How a former England international ended up playing for Manchester United U21s

How a former England international ended up playing for Manchester United U21s
Tom Huddlestone is enjoying his hybrid player-coach role at Man Utd - Telegraph/Paul Cooper

The moment his recent Manchester derby winner is broached, Tom Huddlestone begins laughing. “I’ve seen the stat: no one on the pitch that day was born when I made my professional debut,” he says. “That wasn’t great!”

The “pitch” was not Old Trafford, or indeed the Etihad, but the Leigh Valley Sports Village. And the game was not in the Premier League, but it’s under-21 equivalent.

Now, the stat Huddlestone is referring to is technically inaccurate – Manchester United team-mate Dermot Mee was almost one when a 16-year-old Huddlestone made his Derby bow in August 2003 – but it still begs the question: why is former England international Huddlestone, now 37 and with almost 250 top-flight appearances, playing for an under-21 side?

Simple. Despite Huddlestone’s last Football League start coming over two years ago, he is very much not retired. Huddlestone remains a full-time footballer, but with an eye on the future. Whereas once Huddlestone could be found captaining Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League, or striving to add to his four England caps, development is now the main goal – both of United’s Academy talent and of his fledgling coaching career.

That said, the occasional Papa John’s Trophy outing remains a welcome opportunity. “Even if there’s only three or four thousand there,” he tells Telegraph Sport, grinning. “It gets the juices flowing again!”

Huddlestone’s hybrid player-coach role was previously held by former Hull team-mate Paul McShane. Jay Spearing occupies a similar position at Liverpool. The concept? Bridge the gap between playing and coaching in a mutually beneficial manner.

For Huddlestone, it came about, if not by accident, then certainly not by design. After a summer 2022 release by Hull, his  “...initial thought was to keep playing. But none of the offers floated my boat”.

Secretly, a retiring McShane had suggested Huddlestone as his potential successor. “We’d spoken during the season,” Huddlestone explains. “He might have thought I was hinting!” A discussion with senior United Academy staff Travis Binnion and Mark Dempsey later, Huddlestone had signed.

His days are much fuller now than when he was purely a player. Huddlestone arrives early for planning meetings. He’ll set up, join in the warm-up, and then lead a section of each session. “Say mine’s a passing drill at the start, I’ll take that and, if I can get my breath back, join in. Then I’m a player helping the lads from within.”

Twice weekly, Huddlestone runs position-specific sessions. Gauging numbers is the trickiest part. “I might have something in my mind needing eight players, but I’m left with two or three,” he says. “The challenge is finding the balance and the adaptability to still go after the same result.”

Academy colleagues, Erik ten Hag and the wider first-team staff are all receptive to Huddlestone’s queries. He is mastering new computer skills and clearly loves his new role, describing it as “perfect for senior pros who still want a competitive edge but equally want to see behind-the-scenes.”

“So much detail goes into everything. As a player, I took that for granted. I don’t know where I thought the information in team meetings was coming from but it was just there. You don’t realise the hours the staff put in!”

Huddlestone acknowledges that coaching at academy and first-team level differ. The former is “predominantly about developing players individually”, with the hope that – like Kobbie Mainoo, the mention of who has Huddlestone purring – they graduate to the latter. Focus is then on “the team and getting three points”.

How a former England international ended up playing for Manchester United U21s
Tom Huddlestone has played alongside Manchester United's Kobbie Mainoo for the under-21s - AP/Dave Thompson

Reserve team football used to occupy the space between the two, and Huddlestone still believes that would be a welcome additional step. Aged 15, he would skip Thursday morning’s double dollop of PE and graphics to train with Derby. Upon leaving school, he became a Championship regular. “But if I hadn’t played maybe 12 reserve team games at school, I don’t think I’d have had the confidence to play men’s football,” Huddlestone explains.

“Teams took pride in winning the reserve league. We played Forest once and Wes Morgan and Des Walker played. That’s my one, not gripe with football, but I think the jump now, especially at Premier League clubs, from under-21s to first team is massive.”

Marco Silva, his Hull head coach in 2017, inspired Huddlestone’s new path, after five months working with the Portuguese leaving a lifelong impression. “Even though I was approaching 30, he was doing things no one had done with me in the previous 14 seasons,” Huddlestone says. “He was almost no-nonsense; ‘this is what I want’. I’ve had some great managers, but I don’t think I’ve ever had the detail Marco gave. Wherever the ball was, I knew where I, and the other nine outfield players, needed to be.”

Do you have to be obsessed, like Silva, to coach? “I think so.” Are you? Another grin. “I’ll be driving in thinking about possession, passing drills, or getting flashbacks to the last game – it takes over your mind.”

Huddlestone speaks with assured clarity – including on his ambition. “Eventually I want to manage,” he says. “If I didn’t give it a bash after 20 years of playing, I think in my 50s I’d regret it.”

Huddlestone realises how much he must still learn, however. “I’ve seen people jump into jobs too soon – I don’t want to do that.” Ideally, he explains, the next step would be to lead an under-18 team or assist at under-21 level.

How a former England international ended up playing for Manchester United U21s
How a former England international ended up playing for Manchester United U21s

Currently, the FA’s International Player to Coach course is aiding his development. Modules include the obvious – like one on the importance of backroom staff – and the less so – “mock interviews…I’ve never had one!”

Until retirement, Huddlestone has an ear in both playing and coaching camps. And so he avoids “b------ing the players as if a full member of staff,” conceding that “...once I become a manager, I might have to add that to my arsenal!”

For now, niggles like the one ruling him out of Friday night’s Liverpool contest remain hazards. “It would have been nice to get back on the pitch at Old Trafford,” Huddlestone admits. Unprompted, he adds “there’ll be a decent crowd and hopefully we’ll get a positive result.” A would-be manager, for sure.

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