Manchester City’s Etihad training campus is not short of superstar names, with some of the world’s leading players, both in the men’s and women’s game, currently calling it their home. As such, being a quiet teenager from a local background can, in some cases, lead to talented individuals being lost in the shuffle.
Phil Foden, of course, has shown that there is still room for homegrown players to thrive at City, though there was never really any question as to whether he would make the grade having been marked out as having supreme potential both at the club and international level for years before making his breakthrough.
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There is hope, though, that Foden can be a trailblazer for a new generation of first-team stars produced by City’s youth program, rather than being the sole academy graduate among a swathe of multi-million-pound signings. The next player off the conveyor belt looks set to be creative midfielder Cole Palmer, who despite his reserved demeanor has been making a big noise around the Etihad campus.
Palmer, 18, has already made a strong impression on Pep Guardiola and his coaching staff, and having made his senior debut earlier this season, he looks set to remain in the Catalan’s plans throughout the campaign. “Since two months ago he has shown us a lot of things,” the City boss said after handing him his debut in September’s Carabao Cup victory over Burnley. “He has a good future in this club.”
Palmer’s recent rise has been particularly noteworthy. In April 2019, Guardiola was watching from the stands when the youngster missed the decisive penalty in the FA Youth Cup final defeat to Liverpool. Fewer than 18 months later, however, it was he who scored the winner with a close-range finish in a 3-2 victory over Chelsea as City ended their 12-year wait to win the coveted trophy.
That capped a memorable few weeks for Palmer, who as well as making his first-team debut also got his first taste of Champions League football when introduced as a late substitute against Marseille in October. “It’s been good, it’s all happened so fast,” he tells Ghanabet. “I’ve enjoyed it a lot and just need to kick on now I think.
“It’s really encouraging that [Guardiola] gives opportunities to the younger players. I think if the younger players are playing well and, if he likes them, I don’t think he will hesitate to put them in a squad. “So we just need to keep going really, and hopefully, we’ll get more chances.”
Palmer originally earned a call-up to train with the first team after an excellent campaign last season as part of an exciting Under-18s team. In total he scored 15 goals and registered five assists in just 14 appearances, earning himself the Players’ Player of the Year award in the process.
The likes of Kyle Walker, who belongs to the same agency as Palmer, and Foden helped him to settle when he eventually joined the senior squad, and he has seized the opportunity to impress. “I just went over thinking there’s no pressure,” he recalls about joining players such as David Silva and Sergio Aguero, whom he had watched at City as a fan since he was a 10-year-old.
“I’m a young kid, they’re not going to expect anything so I thought I’ll just go and play like I have done since I was little. Just go and have fun, so I did.” Though the Covid-19 outbreak put the brakes on his development, with all football across England shut down for around three months between early March and June, when City returned they opted to invite a number of local academy players to train with the first-team squad in a bid to ensure they did not feel isolated with no youth football scheduled until the autumn.
Palmer was among the group and was named on the bench for two Premier League matches before the end of the 2019-20 campaign as City secured a second-place finish. Hailing from Wythenshawe – the same Manchester suburb as Marcus Rashford – Palmer was coveted by both City and Manchester United as an eight-year-old, though eventually chose the blue side of the city to continue his development.
He was, though, the smallest player at each age group going through the academy system, and was close to being released due to his size. Some were concerned that he was too little to succeed, though others felt that his style would have marked him out as one to watch had he been training at Barcelona’s La Masia academy, where diminutive, technically gifted midfielders are prized.
There are no such concerns nowadays, with Palmer having now shot up to over six feet tall, but he is still blessed with the same elegant touch and flair that marked him out as a talent a decade ago. Naturally left-footed, he thrives when cutting in from the right-hand side onto his stronger foot as he continues to pose a goal threat as well as being a key creator.
His first professional contract was signed in July 2019, and the club rewarded him with a two-year extension a year later, meaning his current deal will keep him at City until the summer of 2024. Now the England U18s international has to force his way into Guardiola’s thoughts, but after the Catalan carefully nurtured Foden’s progress to becoming a first-team regular, Palmer believes he must stay patient and keep improving.
“I’m just thinking train every day and work hard,” he says. “I still go in with the mentality that there’s no pressure – just go and do your stuff like when I was a young boy. “Just go and express yourself, work hard, and see where it takes me.”