The scoreboard at the WACA an XI of the greatest Western Australian lists cricketers, with Dennis Lillee at the tail. Lillee used to pound the Perth crease and in the cool July climate another individual is embarking on sprints.
James Garner is 19 and with a few minutes of men’s football to his name. He leaves the WACA as exhausted as a seamer, having clocked more individual sessions during United’s ten days in Perth than any other teammate.
Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, two proponents of Garner, oversee the sessions each day after training. Garner scores Manchester United’s second goal in their opening friendly win against Perth Glory at the Optus Stadium, an Aussie Rules kick away.
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In a plush conference room in the Crown Towers hotel in Perth, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer holds court. He is not seven months into his tenure and already two first-team midfielders have gone (Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera) and another wants to go (Paul Pogba). Garner is already a veteran of one tour and comes up in conversation.
“Jimmy is young, he’s very young – only 18,” Solskjaer stresses. “So you can’t expect too much from him but you can see he is going to be a top player.”
While Solskjaer only started Garner twice, the experience in the Partizan Belgrade bear pit was tactful development of a talent who held his own in an atmosphere so edgy the press box was overrun by heavies.
Two years later and it is warmer in Scotland than it was in Australia. United’s ‘tour’ is domestic but Garner’s work ethic is the same. Observers at St Andrew’s say Garner was the best performer during United’s training week north of the border.
The 21-year-old appeared in all four pre-season games before he returned to Nottingham Forest, where he had spent the second half of last season on loan. The move was delayed due to illness and Garner’s own eagerness in agreeing to a new contract with United before a temporary transfer.
Garner was once so shy and monosyllabic he declined media duties after United’s uproarious FA Youth Cup victory over Chelsea in 2018 (Brandon Williams stepped up). On the eve of last season, the then-United Under-23 coach Neil Wood questioned whether Garner was too nestled in his comfort zone to leave on loan after a tepid conversation with Huddersfield manager Carlos Corberán in the tunnel of the John Smiths Stadium.
Those who have known Garner since his teenage years believe he has matured to the extent he has taken ownership of the narrative. Garner suggested to the media department he conducted an interview outlining his commitment to United after his extension was announced in August, quashing online chatter he was attempting on a permanent move. He hurtled down to Nottingham at the end of a frantic day and started for Forest two days later.
Fulham and Bournemouth, promoted to the Premier League automatically, inquired about Garner in the summer but he favored Forest, having worked with the manager Chris Hughton last season. Hughton was sacked on September 16 with Forest at the foot of the Championship.
That caused some consternation, particularly as Garner had suffered from a managerial change at Watford in 2020-21 that prompted his journey up the M1. Hughton’s replacement, Steve Cooper, had coached Garner in the England age groups and attempted to sign him when he was Swansea manager. “He was perfect for Jimmy,” a source said.
Garner started in all but six of Forest’s Championship matches he was available for and he was an ever-present in their captivating run to the FA Cup quarter-finals as they claimed the scalps of record winners Arsenal and Leicester.
Garner’s loan at Forest was until January with an option to extend provisionally agreed. United could have recalled him in the winter transfer window and Premier League clubs expressed interest in a mid-season loan, but it was decided that remaining at Forest was in the best interests of all parties.
United have not had a Wembley final marked in the calendar for four years and Forest’s Play-off win over Huddersfield was Garner’s first appearance at the national stadium. His first whipped cross fashioned a standout chance and the second led to the only goal.
A myriad of current and former academy teammates have congratulated Garner on his Instagram page. Angel Gomes likes him to Steven Gerrard and Brandon Williams has implored him to ‘come home’. Fred has never lined up next to Garner and still sent his congratulations from him.
Ralf Rangnick highlighted Garner’s development in his last pre-match press conference and United supporters may have seen Bruno Fernandes champion him on Twitter. Sources at United say Juan Mata was a keen mentor, Darren Fletcher has been in regular contact and loan manager Les Parry and loan support officer Danny Keogh regularly attended Forest’s games to track Garner’s progress.
Jose Mourinho pitted Garner against Toni Kroos in a humid Miami in 2018 when he was 17 and Garner was named on the bench in Mourinho’s penultimate match as United manager. “He is a player,” Mourinho recently told a confidant.
Nicky Butt was the head of first-team development when he delayed a loan for Garner in January of 2020, convinced he should wait. It has gone according to plan so far.
England Under-21 duty next month will delay Garner’s return date at Carrington, leaving him with around five days to catch Erik ten Hag’s eye before United fly to Bangkok. Ten Hag will want to see the majority of youngsters first-hand before he decides on loans.
United’s tour in July ends where it started in 2019: Perth. Unlike Lillee, Garner might not be low down on the team sheet next season.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.