Manchester United have the perfect chance to trial their new midfielder – Samuel Luckhurst

“James Garner is a Michael Carrick, but 20 years younger,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer cooed. The following evening, a 17-year-old Garner emerged for his Manchester United debut at Crystal Palace.

Garner’s last appearance for United was in December 2019 and going more than two years without playing for the club is usually a death knell for an academy player. The next time Garner, on loan at Nottingham Forest for the remainder of the season, could play in a competitive match for his parent club it would be nearer three years.

Yet there is more of a buzz about Garner now than when he was a teenager. The Birkenhead-born midfielder turned 21 last month and his polished performances in front of terrestrial broadcasters against the FA Cup’s record winners, holders and semi-finalists have encouraged United supporters seeking panacea for the team’s midfield malaise.

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Garner’s pass for Ryan Yates in the luckless quarter-final loss to Liverpool matched any action by a United midfielder all season. Garner was around 40 yards from goal, with Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino breathing down his neck and slightly stretching for Jack Colback’s pass yet threaded the ball immediately through the entire Liverpool defense.

The failure of the craven referee Craig Pawson and Video Assistant Referee to award Yates a penalty overshadowed Garner’s lock-picking. ITV, the broadcasters, named Joe Worrall the man of the match but Forest’s Twitter account chose Garner. An admiring Jurgen Klopp embraced Garner on the pitch at full-time.

Garner is already a veteran of two United pre-season tours and three loan spells at Championship clubs but remains a shy speaker. Forest put up Colback, a midfielder with Premier League pedigree, for the pre-match Zoom call against Liverpool and Garner’s media appearances do not extend beyond club channels.

“For me, he’s got all the attributes needed,” Colback said of Garner’s ability to play in the Premier League. “He’s very good on the ball, technically his passing range is excellent but he’s also got the other side of that, which is defensive. I think he doesn’t get the credit, but he’s really good defensively, he covers a lot, gets a lot of tackles in and you need that.

“Like any player you’ve got to keep your head down, keep working, never think that you’ve done enough, but Jimmy will have as good a chance as anyone.”

Forest manager Steve Cooper added: “So far he’s been excellent, over recent months he’s been a high-performing player and a constant selection for us. The loan for him at the moment is proving to be a really beneficial one.”

At the start of last season, some academy staff at United were becoming impatient as Garner dwelt on a loan. One staff member questioned whether he really wanted to head out at all. Huddersfield spoke with Garner but he waited and Watford, recently relegated from the Premier League, signed him for the season.

Garner played for United in pre-season

Holding out for an upper-echelon Championship side paid off, only a Watford manager should always rent rather than buy and Vladimir Ivic was sacked before Christmas. Garner’s face did not fit under new coach Xisco Munoz and he relocated to the Trent in the winter window.

The arrival of Cooper in September has galvanized Garner, who played under the former Swansea coach for England Under-17s. Garner is hopeful of securing a place in the United squad next season and the club extended his contract to 2024 as part of his return to Forest in August.

Garner signed his first professional contract in May 2018 and had already caught the eye of Jose Mourinho, who selected him in the summer tour squad.

“Our good players are young,” Mourinho said in a sweltering Miami at the conclusion of United’s pre-season tour in 2018. “They are 16, 17, 18, they have to play in their league, training with us, like they had a wonderful experience.

“Jimmy Garner is 17, he can go home and say I play against Isco, against Toni Kroos, against [Marco] Asensio, he can go home and say that. It’s capital of experience, fantastic for the kids. “

Garner scored on the following year’s tour in Perth, where Solskjaer quelled expectations at a time United were trying to sign Sean Longstaff, a similar profile of player, from Newcastle. Garner impressed in the Partizan Belgrade bear pit three months later in one of only starts that season – all of them in the Europa League group stage.

Garner impressed in Belgrade
Garner impressed in Belgrade

Midfielders have to mature a little more before they are deemed ready. A forward, be it Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood or Anthony Elanga, is in the vicinity to have the maximum impact.

United’s academy midfielders age a little more. Scott McTominay was 20 when he made his debut and 22 when he became a regular. David Beckham was 20 at the start of his first full season with United, Darren Fletcher earned undroppable status aged 24 and Tom Cleverley was five days short of his 22nd birthday when he changed the game in the 2011 Community Shield, his debut di lui, no less. Nicky Butt came to prominence at 19 but turned 21 midway through the ‘double double’ breakthrough season of 1995-96.

With Paul Pogba arguably more useful to United shifting pre-season tour tickets than performing on the pitch in his final months, Nemanja Matic out of contract next year, Donny van de Beek’s uncertain and the club due to settle on a new manager before the campaign’s conclusion, it would be remiss not to utilize Garner next season.

Fletcher, the technical director, namechecked Garner among the loanees ‘reaping the benefits’ of regular playing time and said United were eager to recall Garner and see how he fares with the first-team players. Garner has already fared well and the next challenge is not to say farewell.


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