Stagnation would be the apt word for Brandon Williams over the past few seasons at Old Trafford, following his initially promising foray into the first team.
Brought on as a substitute in a hard-fought Carabao Cup win over Rochdale in the 2019/20 season, Williams offered glimpses of the enthusiasm and intensity a manager wants from a youngster. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, his then-manager, was suitably impressed.
Williams would go on to make his full debut away to Az Alkmaar a week later in a performance Solskjær described as “fantastic.”
Williams would then experience his personal highlight of the season away to Sheffield United. Handed the starting berth on the left-hand side again, Williams was thrust into a raucous Bramall Lane – an atmosphere which caused his more-experienced team mates to wilt.
With Manchester United two nil down at the seventy minute mark, Sheffield United were in cruise control and on course for a famous victory. Until an unlikely intervention.
Williams popped up with a “belter” of a half-volley from an unlikely angle to drag United back into the game – a technically proficient goal crafted from virtually nothing. Two more goals in seven minutes followed, as Williams and his team mates performed the quintessential United comeback story to take a 3-2 lead.
They could not hold out for a classic victory however, as Sheffield United scored an equaliser in the final moments of the game, producing one of the most pulsating games of the season; led, in part, by United’s young fullback. The future was bright, or so it seemed.
Williams has not been able to capitalise on this early promise. 36 first-team appearances in the 2019/20 season gave an impression the fullback had found a permanent home in the United squad. 37 appearances over the next three seasons – including a season-long loan to Norwich – suggests this perception was premature.
Williams is something of an afterthought at Old Trafford now. Luke Shaw’s return to form, engendered by the arrival of Tyrell Malacia from Feyenoord last summer, makes the left-back position a well-stocked one. Indeed, Williams’ most noticeable contribution this season was a since-deleted Instagram post criticising Manchester City and Rio Ferdinand. United officials were reportedly “disappointed” and “unhappy” with the fullback’s actions.
The behaviour is believed to see Williams ‘only further frozen out of the team’ amidst an important summer for the fullback. He has twelve months remaining on his deal, although the club reserve the option of a further year. However, United must move away from the Woodwardian culture of retaining players in the fanciful hope of their value increasing. Particularly, youth players.
Manchester United’s academy is the beating heart of the club. It is also the beating heart of the Premier League, with United contributing the most academy graduates in the top-flight. Leigh Sports Village is as crucial a stadium to Manchester United as Old Trafford.
Yet the club should seek to utilise the academy’s productivity to the betterment of the first team more.
Financial Fair Play is a somewhat limiting factor for one half of Manchester (the other half doesn’t recognise the word ‘fair’), but selling from the academy is an antidote to this problem, as youth players are profit treasure troves from an FFP perspective. Emergent youngsters should be carefully judged as to whether they offer more to the club as a transfer sale or a long-term project.
Similarly, from the youngsters’ perspective, a consideration between the desire to play for your boyhood club and stagnating on the bench must be made. Brandon Williams experience at Old Trafford over the past three seasons illustrates the failing of this delicate balance.
Williams should have been sold last summer, following a reasonable loan to Norwich, where he made 26 league appearances. The fullback showed he could, at a minimum, tread water in the Premier League. He should have been given the opportunity to continue that development at another club where he would play with the same regularity, and United bank on a transfer fee which had reached its financial apex.
Instead, Williams returned to Old Trafford and made one appearance. His development stagnated, as well as the fee his transfer would command. A failure all round.
The same mistake should not be repeated this summer. Sell – for Williams, as well as for the club.