Manchester United launch 'unique' Academy Alumni Programme

Left to right: Academy alumni Joe Thompson, Matthew Olosunde, Tom Thorpe. Staff Ethan Heseltine (Assistant Academy Analyst), Neil Harris (Academy Coach), Joel Fletcher (Academy Goalkeeper Coach), Andrew Laylor (Academy Player Support Co-Ordinator). And Academy alumni Callum Gribbin, Oli Kilner and Eric Hanbury.

Left to right: Academy alumni Joe Thompson, Matthew Olosunde, Tom Thorpe. Staff Ethan Heseltine (Assistant Academy Analyst), Neil Harris (Academy Coach), Joel Fletcher (Academy Goalkeeper Coach), Andrew Laylor (Academy Player Support Co-Ordinator). And Academy alumni Callum Gribbin, Oli Kilner and Eric Hanbury.

MANCHESTER UNITED have launched an Academy Alumni Programme which they say is “unique in English football” and formalises support for their former players.

Several ex-Academy players returned to Carrington last week to participate in a special training camp. The graduates were all at different stages of their careers, with some seeking a new playing contract at another club, while others were beginning to consider post-playing career options.

The main focus of the week was coaching and physical preparation, but the players also engaged in a series of workshops about potential opportunities that could be available to them.

One was a scouting workshop led by current Head of Academy Recruitment Luke Fedorenko, himself a former youth player with Barnsley. The week was organised by Academy Player Support Co-ordinator Andy Laylor.

United say the Alumni Programme is “unique in English football” and “pushes the boundaries of innovation and player care.” Last week was a soft launch, with something more formal due for January.

United will initially open the alumni group to about 225 former players who have left since 2012 and were either registered after the age of 15 or were with the Academy for five or more years.

Academy Director Nick Cox said: “It’s one thing to have an informal network of support for young people, but we believe it’s our duty to formalise that somewhat.

“We want to make sure that any boy who has spent time at the club has the opportunity, once they leave us, to feel supported and to help them harness some of the skills that they would have developed, whilst they were with us, to go on and be successful in another walk of life: whether that’s in or out of football.

“This is about offering some additional support in terms of informal education, workshops and creating a network, letting the young players have a network themselves where they can share experiences, ideas and skills to the betterment of everyone.

"Lots of clubs have alumni. Lots of clubs really think about what they do in the early years. Being Manchester United, we are trying to be the best. We are trying to do things differently and we are trying to be the first. I am not sure the type of project you are watching is happening anywhere else."

Clubs have often been criticised for a lack of aftercare for released players. Cox said: "The level of care and support young boys have, whilst they are with a club and well after leaving, I believe, exceeds other educational establishments and other sports.

“In general, football is committed to thinking carefully about how it supports young players as they leave the programme.”

A working group had been set up to establish what the Alumni Programme should look like. This was led by 34-year-old former player Joe Thompson, who had spent seven years in United's Academy before going on to play in the Football League.

His career ended prematurely at the age of 29 in February 2019 after a battle with nodular sclerosis Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.

Thompson explained said: “For me, it’s about taking what I learnt through my career, including life skills, and being able to pass that message down and be a soundboard and, ultimately, create a network - so whoever you are or whenever you leave, you know you’ve got a home here. It is United and it is forever.

“Any kid that comes in this building should be immensely proud. It’s something that so many children around the world crave and want, so we should never shy away from that achievement.

“It’s going to come to an end at some point - even if you have a 15 to 20-year career at the club - and so it’s about passing that message down, the core values that you learn here. And I always say, the coaches here taught me things way beyond the white lines of a football pitch, and that’s what I’m trying to do here.”

Meanwhile, a dozen of United's Professional Development Phase players have spent time in the Football League and National League, with Barrow, Forest Green Rovers, Portsmouth, Barnsley, Blackpool and Altrincham.

This was part of United’s Pro Experience Programme. As TGG has previously reported, the programme was launched in 2021/22 to give young players experience of senior football.

Maxi Oyedele and Joe Hugill were two to benefit last season, spending time with National League side Altrincham. Once the players return to Carrington, they present back to coaches about their experiences.

Staff also visit the players at their placement clubs to “show support but also to help build their network and develop their skills.”

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