‘He came in and developed a new side to us’ – Inside Man City U23s’ title-winning season ahead of Etihad finale
Brian Barry-Murphy promised a new approach when he was chosen as the man to lead Manchester City’s brightest group of young players in a generation. It was a drastic departure in mentality, and maybe not completely in keeping with the club’s main philosophy: winning.
His predecessor, Enzo Maresca, had finally brought league and cup silverware to City’s promising academy after years of good performances but not so good results. He came in with a promise to the likes of Tommy Doyle, Cole Palmer and Taylor Harwood-Bellis that they were going to win the Premier League 2. And they did, as well as the FA Youth Cup.
Maresca would leave last summer, though, leaving a hard act to follow. Rochdale boss Barry-Murphy made the unusual move from Football League manager to Premier League academy coach, insisting that the academy would return to a focus on coaching and development over winning. His theory was that if that was being done right, then results would follow – and hopefully the silverware would keep coming too.
Last week, City’s talented Elite Development Squad successfully retained the title they won under Maresca, albeit in rather different circumstances. That was a title won by blowing away the opposition, with a largely settled squad led by runaway top goalscorer Liam Delap.
This season has been much more of a struggle at times, with a younger profile of core players supplemented by the likes of Delap, Palmer and others who have been promoted as regular first-team squad members. Many of last season’s key players including Doyle, Harwood-Bellis, Felix Nmecha, Adrian Bernabe and Alpha Dionkou were either loaned out or released, while Delap, Edozie and Jayden Braaf have spent long periods out injured.
Results have come, but not always consistently as form has peaked and dipped with a changing make-up of the squad due to the requirements of the first team. Barry-Murphy even apologised to his squad after their first win – a late 4-2 success vs Blackburn – for the frantic manner of the performance.
Undeterred by the various factors working against him, Barry-Murphy says the key to getting the best out of the academy’s brightest players has been a consistent message of prioritising attitude and performance above anything else.
“I’ve always been convinced that you can do both,” he told MEN Sport after City sealed the title infront of 21,000 home fans at Leeds, referring to his pre-season comments about putting performances ahead of results and titles.
“If you’re so focussed on the players improving and developing all sides of the game. It’s not just something different every week, it’s a consistent focus on all aspects of the game, then everybody wins. To see them put that all into practice on a weekly basis and continue to improve has been evident with the results on the pitch.
“To culminate in a league title gives substance to what we do to make the players understand that winning and topping the table is great, but at this club we have to do it in a certain manner and because of that the skill level has to be so high. And the behaviour and the way we conduct ourselves is probably even more important.
“I understand how desperate the players are to win but understanding the way they have to improve all parts of the game on and off the pitch. There’s no doubt we’ll win as well, when it happens it means a lot. They say ‘yeah we know what you’re on about’ but if it doesn’t happen on any given week, that development is great but we want to see it come together.
“We had a period in the middle of the season where we had a tough run of results with a very young squad. There will have been a lot of questions among themselves in terms of why we are where we are. We were insistent on the way we had to play, be consistent and I knew we’d turn at some stage.
“The lads were relentless in the last two or three months, since the turn of the year, in the way they’ve approached games. When they’ve been tested they’ve shown a really strong mentality individually and collectively.
Midfielder Romeo Lavia – last year’s under-18 Player of the Year and a regular for the EDS this season when not needed by Pep Guardiola – was full of praise for Barry-Murphy’s new approach.
“It’s different ways, last season with Enzo, this season with Brian is different ways but the same concept,” Lavia told MEN Sport. “He developed another side of us, last year we used to win a lot. This season at some points we’ve not been as good as we’re supposed to be. He’s helped us to see the different parts of the game. I like working with him.
“It’s about forgetting straight away, you can’t keep thinking about it. As soon as a game finishes, a new one is coming in two or three days. It’s about forgetting and moving to the next one.”
Versatile defender Shea Charles agrees.
“He’s been really good with the players, individually and collectively,” he said. “He’s done well with us. He’s come in and done his thing. He’s worked with us individually, little things with my game, I’ve changed position a bit, it’s been good for my development.”
So when the attitude is right, Barry-Murphy has been justified in taking the City role and then moving away from an explicit focus on titles. Even when the Blues won just one in 11 before Christmas, there was no panicking.
“I used to go looking for things to say in what we expect to look like on the pitch when it’s difficult,” Barry-Murphy explained.
“But, without sounding cringey, the first-team manager speaks in every press conference about the way we act, behave, and understanding how difficult every game can be. And when the results go against us the way we show those traits. That’s definitely filtered down into our squad because so many of our players are with him every day and they have to display those traits.
“When they come back to us, sometimes it can be a challenge to make sure they understand they’re back among their own peers and have to show those qualities and be a role model and leader within the group. That’s another side of the game they have to develop alongside the technical and tactical aspects that they have.”
With the likes of Palmer, Delap, McAtee, Kayky, Edozie, Luke Mbete and CJ Egan-Riley all with the first team on a daily basis, Barry-Murphy has had to mix and match his side depending on who is not needed by Guardiola on any given week.
Palmer and Delap have excelled when ‘dropping down’, with Palmer famously playing two games in the same day for the first team and EDS when he scored a hat-trick vs Leicester in October. Meanwhile, McAtee has been a regular for the EDS and has 23 goals with eight assists in 27 academy outings this season – including three hat-tricks of his own. It’s not just McAtee’s attacking output that has helped the U23s to the title, though.
“For me, the real development has been in terms of the other side of his game, the side that goes unnoticed,” Barry-Murphy explained. “The defensive side of the game, how he presses and recovers. How he deals with disappointment. Things that haven’t been exposed for a long time.
He’s really improving them and showing that they matter. They’re the things that are so important when he does feature at first-team level. The fact he’s improving those are symbolic of what we want to be in our group.”
Lavia also hailed McAtee’s contribution, saying: “If you don’t say McAtee [has been our best player] you’re not being honest.
“I have to say McAtee has been crazy this season. Just look at his stats, it says enough. He’s been amazing. I’ve got a really good connection with McAtee on and off the pitch. We understand each other on the pitch so it’s easy to play with him and with good players it’s not hard to play. It’s great to have these players on the team.”
As well as McAtee, Oscar Bobb has 12 assists and seven goals in 33 games, starting all but three matches all season and coming off the bench in two of those. Kayky, signed in the summer, has a respectable five goals and three assists in 16 appearances for the youth team. They may not get the same recognition as McAtee or Palmer, but they have been just as important, as have the likes of captain Egan-Riley, centre-back Mbete and goalkeeper Cieran Slicker.
For the coach, it’s been a real team effort between the bigger names in the academy and those not yet ready to be one of Guardiola’s first-teamers. He came in with a mantra that age is irrelevant in the academy and found that even though some players are well aware they won’t make the City first team, there was a collective spirit in the dressing room of mutual respect, healthy competitiveness, and friendship.
Having such a healthy mentality allows the integration with the senior squad to benefit everyone in the Elite Development Squad, he says, and that has been as much a key factor in City retaining their PL2 title as anything else. There have been numerous occasions of players asking to play for the U23s on the same day or weekend as being involved with the first team, such is their desire to help the academy and continue improving.
There are no delusions of these players having ‘made it’ just because they are training and playing under Guardiola, as Barry-Murphy explains: “We’re in a significant situation in terms of opportunities they get to be with such an esteemed manager and esteemed players you can only dream of playing with.
“If we’re looking to focus on defensive players and one-vs-one defending, they’re getting to defend against Raheem Sterling or Phil Foden in the week. It’s virtually impossible to quantify how beneficial that is.
“It’s significant and in my mind, I’m so conscious that this can’t be taken for granted and the players have to understand what an opportunity this is. Every day they have to go over and impress the manager, shock him in terms of how focused they are and intent they are to make an impression and deliver what he needs. When they do that and come back into our environment in the academy, the knock-on effects for the rest of the group is seamless.”
Lavia, who has played regularly for the U23s while being a familiar face around first-team training, says he is a better leader for the younger players as a result. “I’ve learned a lot from first-team players,” he revealed.
“I’ve asked advice from them if they’ve been in the same situations to see if they can help me to know how to deal with the fact I have to come down, it’s not coming down, it’s still my age. It’s easier with their help to deal with it. It’s an amazing generation, we’ve done so much off the pitch to get to this moment.
So, all things considered, is this title a better achievement than last year’s run-away success? “Yes, definitely,” Lavia tells us without hesitation, outlining his ambitions for next season in the same breath.
“Personally I’ve had more responsibilities than last season. I was more an under-18 coming up, now I’m a proper 23s. It was great for example to see Tomas Galvez come up and do what I did last season. It was better than last season, yeah!
“That’s the fabric of Man City. It’s a winning mentality because we’ve won this season, we’re going again next season with the same mentality to win every trophy that we can.
“We’ve won the league but we’ve not been through the group stages of the Youth League so next season we’re going to go for the Youth League and the league. It’s a winning mentality and keeping going.”
And that’s exactly why City have been able to replicate last season’s success. There is no resting on past achievements, but a collective desire to improve. It was a culture that Barry-Murphy has seized upon with his new approach, and whoever is in next season’s squad will be tasked with improving further.
Before that, though, the academy will lift their second PL2 title in as many years on Friday – with the fixture vs Everton upgraded to the Etihad to recognise their impressive season. It may be one of the only chances some players get to play there, while others will be eyeing many more run-outs in sky blue at the main stadium.
Thanks to Barry-Murphy’s work on the academy mentality, though, this will be a shared success wherever each member of this squad ends up. And next year, the work on attitude this season means the next generation can come through aiming to make it three in a row.