

Naturally, it quickly became clear to Vare that Mainoo needed special treatment.

"I used to have to do a separate warm up for Kobbie because everything else was just too easy," he explains.

"We used to have to say to him, ‘you can only score with your weaker foot’, ‘you can only have two touches of the ball’, or, ‘you can't score, you have to pass to a team-mate'.

"Never complained. He just loved being challenged."

To anyone who witnessed the dramatic winner against Wolves in February, Mainoo's ability to beat several opponents before calmly producing a finish from the edge of the area in the dying minutes of the game may have raised eyebrows. But Vare had seen something similar over a decade previously.

"He would just dominate and score lots of goals, weaving in and out of players," he says.

"He just used to glide through games."

'He's a Man Utd fan - it was a natural choice'

By the age of six, Mainoo was ready to branch out, with Vare explaining: "His dad, Felix, and I used to have chats at the end of each session to say 'how can we test him even more?'

"I got to the point of saying to Felix, ‘Kobbie is ready to play for a professional academy’."

That would come in time. But first, Mainoo made the move to Failsworth Dynamos, based north-west of Manchester. Some early adaptation was necessary, recalls Ian Kelly, Mainoo's coach at his new club.

"He was all tricks, skill, taking people on," Kelly told The Athletic earlier this season. "It took him a bit to learn how to play in a team."

'He's a Man Utd fan - it was a natural choice'

By the age of six, Mainoo was ready to branch out, with Vare explaining: "His dad, Felix, and I used to have chats at the end of each session to say 'how can we test him even more?'

"I got to the point of saying to Felix, ‘Kobbie is ready to play for a professional academy’."

That would come in time. But first, Mainoo made the move to Failsworth Dynamos, based north-west of Manchester. Some early adaptation was necessary, recalls Ian Kelly, Mainoo's coach at his new club.

"He was all tricks, skill, taking people on," Kelly told The Athletic earlier this season. "It took him a bit to learn how to play in a team."

'As a youngster, he was a centre forward'

Entering the Manchester United academy, a famous factory of talent that produced the Busby Babes and the Class of '92, is no mean feat.

But of the thousands of kids that spend time at a club of United's size, only a handful will possess the talent, drive and fortune to make it as professional footballers. Even fewer still will progress to the United first team.

That alone speaks to Mainoo's technical and mental qualities - all of which were apparent to Nick Cox, United's academy director.

"All of our boys are high-potential but you certainly could see that Kobbie had some attributes that meant we wanted to continue working with him," he tells Sky Sports.

"As time unfolded, it became clear he potentially had the ability to go on and play for our first team.

"On the pitch - even as a little 'un - he was then what he is now. He's mastered the ball - he manipulates it brilliantly.

"You could tell he had athletic potential and now you see a powerful, explosive player.

"As a little kid, we were waiting for that to come, but we could sense it was a matter of time."

Not that Mainoo had been dominating the midfield from an early age. "As a youngster, he was a centre-forward and scored a lot of goals," revealed Cox.

"I've seen him play in all sorts of attacking positions. Around the age of 15, 16, he was more of an attacking midfielder."

Not that United was Mainoo's only focus. He continued to play for Shots, a grassroots club coached by Paul Newton, who previously worked with Mainoo at Cheadle and Gatley.

Kobbie Mainoo may be known all over Europe now but Shots was home to some famous names - Kai Rooney, Jacey Carrick, Ben Aguero, Roman Walker and Tyler and Jack Fletcher have all been through the club.

But Mainoo's ability to make a name for himself was in evidence back in 2017, when he scored the winning goal as Shots claimed the North West Junior Champions League - a competition Newton said he had been trying to win for a decade.

'He was a little bit too comfortable'

It's not just Mainoo's technical abilities that were immediately obvious to the coaches that helped guide him during his childhood. Time and again, it's Mainoo's calm temperament that those who worked with him remember.

"One of the things that struck me with Kobbie was, even at that young age, he was very calm, very laid back and soaked everything up," says Vare.

"That's one of his super strengths. He doesn't seem to be phased by anything."

Cox tells a similar story, saying: "Probably his most impressive quality was his character and his personality.

"Kobbie's always been humble, laid back - maybe even quiet off the pitch."

As others fell by the wayside, Mainoo's progress through the age groups at United was smooth and he made his debut in the UEFA Youth League - an U19s tournament - aged just 16.

But the highlight came at Old Trafford in May 2022, when United beat Nottingham Forest 3-1 in the FA Youth Cup final. Alejandro Garnacho scored a brace as United lifted the trophy in front of more than 67,000 fans.

That same month, Mainoo signed a professional contract with United. Eleven years after first training with the club, he was now finally on the verge of the first team.

Yet the cool, calm and composed Mainoo still had some improvements to make in the eyes of Erik ten Hag. The manager felt he was possibly a little too laid back.

"I think very quickly I saw him," explained Ten Hag, who joined United in the summer of 2022.

"I thought he was playing a little bit too comfortable in the U21s. He should be much more dominant."

A first-team debut came against Charlton in the Carabao Cup in January 2023, followed by one brief appearance each in the FA Cup and Premier League.

The plan was for Mainoo to be incorporated into Ten Hag's squad for the 2023/24 season - that was until he suffered an ankle injury on United's pre-season tour of the USA that would keep him sidelined well into the campaign.

For the first time, events were conspiring against Mainoo. But his time was coming.

'This boy is special'

Mainoo isn't used to being upstaged but, after seeing Garnacho grab the headlines in the FA Youth Cup final two seasons earlier, the Argentina international did it again at Goodison Park last November.

Aged 18, Ten Hag handed Mainoo his first Premier League start against Everton. All eyes were on the academy graduate - at least until the third minute when Garnacho scored a goal for the ages.

No matter. United won 3-0 and Ten Hag had been convinced by Mainoo. Having never previously started a top-flight game, he was only left out twice for the remainder of the season.

Gareth Southgate was convinced, too. Less than five months after his first Premier League start, Mainoo skipped the U21s and made his senior England debut against Brazil - although 17-year-old Endrick snatched the headlines by scoring the winner.

Not to be outdone, Mainoo ensured he was the star act three days later, being named player of the match on his first international start as England drew 2-2 with Belgium in the final camp before the Euros squad was announced. Once again, Mainoo's timing was impeccable.

Less than two weeks later, he scored that goal against Liverpool. Less than two months later, he scored that winner against City - the team he turned down more than a decade ago.

Mainoo's rise is no doubt a source of pride for Cox - who first encountered the local boy when he was just 11 - but it's not just his exploits on the field that have caught his eye.

"As much as I've been impressed by what he's done on the pitch, I've been really impressed with the way he's dealt with the media and coped with the spotlight," says Cox.

"He's remained cool but expressed the side of him that we've known since he was a little boy."

But for United midfielders - especially those emerging from the academy - there can be few greater sources of praise than the player Xavi and Zinedine Zidane agreed was the greatest of their generation.

After witnessing Mainoo's match-winning display in the FA Cup final, Paul Scholes wrote on social media: "Read a few comparisons between me and this kid last week... don't waste your time. He is 10 times the player I was at 19.

"Just love the way he receives the ball, the calmness, the awareness of what's around him and of course big goals in big games. This boy is special."

Kobbie Mainoo is Next Up.

Source: Sky Sports

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