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Angel Gomes wants to set the record straight once and for all. "I think a lot of people got the wrong impression when I left United," he tells SPORTbible from his home in northern France. "When people ask me how difficult it was to leave, I try to explain. But I still don't think they really understand. I was literally in bits."
It's almost two years to the day since Gomes made the biggest decision of his career to date.
On a cloudy afternoon at Carrington training ground in late June 2020, a teenager that grew up on a Manchester United-obsessed council estate in Salford said his goodbyes after 14 years of wearing the famous red.
United wanted him to stay. With a new and improved contract on the table, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer described him as a "top, top kid” as a decision remained in the balance. "We've offered him a deal," the Norwegian confirmed in a press conference. "Hopefully, he'll take that."
Gomes, however, was comfortable with his decision. Coming into that final session at Carrington, a place where he spent the majority of his childhood, the teenager didn't expect to get emotional. In his own words, some farewells were more difficult than others in the dressing room that day.
But as he made his way through the corridors, the reality of leaving his boyhood club hit like a ton of bricks.
"As I was saying goodbye to the team, everything was fine," Gomes says. "Obviously, I was a little emotional but as I was leaving the training ground, I ended up seeing James Garner and Teden Mengi - two teammates that I grew up playing with. It was horrible, to be honest. I teared up and my voice went. I got in my car and said goodbye to the security guards with tears streaming down my face. I just couldn't control myself."
A typical 15 minute journey home from the training ground would usually consist of listening to music or talking to friends. He spent this one in silence. It was starting to sink in that this was the end of an era but he knew, deep down, that it was time to move on.
"In my head, I saw myself at Manchester United for the rest of my career," he says. "I wanted to become a legend there. That was my aim. In the academy, I had great players around me and my goal was always to be able to come up and play with them, almost like the Class Of 92. But it got to the point where I knew it wasn't to be.
"I had to be mature enough and brave enough to make the decision and take that risk."
Angel Gomes realised his dream of becoming a Manchester United player at the age of six. At 13, he would represent the club at U17s level and a year later, he was promoted to the U18s.
The talented attacking midfielder would soon make headlines after becoming the youngest player to score a hat-trick for Manchester United at academy level since 2001. He achieved that feat after coming off the bench.
Gomes was progressing through United's academy ranks at a frightening speed. Nicky Butt, who spent nine years in coaching and player development positions at the club’s academy, said if it all comes together for the youngster then the club have got "one hell of a player" on their hands. “The boy trains every day, works hard and his talent is unbelievable,” the former United man said.
Then the second week of May 2017 happened.
On Thursday, May 18, he became the youngest winner of Manchester United's prestigious Jimmy Murphy Youth Team Player of the Year award – a prize the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Marcus Rashford can say they’ve lifted over the years. A day later, Jose Mourinho would personally invite him to train with the first-team squad.
Clearly impressed with what he’d seen in such a short space of time, Mourinho decided to give Gomes his Premier League debut at the age of 16 years and 263 days old.
After replacing Wayne Rooney in the 88th minute against Crystal Palace at a capacity Old Trafford, the teenager became the youngest player to represent the club since Duncan Edwards. “To make my debut at 16 before going back to my estate and seeing everyone I had grown up with was unbelievable," he tells us.
“Even now, I sometimes sit back and think about it. It was crazy.”
With all that went on during his turbulent reign as Manchester United manager, many people forget that Jose Mourinho handed debuts to six academy graduates during his time in charge. He was, without doubt, a polarising figure during his two-year stay at Old Trafford but he has played an important role in Gomes' career.
"No one has ever asked me about Mourinho before, so I've never really had a chance to speak about him," Gomes says. "Now, being older and more mature, I realise he was massive for me. He gave me my debut and I can't thank him enough for that."
After making his first-team bow on the final day of the Premier League season, the highly-rated attacking midfielder was soon drafted into matchday squads for a number of cup games.
On one of those occasions,the academy product received his first "bollocking" from Mourinho -- an incident that left him in tears.
"I've never actually told this story before but one time, he took me to a cup game with the first team after I'd played with the U21s," Gomes says. "We were at the dinner table and he's come around speaking to everyone. He then looks at me and says, 'I am fucked with you!'
"At the time he was having a laugh with everyone, so I thought he was joking with me. I asked why and he brought up my performance from the day before. He must have thought I'd played shit. I didn't think I played that badly but he's the big boss, so if he thought I'd played bad, I'd played bad.
"He was saying, 'You were doing this and doing that but you should have done this and that...' And this was in front of the whole squad as well. I'd had bollockings in my time but not from the big boss. I just wasn't expecting it. I was taken aback.
"He eventually finished shouting and carried on with what he was doing. I was stuck to my seat. Eventually some of the lads came over and said, 'don't worry, just ignore him. He's trying to get a reaction from you. This is how he is.'
"I was only young so in my head I was thinking, 'Fuck, he hates me.' I went back to my room and rang my dad. I was nearly crying."
Five years on and Gomes can look back at that situation with a fresh perspective.
"It eventually clicked in my head as to the type of person he is," he says. "Mourinho would always want the best and I think, for me, he was trying to get across that it wasn't going to be an easy ride. He wanted to bring me to that game to discipline me like a first-team player.
"I think it was a, 'If this is where you want to be then this is how you're gonna get treated' kind of thing. This wasn't youth football. And it wasn't until I got older that I fully understood what was happening. I think I was too young to understand him as a person but with my maturity now, I would love to play under him again because he gets the most out of his players."
Gomes admits he hasn't kept in touch with Mourinho, who recently lifted the Europa Conference League with AS Roma, but thinks if they were to see each other again, he'd give him a little slap around the face, just like he always used to do.
"He is just very, very passionate, and that rubs off on the players that he works with," Gomes says. "He cares a lot. I remember Marcus and Jesse telling me that they'd be chilling at home sometimes, and they would get a random FaceTime call off him. He was just saying hi and asking them what they were doing. And for me, that was funny.
"I think it just shows what he's really like."
You allowed me to make my debut at 16 and play in front of the Stretford end something I will never forget ever. Thank you boss ✨ pic.twitter.com/mzpiAJFc6V— Santi Gomes (@agomes_47) December 19, 2018
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in to replace Jose Mourinho at the end of 2018 and from that moment onwards, first-team minutes were few and far between. Game time, or a lack of it, would become a key factor throughout Gomes' time at United.
"It was a little bit frustrating," he admits. "I knew I was still young and had time to develop, but I think at the time I'd been in and around the first team for long enough to know that I was capable of competing with some of the lads that were there.
"I understand that the club wasn't in the best of positions but as a young player, you want to show what you're about and get out there. You can't really be judged on one game or coming on for 10 minutes. As a young player, it's hard to build a rhythm or get used to the rhythm if you're just getting thrown in here and there."
Three starts in United's Europa League campaign would provide some valuable experience, as did an outing against a strong Manchester City outfit in the Carabao Cup, but minutes here and there wasn't an option for the academy product at this stage of his career.
He wanted regular first-team football, so in a move that surprised many fans, Gomes decided to reject a new contract offer from Manchester United to join Ligue 1 side Lille on a five-year deal. An agreement was then made to spend the 2020/21 campaign on loan at Portuguese outfit Boavista.
"A lot of people were saying, 'who leaves United to go to Boavista'. There was a lot going on at the time and that was difficult," Gomes says. "There's an element of me that had to be tough. I had to put all the talk to one side and get on with myself and what I wanted to achieve going forward.
"I just needed game time because, during the end of my time at United, I didn't play very much. I think a lot of people seen it as: 'he left United to go to Lille to then go on loan at Boavista. He could have gone on loan at United.' But in my head, I always knew my vision and the plan I wanted to go through with."
The most important factor in this decision was game time and that's exactly what Gomes got.
After penning a deal with Lille because of his "great relationship" with Luís Campos, who was the director of football at the French club when the midfielder signed on the dotted line, he made 30 appearances in all competitions for Boavista, scoring six times.
"They [Lille] told me there was no pressure and to go and enjoy myself in Portugal," Gomes says. "But it was a very difficult season. It was a project. We brought in 16 new players, formed a team and then had to perform in the Portuguese League, which isn't the easiest to play in.
"It was tough but from an individual point of view, I thought I did well."
In his own words, it has "taken a while" for Gomes to get going at Lille after picking up an ankle injury at the start of the season, but it has been a good debut campaign in France's first division - a competition he believes is up there with the Premier League in terms of physicality and tempo.
"Like anything, some people adapt quicker than others," he says.
"I had to try and understand how my own teammates play, as well as how other teams operate. I had to get used to the general style of the league as well because a lot of the teams play 4-4-2... or if it's not 4-4-2 then it's three at the back. Not many teams play a 4-3-3 and that's originally what I was used to.
"The counter-attacks in this league are devastating as well. There are so many fast and powerful players in the league. If you switch off for a split second, or if your team isn't in the right shape, you will get punished by any side. I played at United and they are known for counter-attacking but it's just at a different level here."
In total, he made 28 appearances for Lille during his debut campaign at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, including outings against Wolfsburg, RB Salzburg and Chelsea in the Champions League. In fact, he ended up completing 1.77 through passes per 90 – a stat that puts him up there with some of the best talents in Europe.
"It's been up and down so far but I think I've played a lot considering it's only my first season," the 21-year-old says. "And with it being my first, I've had to adapt a lot to the style of play. Being in a different country, different club, new teammates, new language and new coaches.
"For me, it was all very different. I can say I'm proud of myself and how I've gone about the season."
U21s with most through passes per 90 in Europe's top 5 leagues 21/22 by Wyscout:— Adli 1️⃣9️⃣🏆 (@Adli19ACMilan) June 6, 2022
🇫🇷 Yacine Adli - 2.71
🇩🇪 Florian Wirtz - 2.09
🇪🇸 Pedri - 1.92
🇭🇷 Josko Gvardiol - 1.81
🏴 Angel Gomes - 1.77
for reference Trent Alexander Arnold has 2.98
Away from life in France and so much has changed at Manchester United since Angel Gomes decided to leave on that day in June 2020.
After finishing the following season in a respectable second place, United went on to record their worst ever points total in the Premier League era last month, ending their disappointing campaign with back-to-back defeats against Brighton and Crystal Palace.
It was a difficult watch for many, including Gomes, who has been keeping an eye on his former side.
"It has been tough, especially when you know a lot of the players," the attacking midfielder says. "I think from a fan perspective, it must be very difficult for people watching at home. I feel like, although there's been a lot of negatives this season, there are a lot more positives to come and hopefully, there will be a transition soon."
He compares his current situation at Lille, who finished tenth in Ligue 1 after a season of mixed fortunes, to United's recent struggles; both on and off the pitch.
"There have been massive changes here at Lille as well," Gomes says. "We lost the manager that we won the league with last season, and a few other things as well. There are a lot of things that go on that fans don't see. And you've got to take that on board as well. There's more to this than meets the eye.
"But I'm sure that with the new manager coming in, things will improve. United is United at the end of the day. They will always be there competing. Hopefully things get back on track next season."
On the pitch, Gomes feels his game has improved since leaving Old Trafford.
Back in 2019, former United manager Solskjaer reportedly said he wasn't physical enough for the Premier League but 58 appearances later, the 21-year-old believes he has progressed enough to play in any of the world’s top leagues after picking up crucial first-team minutes.
"I think, physically, I'm at a different level than where I was at United," he says. "I've played a lot of games now, so in terms of the demands of first-team football, I think I can cope in any league in the world. I back myself to go anywhere and be able to cope with the demands.
"And I've always been quite versatile in where I play and I've played everywhere this season. In our penultimate game, I played in a 4-2-2 as one of the holding pivots against a great OGC Nice team. We won that game 3-1 as well. I've shown that I'm quite versatile and can be trusted to play wherever when needed."
Gomes’ progress was rewarded in October last year when he received his first call up to the England U21 squad and since, the 21-year-old has featured in six more games for his country, including a full 90 minute outing in their recent 3-0 win against Albania.
He knows how important his decision to move away from Manchester helped in Lee Carsley’s decision to bring him into the international fold. “It means a lot for me personally,” says Gomes on being called up. “With the talent we've got in this country, and around my age group, to get picked and be amongst it is massive.
“I think getting more first team chances at Lille has helped. To be in with a shout anywhere, I think you've got to be playing. The move has helped me massively. If you look at the players that get called up, they're all playing and they're all doing well. It's the only way I could compete.”
A quick search on social media shows that some Manchester United fans still rue the club's decision to allow their once highly-rated academy product to leave Old Trafford after making just a handful of first-team appearances.
As the club continue to struggle on the pitch, the inevitable ‘what could have been’ debate will rumble on. Gomes, meanwhile, looks back on his spell at United with a mature outlook. The 21-year-old agrees that he could have made an impact if he was given more chances in his preferred position but ultimately, he picked up some crucial experience from one of the best.
"I think, at the time, I felt like I could have been given more opportunities but it was difficult because Bruno [Fernandes] had come in and was playing really well,” he says. “I learned a lot with Bruno. He helped me a lot when I was there and I still keep in contact with him now."
Gomes has kept in touch with numerous members of the current United squad, including the likes of Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard –– two players that will also leave Old Trafford at the end of their contracts in June.
He also speaks to former teammate James Garner on a daily basis. The 21-year-old midfielder, who helped Nottingham Forest achieve Premier League promotion this season, went through the academy process after joining when he was just eight years old.
"He is one of my best mates in football," Gomes beams. "I speak to him every day. I've always known what he was capable of doing, so seeing him do it now and getting the recognition he deserves; I'm absolutely buzzing as one of his close friends."
As he talks to us from his home in northern France, the conversation soon turns to life away from Manchester.
He is enjoying spending time in new surroundings but admits to missing certain aspects of life in England, including family, friends and those convenient trips to the local supermarket. "I don't know... there's just something about nipping into Tesco's," he says. "I miss going to Sainsbury's or going to wash my car because I know the people where I go to wash my car."
Talk of the future then brings another smile to the face of Gomes, who says his short term goal is to become more consistent on the pitch. He is still young, of course, but he is “getting to the age where a lot of the younger players are stepping up and playing.”
Beyond that and the England U21 international has ambitions to play at the very highest level. He is happy at Lille – a club that has given him a platform to shine – and he wants to continue playing Champions League football. But as he rightly points out, everyone has dreams and ambitions.
“I'm not going to sit here and say that I don't dream of playing for other clubs,” he says. “I'd love to play for a team in Spain in the future. My ambition is to play for a top club."
Things didn't exactly go to plan at Old Trafford but his love for the club still remains. So much so that he hasn’t ruled out a return to Manchester in the future. Gomes says that he’d “love to play for United again one day.”
As we wrap up our interview, the chat has come full circle and we’re talking about his debut and the time he spent playing in the Premier League. I point out that if I was in his position, I would eventually want to go back to England and prove people wrong. He laughs.
"No, no. That comes into my head sometimes as well."
Featured Image Credit: Alamy - Instagram/angel.gomes10
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