Make Hong Kong trips two or three times a year, says Manchester United academy chief Nicky Butt
Former South China man applauds Hong Kong Football Association under-17 side after friendly with touring Man Utd youth squad
Manchester United Class of ’92 legend Nicky Butt would be the first to admit his move to South China back in 2010 was a step into the unknown.
But his seven-month stint in the city – the Mancunian’s curtain call to an illustrious playing career – allowed him to identify Hong Kong football fatal flaws.
“During my time, there were a lot of technically talented players, but not so professional,” said Butt, 42, after watching his Manchester United Academy under-16s edge out a 3-2 friendly win against the Hong Kong Football Association under-17s on Saturday.
“They had enough technical skills, but it’s more about getting on the pitch as much as possible. As many hours on the grass as you can.
At the moment, our [academy] boys get 14 to 15 hours a week of training. You don’t get that here; probably three or four hours,” said Butt, who was appointed United’s head of academy last year in an attempt to catch up with rivals Manchester City’s blossoming youth set-up.
Having spent the better part of last week watching his academy players train throughout the Hong Kong Jockey Club Youth Football Academy Summit, Butt couldn’t ignore Hong Kong’s torturously humid conditions.
“It’s massive. You can’t play the way we tell our boys to play at home,” he said, explaining that the Hong Kong heat forces a slower approach off the ball.
“In England, we tell our boys to press and hunt the ball down for the full ninety minutes. Over here, you can’t always play the way you want. You have to adapt to playing a different pace.”
Seven years on from his short spell, Butt returned last week with an army of hungry youngsters itching to make their mark abroad.
A comfortable 7-0 win against the Hong Kong District All-Stars last Wednesday only highlighted the chasm between European and Asian football, but that assumption quickly shifted after their final friendly over the weekend.
United faced the older and tighter-knit HKFA under-17s, and initially struggled to find their footing against the possession-playing home team. Butt watched on with interest as their opposition held their own and fired up the local crowd with two fine goals.
Tired marking from a set piece eventually allowed a young United forward to head in the winner, but Butt insisted HKFA’s display is very encouraging for Hong Kong football.
“The level of professionalism has become a lot higher, and it’s good to see that the [HKFA] boys are getting to work on both individual technique as well as team work,” said Butt, who watched both teams in a joint training session before the match.
“They look like a really good team. They train a lot more and you can see it’s paying off.”
After years of what appeared to be a plateauing local football scene, Butt is excited by Hong Kong’s development and wants his academy to return sooner rather than later.
“We consider ourselves a very good academy, and they stuck with us for ninety minutes. Hopefully they can lift their game up like this all season.”
“The more of these trips for our young boys, the better. We have to fit it in with our calendar back home, but I think if we do two or three of these a year for each age group, it would be great.”