It might be a relief to the Manchester United squad that staff vs players five-a-side matches are no longer a regular part of training sessions at football clubs.
The days of coaches getting their competitive fix and of players taking the opportunity to dump management on their backsides are generally a thing of the past now, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is building a very serviceable five-a-side team should those days ever return.
After the promotion of Darren Fletcher to the first-team coaching ranks yesterday there are now former United players in Solskjaer’s inner circle. While Mike Phelan’s best days may be a speck in the rearview mirror, Solskjaer still looks like he knows where the back of the net is, while Fletcher and Michael Carrick have both only hung the boots up in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
It might be another sign of the mood changing amongst United fans that Fletcher’s appointment was embraced so feverishly on Monday. There was a time when Solskjaer’s desire to involve former players around the club led to accusations of an old boys club, but in Fletcher he has promoted an erudite thinker on the game and someone who has impressed since working with United’s Under-16s since October.
Fletcher has done TV work since retiring after a spell with Stoke City, but he was a regular in the directors’ box at Old Trafford last season and was even linked with the technical director post before committing to a career in coaching.
He began working with United’s Under-16s as he worked towards his coaching qualification but has now been moved up to work with the senior squad, where he adds to the growing experience in the backroom staff.
In an interview with The Coaches’ Voice over the weekend, Kieran McKenna said that he didn’t find his limited playing career a stumbling block in his coaching, saying that players were more interested in what you can do for their playing careers than what you did yourself.
That’s evidently right given the growing number of coaches at the top level who haven’t played the game to a particularly high standard, but Solskjaer is keen to balance that off with surrounding his young squad with people who know what it takes to win.
The United manager has often spoken of how winning a trophy will be important for this side, while he extolled the experience Edinson Cavani would bring when signing the free agent in the summer.
But as he looks to develop that winning mentality within his squad, he’s making sure there is plenty of experience within his staff of what it takes to go to the next level.
“Darren has the United DNA running through his veins and he knows exactly what it takes to be a Manchester United player,” Solskjaer said on Fletcher’s appointment.
“He is at the start of his coaching career and his experience both on and off the pitch along with his winning mentality, commitment and hard work will be a great addition to the staff.”
Fletcher’s appointment means United now have former players with more than 1,300 games for the club on the coaching staff, who’ve won a combined 17 Premier League titles and three Champions League trophies between them. That is some pedigree.
While coaching credentials are obviously the most important aspect of Solskjaer’s staff, there is a value to that kind of experience – especially when it isn’t readily available within the squad now.
As United begin 2021 in an unexpected title race only David de Gea over their regular starters has ever won the Premier League title before. But if United’s youngsters need a guiding hand through the decisive months ahead they have more than enough shoulders to lean on at Carrington, advice from people who have been there and done it at this very club.