Where are they now? The 15 youth stars Louis van Gaal handed their Man Utd debut

 | February 08 | 

11 mins read

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Louis van Gaal’s spell in charge of Manchester United between 2014 and 2016 is remembered primarily for three things. The press conferences utterances that were far more box-office than his drab football. Whether it was imploring his players to be “horny”, talking up “Mike Smalling” or rallying “Louis van Gaal’s army”, the Dutchman was never dull on the mic.

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Van Gaal’s brief spell at Old Trafford is also remembered for the FA Cup he lifted in his final game and for a focus on bringing youth through the ranks. No less than 15 academy players received their debuts under Louis. Sometimes he would labour his commitment to youngsters, especially considering many debuted due to injury crises rather than because of their potential.

The result was a band of brothers whose fortunes diverged wildly. They were superstars and journeymen. Internationals and lower-league workhorses. But whether they became a marketers dream or the answer to a pub quiz question, they all had a story. You’ve heard all about Fergie’s Fledglings but here’s what happened to Louis’ Lads.

Jesse Lingard

The latest of Van Gaal’s youth products to hit the headlines, Lingard’s move to FC Seoul has served as a bold underline to his career at the top level. 

‘JLingz’ has demonstrated quality and courted controversy during his career. 232 games for United portray a player who a number of managers trusted to a degree. Just 35 goals in that spell for an attacking midfielder proves why that trust would customarily wane. 

Red Devils fans will always have the trio of Wembley goals that helped them lift the Community Shield, FA Cup and Carabao Cup. But the great question mark remains that if he’d spent less time courting social media approval and more time on his game, would he be remembered more fondly?

Lingard was released by the club two summers ago at the end of his contract. A listless year at Nottingham Forest followed before a half-season spent without a club. Now the K League will serve as the latest chapter in a neverending redemption story.

Marcus Rashford

The most gifted player in Louis’ Lucky 15 debuted almost by accident. Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up for a Europa League game against FC Midtjylland. Only in the squad due to a 13-player injury crisis at Old Trafford, the youngster was stunningly called upon to start the game. His two goals in a 5-1 win ensured nothing would ever be the same again for the Wythenshawe lad.

Far from a flash-in-the-pan, Rashford avoided the bump back to earth the likes of Federico Macheda and James Wilson had suffered in years gone by. He chipped in with eight goals in 18 games that season and never looked back. His record at time of publication stands at 128 goals in 327 appearances for the Red Devils. 

Rashford’s efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic, sticking his head above the parapet and making sure underprivileged children were fed when the government turned their backs, were even more impressive than his goals.

Rashford has struggled with the weight of expectation at times, not least of which was his recent brush with authority when he spent a misguided night in a Belfast nightclub. But there are few players United fans want to see succeed more than this local boy made good. 

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Andreas Pereira

‘The Pre-Season Pirlo’ routinely made fans’ jaws drop with stunning goals, assists and dead-ball mastery. But as the nickname indicates, he usually did this during United’s lucrative overseas tours rather than during the season itself.

Clearly gifted but at times too lightweight and anonymous, Pereira never really found his place positionally at Old Trafford. After numerous loans, Pereira found himself deployed in every position across midfield, with none particularly sticking. 

Now a vital part of Fulham’s set-up, Pereira finally has the backing and support he needs to excel. He never made the grade at United, but Pereira is arguably one of the more successful players on this list in career terms.

Tyler Blackett 

The young centre back enjoyed a case of being in the right place at the right time. As Van Gaal sought to move on from the departed Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, he called upon Blackett to fill the gap.

The switch wasn’t like-for-like, but usually in a 3-5-2 system. After a promising start, an own goal against Arsenal in May 2015 put a dampener on his first campaign. A listless loan to Celtic followed. Having failed to stand out or even see much of the pitch at Parkhead, Blackett signed for Reading and ex-Red Jaap Stam.

He became a fixture at the Madejski, even if Stam didn’t. After leaving in 2020 he has led a more nomadic existence, turning out for Nottingham Forest, Cincinnati FC and current club Rotherham United.

Guillermo Varela 

For a while, the Montevideo-born full back was the favoured choice for those United fans who were ‘in the know’. An eye-catching under-20 international for Uruguay, he carried the marauding tendencies the club cherished in their full backs.

United fans hoping to say “I told you so” to their fellow supporters never quite got the chance. There were just four league outings for Varela to show what he could do. When Jose Mourinho arrived in 2016, he used Varela only once, in a friendly, before loaning him to Eintracht Frankfurt for the season.

The following summer, Varela was sold to Penarol, the same club he had started at as a youth player. Spells at Copenhagen, Dynamo Moscow and Flamengo followed, with the defender never quite progressing past the role of squad player at any of these sides.

Timothy Fosu-Mensah

Fosu-Mensah was one of the most enduring debutants from Van Gaal’s time. Despite making just 30 first-team appearances for the club, these were spread out across six years. Loans at Fulham and Crystal Palace seemed to be intended to unlock his Premier League potential, but he never quite became crucial at either London side.

Upon leaving Old Trafford in 2021, he settled as a squad player at Bayer Leverkusen. Injuries have limited his progress and while still only 26 years old, he has yet to make an appearance in his club’s table-topping Bundesliga campaign.

Paddy McNair 

After making his senior debut in September 2014 against West Ham United, McNair became a frequent sight on match days. The fact Van Gaal’s men won the first four matches he started surely helped instil faith in his abilities.

For a while, it looked like McNair would become an important part of the Dutchman’s project. He notched up 16 appearances in the Premier League in his first season. But his influence waned in his second, where he played just eight league games.

McNair would depart for Sunderland the following year, but it was a move to Middlesbrough in 2018 that would ignite his career. He is two appearances shy of 200 appearances for the club now and won Boro’s Player of the Season award for 2021.

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Saidy Janko

Janko’s United career was pretty much dead on arrival. A 4-0 loss to Milton Keynes Dons in the League Cup in August 2014 made Van Gaal’s mind up about a number of players, Janko included. 

The young wide player was hauled off in that one, never to be seen in a United shirt again. He would enjoy a decent loan at Bolton Wanderers during the second half of that campaign before being sold to Celtic in the summer.

Like Blackett before him, Janko was unable to really excel in Scotland. The Glasgow giants loaned him out to Barnsley before selling him to Saint-Etienne. Janko’s efforts in France earned a step up when he moved to Porto, but he never played a senior game for them before being loaned to Nottingham Forest. After a globetrotting career in the years that followed, Janko is now in his second spell at Young Boys. 

Tom Thorpe

Thorpe was reserve team captain at United, showing attributes that the club needed while the first team endured the loss of many established leaders from Sir Alex Ferguson’s time. Thorpe had also represented England at every age group level up to the under-21s.

The seniors never really benefited from his leadership though. Thorpe’s injury-time replacement of Angel di Maria against West Ham United would end up being the beginning and end of his United career.

Birmingham City, Rotherham United and Bradford City wouldn’t see the best of him in subsequent spells. He caught on at Bolton Wanderers but that upturn only bought him a move to ATK in the Indian Super League. Thorpe would leave the club citing mental health issues. He has since turned out in non-league football for Macclesfield and Stalybridge Celtic.

Reece James 

Not to be confused with the Chelsea star of the same name, United’s James was another victim of that MK Dons massacre. The full back played the whole 90 minutes on that chastening night at Stadium:MK, never to be trusted by Van Gaal again.

But James would come to be valued elsewhere. 253 appearances across a number of Championship and League One clubs have seen him become an important part of sides like Wigan Athletic and Doncaster Rovers. Now at Sheffield Wednesday, the 30-year-old has more contributions to make before his career is done.

Cameron Borthwick-Jackson

Another player who made a handful of appearances as ‘LVG’ tried to work out what his ideal defence looked like amid an injury crisis. The U21 Young Player of the Year was a 76th-minute replacement for Marcos Rojo against West Bromwich Albion on his debut.

Like most players first tried in that 2015-16 campaign, 10 league appearances was as good as it got for Borthwick-Jackson. He barely played on-loan at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leeds United before finally making an impact in League One at Scunthorpe United.

Further loans didn’t take and Cameron was out of the door in 2020, joining Oldham Athletic in League Two. He became a first-team regular before moving to Burton Albion for two seasons. He is now contracted to Slask Wroclaw in the Polish first tier, playing on loan for Ross County in Scotland.

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Donald Love 

Love didn’t figure in the MK Dons horror show, but he found his appearances as limited as those who did. One league game, a 2-1 defeat to Sunderland and a start in an away defeat to FC Midtjylland was the sum total of his contributions.

The Scotland under-21 international did make a further 12 Premier League appearances for former conquerors Sunderland. The rest of his career has been spent in the lower divisions. Shrewsbury Town, Salford City and Morecambe have all utilised his talents.

Regan Poole 

The Welshman enjoyed just a few fleeting minutes for United, appearing as an 89th-minute substitute against Midtjylland in the same 5-1 win in which Rashford debuted with a brace. 

The club didn’t give up on him. Poole spent active spells on loan at Northampton Town and Newport County, the latter club being where he started his career. MK Dons bought him from United in 2019 and he became an ever-present for the controversial Buckinghamshire side.

Over a century of appearances for Lincoln City followed before he moved to Portsmouth last summer. Poole’s efforts saw him recognised with his first Wales cap last year. At the age of just 25, there might well be more to follow in the famous red shirt.

James Weir 

Another player for whom a late substitute appearance represents the entirety of his United action. Van Gaal brought the midfielder on as an injury-time change for Ander Herrera in a 3-2 win against Arsenal. He would appear in seven future matchday squads but never again graced the field for the Red Devils.

In fact, time on the pitch would prove hard to come by wherever Weir went in his career. He played seven games for Hull City and three for Wigan Athletic. Twelve more followed at Bolton Wanderers. Spells with Pohronie of the Slovakian league and MTK Budapest of Hungary offered more football but less fulfilment. Weir retired on Tuesday of this week, at the age of 28.

Joe Riley 

Another veteran of the chastening 2-1 defeat to Midtjylland, Riley started at left back for that low watermark. At least he also got to play in the rematch, the aforementioned 5-1, Rashford-led, thrashing. His sole other appearance came in the FA Cup against Shrewsbury Town.

Riley struggled to break through on loan at Sheffield United, playing twice. He didn’t fare much better at Bradford City on a permanent transfer, managing just eight games across three seasons. 

Business picked up at Carlisle United, where he played almost every game in a successful pair of seasons. Riley moved to Walsall on a free transfer in 2022.

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