Manchester United will launch a pioneering new scheme early next year designed to improve the support available to academy graduates who have left the club.
United have spent the past 18 months developing the so-called Alumni Programme that will give a network of 227 former players who have left the club over the past 11 years formal access to support, help and advice.
In the last eight months, a working group – overseen by academy director Nick Cox – has been busy honing a strategy to ensure the project meets the needs and demands of those leavers and will seek to tailor the scheme according to the feedback they get and lessons they learn.
United are due to launch the programme formally in early January and are expected to hold four events a year but hope by creating a formal network in which former academy graduates can interact with each other that new ground could be broken in the quality of “aftercare” provision.
“We see it as our duty to care and support the boys long after they have left us,” Cox told Telegraph Sport. “They make a big commitment as young players to be part of our programme. We think that commitment deserves an ongoing commitment from us.
“We are constantly refining what we do, why we do it and if we could do it better. We felt there was a need to formalise some of that aftercare and support.
“The risk of an informal approach is that you end up connecting with young boys who you know, are prominent in your minds and are desperate to come back. But you might miss a young person who really needs your support.
“If we can let the network interact with itself, there is an enormous amount of support that can be generated across that cohort. Our programme has to be somewhere that is vibrant, creative, experimental.”
The Premier League issued new guidance this season stating all club academies should provide a three-year “aftercare plan” for every player that is let go between the Under-17 and Under-21 age ranges. Some leading players have even set up initiatives focused on providing career opportunities for former academy players, such as Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, who launched the ‘The After Academy’ in conjunction with the Professional Footballers’ Association this year.
While cases like that of Jeremy Wisten, the 18-year-old former Manchester City youth player who tragically took his life in 2020, are uncommon, being released from a club can be a crushing experience and clubs are having to invest more and more time and resources into aftercare support.
Data compiled by the PFA last season showed over 60 per cent of players across the Premier League, EFL and Women’s Super League had been worrying about football related matters, close to half had experienced nervousness or anxiety and 22 per cent reported severe anxiety to the point of feeling afraid or that something awful might happen.
Research by FifPro, the world players’ union, shows that up to 38 per cent of footballers suffer from mental health symptoms during their career.
United say that, depending on their age, 75 per cent to 90 per cent of the players who leave them will sign for another professional club.
As a starting point, Cox said they would be contacting players who had left the club since 2012, when the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan was introduced, and were who were either registered over the age of 15 or had been in the academy for five years or more. But he was clear that players who reached out who fell outside that cohort would not be turned away.
Last week, a number of former United academy graduates visited the club’s Carrington training ground to attend a week-long series of activities as part of a soft launch of the Alumni Programme.
They included Tom Thorpe, the former FA Youth Cup winning captain from 2011 who quit playing for five years due to depression before resuming his career in February, and Callum Gribbin, once considered one of the brightest young talents in the academy. Gribbin left United in 2019 and is currently recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered playing for FC United of Manchester earlier this year.
Other past academy leavers present included Ro-Shaun Williams, Matthew Olosunde and Eric Hanbury, all of whom are currently without clubs, and Oli Kilner, who is registered with Oldham but recovering from a long-term injury.
As well as putting on training sessions, United had the group undertake a series of activities, including compiling a scouting report on players during an Under-21 game against Hull last Tuesday.
United hope to assist players looking for clubs or working their way back from injuries as well as those seeking career advice and opportunities or in need of welfare or general support. Andy Laylor, United’s academy player support co-ordinator and Joe Thompson, a former academy graduate who twice beat cancer, have been spearheading the working group behind the programme.
“We have asked some really specific questions and asked them about their experiences coming through the academy,” Cox said. “That feedback is really useful to help us think about how we tailor our programme for future generations.
“We have talked about what it was like to leave, how it was when they left, whether they needed more or less of something. The big question is what kind of ongoing support might they need. Our perception of what they need might be different from theirs.
“We might be going down the route of informal education, workshops and presentations, they might just want some training and use of the pitch or a bit of social interaction. We might have some stuff on offer that they never would have dreamt of.
“It is about us prompting and probing the players so they understand the opportunities that are available that they haven’t thought about.”
Cox said it was only right football was held to the highest standards. “I accept that there are various sports that have let young people down,” he said. “And I accept when you work with young people in football you have a great responsibility to continually look at the way you behave to make sure you are supporting them appropriately and you are doing everything in your power to care for them appropriately.
“My general reflections, after 23 years in academy football, are a very, very small number of boys inadvertently have a bad time.
“This club is probably held to a greater account than most clubs and I believe football in general is held to a higher account than any other learning environment.”
Case study: Tom Thorpe
It is not easy listening to Tom Thorpe bravely relive the five years he lost to acute depression, a period when, in his words, he was reduced to little more than a shell of the person who had been tipped for such big things at Manchester United.
Captain of a United side containing the likes of Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard that would go on to win the FA Youth Cup in 2011, Thorpe also lifted the European Under-17 Championship the year before with England, for whom he was capped at every age level from Under-16 to Under-21. A senior United debut would follow. The future was bright.
By late 2017, Thorpe was plying his trade in India and rapidly falling out of love with a game he had once cherished. He returned home and more horrendous luck with injuries that had been the scourge of his career would finally catapult him into a downward spiral from which he has only recently emerged.
“There are a lot of opposites in depression,” Thorpe explains. “You don’t want to be lonely but you want to be on your own. It’s difficult to put into words without having some experience of your own to grasp.
“There’s the phrase ‘you can see light at the end of the tunnel’ and the natural human response is if you see the light you keep going. With depression, there is no light. There is nothing.
“So it was a case of complete shutdown. Didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t want to do anything. Often in my case I knew what I could do to help myself but I didn’t want to do it.”
Only his parents knew the extent of his problems. “I would not say anything to my outer family – cousins, uncles, aunties – because I’d go round for family occasions and put on this mask,” he said. “That was my escape to be normal. Then as soon as I got home it would be a case of mask off and shut down and don’t speak to anyone or do anything.
“It was severe depression. I prolonged it because I always thought I could do it myself and it was only at the point of rock bottom – in the bottomless pit of thinking ‘Right Tom, enough is enough now’ – that I did something. I could see the effect it was having on my mum and dad. It was almost more for them than me that I needed to see someone, I needed help.”
Thorpe sought refuge through Sporting Chance, the charity set up by the former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams to help professional sportsmen and women battling mental health issues. The opportunity, then, to take part in United’s programme was not one he was going to pass up, not least when it coincided with yet more cruel setbacks that, had he not learnt some valuable coping mechanisms, might have proven doubly challenging to deal with.
Only a fortnight before we meet, Thorpe had shattered the anterior, medial and posterior cruciate ligaments in a knee playing just his second game for Stalybridge Celtic in the Northern Premier League West Division, from which he had won promotion with Macclesfield FC the previous season after finally resuming his playing career in February.
It evoked memories of him cracking a heel bone and rupturing ankle ligaments just 14 minutes into his debut for Birmingham on loan from United in 2013 – the first in what would be a series of serious injury woes – and was a sickening misfortune for a player who had fought back so valiantly from dark times. Yet the way he is handling the likelihood of possibly another year out of the game speaks volumes for his strength of character and resilience.
“I can’t say it’s good what happened to me but, in a weird sense, it’s stood me in good stead for situations like this,” Thorpe said. “Previously I might not have been able to say this. I could have had this long-term injury and been in utter despair and not known what to do whereas now there’s a realisation and ability to cope with situations like this. It’s about taking each step at a time.
“With injury, especially long-term ones, it’s not physical, it’s more mental. Previously in my career I’ve had difficulty with the mental aspects of it and subsequently now I work with Sporting Chance, which has helped me a lot.”
Now 30, Thorpe is determined to return to football as soon as he can but he is already thinking about what life might look like once his playing days are over and is interested in helping players facing difficulties, mental or otherwise.
Outside the regular events they plan to hold, United hope the alumni programme will create a network where former players can tap into each other for help, advice and support. And that much was evident on the day we met Thorpe, who was able to pick the brains of another former academy graduate present, Callum Gribbin, who had suffered a similar knee injury to him nine months earlier.
“I’m working with Sporting Chance now to help educate young lads and try to make it less of a stigma in football which it still is,” Thorpe says. “And it seems football is the toughest one to break because there are other sports which appear more open.
“You don’t have to be at the point of crisis before asking for help. If you can get that help early you might need minimal support but it’s about that support being there. I would love to be able to make a positive impact there.