Academy graduate Pereira part of United 4,000-game milestone
From being told by his footballer father of United’s tentative interest in him as a teenager, to the first meeting with the managerial colossus Alex Ferguson and being greeted in Portuguese.
“I was starstruck and I just wanted to join United straight away,” Pereira recalls in an interview with The Associated Press. “He told me there was always a place for a Brazilian in his team … and I didn’t want to leave.”
Pereira would have to wait until he was 16 to officially start in the United academy in 2012. But there was a moment of confusion over what everyone was doing in his first practice after joining from Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.
“I wanted to show my skills,” Pereira says, “and it was rugby.”
The midfielder was eventually able to flaunt his skills, and made his first-team debut in August 2014. That night, against the MK Dons in the League Cup, the Belgium-born Brazilian extended the line of academy graduates featuring in United’s matchday squads stretching back to 1937.
The link remains unbroken, with the sequence reaching 4,000 continuous games on Sunday when Everton plays at Old Trafford in the English Premier League.
“It shows that they give opportunities to young players,” the 23-year-old Pereira says, returning to the academy building at United’s Aon Training Complex. “It’s difficult at first. It’s not easy.”
United has produced some of the game’s greatest names — from Bobby Charlton in the 1950s to David Beckham in the famed “Class of 92.”
“It’s in our DNA,” says United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who won the treble as a player alongside Beckham in 1999. “This club is built on having your own local lads and academy players coming through and we pride ourselves on that.”
The 18-year-old Greenwood is among 10 academy players to get their first-team debuts at United in 2019, with graduates accounting for 35% of playing time. Of the 38 goals, 34 have been scored or assisted by an academy player.
“We’ve been playing for United a long time, we know everybody,” Pereira says. “So it’s not like Mason comes and plays with us and we’re like, ‘Who is this new boy?’
“I remember when I played with him in the cage game at United. He was still a little boy … but we knew he was good and we knew that one day we’d play together.”
For every success story, however, there are many more who do not made the grade long-term at United.
Adnan Januzaj was Pereira’s best friend at United. The Belgian enjoyed a rapid promotion to the first team but his impact was fleeting after helping to win the title with goals toward the end of Ferguson’s final season in charge in 2013. The striker fell out of favour in the post-Ferguson era and spent two seasons largely out on loan before leaving in 2017.
“The hardest bit is not to get there,” Pereira says. “The hardest bit is to stay in the first team, to stay important for Manchester United and make your career. You see a lot of players that come in and they play well and then do well for a month, maybe half the season and then they disappear.
“So that’s what I want from myself. I just want to make sure I’m here for the long run. I want to stay and play many years to come.”
To achieve that, Pereira had to leave, convincing then-manager Jose Mourinho to allow him to go on loans to Granada in 2016-17 and Valencia the following season to gain experience.
“It was difficult because, you never want to leave United,” Pereira says. “You want to play straight away. But when it’s not possible, you have to improve to get to be a better player.
“It’s always in the back of your mind; I’m going, but maybe I’m not coming back to United.”
Pereira has advice to the current crop of academy students who might need to temporarily leave United to prove themselves: Make the club feel you are missed.
“That’s what I did,” he says. “And it worked out very well.”
No one, though, is satisfied with the current status of the record 20-time English champions. Even after beating City in the Manchester derby last weekend, they are 22 points behind leader Liverpool in fifth place due to erratic form.
“It’s mixed emotions. It’s like we do well in some games and then some games we don’t do well — so we have to get out of that,” Pereira said. “We’re better off with the young squad learning, because now we have nailed it down.”
What is missing for Pereira is some silverware.
“I’ve been raised to win trophies,” he says. “And I just can’t wait to win trophies with United now.”