Robin Thorpe: Personal touch that set Ferguson apart
Written by Simon Austin — November 25, 2020
MOST sports science graduates wouldn’t expect to be interviewed by the manager when trying to land their first job - let alone a manager who's one of the most successful in the history of football.
This was the scenario when Robin Thorpe, fresh out of Nottingham Trent University, was on the brink of being hired by Manchester United in 2009 though.
“I’d already been in a couple of times, to meet Tony Strudwick (Head of Performance) and Steve McNally (Head of Medical) and the last hurdle was being vetted by Sir Alex," Thorpe told TGG.
“He didn’t really speak about the role, it was all about who I was as a person. He’d found out I was from Macclesfield and talked about the town and about how important loyalty was - both for the club and for him as a person as well. When you look back, it was incredible.”
This wasn't a one-off - it was what happened when United wanted to hire someone on Ferguson's watch. As Rene Meulensteen, who joined in 2001 as an Academy coach, told TGG: "Sir Alex said first he wanted to meet to look me in the eye - something he did before any appointment, be it a coach or a player - and I was given the job."
Thorpe had done a Masters in Exercise Physiology at Nottingham Trent University and had his research on the correlation between external load and immune and muscle damage published.
“I sent that research to every team in the UK that I knew had a fitness coach or some sport scientist,” he remembered. “It actually wasn’t that many. Back then, there were no departments, it was literally one or two people at each club.
“Fortunately for me, Tony (Strudwick) at Manchester United, Nick Broad at Chelsea and John Iga at Wolves were all interested and I had dialogue with all of them.
“Manchester United were my team though and it was my dream to work for them. Luckily, they were in a transition phase, with their nutritionist retiring, and a role came up as a sports science and nutrition support.
“Thankfully, Sir Alex gave me the green light after that meeting we had. After that, I just made it my aim to keep progressing as well as I could. It was an amazing department. There was Gary Walker (Head of S&C), Richard Hawkins (Head of Human Performance) and Tony. To learn off those individuals was a great experience for me.
“I had different roles during my 10 years at the club. Sometimes I was more S&C based and I had a period when I was managing recovery. Then that role of Head of Recovery and Regeneration, which was in line with my PhD, came up and I started it after a year of being there.
“That area of recovery is huge - and I think is going to be become even more important as time goes on.”
This was a golden period for Thorpe under Ferguson, with Premier League titles won in 2010/11 and 2012/13, and the legendary manager giving his staff the freedom and autonomy to do their jobs as best they could.
“Sir Alex had trust in Tony and vice versa. As a staff beneath Tony, we then had a level of autonomy to do what we thought was the best in terms of practice for the team. Tony was ahead of his time on recovery - we all were.
"We’d had a manager in place for so long that we were able to develop things.”
Ferguson retired in May 2013, but that wasn’t the last time Thorpe heard from him - including on one memorable occasion three years later.
“It was 2016 and Sir Alex had been retired for three years. I’d just got my PhD and had a phone call off a private number. I couldn’t answer it at the time, but listened later to the voicemail - and it was Sir Alex congratulating me on my Phd.
“Somehow, he’d found out about it, even all those years on. I’ve still got that voicemail and I think it was brilliant that he did that. From a man-management point of view, he was amazing - for the players and for the staff.”