Januzaj took five minutes to show he is United's future
£250,000 Red Devils paid may be best business of a generation, writes Jim White
THE ONE positive in David Moyes' first season in charge at Manchester United, the one unequivocal success in a term of challenge and frustration, came about by chance.
Adnan Januzaj was expecting to spend this year in United's second string. Although his raw, exciting dribbling ability had earned him the reserve team player of the year for 2012-13, although his was a name whispered in the new manager's ear when he first arrived last summer, promotion to the first team did not appear to be imminent.
With Moyes only just appointed, the teenager was anticipating not much more than a couple of appearances on the bench, plus maybe a loan spell to help further his development. So he arrived at Carrington for pre-season duties in July ready to train with the reserves. Then, on only his third day of lung-busting shuttle runs, he was beckoned over to where the big boys were doing some drills. A first-teamer had just dropped out with injury and they needed someone to make up the numbers.
"Within five minutes of doing a little seven v three possession routine, you could see the vision of him playing for Man United's first team," explains United coach Phil Neville.
"At the end of the session, all of the coaches got together. We were unanimous in our thoughts on what he'd done. He played like a Man United player. He'd wanted the ball, he was brave, he went into a tackle and smashed someone. Straight away, the manager came up to me and said: 'He will be a Man United first-team player.'"
Six months later, the young Belgian is not only a first-team regular -- in the absence of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, he has become the side's creative fulcrum, the guy who, with his quick feet and ambitious passing, makes it all happen.
As the chant to the tune of the old Gilbert O'Sullivan hit Ooh-Wakka-Do which will echo around the visitors' stand at Stamford Bridge tomorrow puts it: "I wanna tell you, I might as well do, about a boy who can do anything, he comes from Belgium, his name is Adnan, Januzaj, Januzaj, Januzaj."
Neville is not remotely surprised that the prodigy has thrived in his sudden elevation.
"Some kids are in awe when they are promoted to the first team, they pussyfoot about. Adnan looked like a Man United player. He was like 'Come on, I want more of this, I should have been in here yesterday, not today'," he says.
Quinton Fortune, too, has watched the player's progress with a mix of delight and anticipation, though not astonishment. The former United midfielder spent last season working with the reserve team as part of his studies for his coaching badges, and witnessed the player's qualities at first hand.
"From the very first time I trained with him, I could see the ability was there," he recalls. "He reminded of the young Ronaldo. Not so much in the way he plays, but in his attitude. He's never afraid to take people on. He has such self-belief, it is almost scary."
The speed of Januzaj's career path has almost matched the pace of one of his runs down the wing. Three years ago, he was in Anderlecht's academy, those in charge of his development barely able to keep count of the number of goals he totted up. One of his coaches recalls a match in which he scored 16 in a 22-0 rout. Or maybe it was 17.
United were made aware of his eye-catching ability through Patrice Evra, whose contacts told him of a superstar emerging from the Belgian youth system. The £250,000 fee the club paid to bring the then 16-year-old to United's academy may well turn out to be the best bit of business in a generation.
Though in terms of pounds per pound, the club did not get much for their outlay.
"If you think he looks frail now, you should have seen him when he arrived," says Fortune. "Obviously he is still not yet fully developed, but back then he was really slight. He had to do a lot of weights, a lot of work on being able to impose himself. But the talent was always there. However small he was, he could always get away from people. He knew that when he went for the ball he could escape, so he showed no fear."
Tony Park, who has been watching United's youth teams for the past 30 years, says that the young Belgian was so good in his early days at the club, he sometimes drifted through games.
"In terms of technique and ability, he was streets ahead of everyone else," says Park. "So much so, I'm not sure if the other players were on his wavelength. He could get frustrated. He was ready for the challenge of playing at a much higher level."
Alex Ferguson gave him that chance, promoting him to the U-21s before his 18th birthday, to see if he had the mental toughness to go with the shining skill.
"The moment he stepped out with older players he was electric," recalls Park. "Opponents simply could not cope with his unpredictability. It was the same when he progressed to the first team. It was almost as if he'd found the level he'd been waiting for. If you look back at all the young players who have gone straight into the first team, it's like that. George Best, Norman Whiteside, Ryan Giggs: they all seized their chance."
Last October 5 at Sunderland, Januzaj made his first start for the club, continuing a tradition which has seen at least one academy-reared player line up in every single one of United's 3,675 games stretching back to October 1937. "You have to credit David Moyes for taking the risk," says Fortune. "He thought he was ready and he was proved right."
A debut, though, is not the end of it. As Michael Laudrup pointed out last week after his team had been at the wrong end of Januzaj's abilities, history is littered with names -- from David Bentley to Michael Ricketts -- who have not fulfilled blistering youthful promise.
"Sometimes unfortunately, you can see players who play 10 or 15 games at the top level and everyone tells them they're so great and they believe it and think they're already in the top three in the world," says Laudrup. "It's important to keep your feet on the ground but it depends on the people around you."
United are convinced Januzaj has the support to ensure he fulfils his potential. His father Abedin, who followed him from Brussels to Bowdon, is always there, casting a critical eye over every performance.
Plus in the first-team dressing-room he is surrounded by players who continue to demonstrate that for talent properly to blossom it needs to be accompanied by unceasing effort. Insiders suggest Darren Fletcher's influence in instilling a work ethic in the young player has been hugely influential.
"Believe me," says Fortune. "This is but the start." (© Daily Telegraph, London)