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The first time Isak Hansen-Aaroen went away with the Manchester United youth team, his eye was drawn to a lean, shaven-headed figure in training kit who had a special command of a football.
It’s August 2018 and Hansen-Aaroen is a few days short of his 14th birthday. He’s in Hong Kong with United’s Under-16s, one of many visits to the club before making his move permanent.
During his time in Hong Kong the 13-year-old never did find out how that impressive figure was, but on his next trip to Carrington he’s with his technical coach and former professional footballer Jonas Johansen when he sees the same person.
“You don’t know that this a former player?”, Johansen said to Hansen-Aaroen, before telling him all about Nicky Butt’s role in the Champions League final in Barcelona in 1999 and all that he achieved for United.
Hansen-Aaroen, a silky playmaker, will be seeing a bit more of Butt after moving to Manchester permanently just under three weeks ago, having turned 16 on August 22.
The Norwegian has already impressed in training with the Under-18s and while his arrival is yet to be confirmed by United, who are awaiting international clearance for him, hopes are high.
Hansen-Aaroen played seven games for Tromso, as a 15-year-old, in the Norwegian second tier between the start of July and early August before moving to Manchester in the middle of last month and moving in with a host family.
Most of Europe wanted to sign Hansen-Aaroen. There were offers from Liverpool, visits to Everton and interest from Bayern Munich and Juventus, but after the first contact with United there was never any doubt about his destination.
And while the ultimate goal is to reach the first-team, the teenager has already played at Old Trafford.
“They’ve been following him since he was 13, they saw him at a local football school here and he was the best player. He was given a trip to Manchester and he actually played at Old Trafford, a small training game there for children,” Johansen said of United’s interest in the player.
“They’ve followed him closely ever since. When he was 14 he had his first trial there. They’ve been close with him, his agent and family since then. He completed the pre-contract when he was 15, they had a good eye on him for a while before he signed.
“The way he was treated the first time he was at Carrington convinced him this was the right place for him.”
Since confirming his move there have been regular discussions with Neil Ryan, United’s Under-18s boss, and Les Parry, the academy’s player performance manager, about Hansen-Aaroen’s development.
His grasp of United’s history has improved as well. In order to remain with Tromso’s reserves and senior side, Hansen-Aaroen missed his 10th grade in Norway, so had to have makeshift classes to continue his education.
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That included working on his English, which Johansen helped with. But rather than focusing on pronunciation and the finer details of the language, the coach, a United fan himself, combined the two to give his pupil a headstart when he arrived in Manchester.
“We did the United history lessons, instead of talking about pronunciation we just started talking English. Every time he was in Manchester he was outside Old Trafford and he saw the Munich clock, he took an interest in the club’s history,” said Johansen.
“It was exciting for me because I know a lot of the history, so I taught him about Munich, told him about Duncan Edwards and gave him a relationship to what United is and the DNA.
“So I told him about Eric Harrison, the Class of 92, he took a lot of interest in knowing United’s history. I think it’s important for him to learn the history if you want to be part of the new history.”
Johansen hung up his boots in 2017 after a distinguished career in Norway that started and ended with Tromso. It was while training at the club’s Alfheim complex nearly six years ago that he first caught sight of a then 10-year-old attacking midfielder and “saw straight away this boy had something special”.
After retiring he began to work one-on-one with Hansen-Aaroen, on technical elements to his game and devising regular training sessions and weekly plans. He’s also accompanied him on several visits to Carrington.
More recently the teenager has been watching videos of Juan Mata and Bruno Fernandes to try and add the defensive elements to his already impressive attacking game.
“Before he was only a No. 10, when he was young he was always the best player in the team and almost every game and every training session focused on the offensive part of the game,” said Johansen.
“The last 18 months we’ve worked well on his defensive part of the game. He’s never going to be a defensive-minded player but he needs some key points in his defensive work to make it as a United player.
“We’ve watched players like Juan Mata and Bruno Fernandes, they work hard when it comes to the defensive part of the game.
“Isak wants to get on the ball as much as possible, his biggest attribute now is probably his timing on and off the ball, his vision and the way he times his run, he knows when to let the ball go and when to dribble or when to pass.”
And next time he bumps into Nicky Butt, he’ll know exactly who the 45-year-old is and what he did for Manchester United.
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This content was originally published here.