Exclusive, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson: "Mourinho said I'm a top player and that I've got a big future at Man United"
Louis van Gaal gave numerous young players a chance in the first team during his two years at Manchester United, as he's done throughout his management career. The fact that the Red Devils were crippled by an injury crisis last season meant it was difficult to determine which of them had a genuine chance of holding down a place in the starting XI in the medium-to-long-term, however.
The arrival of Jose Mourinho and an influx of new signings in the summer means Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford are now the only two regular inclusions in the Red Devils' matchday squad. Some of the youngsters departed Old Trafford as a result of the increased competition for places, including Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, who sealed a loan move to Wolverhampton Wanderers in order to get some meaningful minutes under his belt.
"I speak to him [Mourinho] all the time," Borthwick-Jackson tells FFT at Wolves' Compton Park training base. "He's always keeping eyes on me and he has people watching. When I first came into pre-season I got injured early on, and as I recovered he asked me how I was and things like that. When I came back he said: 'the squad's a bit too big but I see a future for you here' and that I'm a 'top player'. He told me to go out and get some experience."
Borthwick-Jackson always knew the England striker had ability, but he admits to being surprised at the speed of his progress
Borthwick-Jackson hasn't featured as often as he would have liked at Molineux, but the left-back is still enjoying life in the Championship. "It's a very competitive league, as the games come thick and fast on Saturdays and Tuesdays," he explains. "It's a bit similar at United because you have European football in midweek. It's a tough league, but good for my development."
The defender's rise was more prominent than most, with the 19-year-old graduating from a talented under-17 team extremely quickly. “When I first came up last year, it was just about cementing my place in the reserves," Borthwick-Jackson recalls. "It was unbelievable to make my [senior] debut, especially so early in the season."
That youth side also contained Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe and a certain Marcus Rashford. Borthwick-Jackson always knew the England striker had ability, but he admits to being surprised at the speed of his progress.
"You always knew from a young age that he was going to be one of the best," he explains. "He used to operate as a No.10, so he never really used to score goals. It's mad the way he scores now – his record is unbelievable."
Still producing players
You just have to look how the [Under] 18s are doing this year; they're beating teams by five or six goals. I'm shocked at the criticism
Borthwick-Jackson, who used to live only five minutes away from United's training ground, supported the club as a kid. He alternated between centre-back and left-back in his early days in the academy, which explains why he looked up to both Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra. "When Rio was doing his coaching badges, he took a couple of sessions and you would see the senior players around," Borthwick-Jackson remembers. "We had a session with the reserves when Rio spoke to me and gave me some wise words."
United's youth setup has been criticised in recent times, but that feels a little harsh given the calibre of personnel to have emerged from the academy in the last few years. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and the rest of the Class of '92 have perhaps given supporters unrealistic expectations, in the same way that Barcelona may struggle to produce homegrown successors to Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta.
"We call it the 'conveyor belt' because of the number of players that you see out in the league who have played for United," Borthwick-Jackson says. "You just have to look how the [Under] 18s are doing this year; they're beating teams by five or six goals. I'm shocked at the criticism."
Warren Joyce – now Wigan manager – was a key figure in the Englishman's development as he switched between the under-21s and the first team last term, something the youngster is quick to acknowledge. "He's probably played the biggest role. When I first went into the reserves it was just about playing football, but he helped me develop into a man and to get stronger. He instilled the mentality into me that it's different in senior football, as you can't get away with mistakes at this level. He's been a big inspiration in my development."
Help from team-mates
Van Gaal's always been good to me and the other younger players who have gone off on different paths
Borthwick-Jackson is also indebted to Van Gaal and hopes to join the likes of Thomas Muller and Xavi in forging a high-profile career after being handed his debut by the Dutchman. "It gives me confidence as it shows he had faith in me, as he did those other players," the 19-year-old reveals. "I'll always be grateful to him, as he kick-started my career. He's always been good to me and the other younger players who have gone off on different paths. He's set me up for my career now."
Borthwick-Jackson also gave a fascinating insight into how the former Bayern Munich manager set up training sessions: "The way that Van Gaal used to operate was to have 'unit meetings', where the defenders would be together. We would be in our groups and we would discuss things."
The teenager appreciates the encouragement he received from senior players, namely Daley Blind, Chris Smalling and Michael Carrick. "They talk on the pitch and off the pitch," Borthwick-Jackson explains. "Bastian [Schweinsteiger] as well, he's a real calming influence. There isn't anyone that's arrogant or anything, there's a very good team spirit."
One of United's most memorable results last term was a 1-0 defeat of Liverpool, when Borthwick-Jackson replaced Ashley Young just before half-time. Does he have fond memories of that victory?
"Anfield was bit hostile," the full-back laughs. "I won't mention the words that were shouted! To play in such a big game was unbelievable [and] to win at Anfield was a great feeling."
His focus now, however, is solely on Wolves, where he's hoping to be more involved under new manager Paul Lambert.
"He's been good," Borthwick-Jackson says of the former Aston Villa boss. "You can see the uplift in the squad, the way everyone feels and the confidence. He wants us to press and hopefully the results will start coming."