As director of Manchester United’s youth academy, Brian McClair oversaw Demetri Mitchell’s football development for years. He believes the young Englishman will learn even more at Hearts after returning to a team scaling the top of Scotland’s Premiership.
McClair recalls Mitchell first becoming involved with United as a local primary school kid with glittering red stars in his eyes. Now 21, he is aiming to impress manager Jose Mourinho and take the final step towards the first-team squad – hence a second loan move to Tynecastle Park.
Mitchell signed a new contract keeping him at Old Trafford until 2020 before heading to Edinburgh. He played 11 times on loan at Hearts last season but enters a vastly different Riccarton dressing-room to the one he vacated in May. He is the 15th signing this summer by a team top of the league and thriving after being totally transformed by manager Craig Levein.
Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, McClair explained why Hearts’ prosperity can help their Manchester United loanee glean even more from his latest move.
“I still think Demetri has got a chance of bring involved at the highest level at Manchester United,” said McClair, who headed the Old Trafford club’s academy between 2006 and 2015. “Going to America in the summer would have been a huge boost and great experience for him to be about their first-team squad, management and staff.
“He had a very successful loan spell at Hearts last year. He came to Scotland, did very well, got lots of football and other experiences, and now he is coming back. It should be an even better experience for him in that Hearts have strengthened their squad from last year and started this season exceptionally well.
“Playing for a team in the Scottish Premiership can hopefully give him a platform to progress. The idea is he comes back and goes into the Manchester United first-team squad. Playing in Scotland won’t do him any harm whatsoever.
“If he continues the form he showed at Hearts last season – which you would expect him to do because he’s a bit older, stronger and more mature – then this move will be good for him and good for Hearts.
“He is a good kid. He is quick, he has matured physically, he has a good mental temperament, he is willing to learn and listen. Craig Levein is always willing to let young players play and establish themselves. After that, it’s up to them. I’m sure Demetri will do well for himself and, if he does well for himself, then he will be doing well for Hearts.”
McClair rightly points out that only elite players survive on the conveyor belt that is youth academy football at one of the world’s biggest and most fashionable clubs.
“When you bring kids into your football club’s academy at seven or eight years of age, you are trying to help them become footballers because that’s the dream. For us, the second thing was helping them become well-rounded individuals. Behaviour, discipline and coachability are big parts of that,” he said.
“The fact Demetri is still there tells you he has all these things. If you’re hard to coach, if you’re not disciplined or if you misbehave, you’re ejected from the premises. Demi has matured and I think it showed a great sign of maturity that he was willing to go to Hearts last season.
“A lot of them get carried away with the idea of where they are and what they think is their next career move. A lot of that can be influenced by other people round about them, rather than listening to people who only have their football career as the main interest.”
Mitchell’s return to Hearts does not mean Ben Garuccio’s appearances in maroon are numbered. The Australian would be forgiven a sharp intake of breath seeing a Manchester United left-back stroll into Riccarton yesterday morning, but there is every chance of both players being accommodated in the same starting line-up.
Mitchell will hope to recapture some of the form which endeared him to supporters at Tynecastle Park between January and May this year. He may do so in a slightly different position, though.
Garuccio has looked a dependable left-back in six appearances since arriving from the Australian club Adelaide United. There would appear no reason to dislodge him given his defensive nous and the attacking threat his crosses offer. Mitchell, therefore, could find himself in a more advanced role.
As McClair knows, Mitchell played as a left midfielder and winger as a teenager through United’s youth age-group. It was only two years ago he was converted to left-back so he still carries much of a winger’s instinct. Previous performances for Hearts underlined the 21-year-old’s pace, ball skill and crossing ability, which would make him an ideal candidate to play just in front of Garuccio. Hearts tried manfully to bring another of last season’s loanees, David Milinkovic, back this term but could not agree terms with the Frenchman. He eventually joined Hull City having been deemed surplus to requirements at Italian club Genoa.
The desire for a left-sided wide player has not diminished within Tynecastle and Mitchell’s return could satisfy that craving. Intriguingly, he has been given Milinkovic’s No.11 shirt. Hearts would be unlikely to use the Englishman as an orthodox winger in every match and are more likely to tailor their needs depending on the opposition. Nonetheless, it is a position he could play comfortably whilst not interfering with the progress of 23-year-old Garuccio. The key aspect for Mitchell and United is not so much position as game time.
“It’s part of their development. They need to play,” stressed McClair. “The view of elite development coaches is that six months to 18 months is the maximum time you should be spending in the second team. After that, you look for the next part of your development. Some young lads get involved with the first team but several go out on loan. When you send players out on loan, you want them to play. Demetri got that last year and I assume he will play again.”
Hearts certainly didn’t spend weeks and weeks waiting for United to release him to then leave him stagnating on the substitutes’ bench.
As manager Craig Levein recovers from illness in hospital, he can relax slightly knowing solid foundations of a new-look team were already in place after some diligent summer business.
The result is a purposeful start to the 2018/19 campaign. Mitchell’s addition merely adds further class and quality. United will be watching his progress in maroon closely.