On the fourth anniversary of Ashley Young joining Manchester United, ManUtd.com's Mark Froggatt pays tribute to the flourishing 29-year-old and highlights an early turning point in the player's career. Ashley Young joined Manchester United on this day in 2011 and, in the four years since, the midfielder has displayed the fighting spirit that has underpinned his professional career. Just last summer, at the end of the 2013/14 season, rumours of a potential exit were rife following the Reds’ seventh-place finish in the Barclays Premier League and a frustrating season for Young, who registered just 17 starts under David Moyes and was not exempt from media criticism.
However, new manager Louis van Gaal gave every player an opportunity to impress during the club’s pre-season tour of America and the Dutchman was impressed by Young’s willingness to adapt to his philosophy. This led to Ashley becoming a genuinely integral player at Old Trafford in 2014/15 - he made 24 starts, scoring two goals and notching five top- flight assists. Having fulfilled a number of different positions in a variety of formations, he fits the mould of van Gaal’s “multifunctional players” and is reportedly set to sign a new contract - and deservedly so in this writer's opinion. This isn't the first time Young has successfully fought for his place at a football club. In the summer of 2001, Ashley was rejected by Watford’s youth academy and told he could look for another team.
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This was a particularly seismic blow for the 16-year- old, who had recently frustrated a careers advisor by insisting his only wish in life was to become a professional footballer. Although he did not know it at the time, this early bombshell that threatened to extinguish his dream would eventually provide the foundation on which his entire career would be built. After crying from the initial shock of being turned away, Young took stock at his family home in Stevenage and thought hard about the options that were ahead of him. In his mind these were threefold: find another club, take up an offer of playing part-time football at Vicarage Road or get a ‘proper’ job. As the England international now explains, his heart took him in only one direction. “When you’re on the YTS (Youth Training Scheme) and that day comes when you’re going to be told if you’ll be kept or let go it’s horrible, particularly at such a young age,” said Ashley.
“It’s one of those decisions that can make or break you. I’d been at Watford since I was 10 years old and I remember going into the meeting not knowing what was going to be said. When they told me I wasn’t going to be offered a full scholarship, my heart sank and it felt like the world had ended. “But they turned round and said I could still come in part-time, train twice a week with the full-time boys and play at the weekend. It was up to me to go away and decide whether I wanted to continue at Watford or go to another club. I went back home that day and I don’t think I moved from the chair all day, it was tough. Mum and Dad were trying to get my spirits up but I was really upset. It took me a few days to think about it and I decided I wanted to stay – it had been the only the club I’d known.
There were other clubs who wanted to take me but I felt like I wanted to stay at Watford and prove to them that I was better than they thought. Prove that I would make it into the first team.” Young’s initial rejection was based on various fragments of his game that required improvement and, to help him develop, he was sent to train with the Hornets’ Under-18s, an age-group that was two years above his natural level.
This was a daunting test but the decision paid dividends and he was starting matches within a year. Another promotion to the Under-21s followed and, with the wind in his sails, Watford finally offered him a professional contract that was gratefully accepted. Of course, Young later signed for Aston Villa and flourished in the Premier League over four seasons at Villa Park, before the England international scribbled his signature across a contract at United on this day in 2011, vindicating his previous decision to prove himself at Watford. Highlights of his debut season at Old Trafford included a superb double in United’s 8-2 annihilation of Arsenal, as well as another brace during a 3-1 win at Tottenham Hotspur, though any personal glories were regrettably overshadowed by the agonising manner in which rivals Manchester City claimed the title on goal difference with just seconds of the season left to play. But under Sir Alex Ferguson’s instruction to harness the pain of that defeat - a technique Young had mastered long ago - the Reds bounced back and claimed the 2012/13 crown at a canter, allowing the legendary boss to bow out at the top.
Incidentally, it was around this time that Ashley bumped into his aforementioned careers advisor. “I saw her and asked if she remembered our meeting,” he recalled. “She couldn’t. We laughed and I said, ‘I bet you don’t!’ I’d always had that goal to make it though, that desire and drive. I’m always asked what I'd have done if I wasn’t a footballer and I can’t answer it because that’s all I knew I wanted to do.” Such admirable strength and determination has allowed Young to become a senior figure at United and one whose place in van Gaal’s squad seems guaranteed ahead of the much-anticipated 2015/16 season. So on the fourth anniversary of his arrival, here’s to another four years from our maturing no.18.
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