Kobbie Mainoo’s stunning rise could be about to see its biggest moment yet

In the moments after the FA Cup final, Kobbie Mainoo suddenly collected himself. He laughs now realising that it was one of the few times he “lost his sh**” - not his words. Otherwise, for a mere 19-year-old, Mainoo has an incredibly measured personality.

As sure of himself as that makes him, though, he does feel thankful to a few people for the fact he is sitting here in England’s base in Blankenhain for an international tournament. One is Erik ten Hag. The Manchester United manager was willing to put Mainoo in the team as a mere teenager, and also build the midfield around him.

“I am so grateful for him that he put his trust in me and believed in me to play in the team,” Mainoo says. “I can’t thank him enough.”

That means there is an obvious answer to an obvious question, regarding the fact that Ten Hag will stay on as United manager. Mainoo even played a role in that, given that the midfielder’s ascendance was cited as a reason by the new Old Trafford hierarchy to keep the Dutch coach in the job.

“I am obviously happy to keep building with him. He has won two trophies and there are more to come. It is nice to have the peace of mind that we know what manager we are going back to for pre-season.

“There was always a lot of speculation in the media about what would happen and such but I tried not to pay attention to it too much and just play each game as it came. And then it’s nice to find out that he’s staying and we can continue building with him and hopefully win more.”

While many might wonder what else Mainoo is going to say, he is one player who is able to be very specific. Ten Hag aided his evolution into the kind of midfielder that Southgate may well have to depend on as this tournament develops. England are thin in that area, and Mainoo has shown he can rise to big occasions.

“He’s given me tips on how he wants me to play," Mainoo says of Ten Hag. "I came into the team late so he gave me instructions on how he wants me and the team to play and what my role is.”

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

Mainoo talks about how “things have been happening quite quickly” for him, but one of those is his move from attack to midfield. The 19-year-old was a striker for most of his academy days and, given his age, that wasn’t all that long ago. It’s why a lot of the players he watched for instruction were forwards - among them one man who spoke so positively of him recently, in Wayne Rooney.

“Growing up, I always looked at attackers,” Mainoo says. “Obviously, growing up a United fan, Rooney - it wasn’t so much strikers, as well Ronaldinho. I used to watch him on YouTube but it is mostly United players.”

It’s why he describes it as “amazing” to hear “a legend of football and a club I play for” in Rooney say that Mainoo should be in Gareth Southgate’s team as a midfielder. “It’s always amazing to receive that.”

Given some of the finishes that Mainoo has displayed this season - not least that instinctive finish in the FA Cup final against Manchester City - it does raise the question of how it was he started to move back. Put short, finishing wasn’t enough for him. His innate willingness to just get on the ball and play it becomes clear. Waiting to score was never going to be sufficient for such a player.

 (The FA via Getty Images)
(The FA via Getty Images)

“It was more because I was getting a bit frustrated playing striker. I wasn't getting the ball a lot and I love time with the ball so it was more natural to move back, play 10 a bit, then I played on the wing and then more recently played centre midfield.”

It affords Mainoo that extra dimension as a midfielder. Given how his idol in Rooney moved around a lot, though, where does he see himself in his prime? Where is Mainoo’s idealised role?

“I think as an eight. I enjoy playing as an eight, attacking. I like defending, as well, so yeah, I reckon an eight.

“Being an attacker when I was younger, I always enjoyed scoring goals. It’s definitely up there as one of my favourite parts of the game but I like defending as well and anywhere on pitch for England or United, I don’t mind where I play to be honest.”

It is conspicuous that Mainoo says “I like defending” three times. That is the one area of his game that has been talked about as requiring improvement when he plays deeper. He is clearly willing to throw himself into it, and talks enthusiastically about his midfield relationship with Declan Rice.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“Dec is such a good player, so reliable and dominant in midfield. When I get to play next to him it is always a joy to have someone so strong on the ball next to you and you can always trust him no matter where you are on the pitch.

“It frees me up a lot and allows me to also go forward and attack because I know I can trust him there. When he goes forward, I can sit in as well. It is a dream.”

Should Mainoo be selected there, Jude Bellingham will be in front. It is testament to the maturity of both that, although there is only two years between them, Mainoo clearly looks up to the Real Madrid midfielder. He does also indicate that Bellingham has expectations as a teammate

“Everyone knows how great of a player he is. We see it everyday in training here and he is such a nice guy as well. To train with him is really good; he is demanding, he has high standards that he sets and expects, so to play with him and be around him is great. The things he has done at Real Madrid means it is rightly he is a contender for the Ballon d’Or.”

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Should Mainoo play against Denmark, it will be against another teammate he evidently admires in United’s Christian Eriksen - “he’s so good on the ball”. There is going to be some edge to the game given how aggrieved the Danes feel about Harry Kane’s penalty in the Euro 2020 semi-final, and Mainoo laughs about how he hasn’t yet been messaging a good friend in Rasmus Hojlund.

The England midfielder was a mere 16-year-old for that match, his youth emphasised with how he said he just “went to my mate’s house and we watched it there”.

It was around this time that Ghana, where his parents hail from, still harboured hopes of fielding Mainoo. He admits it was “considered” but, while “proud” of his Ghanaian heritage, “it has always been a dream to play for England”.

That has meant he has been able to merrily chat with Phil Foden and Cole Palmer about some of the Stockport underage teams they used to play against.

“Yesterday we were talking about,” he smiles. “We were talking about all our grassroot sides. It is nice to have someone who is near to where I lived.”

It’s partly as a consequence of that development that, should Mainoo get on the ball on Thursday, Denmark might find it difficult to get near to him. He gives Ten Hag some thanks for that. He’s ready to show it for England in a tournament.