Of the six Manchester United signings on that neverending transfer deadline day in October 2020, only one started against Liverpool last week.

Willy Kambwala was 16 years and 61 days old when he signed his paperwork, overseen by his agent Darren Dein, the son of former Arsenal chief executive David. The callow Kambwala move from Sochaux was not worthy of confirmation on United’s social media feeds on a day Alex Telles, Edinson Cavani, Facundo Pellistri and Amad agreed their transfers.

A message dropped from one of the United staff members early that evening. “The club have taken an unveiling picture, which rarely happens with academy signings. Possibly indicates they have high hopes for him.”

That was the same summer Marc Jurado, Alvaro Fernandez and Alejandro Garnacho touched down on the Manchester tarmac from Spain in the last transfer window for English clubs to sign overseas players under the age of 18 before the prohibitive Brexit regulations. Garnacho did not pose for an unveiling shot.

FROM 2020: United think they have completed another transfer coup with Willy Kambwala

READ MORE: United suffer two more injury setbacks

The €4million fee United committed to spending on Kambwala was the only one the club briefed from the ‘Brexit Babes’ intake. Kambwala was also the only one who had been to Old Trafford before.

April 2018. It is matchday and the Old Trafford concourse is a hive of activity outside the east stand. It is wet but United supporters are singing in the rain after delaying City’s title win with a party-crashing comeback at the Etihad the previous week.

West Brom, destined for relegation, are in town and United have to win to extend City’s wait. Fans and tourists are framing the money shot of the Sir Matt Busby statue, positioned proudly in front of the sleeping giant he roused. Others are drawn to the Trinity statue Busby smiles at opposite him.

A group of French teenagers from Les Ulis, a semi-professional team 24 kilometres south-west of Paris, gawp in awe at Best, Law and Charlton. One of them, a United fan, tells a teammate that one day he will return to play for United. The kid is Kambwala.

Anthony Martial’s shirt adorns the clubhouse at his old youth team Les Ulis and he has invited members of the Under-15s team over. They leave with Megastore bags stuffed with shirts and signed Martial cards.

Two-and-a-half years later, Kambwala is a Gary Neville throw-in away from the Trinity statue, inside Hotel Football, overlooking Old Trafford. Inside the stadium, Tottenham are trouncing United 6-1. But Kambwala cannot stop grinning. He has just signed for United.

Kambwala on the day he signed for United
Kambwala on the day he signed for United

His mood will have been lifted by the surreal sight on the television of Liverpool sieving seven goals at Aston Villa. He spoke minimal English at the time but is now fluent.

There was a 1,174-day wait between Kambwala’s signing and his debut. Significant injuries reduced him to less than 30 appearances for the Under-18s, Under-19s and Under-21s in his first three seasons in the academy.

On the night United lifted the FA Youth Cup in May 2022, matchwinner Garnacho and Jurado were starters while a tracksuited Fernandez, a year older, charged onto the pitch at the final whistle to celebrate with his teammates. Kambwala was dressed in his Paul Smith club suit.

Kambwala is a rarity: a United academy graduate who never played in the Youth Cup. He was an unused substitute in the third round victory over Scunthorpe United at Leigh and in the semi-final defeat of Wolves at Old Trafford. There was a danger that was the nearest he would ever get to playing in the stadium he visited as a 13-year-old.

Kambwala enjoys the FA Youth Cup win
Kambwala enjoys the FA Youth Cup win

And then last week the 19-year-old Kambwala strode out of the Stretford End tunnel in British football’s biggest game. He performed creditably on his full home debut against a frontline of Luis Diaz, Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah, eliciting applause from Erik ten Hag after a recovery challenge on Nunez.

As one of only two fit available centre halves, Kambwala will start at Bournemouth today and possibly at Wembley next week. In a season of injury crises, the once injury-prone Kambwala has remained fit to secure a long-awaited breakthrough.

His comeback is one of the success stories of the season at United. Kambwala travelled to the United States during pre-season – but with the academy squad. Will Fish, on loan at Hibernian, started ahead of him in the eventful 3-1 defeat to Wrexham in San Diego. Kambwala only came on for 16 minutes.

Kambwala tends to turn up for training two-and-a-half hours before the scheduled arrival time. He does extensive injury prevention work before training sessions and he has been fit for practically the entirety of the campaign.

Kambwala (second from left) at Old Trafford in April 2013
Kambwala (second from left) at Old Trafford in April 2013 (Image: Image provided by Manchester United)

He was named on the bench for the first time less than four months ago at Anfield. Six days later, he was parachuted into the starting XI at West Ham in the absence of the unwell Raphael Varane. The Gallic guard change resumed against Liverpool last week.

When Kambwala’s starting status at West Ham was confirmed, a well-placed United source credited the now departed football director John Murtough with recruiting him as part of the restocking at youth level. Those were the words of a dying man by proxy.

A devout Christian, Kambwala reads the bible in the dressing room before kick-off and attends church whenever United’s schedule permits. That faith will have provided comfort and reassurance during the months of torturous rehabilitation. Sources who deal with the United players say Kambwala is relentlessly positive and lesser characters would have crumbled amid several setbacks.

Those who work at Carrington say Kambwala is one of the most enthusiastic players at the club. “You can tell he’s buzzing to be around the training ground every day,” one said.

Kambwala enjoys the EFL Trophy victory over Stockport
Kambwala enjoys the EFL Trophy victory over Stockport

Staff have also been struck by Kambwala’s politeness. The first team car park is at the rear of the main building but Kambwala always arrives and exits through the front door, stopping to speak to the long-serving receptionist Kath Phipps. He is still living in academy digs.

He is particularly close with Andre Onana, a willing mentor. Their goalkeeper-defender rapport could yet have a significant bearing on United’s run-in.

Les Ulis’s affiliation with United extends beyond Martial. Patrice Evra also played for them in his youth. In January, Kambwala returned to gift them his own shirt. It is now hanging on the clubhouse wall.