Entering December of 2021 – before a domino effect of bad fortune ensued – Ethan Laird was standing out on loan at Championship side Swansea and looked like a sure-fire challenger for the right-back spot at Manchester United next season.
Constantly marred by injuries as a youth, Laird somewhat unexpectedly took to the physical demands of regular senior football like a duck to water. An excellent loan and bill of health at League One’s MK Dons the season prior earned him the step up into the second tier of English football.
Laird thrived under Russell Martin, formerly a player at Norwich, at MK Dons. And when the 36-year-old Englishman took the Swans job, he took the promising right-back with him. It was an ideal loan for United and the player. Laird picked up where he left off in 2020/21.
By mid-season, Laird was a regular. He completed 15 90’s in 18 starts for Swansea as the preferred option at right wingback. No injury woes and regular reps on the outskirts of the Premier League, everything was going according to plan. Laird was progressing gradually and edging ever so close to United’s immediate plans.
Without the recurring injury problems throughout his academy career at United, it could well be argued that Laird would’ve already become a regular at the club. But for obvious reasons, he ended up forced onto the loan route and adapted swimmingly.
Similarly to his role at MK Dons, Laird was relied upon as an attacking outlet for the Welsh side, with Martin optin to play a three-man back line. Though defensively sound, the 20-year-old is a real attacking threat with blistering pace, dribbling, and on-ball savvy resembling that of a winger. He had four assists for Swansea in all competitions before a surprising departure.
After playing only 45 minutes in a 4-1 loss against Nottingham Forest on the 11th of December, Laird was substituted and would not play for “The Jacks” again. The England youth international had picked up a knock and that’s mostly why it was startling when news broke out that he would be relocating.Embed from Getty Images
Scott Parker’s Bournemouth, through ups and downs, were the promotion front runners all season long. The initial prospect of Laird swapping the Swansea.com Stadium for the Vitality was rather attractive. After all, it would be going from a mid-table drag to a promotion fight. A winning environment. But not while being unable to play right away.
It quickly became apparent what United were trying to do there. With a lot of eyes firmly on Laird’s impressive adaptation and progress at the senior level, his parent club wanted to ramp it up a notch – let him be in a winning dressing room before walking into United’s one, even though United have not really been doing much winning of late.
It was also going to be an opportunity to expose Laird to playing in a back four as a more traditional right back, rather than a wingback, too. But as great as the plan was on paper, it quite simply did not work out. Laird inked a loan deal with the Cherries until the end of the season but was virtually nowhere to be seen thereafter.
There was a lot of mystery about his absences with Parker being rather cryptic when asked about the young defender. Eventually, we found out that while recovering from the injury picked up at Swansea, Laird picked up another one to prolong his spell on the side-lines.
After recovering, breaking into a well oiled machine that’s in pursuit of the promised land was not an easy task. In total, Laird was omitted from the Bournemouth matchday squad 15 times out of a possible 23. Parker admitted he was simply not up to the speed required to start contributing.
The reasoning behind Laird’s absences was fair, though United fans were vocal in their dissatisfaction. But the positive to be drawn is that when Laird finally broke into the team, he impressed. He showed the Cherries boss exactly what everyone knew he was capable of.Embed from Getty Images
“He’s done very well, I’ve been very pleased with him,” Parker told the Daily Echo after Laird put in a solid shift against Middlesbrough in April. “Why I’m pleased for him is because he had it pretty tough. He’s come into the building, was injured, spent a long time out and then had it tough in terms of trying to get into the team, or even around the team.
“I was always in close dialogue with him. Explaining to him and being very honest about what he needed to do, what he needed to bring and how he needed to apply himself to get in the team.”
After all that, getting back into the team told a story about Laird’s mettle. The desire and grit is there. It would have been easy to pack it in and go back to United, thinking you have credit in the bank from the first half of the season. But that was not the case. That’s not how United academy players are built.
Laird made a couple of cameos for Bournemouth in February and March of this year before starting four of the now Premier League bound sides last seven games.
As disappointing as the second half of the season was for the promising right-back, perhaps it was a good test of character that will bode well for the future. We more or less knew what he is capable of on the pitch and what he would bring to the table at United. Now we also know that he has the mentality to overcome adversity in a senior dressing room.
Entering the final year of his United contract, Laird has something to prove to earn a new one under seemingly stricter management. He will undoubtedly have a chip on his shoulder come pre-season and under Erik ten Hag, he has a clean slate and a position that is wide open at the club.
With Diogo Dalot rather surplus to requirements and Aaron Wan-Bissaka reportedly on the chopping block, Laird’s fate is very much in his own hands. His ceiling is very high and if only he can put the experiences from the last couple of years into practice this summer – all while staying off the treatment table – the new United boss could have a terrific, homegrown option for the right side of his defence next season.