Manchester United defender Ritchie de Laet may never make it at the club but the Belgian has impressed in the little match time proffered by Sir Alex Ferguson to date. Set to start United’s FA Cup tie with Leeds on Sunday, it has been a circuitous route to the top for the former Royal Antwerp player who arrived at Old Trafford via Stoke reserves.
de Laet, who recently signed a three-year extension to his contract at Old Trafford, has appeared five times this season after making his United debut in the team’s final-day win at Hull City last season. A natural central defender, de Laet has already played for United across every position in the back-four and started matches against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur this season
“Ritchie’s been fantastic. We gave him a new contract about six weeks ago because we see there is good potential there,” said Ferguson recently.
“He’s developed in training, he’s only 20, he’s very quick and powerful, and he’s now in the Belgian squad, so it’s been a remarkable turnaround for him.”
But the Antwerp-born player may never have found himself in the Old Trafford reckoning had it not been for reserve team coach Warren Joyce’s time at Antwerp in a coaching capacity. Joyce, who assists Ole Gunnar Solskjaer with United’s second string, first encountered the youngster during a spell as manager with the Belgian side between 2006 and 2008.
“We sent players over there for a few years like John O’Shea, Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Danny Simpson, quite a lot of players,” added Ferguson.
“Ritchie was a young player there at the time and we sent Warren Joyce over there when they were struggling for a coach.
“Antwerp sold Ritchie to a Turkish team but they had financial problems and couldn’t pay his wages. So he had to go on a free transfer and Stoke City brought him to England.
“We were having problems with young centre-halves in our reserves when Warren Joyce remembered Ritchie from his Antwerp days.
“We spoke to Stoke about him, and that’s how he came to be here. He never played a first-team game for Stoke, he probably wasn’t there long enough.”
While Stoke’s loss is certainly United’s gain the Belgian is yet to cement a place in United’s first team squad. Indeed de Laet is only likely to start in central defence against Leeds on Sunday with Ferguson keen to wrap Wes Brown and Nemanja Vidic in cotton wool. But with Carling Cup fixtures against Manchester City to come, de Laet could yet force his way into the first team picture before Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans return to fitness later this month.
Yet the 20-year-old has very little first team experience at any level to date and that naivety was evident as Fulham thrashed United at Craven Cottage a fortnight ago with de Laet a left-sided member of a bizarre back-three formation.
Therein lies the problem for many youngsters at United. de Laet’s strength of character in coming this far mark him out as having a better chance than most. Few would begrudge him for it.