Zak Dearnley was one of 12 Manchester United academy graduates in José Mourinho’s squad for the final Premier League game of the season, and perhaps one of the lesser known names.
After a hamstring injury in August, Dearnley steadily returned from injury in the second half of the season and caught Mourinho’s eye as the Portuguese boss attended the under-23s’ final game of the season, a 3-2 win against Tottenham Hotspur.
Dearnley came on as a sub and helped change the game for the second successive fixture having done the same against Arsenal in his first under-23s appearance the week before.
“Obviously, it was great. It’s been a bit of a stop-start season for me as I got injured in August but to be involved was great,” he told Adam Marshall for ManUtd.com.
“Who would have thought with the season that I’ve had, to get the opportunity to be on the bench and to be in the changing room and see what the first team do? It was a great experience and a great day for me and my family.”
“It was such a good thing to see the young players in the first team; our families are so proud of us and it was great. It was just such a good feeling to see us all involved and a great experience.”
The game provided a fantastic photo of 13 United academy graduates lined up in front of Old Trafford, a photo that embodies what this club is about.
Despite not getting on for his debut, Dearnley insisted he learnt a huge amount from being with the team and senior players like captain Wayne Rooney.
“I think what I learned most was how the senior players look after themselves and how mentally prepared they are for the games, which was quite interesting to see. Everyone is so focused on the game. To see the amount of work going in, it is so professional and so much goes into it. It was amazing to see that and be able to remember it, seeing how the likes of Wayne Rooney actually prepare for the games because it was great.
“It was good, us younger lads seeing the manager and all the stuff he does. It was nice even being in the same room as him and gave us all a good feeling.”
“I think, in the past years, you’ve seen youngsters make their debuts and go into the first team or go from the Under-18s into the Reserves. The young players are always progressing and going on to become involved.
“It’s good and it’s amazing as a young lad who supported United. All my family support them and most of my friends. It’s a weird feeling but a good feeling. I’ve been 10 years now in the Academy and I’ve gone from being in the Under-18s to not that far away now. Like Marcus [Rashford] has done and Axel [Tuanzebe] has done it. As a Reserves player or a youth player, it’s not that far away – it just depends on a number of things.
“That’s it [luck is one of them]. You have to have that bit of luck. You can’t do it without that. But you’ve got to go through dedication, mental strength, keeping on going from the Under-18s to the Reserves to the first team and just treating everything the same. It’s about doing everything right and working hard.”
Dearnley on learning from injuries.
“Last season [2015/16], I did the same injury. But that was only three months out. It was the second game of the season and it was horrible to get it again. But it’s made me better as a person and mentally stronger. I learned from my mistakes and I’m learning what things to do. I need to look after my body, keep eating the right foods and all that stuff comes into play.
“Once you’re back, that’s it. You learn what to eat and how to adapt yourself and hope you don’t get it again. So it’s more making sure, in your mind, you’re mentally prepared.
“I scored a few goals for the Under-18s and it was honestly just great to be back on the pitch, playing. I was playing football and doing well, getting my fitness levels back up and then, a few weeks ago, I played in the Reserves.
“Like I say, I’m trying to enjoy it and anything then was a bonus so playing under Nicky Butt is good and I never expected that. I expected to come back to play with the Under-18s for the rest of the season and I’m so glad Nicky gave me a chance. It is a massive step up and I was surprised. I must have been doing the right things in the Under-18s, though, to be given a chance and it was good to get involved.”