Manchester United like to keep their young players under wraps for as long as possible, but it is difficult when your hair is as big as your talent and you cost €5 million at just 16 years old.
It is hard to miss Hannibal Mejbri. For 90 minutes of United’s FA Youth Cup tie with Leeds United in February, the visitors’ 1,400 travelling fans crammed into one corner of Old Trafford sang: “You’re just a s— Sideshow Bob.” Mejbri played well enough in the 1-0 win to laugh it off the next day, admitting to his 50,000 Instagram followers that “there is small resemblance” with the villain from “The Simpsons.”
United hope that Mejbri, who turned 17 in January, will eventually become a hero. He has already played for the under-23s and trained with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first team. When he arrived from AS Monaco in August 2019, he told academy staff he saw himself in the senior squad within two years. So far, he’s right on track.
There is, though, still a lot of work to do — physically and technically — for a teenager who has not yet been tested in senior-squad football. It is the reason coaches at Carrington are reluctant to talk about Mejbri publicly, concerned that any extra attention will increase the pressure on his shoulders.
United took the same approach with Mason Greenwood, who wasn’t even allowed to talk to in-house TV channel MUTV until he was 18. Greenwood has justified the hype, with 12 goals already in his debut campaign, but plenty of potential goes unfulfilled. Nicky Butt, a member of United’s “Class of 1992” and now first-team development manager at Man United, often points to Adnan Januzaj — now at Real Socieded — as an example of how things can go wrong. The task now is to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with Mejbri.
Scott McTominay and Brandon Williams are regularly held up as players who went under the radar as youngsters but who are now established in the first team, but it’s hard to keep a lid on the expectation surrounding Mejbri after the team paid an initial €5m for the French attacking midfielder, who signed a contract until 2024, in a deal that could eventually cost more than €10m. Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester City and Barcelona were all interested, but after a family visit to Carrington, he agreed to move to Manchester.
The opportunity to sign one of the most highly rated young players in Europe might never have popped up at all had it not been for a disagreement with Monaco. Mejbri had a contract with the Ligue 1 side that should have run until 2021, but a row over the terms of that deal allowed United to swoop in. It was the culmination of a scouting operation that started when he was just nine years old. By the time he was 14, he had already turned down offers from Liverpool and Arsenal.
His career has been guided by his father, Lotfi, who has overseen moves from Paris FC to AC Boulogne-Billancourt and then to Monaco for a €1m deal in 2017. Education has been central to Mejbri’s development despite such high hopes for his future as a footballer. It is something that is valued highly at United’s academy, and players attend classes every week, either with a teacher at Carrington or at Ashton-on-Mersey School, about five miles from Old Trafford.
The thinking is that accomplishment off the pitch will be a vital asset in Mejbri’s preferred position as an inventive No. 10. He’s already comfortable directing teammates and is being encouraged to work on his English so he can get his instructions across.
“He comes with a high reputation, good player, lovely character, good kid,” said United’s under-18s manager, Neil Ryan. “He’s working very hard, and like every young kid in the club, he is learning still and we are seeing some really positive things from him on the pitch.
“He is part of a group of boys who are trying to push on and develop. They are all at stages in their career and it’s not just him. It’s a group of 28 to 30 players. He is one of a number of boys we have high hopes for.”
Charlie McCann plays in the same midfield for the youth team and said of Mejbri: “He’s a great player. … You can see it yourself, he does everything that you want him to do. He’s lively and energetic and he can cause a problem for anyone.”
The next step is for Mejbri to show he can do that regularly for the U23s and then, eventually, in the Premier League. If that happens, United will be more than happy to shout about a hefty transfer fee well spent and another star from the academy production line. But until then, the goal is quiet progress and keeping Mejbri’s head — and all that hair — down.