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Nick Cox: The Man Behind Manchester United’s Academy Revamp

Nick Cox was named Manchester United’s Head of Academy in 2019, and since then things have changed dramatically behind the scenes at the club regarding the talent coming through at the youth level. This resulted in Cox being promoted to the role of Director of Academy in October 2022. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also has to be given a huge amount of praise for the turnaround, as he and his coaching staff put a huge emphasis on restoring some of the values that made Manchester United what they are today.

The Busby Babes legacy will never fade away when it comes to the ethos of the club and youth, courage and success will always be a mantra shared by those associated with and working within the institution.

“The Academy journey prepares players by exposing them to scenarios that replicate what they might encounter in the 1st team”.

Nick Cox.
Nick Cox
Nick Cox: Manchester United’s Head of Academy.

Who Is Nick Cox?

Nick Cox initially started as a Sports Science lecturer at Oaklands College in September of 2000, getting his first job in football working as the Development Centre Co-Ordinator at Watford Football Club from March 2001 until September 2003. The Englishman then went on to be the Football Development officer, and the Head of Education before taking over as the Manager of the Academy in May 2007 until May 2011, when he became the head of the entire academy at the club.

“Push strength’s, hide weaknesses.”

After this, Cox went on to work at current Premier League side Sheffield United from December 2012 until May 2016, where he again worked as the Academy Manager. During his time at Watford, by his admissions, he contributed to 52 academy players coming through the ranks at the club. Amongst those was Jadon Sancho, before joining Manchester City.

Jadon Sancho with Nick Cox.
Nick Cox presents Jadon Sancho with his Premier League debut ball.

At Sheffield United, he worked with the likes of Dominick Calvert-Lewin, David Brooks and Aaron Ramsdale. All currently Premier League players for teams like Everton, Arsenal and Bournemouth.

In May of 2016, Cox was hired by Manchester United as the Academy Operations Manager. This role entailed “ensuring the delivery of an elite and holistic development programme for players aged 7-21 years of age.” He spent 3 years in this role before being promoted to Head of Academy in July 2019. The last five years since that day have been some of the most successful in recent years for the club in regards to the implementation of players moving from the youth system into the first team.

How To Maximise The Potential Of Youth

Alejandro Garnacho, Rasmus Hojlund and Kobbie Mainoo
Alejandro Garnacho & Kobbie Mainoo are now fixtures in the first team from the academy.

“You don’t know until the camera pans to him on the touchline getting ready, and that’s the point at which your phone goes crazy, cause all the staff are messaging each other other cause it’s a big moment for everyone.”

Nick Cox on the Ben Foster Podcast.

Cox has spoken in the past about how the journey at Manchester United is rarely linear. This has been evident throughout the years with a lot of players that have come through the academy. The likes of James Wilson, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Tyler Blackett are huge examples of this. Their careers at the club started at the very top, but the linear progression did not match that of their debuts for the club. All three have still gone on to have impressive careers in senior football since that day, however.

The likes of Marcus Rashford and Wayne Rooney are once-in-a-generation footballers, but they are not the true depiction of the typical journey of an academy player coming through at a Premier League club. Paul Pogba’s career is an example of that, with the former academy player having to leave the club before he ever even made a debut in the first-team.

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“Don’t ever expect the industry to settle down”, is what Cox tells the academy lads in their journey up through the ranks. Academy football is unpredictable, and the structure behind the scenes is pivotal in the players having the best chances possible within that industry.

Part of that journey is to show the players that linear progression is not a true depiction of how football goes. The best player within an academy squad will not necessarily be the best player in the first team, and failure to alert them to the challenges of being out of the team during this ascent could be a huge problem if they eventually break through.

“Player’s don’t have to be perfect to have top careers.”

Nick Cox

Manchester United’s mantra under Cox is not to find the best players at every age group and win every competition available to them, it’s about helping whatever individual that comes through the club at academy level reach their full potential. No matter what level of quality that player may be before they enter the historic doors of Carrington, Cox’s job is to ensure that when or if they leave, they have reached the biggest heights they possibly could have under the care of he and his staff.

The club must give players a proper education and an adequate amount of exposure on the football pitch. It’s a two-way sacrifice from both sides, that would be rendered pointless if the player was constantly stuck on the bench getting no exposure in the Academy squads.

Cox believes in making every single player who plays for the club at youth level understand some sort of struggle. Football is not all about winning trophies. Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford’s careers at the club are big enough indicators to showcase that players from the Academy will experience periods of hardship once they break through, no matter how talented they are.

It’s about putting a player in an uncomfortable but safe environment, allowing them to learn about their flaws and things they can improve on, and giving them a platform within the system to be able to grow and improve themselves. That is how Nick Cox maximises the potential of youth players at Manchester United.

“If you can get to 50 games you might be able to call this your job, if you can get to 100 games, right this might be your career.”

Nick Cox on the Ben Foster Podcast.

Accomplishments At United

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Since Cox took over as Head of Academy in 2019, the academy system has gone from a forgotten entity to one of the most prominent in English football. In the present day, the u18 side is currently unbeaten at the top of the Premier League 2, having won every single game so far. Some of the players on that side are tipped to be destined for the first-team very soon. Players like Harry Amass who the club signed from Cox’s former club Watford, Jack and Tyler Fletcher, and Shea Lacey are all tipped to go on to do major things at the club over the next decade if nurtured correctly.

Former Sheffield United youth player Amir Ibragimov is also someone the club has high hopes for, with the 15-year-old featuring for both the u18s and the u23s on the same day last week.

“It’s not forced or manufactured. This is what we do”

In 2022, the u18 side won the FA Youth Cup for a record eleventh time, beating Nottingham Forest in front of a record crowd at Old Trafford. Within the side that day, two current first-team regulars ran the show. Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho announced themselves to the world on that historic day in May 2022, and they have been well and truly part of the furniture at the club ever since.

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Cox has to take a lot of credit for that triumph, although of course there are so many others to take into account when commending the achievement of the players and management on that day and the days that came before it.

It was the first time the club had won the trophy since that famous side in 2011 that had the likes of Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison in it. United beat Sheffield United on that day, with Cox joining the Blades a year later as the Academy Manager.

Progression Into First-Team

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Since 2019 when Cox took over as Head of the Academy at the club, 22 players have made their debut for the first team. Omari Forson recently became the 249th player to make his debut for the club having come through the academy, which is half of the players to ever play for the club.

As previously mentioned, Garnacho and Mainoo are now fixtures in the first team, but even the players who haven’t made it to United’s first team are currently playing for some top sides in England and across Europe.

“We have to have players walking out of this building with their own version of success. A Championship debut or a debut here.”

Teden Mengi is currently a starting centre-back for Luton Town. Dean Henderson is at Crystal Palace. Anthony Elanga is a leading player for Nottingham Forest. Hannibal is on loan at Sevilla. Alvaro Fernandez is set to leave the club to join a talent hotbed for young players at Benfica in Portugal.

The goal does not always have to be for these players to make their mark at Manchester United. It is about providing an environment for them to develop in the football world, whether that be in Manchester or at a club in France. Angel Gomes has proven that, and the people behind the scenes at the club are likely to be just as proud watching him for Lille as they would have been to watch him in Manchester.

“We make no promises that they will become a professional footballer. All I promise is that they will enjoy a life-enriching and life-changing experience by being a part of our Academy and that we dedicate ourselves to helping them maximise their potential.”

Nick Cox.

The Staff Alongside Him:

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Cox is of course not alone in the brilliant work going on behind the scenes at the club, with the other academy staff at Manchester United also doing some brilliant and innovative work to try and make the club’s academy the best in the land once again. Luke Federenko, Head of Academy recruitment at the club is also a vital cog in the wheel that is pushing United back to the very top.

Not all the players that come through the club’s academy are homegrown, and the recruitment to get them into Carrington is sometimes equally as important as nurturing them from the ground up. Federenko was Head of Local Recruitment at the club between July 2021 and October 2023 and has recently been promoted to the role of Head of Academy Recruitment.

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Like Cox, Federenko previously spent time at Sheffield United. He would have had a part of play in the signing of Harry Amass, who could go on to be the club’s next left-back at senior level. Since taking over as Head of Local recruitment, the club have signed the likes of Gabriel Biancheri from Cardiff City, Toby Collyer from Brighton & Hove Albion and Ethan Ennis from Liverpool’s youth academy.

Elyh Harrison is also a huge signing that was made under the guidance of Federenko and Cox. Harrison is extremely highly rated behind the scenes at the club, with some believing he could go on to be the next number one someday.

As mentioned previously in the piece, Amir Ibragimov is someone the club holds in high esteem, and Federenko played a huge part in bringing through Ibragimov and youngster JJ Gabriel.

Unsung Heroes

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Manchester United are such a major organisation that sometimes the work that goes on behind the scenes is forgotten about. Everyone knows the heart and soul of the club is Kath Phipps at the reception desk, but there are others even within the academy setup that perhaps never get the credit they deserve. Travis Binnion and Adam Lawrence are currently in charge of the u18s and the u21s at the club and have been brilliant in providing tactical insight to the players as they’ve matured within the ranks.

Since Erik ten Hag has come to the club a lot of his tactical insights have been fed down to the academy sides, so that if they ever do make their debut for the first-team they’re already well accustomed to the style of play they’re being asked to play. Binnion and Lawrence have been pivotal in the teams learning that style of play and pushing it into how they perform week in and week out.

Education is largely important for the players as they grow, so the likes of Wayne Cahill are huge in helping the players stay up to date on that side of things as the Lead Education Officer at the club.

Experience at the top level is also a huge aspect for the players to have when growing into the game, and the club’s decision to employ two top professionals behind the scenes with the additions of Paul McShane and Tom Huddlestone has been a masterstroke. Phil Jones has also recently become part of the coaching staff at the Academy level, which gives the players yet another example of the level of professionalism it takes to succeed in the modern game.

Other coaches include the likes of Colin Little, who has been at the club for 14 years, Neil Harris who’s been at the club since 2003, Remi DeJonge, Steven Crane and Raducio King. The list could go on and on about the brilliant work currently taking place behind the scenes by Nick Cox and his team, and Manchester United are going to reap these rewards in the coming years, especially with the added incoming help of Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS.

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