Manchester United signed players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Manchester City in the summer — all for their youth teams.

So while scrutiny was on the first team and their underwhelming transfer window following the failure to land Jadon Sancho, bosses in the United academy were quietly chuffed with their recruitment work.

Add in the 'first team signings' of youngsters Amad and Facundo Pellistri and you could safely make 2020 the most prolific year, in terms of United youth recruitment, of all time; certainly since the club became serious about expanding its scouting network to all parts of the globe early in the 21s century.

With new Brexit rules coming into play from January 2021, limiting the scope of Premier League clubs when it comes to signing youngsters from abroad, United acted decisively.

But as the club's head of academy Nick Cox tells the Manchester Evening News in this exclusive interview, it wasn't just about Brexit.

United are always looking for the very best players — at whatever age — from around the world.

The club's head of academy Nick Cox

"Our job isn't to create winning teams, it's to make sure we have an academy full of high-potential talent, to make sure we have a consistent pipeline of young players that can support our first-team squad in any given position," Cox tells us, outlining the philosophy at the heart of the United academy.

As head of first team development Nicky Butt and Under-23s boss Neil Wood have both said in previous interviews, winning cups and leagues at youth level is not the priority at Old Trafford. It never has been. 

"Although it's always a nice byproduct," adds Cox. And certainly winning FA Youth Cups used to be the measuring stick for a successful United academy.

United's recruitment drive of 2020 was a result of a slight gap in that "pipeline" of talent, Cox explains, as well as the club's desire to send many of its hitherto Under-23 stalwarts out on loan to gain first team experience.

The result is a number of hugely exciting players from different backgrounds, busting a gut to break through.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21: Shola Shoretire of Manchester United makes his debut during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on February 21, 2021 in Manchester, United Kingdom. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Shola Shoretire made his Manchester United debut against Newcastle United last month

"It just so happened that last summer we looked at the group of players we had locally and didn't think we had the high levels of potential level required," says Cox. "So we decided to add to it.

"It wasn't some big shift towards foreign recruitment; every year is different. You pick a different strategy based on the needs each year."

*Excluding 18-year-old pair Amad and Facundo Pellistri, who were signed for the first team.

The elephant in the room, however, is Brexit and the new points-based work permit system that has come into force, making it more difficult for Premier League clubs to sign youngsters who haven't played international football, or gained a reputation on the continent.

It also virtually bans the signing of players under the age of 18 from foreign countries.

No surprise, then, that of the nine academy imports in the summer, only three came from domestic clubs (Joe Hugill and Logan Pye from Sunderland, Charlie McNeil from Man City).

"It definitely wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to Brexit," insists Cox.

"It's just if you're looking at recruiting players, you look at the pool available to you and recruit the best you can into the positions you're looking for.

"Some came from Europe and some came from elsewhere in this country and we have some high-potential players within the academy as well — let's not forget [recent first team debutant] Shola Shoreitre is part of that programme.

Mason Greenwood of Manchester United is the latest star to become a mainstay in the first team setup

"But Brexit will change the dynamics of recruitment for all English clubs moving forward, which will require us to take a different approach moving forward.

"The most successful youth teams and first teams over the years have been a mix of the very best local players that understand the club's history and culture, and their job is to educate the best talent from around the world when it arrives.

"And when it arrives from other places, their job is to bring the innovation and bring their experiences to add to experiences the players can have as a collective."

Cox cites the example of the Class of 92 learning from the legendary Eric Cantona under Sir Alex Ferguson's stewardship, but there are more recently examples of Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford speaking about the benefit of working with Edinson Cavani, Teden Mengi learning from Harry Maguire.

"Those boys also had a job to support Eric Cantona in understanding what the club meant to them," adds Cox.

A key aspect of developing youngsters is sending them out on loan, as Class of 92 legend David Beckham — once temporarily a Preston player — will attest.

Cox admits the loan programme from United this year was deliberately aggressive, designed to challenge players who had been in a comfort zone playing for the Under-23s.

James Garner — who was sent to Watford and then to Nottingham Forest when the game-time was drying up in Hertfordshire — has been one of the beneficiaries.

But Cox also believes Dylan Levitt, Matej Kovar and Tahith Chong will have taken plenty from their difficult loan spells at Charlton, Swindon and Werder Bremen respectively.

Marcus Rashford - another who has come through the system - celebrates a goal on his first start for Manchester United

"I don't think there's such a thing as a failed loan," he says.

"There's only experiences. So if a boy goes out on loan and doesn't play, that can be just as wonderful an experience for your long-term development as playing every week.

"But you've got to get the balance right. You can't have a boy not playing for long periods of time."

On the decisions to recall the quartet and find three of the players new clubs in January (all except Kovar), Cox admits United's contacts book plays a big part. Clubs down the football league and around Europe can make great use of the strong talent pool coming from Old Trafford.

"You sometimes have to reconsider a loan period, move boys around and consider where they're at," Cox says.

"That's a lot of communication between the staff internally, the player and the network of clubs we have strong relationships with.

"We made a decision this year to be really proactive with getting boys out on loan. We looked at the boys we had, the competitions available to us and decided 'yeah maybe it's time to be brave'.

"It would have been easy to keep the boys back in the building and win games every week but that's not what we're here for.

"We put boys out and the knock-on affect is that you're seeing our Under-23s with young players in, you'll see our Under-18s with young players in. Because that's the right thing for the individuals.

Nicky Butt, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Michael Carrick watching Manchester United U18s

"Neil Ryan, Neil Wood, Nicky Butt and myself decided on that approach at the start of the season: be brave, be young and accelerate boys' learning by exposing them to challenges.

"It's only ever about doing the right thing for the player. To showcase their talent and allow them to develop.

"If they don't go on to play in our first team, you hope to just give them an opportunity to experience senior football, either get themselves another loan in a higher league or establish a career away from us."

It's that ethos again, the one that runs throughout United's academy, which everything comes back to.

The right pathway for the player, the right experiences for the youngsters who go through United's academy programme — even if they never actually make it as a professional.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 25: Shola Shoretire of Manchester United shakes hands with Mason Greenwood of Manchester United as he is substituted during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 match between Manchester United and Real Sociedad at Old Trafford on February 25, 2021 in Manchester, England. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Jan Kruger - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)
Shola Shoretire became Manchester United's youngest-ever player in a European match against Real Sociedad

And so while Shoretire is the current poster boy for the fabled youth system, Cox knows the 17-year-old and players like him are once-in-a-generation talents. Shoretire's challenge is very different to many of his contemporaries.

"With Shola, we've got him to the beginning. It's only the start line, not the end.

"Young players making their debuts, whether it's Ryan Giggs or Marcus Rashford or anyone else, they make the headlines but they're the exception to the rule, they really are.

"Making your debut in the Premier League at that age is rare and we have to navigate boys to make their debuts later, or go out on loan, some might not debut with us but elsewhere and others might never make it as a footballer.

"But in the process they'll have an amazing time, learn some skills and develop relationships that set them up for an amazing life outside of football."

Manchester United were held to a 0-0 draw by Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players were frustrated for the third goalless game in succession, dropping more points to allow Man City to streak away at the Premier League's summit, on a poor day for the forwards.

MEN Sport will bring you all the build-up to and reaction from every United match. You can have it all delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our daily newsletter. Just put your email address in the sign-up box at the top of this article, or simply follow this link. It's free and only takes a few seconds.

So what's next?

United accept 2020 was something of a one-off in terms of numbers coming into the academy, but they vow to keep looking for the very best around.

The primary aim is continuing a tradition that dates back 83 years — and more than 4,000 games — of including at least one academy graduate in a match day squad.

"It will fluctuate from year to year," Cox adds on youth recruitment.

"We assess the players we have in the building, the talent available to us outside. You're looking for players capable of playing Champions League football and we'll always look to recruit the best players we can.

"It would be remiss of us not to give every opportunity to local players, but if there's talent outside the local footprint, we'll look at that too. It's not about a particular quota, it's about year-on-year getting the best talent we can.

"Our fans expect to see youngsters debuting from the academy. We've got a great record over the last 83 years and it's our job to make sure we don't break the cycle over the next 83 years."