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Murtough expects to be part of Ineos era at United

Club launch programme to give career support to those former academy players who failed to make the grade


John Murtough expects to play a part in any transition under Sir Jim Ratcliffe at Manchester United despite uncertainty over his position as football director.

United announced Richard Arnold’s departure as chief executive last week, and Murtough’s role has come under scrutiny, with Ineos founder Ratcliffe’s team known to be looking at candidates for a new sporting director.

In addition to Crystal Palace’s Dougie Freedman and the former Tottenham Hotspur recruitment chief Paul Mitchell, Atalanta’s Lee Congerton, former AC Milan duo Paolo Maldini and Ricky Massara, and Andrea Berta of Atletico Madrid, are all under consideration for a director of football role.

Nonetheless, it is understood that Murtough expects to work with Ineos during the transition process once Ratcliffe’s estimated £1.3billion deal for a quarter stake in the club has been concluded, and potentially beyond. There are no guarantees that the deal will be wrapped up before Thanksgiving holidays start in the United States on Thursday and some close to the process fear it could be next week before an announcement is made.

There will also be a six-to-eightweek wait for the Premier League to ratify any deal before Ratcliffe can press ahead with plans.

Ratcliffe feels recruitment has been one of the factors behind United’s struggles since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager in 2013 and he will be seeking improvement as he prepares to take control of football operations

What is unclear is whether the potential arrival of an external sporting director could lead specifically to the departure of Murtough, or changes to his role. At present, his wide-ranging remit extends to overseeing the academy and women’s set-ups as well as the men’s first team, in addition to operations at the club’s Carrington base.

United have spent more than £400million with mixed results under manager Erik ten Hag, who has exerted huge influence over the club’s transfer policy.

Resolving the future of winger Jadon Sancho, who has been exiled since September after falling out with Ten Hag, is a priority.

Juventus and Sancho’s former club, Borussia Dortmund, are watching the situation and Saudi Arabia could renew their interest.

Manchester United will launch a pioneering scheme next year designed to improve the support available to academy graduates who have left the club.

United have spent 18 months developing the “Alumni Programme” that will give a network of 227 players who have left over the past 11 years formal access to support, help and advice.

A working group – overseen by academy director Nick Cox – has been honing a strategy to ensure the project meets the needs and demands of those leavers and will constantly seek to tailor the scheme according to feedback.

United are due to launch the programme in early January and are expected to hold four events a year but hope by creating a network in which former academy graduates can interact that new ground can 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 said. “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 guidance this season stating all club academies should provide a threeyear “aftercare plan” for those 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 Alexanderarnold, who has launched the “After Academy” in conjunction with the Professional Footballers’ Association.

While cases such as that of Jeremy Wisten, the 18-year-old former Manchester City youth player who took his life in 2020, are uncommon, being released from a club can be a crushing experience and teams are having to invest more time and resources into aftercare support.

Data compiled by the Professional Footballers’ Association last season showed more than 60 per cent of players across the Premier League, English Football League and Women’s Super League had been worrying about footballrelated matters, close to half had suffered nervousness or anxiety and 22 per cent reported severe anxiety to the point of a fear 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 to 90 per cent of the players who leave them will end up signing 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 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 or who fell outside of 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 series of activities as part of a soft launch of the Alumni Programme.

They included Tom Thorpe, the FA Youth Cup-winning captain from 2011 who quit playing for five years because of depression before resuming his career in February, and Callum Gribbin, once considered one of the brightest talents in the academy. Gribbin left United in 2019 and is now recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered playing for FC United of Manchester this year.

Other past academy leavers present included Ro-shaun Williams, Matthew Olosunde and Eric Hanbury, all of whom are without clubs, and Oli Kilner, who is registered with Oldham but recovering from a long-term injury.

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 coordinator, 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 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 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 and I believe football in general is held to a higher account than any other learning environment.”

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