There’s a manager in English football at the moment who, in the 26 months he’s been in charge, has won seven trophies of the twelve he’s contested. He works in an area of the game that gets little recognition and where, frequently, his most promising players will be loaned out or move on elsewhere. Despite these fluctuations, in his last 68 league games in charge his team have only lost eleven times and, in the two cup competitions they enter each season, they’ve only lost one game since 2010.
This season, despite injuries and loans forcing him to operate without a recognized striker for much of the second half of the season, his team are well placed to reach the final of both of those cup competitions again and, against many United fans’ expectations, have qualified for the knock-out stages of the Elite League.
Followers of United’s Under 21 team will be aware that I speak of Warren Joyce, though not all of them will agree with the glowing terms in which I speak. Joyce replaced the universally lauded Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in December 2010 and since then has far exceeded his legendary predecessor’s record with United’s youngsters while gaining far less praise in the process. Unsurprising, perhaps, given that Solskjaer’s status among United fans benefits considerably from what he did as a player with us, while Joyce spend much of his long career as a journeyman footballer with Hull, Bolton and Preston, arriving at United after a stint as manager of our feeder club Royal Antwerp.
Although Joyce was officially co-manager with Solskjaer, he was generally regarded as the Norwegian’s assistant but, since Ole left for Molde, United’s record at this level has been little short of astonishing. Yet, talking to United fans who, like me, regularly attend Under-21 matches, this view is far from universally accepted. I hear him regularly criticized for the side’s allegedly negative play, with the fourteen goals in eleven matches we’ve scored in the Elite League this season cited as damning evidence. Only West Brom, languishing at the bottom of the table, have scored fewer goals than United since the Elites kicked off in January.
I don’t see it that way. When the manager had attacking players of the quality of Will Keane or Ravel Morrison available, the football his team played was of a style you’d expect from a United side. The fact that, without that recognized striker, United’s Under 21s have adapted their game so well, doesn’t reflect poorly on their manager: rather, it speaks volumes of Joyce’s qualities as a coach. His team still plays creative football, but the frequent, and frustrating, lack of an out and out striker has inevitably made goals harder to come by. Joyce has rightly developed a mean defence, led by the excellent Thorpe and highly under-rated Fornasier, and has had ball-winning midfielders like Charni and Veseli operating behind the brilliant Januzaj, ensuring the paucity of goals is backed up by a secure rearguard. I, for one, doubted that United’s Under 21s would make it to the final stages this season. Now, due to Joyce’s excellent management of his playing resources, a win at Wolves on Friday night will see us through with two games to spare.
It’s been this, even more than the trophies won in the last couple of years, that confirms for me that Warren Joyce is the real deal. It’s May and we’re still in with a chance of the league and two cup competitions. That’s a position you want a United manager, at any level, to be in. A largely undistinguished managerial record prior to arriving at Old Trafford may help to ensure that, unlike Solskjaer, the opportunity to become the main man somewhere else might not come along to lure him away from us. That prospect evidently doesn’t thrill all United supporters, but this Red is more than happy for Warren Joyce to remain in charge of our promising youngsters for as long as possible.