These footballers all have one thing in common; they came through the academy system at United. In fact, they have two things in common, they were all released by United as well, but then that is why they are here. They spent last week at Carrington as part of the club&aposs first training camp for their new alumni project.
This is the &apossoft launch&apos of a scheme that has been on the cards for 18 months, with plans stepping up over the last six to eight months. A working group, led by 34-year-old Thompson, has been looking at what exactly players will want from the formalising of a way for the club to stay connected with their academy prospects. A grander launch is due for January and initially, United are opening the alumni group up to around 225 former players, which is those who have left since 2012, were registered over the age of 15 or for five years or more.
It will eventually include all kinds of activities and will act as a network for those former players to tap into whenever required. It is also a helping hand from United, as the cohort for the first week proved.
Kilner, 19, is on the road to recovery after a 10-month absence with a broken ankle suffered while at Oldham. Olosunde, 25, is out of contract after an injury-hit spell at Preston and 19-year-old goalkeeper Hanbury is looking for a new club after being released by United in the summer.
Gribbin, 24, left in 2019 but was highly rated in the academy and is now at FC United, but suffered a serious knee injury in March. Thorpe, 30, returned to football last year after five years out with severe depression but also picked up a serious knee injury a couple of weeks ago. Danny Drinkwater was also due to attend but had to pull out and Ro-Shaun Williams was among the list of potential attendees.
Nick Cox, United&aposs academy head, describes how he expects the alumni programme to be beneficial to players. “This isnt just about us helping the boys. It is about them helping each other,” he said.
“It is about some of them going off and achieving some amazing things and having inspirational stories and amazing skills and qualities. If we can let the network interact with itself, there is an enormous amount of support that can be generated across that cohort.”
Last week&aposs group was aimed primarily at putting on coaching sessions to help a group who were keen to get back into the game or keep their fitness ticking over. But the five-day camp also included different events, allowing those players to assess the careers that might be available to them away from the playing side.
That included a recruitment session that ended with them being tasked to compile a report on three players during United&aposs behind-closed-doors friendly with Hull City on Tuesday. They were also given a talk by Luke Fedorenko, United&aposs head of academy recruitment, on his journey from not making the grade as a player to forging a successful career in the game.
Academies have been under the spotlight in recent years for the level of care they offer players who leave clubs, but Cox believes that football clubs have improved in that area and this project is another example of what they can achieve.
“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,” he said. “In general football is committed to thinking carefully about how it supports young players as they leave the programme.
“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.”
A number of former academy players have offered their thoughts to the working group, including Tom Cleverley, but it is Thompson who has been an ever-present. He spent seven years in United&aposs academy and went on to play in the Football League, but his career ended prematurely.
He was diagnosed with nodular sclerosis Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, in November 2013, but after beating it it returned in March 2017. Thompson beat it for a second time but retired from the game in February 2019.
“I finished [football] too early, theres no getting away from that, but we know why that was the case,” he said. “Finishing at 29 was not the plan, but I made a real conscious effort to go and learn outside of football, go into business and find out what high performance looks like there and hopefully be able to bring some stuff back.”
When Thompson was diagnosed he was supported by United on both occasions, with academy advisor and former coach Tony Whelan inviting him and his wife Chantelle to Carrington, for lunch, a chat, to meet some players and generally just to keep Thompson busy.
He cites that as an example of the good being associated with the club can do and that the help is always there, something that might become clear to others with the launch of the alumni programme.
“That door is there, its making them [the players] aware of it and also making them accountable. Its there, youve just got to come forward, but whether youre ready to is totally up to you,” he said.
“Once youre shown there are opportunities you then have to acknowledge and accept those feelings and open up to really enhance the development side of things. I&aposve been there.”
Olosunde was one of the players involved in the first training camp. He heard about it through Mick Farrell, now head of player wellbeing at the academy, and was keen to attend as he looks for a new club.
He suffered a couple of injury-hit years at Preston, having earned a move to Deepdale on the back of an impressive spell at Rotherham. The American was released by United in 2019 but was delighted to return and keep up his fitness.
“I had a tear in my Achilles, I got that at the beginning of the [2021/22] season unfortunately, which kept me out for a good four months or so,” Olosunde explains.
“After that there was a manager change and from there it just didnt really work out for me, I had little injuries here or there like everyone else does, but thats just football. Im hoping to move on from that and continue on with my career.
“It can be tough, sometimes your mind can go adrift, but it is always good when you have people around you, even if its just one person to talk to. You just have to get through it, keep on going and keep talking to somebody to help you through it. An idle mind can be a scary thing. Its important to be around your peers.”
Thorpe was making his debut for Stalybridge when he ruptured his ACL, tore his medial and posterior ligament and also suffered some meniscus damage. He is now facing up to an operation and a long road of rehab, some elements of which he will have to do on his own given the level he&aposs now playing at.
He was already due to attend the alumni camp before the injury, having been invited along by academy player support coordinator Andy Laylor, but it was a bonus to be able to return to the club at this stage.
“Its very difficult [with the rehab],” he said. “You can probably appreciate at that sort of level they dont have the ability to help with [everything]. Dont get me wrong, they sorted out the MRI for me as soon as possible and Im sure if I was to ask for rehab theyd do their absolute utmost but its also brilliant to have a background of having been at United so long you have the opportunity to potentially come back whether its help with rehab or something else.
“I was already due to come and do the training and get involved but as of last week I got injured. I was unsure whether to even begin to get back into playing again and at that point it was a case of ok, what kind of options can I explore and thats why I always wanted to get involved in this alumni programme as soon as Andy spoke to me about it.
“Im very keen on the player care aspect of things, whether its while theyre at the club or theyve left the club, knowing they have that option for advice and support if needed. I think this alumni project is a good way for players to reach out to past players.”
Thompson&aposs playing career may be over, but he took part in the training sessions during the week and went around the group to gauge what had worked and what hadn&apost. He will continue to play a hands-on role with academy staff in designing the alumni scheme and making sure it delivers what it needs to.
“I think for us the importance is the feedback. Were going to be asking a lot of questions as to what worked, what did you like, what didnt you like, then we can really go away and implement and put a strategy together to make sure the foundations are laid,” he said.
“Everyone has got different stories, different challenges, different successes, a lot of the time we dont talk about how do you deal with success, you just see people thrust into the limelight and they dont seem to have a support network around them.
“Its really important we got to know the players in the building, what they want, then we can open up and really try and open some avenues.
“I go back to my career, right at the start it was football, football, football and it was that hard line of if youre struggling its a sign of weakness. It isnt, Im a true believer that showing vulnerability is a true strength. Having those open conversations and that dialogue with players is going to be imperative.
“Its a social responsibility that comes with it as well, for a club like Manchester United to be able to do something like this and be pioneers and lay those foundations, its what its all about.”
Cox describes a “great responsibility” that comes with working with young people in football and he knows that he and his staff have to continually look at their own behaviours.
But he is also fiercely proud of the work United do in helping children who often come from below the poverty line in the city and while the alumni programme will reconnect many and allow the club to try and help some of those who have left, he believes almost all of them reflect fondly on their journey in academy football, whatever the outcome.
“We are held to great account. This club probably to greater account than most clubs. Football in general is held to a higher account than other sports,” he said.
“I believe we are held to a higher account than any other learning environment. I perceive our academy to be about learning, development and education. Football is our driving force. Yes, our boys are striving to be footballers but it is more than just about debuts and young people being successful if they debut and a failure if they dont.
“It is about the amazing amount of personal growth and the wonderful experiences you can have in your pursuit of excellence. I accept when a boy leaves a football club there is a period of disappointment. I absolutely accept that. That is unavoidable.