Inside Manchester United’s scheme to support academy players who do not make the grade

Club are inviting 227 former players back into the fold to help them develop life skills, overcome injuries, providing welfare and support

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.


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