Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Scott McTominay: I want to become the player driving the standards at Manchester United

The midfielder has big ambitions at Old Trafford as he looks to establish himself as a first-team regular

Manchester United’s players left Oslo’s Ulleval stadium on Tuesday evening after their fifth successive pre-season win.

It was a poor game on a damp evening, but hundreds of fans waited close to the Premier League team's coach to catch a glimpse of the players following the 1-0 win achieved by Juan Mata's penalty.

Marcus Rojo was first to board, long ahead of the rest, an isolated figure with a doubtful United future.

Nemanja Matic, a man from a land of tall folk, towered over journalists and local celebrities who interviewed him.

Taller still was the suited Scott McTominay, who came to speak to The National.

A mere 1.76 metres at 17, he is now 1.92m, the loftiest in the squad but, given the muscle he’s built up, no long the slenderest.

McTominay joined United at 10 and the club stuck with him and allowed him to grow. They thought that while still slim and gangly, he was a brave player – something Nicky Butt noticed when he trained with the youngster.

Butt told Jose Mourinho, who gave him his debut. Now 22, he is a first teamer playing more and more.

“I’ve really enjoyed this pre-season,” he said. “It has been different, we have put a lot more work in.

"I feel that the boys have taken to it well and in the games that we’ve had we’ve showed glimpses of what we can do, with the expansive attacking football.

"We have so much to improve and tonight there were a few mistakes from everyone but there’s time to put it right in pre-season and get it right for the first game.

"I’m definitely fitter than I’ve ever been. I feel fresh and ready to go, to compete for a place in the first XI.”

Words will only go so far after a sixth place finish in 2018-19, something McTominay admits.

“It was a difficult season, we have to put it behind us," he said. "After Everton away I came home and I was nearly in tears. It was so difficult to handle.”

At Huddersfield Town in May in United’s woeful penultimate league game, he sat in the dugout after the game appearing to curse how bad his team had become.

It might have looked contrived, but the feeling was genuine and contrasted with a year earlier when Mourinho invented a new award of ‘Manager’s Player of the Year’ for McTominay.

Mourinho, who dubbed him ‘The Kid’ was an advocate of the player who grew up in Lancaster, 50 miles north of Manchester.

United are popular in Lancaster, which has its own semi-professional team, though McTominay watched nearby Preston North End as a child, plus even closer Morecambe, the second worst supported of England’s 92 league clubs and one who has done well to stay in the league.

McTominay’s mother is from Morecambe, his father Scotland. Both sit in the Stretford End among fans and watch him play.

They follow him for Scotland too – and closer to home when he was at Lancaster’s gloriously named and located Giant Axe ground in the shadow of the city’s castle this week.

“We had a charity football match for one of my mates whose mum had cancer a few nights ago and raised a lot of money,” he said.

The fundraiser was squeezed in between the Asian pre-season tour and a trip to Norway.

“There were 300 people there, friends I can’t always see. We raised a lot of money for a cause which is close to all my friends’ hearts.”

When Mourinho moved on, there were doubts among fans about McTominay’s United future. A cynical view was that Mourinho used him as the anti-Paul Pogba with whom he often clashed.

Eyebrows were raised when McTominay started ahead of Pogba in an Uefa Champions League away game in Sevilla, as they were when he started as a central defender in a dire defeat at West Ham United in September 2018, where McTominay was not the only one to struggle.

Maybe Mourinho did want to make a point as he eulogised about McTominay’s attitude and talent, but the pragmatic Portuguese also appeared to instruct McTominay to be no thrills - to block, intercept and close spaces. And Manchester United are traditionally not no thrills.

McTominay was to Mourinho what Darren Fletcher was to Sir Alex Ferguson, a player for who the manager had the deepest of soft spots.

Yet Fletcher became a vital cog in United’s winning machine and McTominay’s future looks brighter now than ever.

“The manager has been so good with me,” he says of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. “I had to be patient at the beginning.”

Solskjaer did not start him in a league game for two months. McTominay rather got his chance because of injuries to others. He seized it when he did get the chance.

“I had so show him that I could be a Manchester United player and for him to trust me in in big games but I feel that I did that last year.”

McTominay’s worthy performances at the end of last season were crumbs on a plate from which United fans had long feasted.

He was encouraged to move forward, to play a bit, to attack. Solskjaer always wants a midfielder arriving in the box. Most were too exhausted to get there by the spring, but McTominay scored the club’s only two goals from open play between March and May – a startling statistic.

Smashing the ball into the corner at Wolverhampton Wanderers was just about the only bright moment in three games against the Midlands side last season.

The young No 39 was also far better than supposedly stellar names around him.

L’Equipe rated him as the best player on the pitch for United against Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-finals in April, the United player demonstrating the most desire after the Catalans dominated the first 15 minutes.

United played Barcelona after somehow eliminating Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round, an achievement that still resonates with McTominay.

“That night in Paris was probably the best of my life – there was so much adrenaline,” he says of the dramatic 3-1 win in Paris, where a penalty in stoppage time from Marcus Rashford put United through on away goals.

“The penalty, going to the away fans after to celebrate. We don't just want more of that at this club, we need more of that. We’re going to work incredibly hard to make sure that we do.”

He’s optimistic, he speaks well, too. “Where I want to get to is being that player in the team where you’re a leader, you’re the one telling people. You’re driving the standards,” he adds.

McTominay has still only played 47 first team games. He’s not yet a mainstay and the decision to put him in the cover of the Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 computer game rightly raised eyebrows, but he’s moving on up and his teammates are helping.

“Nemanja and Paul have been so good to me,” he says of Matic and Pogba. “I learn from them, the small details not just on the pitch but about life and how to handle yourself on and off the pitch, how to be around fans, to respect the fans.

"I’ve been brought up to be humble; to have good standards, anyway, but young players can get side tracked.

"Nemanja tells me to keep my feet on the ground, to concentrate on football and not to be concerned about material things like cars.”

That is Matic, who has puts a sizeable proportion of his wages back into making his hometown in Serbia a better place. “I love Nemanja, he’s like a big brother to me,” McTominay adds.

Mourinho wasn’t adverse to telling him off either as he came into the first team dressing room. It doesn’t matter how good a young player is, the first teamers have to like them.

That did not always happen – the confident Adnan Januzaj was an example of how not to win friends and influence people. Mourinho encouraged McTominay to respect his elders and learn the dressing room nuances.

Now, the training is mostly taken by those Mourinho promoted - Kieran McKenna and Michael Carrick.

“Kieran and Michael are so good,” says the midfielder. “Incredible attention to detail, planning and lots of advice.

"If I don’t listen and learn then someone else will and take my place – my dad always told me that.”

“It’s incredibly important that this club brings academy players through. I remember when I’d made my first team debut after coming through the academy.

"I went to the training ground and everyone in the canteen was buzzing. They were saying how proud they were – and they’d played their part too. I want the other lads to get that buzz, to follow in the footsteps of Marcus and Jesse (Lingard), two of the best examples.

"It’s good when players come through from the same teams, when they’ve known each other for 10 years. That creates a real spirit.”

McTominay played with Rashford in the under 16s, then as a No 10, now usually in front of the defence. He’s in competition with Matic, Fred, Andreas Pereira and Pogba, but there will also be more opportunities for him since Ander Herrera and Marouanne Fellaini departed.

“There’s a lot of things I know I can improve on,” he said. "I’m constantly working. I don’t want to sit on games that I’ve played, I want to get to the next level.”

He has the support of his manager. “Scott is a good example of what we expect and hope from our youngsters,” said Solskjaer.

“He is being patient and I hope he’s going to break through properly this season and have a great impact on the team.”

He’s no longer the kid, he’s no longer going to get cut slack for being one either. As with many United players, it’s his time to deliver.

Updated: July 31, 2019 07:09 PM

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