There were teenagers released by United within the last 18 months, a winger once dubbed the next Ryan Giggs who is now rediscovering his love for the game in non-league, an EFL professional without a club thanks to a badly-timed injury and a 30-year-old who left the game for five years and fell into a severe depression.
But the benefits of the project were there in bringing together Tom Thorpe and Callum Gribbin. Thorpe was the veteran of the group at 30, while Gribbin was the star of the academy whose release four years ago was a sign of a player who had lost his way.
Six years separate them and their paths wouldn&apost usually cross, but for their association with United and their presence at the club last week. They share a common thread this year, however. In March, just as the joy was returning to his football, Gribbin suffered a knee injury that badly affected his anterior cruciate ligament, as well as his medial and posterior ligaments. He is still on the road to recovery.
Two weeks ago, in his first game for Stalybridge, Thorpe suffered a similar injury. As he contemplates a long road of rehab, he used the week at Carrington to pick Gribbin&aposs brains on what lies in wait. It was a real-life example of what United hope this network, which will launch officially in January, can be.
The presence of Thorpe as part of an alumni group that will initially be open to around 225 former academy players certainly adds some perspective. He was an FA Youth Cup-winning captain who fell out of love with football for a period and spent five years out of the game as he battled severe depression. He returned with Macclesfield in 2023 and then moved on to Stalybridge before that knee injury earlier this month put another pause in his career.
“In a weird sense, I cant say its good what happened to me but its stood me in good stead in situations like this. Previously I might not have been able to say this,” said Thorpe.
“I could have had this long-term injury and been in utter despair and dont know what to do. Whereas now theres a realisation and ability to cope with situations and its taking each step at a time.”
Looking back on his time at United, which ended at the age of 22 in 2015, Thorpe believes there was naivety about him because he had “been in such an idyllic bubble that you become institutionalised.”
Part of that was down to a loan spell at Birmingham City that was cut short. After leaving United he went to Rotherham, had loan spells with Bradford City and Bolton and then a brief time in India, before realising he had nowhere left to turn.
Thorpe detailed his experiences in an interview with the MEN in April, but reflecting now he describes the depths he went to as he battled depression.
“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,” he said.
“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.
“Its difficult to put into words without having some experience of your own to grasp. This might be a strange example but the phrase you can see light at the end of the tunnel and the response of human nature is if you see the light you keep going and keep going. With depression, there is no light. Whats the point? There is nothing. So its a case of complete shutdown. Dont want to see anyone, dont want to talk to anyone, dont want to do anything.”
Despite his latest injury blow, Thorpe has set his sights on having the operation and mounting a comeback, but he is also beginning to plot what he wants to do long-term and he describes the mental health side of football and sport as something he is “very passionate” about.
He was due to attend the first alumni training camp before his injury, having been invited along by Andy Laylor, the club&aposs academy player support coordinator. As soon as Thorpe was told the details of the project, he was keen to be involved and wants to pass his own experiences to others.
“I would much prefer to pass on the experience so they dont miss five years of football,” he said. “Ideally it would be a case of any advice or support they need they can nip it in the bud early.
“Each experience is very individual but if there is that bit of advice or help they could relate to or that could help them then that could be a massive positive for them and hopefully make their experience or life in football generally better.