As 2017 began, Ashley Young was firmly on the outside looking in at Manchester United. Enduring a spell of only two first-team appearances in 18 games, the former England winger had become the subject of increasing transfer speculation that even resulted in his manager making a public appeal for him to stay.
“The only player that I am waiting for a decision on is Ashley Young,” said Jose Mourinho in January. “He is a player I would love to keep. I am not happy at all if he leaves, but he’s the only player that I was informed there is a possibility of him leaving.”
Young had been reduced to little more than chief dressing room DJ at the time and looked destined for a move to China. But having made the decision to give it a go at Old Trafford, he has reaped the rewards and then some. From early February onwards he played in 14 of 21 fixtures before picking up a season-ending hamstring injury against Celta Vigo in May. And since returning to full fitness this term he has appeared in six of the last seven United games.
It is quite the transformation for a man who has gradually been considered a full-back first and an attacker second. But when he faced the media on Tuesday on the eve of Manchester United’s Champions League group-stage visit to Benfica, he refused to go into the details of just how close he had come to leaving the club last winter.
“At the minute I’ve been playing games and that’s what my sole focus is on, concentrating on playing well for the team and doing as well as I can,” he explained. “If anything’s to come about then the club will sit down and talk to me, but like I say my sole focus is playing games week-in, week-out and playing well for the team.”
Young’s is exactly the kind of professional attitude Mourinho has been known to reward and harness over the course of his managerial career, and the 32-year-old’s increasing influence has even seen him don the captain’s armband in both of United’s Champions League games to this point.
His commitment to the cause has helped him to regularly start ahead of the likes of Luke Shaw, Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian in either full-back spot this year, and Young has no qualms about playing in the more withdrawn position.
“I think it’s one of them things, as a professional player now you’ve got to be able to play in different positions and be versatile,” he added on Tuesday. “I think you find that with many different players now, you play in different formations, different systems so you’ve got to adjust to that.
“I’ve found myself playing at full-back and I’m enjoying it and playing well, so wherever the manager wants me to play I’ll go out and give 100 per cent whenever I pull on that United shirt and do as well as I can.”
In a side from which Mourinho has coaxed a greater attacking threat this term, Young’s role has been neglected by some. He is perhaps the best crosser at the club, and his delivery from either flank has been more potent since the arrival of Romelu Lukaku and his more permanent presence in the six-yard box, along with the greater attacking responsibility given to Marouane Fellaini. What’s more, his defensive positioning has shown signs of improvement too.
It is notable that, at a time of the baffling decline of Luke Shaw, Mourinho has been willing to bring players out of the cold. While both players returned to action in the same under-23s fixture in August, Young has quickly stamped an impression back on the first-team picture while Shaw continues to make little impact.
Both are in Lisbon for Wednesday night’s game, but there is clearly a greater spring in Young’s step than Shaw’s right now, and that is testament to the way the ex-Aston Villa man has stood up to the challenge of forcing his way back into Mourinho’s plans.
And as for that ‘former England winger’ tag… The man himself says he’s more than ready to add to his 30 caps if Gareth Southgate decides to end his four-year hiatus from the international stage.
“I think until I retire I will always have the desire to represent my country. I’ve always said that whenever you pull on that England shirt it’s an honour and if the manager calls upon me I’ll be delighted.”
Who would have thought it back in January? Ashley Young, Manchester United regular, part-time captain and England hopeful. It’s been one hell of a 2017 for Old Trafford’s renaissance man.