Life after the Academy

Life After the Academy

Joe Thompson

Joe was part of United’s Academy system from 1998 to 2005, but he was released at the age of 16. Despite this, he worked hard to make a  successful career for himself, and played for Rochdale, Tranmere, Bury and Carlisle.


Unfortunately, Joe was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. He initially beat the illness, but it returned again in 2017. He defeated cancer for the second time, and Joe now features regularly on MUTV, providing his brilliant insight and analysis for first-team and Academy fixtures. In addition to this, he mentors young players in academy systems across the country.


"The coaches teach you things way beyond the white lines of a football pitch. United doesn't create just winners on the pitch, it creates winners in life."

Wes Brown

Wes broke into the United first team in 1996, and won the Jimmy Murphy Academy Player of the Year award twice (in 1998 and 1999), before having an incredibly fruitful Premier League career with the Reds and later Sunderland. Brown also played for England on more than 20 occasions.


Following his playing career, Wes moved into broadcasting and has appeared on MUTV on a whole host of different shows, even travelling to India and Malta. He has also been involved with numerous projects with the United Foundation.


"There were only six of us in my year group and that meant that ultimately we were always playing with an older team. The gaffer [Sir Alex Ferguson] was brilliant. He'd get you in early doors. Even at 16, every now and again you'd be training with the first team, which was as a young kid really good. It keeps your drive going, keeps you going."

Danny Simpson

Another MUTV regular, Danny Simpson was also a Premier League winner with Leicester in 2016 and played for a number of clubs after graduating from the United Academy in 2006 and leaving the club in 2010.


After departing the Reds, following several loan spells, Danny turned out for the likes of Newcastle, Queens Park Rangers and Leicester, building a successful Premier League career. Now, he often appears on our club channels, offering his opinion and expertise on a variety of our shows such as The Debate, and mentors young players who are coming through the ranks.


"I went on loan to Belgium and you learn a lot about yourself. It was a year when you learn a lot about yourself and you mature and grow. It was a really, really good experience."

Paul Woolston

Paul Woolston arrived at United in November 2018, slotting straight into our then-named Under-23s. Born in the North East, Paul started out in Newcastle United's youth system and also played for the likes of Sunderland, Darlington and Gateshead.


Unfortunately, an ongoing hip problem forced Woolston to retire from football aged just 23 in 2022. Paul received support from the likes of United's no.1, David De Gea, but thanks to the club, he has been backed to explore new careers too. Woolston has received support to complete his coaching badges, as well as being offered work experience within the Academy coaching team. He was also given financial planning and property development education, mental health support and mentoring sessions with first-team players and staff. Paul often features on MUTV as a pundit and commentator.


"Getting introduced to different people, different parts of the club that I never knew existed and opened them doors for me. I wouldn't have been able to do that unless they did that for me. 


"Once you're in it you understand what the Manchester United family is. They do so much for you as a player and also for your family."

Dan Polakowski

One of the lesser-known players who came through our Academy is Dan Polakowski. The goalkeeper joined United aged nine and represents many like him who used the opportunities the Academy provides to go and be successful away from football. Dan left the club having completed his scholarship, aged 18.


He now plies his trade for Manhattan Jaspers – the official side of Manhattan College – and is also undertaking further education. Being part of the United Academy gave Dan the necessary life skills and experience to be able to make the transition into college, furthering his development as a human being, and as a footballer.


"My best memories from the Academy were all made on the trips we went on, including Shrewsbury, meeting Pele in London, getting to the final in the Czech Republic and playing on some of the best pitches I have ever played on in Hong Kong and Slovakia."

Dan Galbraith

Dan Galbraith began his football career in our Academy, but has since gone in a completely different direction. He is now a Certified Financial Adviser and Chartered Associate of the London Institute of Banking & Finance, working for Kilgour Wealth Management Limited.


Dan was part of our youth system from 2006 to 2008, and went on to play for Hibernian and York City, among other sides. He changed career in 2017, following his Professional Sportswriting and Broadcasting degree at Staffordshire University, and trained as a financial advisor at the The London Institute of Banking & Finance. Dan has been in his current role ever since.


"Looking back now, in hindsight and time having passed, you realise how fortunate you were to be a part of not only the biggest club in the world but being within their youth system. It was not until my career finished that you look back and think about how fortunate you were to have the support and as well as the football development, the development away from that as well. You are not only focusing on the football, you are also gaining experience and learning another side of life which is equally as important."


Gerard Pique

Gerard joined our youth system in 2004, making his first-team debut in October of the same year, and departed the Reds in 2008. He returned to his boyhood club, Barcelona, where he won countless trophies – including three Champions Leagues – and also won the World Cup with his native Spain in 2010.


Away from football, Pique has embarked on multiple business ventures. The former Red is owner of Spanish second division side FC Andorra and also has a keen interest in esports. In November 2022, Gerard launched the Kings League, which is a new format of football in Barcelona consisting of social media influencers and content creators.


"I learned so much during my time at United. Sharing a dressing room with Paul Scholes, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs at such a young age was an amazing experience. I didn’t play as much as I would have liked but it was a masters degree in development both as a player and a person."

Gary Neville

A member of the Class of ’92, Gary Neville is one of the most successful of our Academy graduates, enjoying a fruitful 19-year career in the United first team. During that time, Gary won eight Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues, racking up 602 appearances for the Reds and 85 for England.


Following his football career, and a stint in coaching and management, Gary found success in broadcasting. These days, he is a familiar face and voice on Sky Sports and ITV Sport and has a successful media production company and YouTube channel. He is co-owner of Salford City Football Club, along with fellow Class of ’92 members Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and his brother Phil.


"The Academy has always been special for United. I always think of the blazer, being in the youth team, wearing that blazer, you think of the Busby Babes wearing that United blazer, and the first team now. I still see them going to games now, and the staff. That is the history, the principles, the values that should never change."

Mark Hughes

‘Sparky’ is another well-known product of our Academy, breaking into the first team in 1980. Hughes enjoyed two stints as a Red – with two years at Barcelona sandwiched in between – making a total of 467 appearances for United and lifting the Premier League twice.


Hughes also played for Chelsea, Southampton, Everton and Blackburn before moving into management after retiring. The Welshman is currently in charge of Bradford City and has managed Blackburn, Manchester City, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers, Stoke and Southampton in the Premier League, as well as Wales's national team.


"Once I was settled in [at the Academy] it was great. I had a fantastic time there. We had a great time in the youth team. It was me and Norman [Whiteside] up front in the youth team so we caused a bit of havoc in those days."

Mark Dempsey

Our Under-21s' lead coach was in the same position as his players back in 1980, as a United youth player. Mark played for our first team twice, before moving to Sheffield United in 1986. Dempsey made more than 200 senior appearances during his playing days, turning out for the likes of Rotherham, Chesterfield, and Macclesfield Town too.


He then became a United youth coach after retiring, holding that role for a decade before becoming former Reds player and manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's assistant at Norwegian side Molde. Mark worked under Solskjaer at Cardiff too, becoming a first-team coach in 2018 when Ole became United boss. In 2022, three years after starting as a senior Academy coach, Mark became the lead coach for our Under-21s.


"They were fantastic times. I travelled all over the world and played with some great players. It’s my club as well. My dad’s side were all Reds, my mum’s were all Blues, and it was a dream. Being a little ‘un, I used to go to The Cliff to watch them train. I can remember Denis Law there so it was always a dream. They were very happy times."

Marcus Rashford

Current United no.10, Marcus Rashford, is one of the biggest success stories from our Academy in recent times. Marcus burst onto the scene in 2016 and has been a fixture in the first team ever since. He has also played for England at major tournaments too.


Rashford grew up as part of our Academy, having first joined United aged seven, and hails from Wythenshawe. Away from his success on the pitch, Marcus was awarded an MBE in 2020 and received the City of Manchester Award, following his campaign to end food poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has also launched an award-winning book and set up a book club, which further helps to educate the next generation.


"You start to understand that what life is like for you isn't the same everyone, whereas in my mind as a kid this was what life was like for everyone. It widened my understanding and also made me see where I can get to and where I wanted to be. It was a good period for me."

Tom Heaton

Current Reds goalkeeper Tom Heaton came through our Academy, left and made a name for himself, and then returned. Tom started out at United in 2002 and went out on loan to a number of senior clubs between 2005 and 2010 before joining Cardiff City permanently.


Heaton played two seasons in Wales and one in Bristol City, before moving to Burnley in 2013. In his six years at Turf Moor, Tom experienced Premier League football and became an England regular. He then spent two years at Aston Villa before going full circle and returning to United in 2021.


"I’m proud and also very appreciative that I was given the opportunity and the grounding and the foundation to go and build a career on from the Academy. I took some incredible lessons, some incredible skills from it and it gave me a rock-solid foundation to go and kickstart my career."

Darren Fletcher

United's technical director, Darren Fletcher, is also a product of our youth system. Darren spent two decades at the club from 1995 to 2015, racking up a remarkable 243 appearances for the Reds, before enjoying further success at West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City.


In 2020, following his retirement, Fletcher moved into coaching in our Academy, eventually progressing to his current role in 2021. He is, in his own words, responsible for "taking a holistic view of the path for players from our academy to our first team."


"To walk out on that pitch to play for Manchester United, your mum and dad have sacrificed, all the coaches that have sacrificed. The amount of work that has gone into me walking out on that pitch is incredible. The dedication and sacrifice from myself as well, all the effort, to have that moment."

These are a selection of the hundreds of success stories that the United Academy has produced over the years, whether that be in football, business, broadcasting or other industries.

To view the entire list of graduates from our prestigious youth system, view our graduate debutants page.