April 2018. It is matchday and the Old Trafford concourse is a hive of activity outside the east stand. It is wet again in Manchester but United supporters are singing in the rain after delaying Manchester City’s title win with a coruscating comeback at the Etihad the previous week.
West Brom, destined for relegation, are in town and United have to win to extend City’s wait. Fans and tourists are framing the money shot of the Sir Matt Busby statue, positioned proudly in front of the sleeping giant he roused. Others are drawn to the Trinity statue Busby smiles at opposite him.
A group of French teenagers from Les Ulis, a semi-professional team 24 kilometres south-west of Paris, gawp in awe at Best, Law and Charlton. One of them tells a teammate that one day he will return to play for United.
The kids watch United lose a scrappy contest and their compatriots are subdued: Paul Pogba is substituted to avoid a dismissal and his replacement, Anthony Martial, is ineffectual. City are champions and United are goaded by the West Brom Twitter account.
Martial does not forget his obligation, though. His shirt adorns the clubhouse at Les Ulis and he has invited members of the Under-15s team over. They leave with Megastore bags stuffed with shirts and signed Martial cards.
Two-and-a-half years later, the kid who vowed to return is back; a Gary Neville throw-in away from the Trinity statue, inside Hotel Football, overlooking Old Trafford. Inside the stadium, Tottenham are trouncing United, but in the hotel a teenager cannot stop grinning. Willy Kambwala has just signed for United.
A French captain, Spaniards from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid and an England international from Manchester City is the kind of transfer window beyond most recruitment departments. Not the United academy’s.
Their external intake this year is already bearing fruit: Joe Hugill, 17, has received a professional contract three months after arriving from Sunderland for £300,000 and taken to Under-23 football like a duck to water. Alvaro Fernandez has also made the step up to the second string and Charlie McNeill, the aforementioned England youth international, scored on his Under-18 debut in the 4-0 thrashing of Derby.
Marc Jurado and Alejandro Garnacho emerged at Derby’s training centre and starting at centre-back was the 16-year-old debutant Kambwala. His name was misspelt twice in the official report on the United website but those watching will remember the name.
United announced Kambwala’s arrival from Sochaux on deadline day for a fee rising to €4million. Normally, the club would not accompany an academy signing with an unveiling picture yet they were happy to distribute a smiling snapshot of Kambwala, resplendent in United red as he posed.
“Make of that what you will in terms of how happy they are with the coup,” a United source said. The deal was brokered by the former Arsenal chief executive David Dein’s son, Darren.
The intention was for Kambwala to ‘initially’ join the U18 squad but a promotion already feels like a matter of time for the France Under-17 captain. The add-ons involved in Kambwala’s transfer fee include first-team clauses.
Kambwala’s highlights package from Derby was impressive: a set-piece threat, perceptive passing, Olympian speed and a bruising sliding tackle. Derby played for 70 minutes with 10 men following the dismissal of Eli Christie and Kambwala is certain to face tougher assignments against the academies of Everton and Liverpool before Christmas.
But not Chelsea. United get to conclude their FA Youth Cup campaign on Friday in their semi-final at St George’s Park and are the only team to have beaten Chelsea in the competition in the last seven years. Mason Greenwood, Chelsea’s conqueror in the third round nearly two years ago, is still eligible to feature.
Chelsea are one shy of equalling United’s Youth Cup haul of 10 and seven of their nine triumphs were in the 2010s. United were the only side to beat them outside of finals in 2011 and 2018, classes that produced Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Ravel Morrison and Greenwood, James Garner and Brandon Williams. Eight of the players who figured in the December 2018 tie have since debuted for the first-team and the most recent – Teden Mengi – could return to captain the U18s this week.
Kambwala’s compatriot, Hannibal Mejbri, is still only 17 and may also drop back down for United’s first Youth Cup semi-final since they lost to Chelsea in 2012. Pogba, Lingard, Morrison et al. were the last group to win the competition against Harry Maguire’s Sheffield United nearly 10 years ago.
Les Ulis had another rough diamond who was polished in Manchester in Patrice Evra. Tshimen Buhanga trained Martial and told Le Parisien: “Willy is a well educated, polite, helpful, serious and a competitive boy on the field, smiling outside. Of all the boys I have coached, Willy is the one who made the best impression on me from a character standpoint.
“I call him ‘Captain’, even when I have him on the phone. If he perfectly follows in Patrice Evra’s footsteps, you will have to say ‘Captain’.”
United gladhanded Mejbri by flying him to Norway for last year’s friendly against Kristiansund in Oslo. Another Frenchman, Philippe Mexes, was invited over to Manchester when he was a teenager at Auxerre and given a number six shirt with his name printed on it, as well as ‘a little letter from Eric Cantona in that he said he hoped I would follow in his footsteps’. Mexes never did.
While Romain Poirot is the United scout tasked with unearthing ‘world-class’ players (he recommended Edinson Cavani), the United youth talent-spotter Mathieu Seckinger is responsible for the Mejbri and Kambwala discoveries.
Ed Woodward deemed Jurado and Fernandez worthy of mention in his programme notes for the Crystal Palace match on September 19 and in last week’s investors’ call trumpeted the investment in United’s ‘thriving academy’, quoting a statistic that was first published by the MEN.
He might soon be mentioning Kambwala’s name.