Manchester United Foundation: 15 years on

Sunday 13 March 2022 11:00

“Eye-opening” is the phrase Denis Irwin uses to describe the early days of Manchester United Foundation, which celebrates its 15th anniversary tomorrow, 13 March.

Perhaps that's not surprising, when you consider the organisation's modus operandi: heading into some of the most disadvantaged areas in Greater Manchester and using football as a tool to engage and inspire some of its most vulnerable children.
But Irwin is talking about something else: the challenges and complexities of getting a new charity off the ground. Back in those early days, when the legendary former full-back was a trustee, he attended the quarterly meetings, took part in the key discussions, and fought at the coal face to make a difference. There was plenty of pressure.
“It was a learning curve,” he explains. “Learning what you can do and what you can’t do... United is a football club and you needed somebody to guide you. What could we donate to? What could we get involved in? I was there at the very start, and when you become a trustee you learn a lot. So it was an eye-opener!”
Of course, all new organisations face pressure. But one bearing a world-famous name is subject to a great deal more scrutiny. The Foundation is a separate entity to the club, but the subtext was clear: in 2007, Sir Alex Ferguson and his players had set the standard with a world-class football operation. Manchester United Foundation had to match it.
Fifteen years on from the 'UEFA celebration match', which marked the Foundation's first fundraising event (United played a Europe XI at Old Trafford), it’s hard to argue that those standards have not been reached.
From four projects in those “eye-opening” early years to a whopping 97 projects today. Millions raised. Tens of thousands of items provided to support external charities. Visit the Foundation’s website and you can find truckloads of stats that demonstrate the scope of the work being undertaken.
Making a difference since 2007 Video

Making a difference since 2007

We're celebrating 15 years since the Manchester United Foundation was launched...

But stats are one thing. Stories are something entirely different. And stories, of all shapes and sizes, are where the true impact of the Foundation can be seen, heard and felt. Stories like Hannah Mitchell’s. United Review spoke to Mitchell – now a female development officer at the Foundation – last week. Within minutes, we grasped how radically her life had been transformed by the club’s associated charity.
“It kind of saved my life,” she begins, with remarkable candour. “My background, I don’t really have much of a secure family base. I wasn’t the best in school; I really struggled. Being involved with the Foundation put me on the straight and narrow.
“They heard I wasn’t the best within school, intervened and worked with me there, so I actually got through school and did well. They used football as the tool: if I didn’t do well in school, I couldn’t play. It definitely changed my life, because of the path I was going down. It became the family that I needed.”
Mitchell first became involved aged 10, via a community football session. After impressing in a trial, she joined the Foundation’s girls’ team.
“I didn’t really enjoy being at home, so if I wasn’t training, whenever I could I’d be down at The Cliff [training ground] doing something else,” she continues. “Later, when I was in college, I was always asking about volunteering. As part of my sports course project I was getting hours through volunteering with the younger girls’ sessions.
“Then I also started doing Street Reds [a free football sessions programme] at Old Trafford Sports Barn. I was down there doing coaching to get some experience. I did two years of voluntary work, and nearly every day they rewarded me with a casual wage. When I was 20, a full-time role as the female development officer came up, which I got.”
Speak to Manchester United Foundation’s chief executive, John Shiels, and Hannah’s story seems like an ideal scenario for what he and his colleagues are trying to achieve. “What we do is try and build people to survive,” he says. “It’s a long process around giving our children skills. We talk about being healthy, physically. We talk about being happy, because mental health is a major issue for kids. And we talk about being connected; being part of something.
“Because one of the big things that comes back from the children is that they don’t feel a part of anything. Some haven’t got families. In days gone by, it might have been your church. It might have been your football club. But these kids can’t afford to go and play football. It’s 25-30 quid a month. If your mum and dad are struggling to put food on the table, you can’t play organised football. The youth clubs are gone. And that feeling of belonging is really important.”
Like Irwin, Shiels has been involved since the Foundation’s early days, after initially starting out with Bobby Charlton’s Soccer Schools 42 years ago.
“In 2007-2008, we were busy, we were trying, we were doing this and doing that,” recalls Shiels. “The club supports us massively, but we are independent and a charity, so we have to go out and raise our own funds and make sure we’re financially viable.
“Around that time, professional football was told by government that they had more of a responsibility in the community than just providing football sessions. Fifteen years on, I’m proud to say we’re probably one of the organisations that gives most back to the city. There are others, but not as many as there should be. 
“It’s a huge responsibility because of that name, and because our main stakeholders are the children we serve. They’ve been let down so many times by adults, and we cannot be part of that chain.”

Watch our 2007 charity game in full


Ronaldo and Rooney starred in the match that launched MU Foundation 15 years ago - and we're streaming it for free.

Throughout his time in charge, Shiels has tried to find new ways to make the Foundation’s support for local kids more comprehensive. Groundbreaking partnerships with schools such as Brentwood School and College in Sale, which caters for pupils with severe learning difficulties and complex health needs, are one example.
“I’m not a football fan, but I’ve seen a very different side to what big football clubs can offer,” admits Brentwood’s headteacher Jude Lomas. “People can be negative about football and big money, and I want to be able to say: look at the difference it’s making to our students and their families!” 
Brentwood’s new-build school has fantastic facilities, but there were concerns that when the students finished their education, those facilities were unavailable to them. Likewise, the facilities were not available in school holidays, despite the critical importance of encouraging students to engage in sports and physical activity outside of term time.
The Foundation’s SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) officer, Conor Muldoon, has been working at Brentwood since 2017, and has been key in developing holiday provision for the students. There are also interventions with individual pupils who have been struggling because of their specific needs. The work doesn’t just benefit the school and the students accessing the extra support. It also benefits the wider community, by further integrating young people with different needs within the local area.
“It really does give our students a sense of identity,” explains Lomas. “We’ve got Manchester United shirts in our corridors, and photographs of our students engaged in activities that are offered by the Foundation. Harry Maguire and Tom Heaton came to do a visit at our school, we’ve visited Old Trafford, we’re hoping to develop a work experience link... there’s loads of opportunities we’ve had.
“It is very much a partnership, with clear objectives and targets that have been met. What the Foundation offers is absolutely fantastic and it’s been such a positive thing for us.”

Cole back for Legends of the North match


United's assistant coach has been confirmed for the charity game against Liverpool.

As Shiels says, much of this work is based on the long term. But perhaps the most important success story in the Foundation’s recent history – and certainly the most well publicised – came during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“What we did there was survival stuff,” he states. “We had some money, so we gave our partner schools £10,000 of non-ringfenced money. We said to them: ‘Go and serve your community, the most vulnerable children... show them a glimmer of light in what is a dire situation.’ What came back were stories of them buying washing machines, bedding, curtains,food.
“I remember a mum with a 20-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome. She said: ‘I got Covid, and the creative arts pack the school sent got us through it.’ The pack was literally paper plates, a paintbrush, glue, stick-on paper. Two quid. And that got the mum over Covid without having to worry about her daughter. For two quid.”
Then there was the tonnes of food sent out into the community, day after day – much of it prepared by the club’s executive chef, James Tagg. “The Sir Alex Ferguson Stand was like a supermarket,” Shiels marvels. “There were three massive articulated refrigeration trucks outside. It was tremendously inspirational and motivational to be a part of.”
That work really cut through to supporters, in particular, during a time when elite football was paused. But Shiels says there will be no big parties for the 15th anniversary this weekend, and cautions that conditions are even worse for Greater Manchester kids than before the pandemic. “The message is: we’ve just got to be motivated to do more,” he insists.
“More” includes a pilot project in Derry/Londonderry, through a partnership with Ulster University. It aims to shepherd kids from age five to 21, at which point they will have completed a degree with the Foundation. Each child will have the Foundation’s support throughout every stage of their education, to try and prevent them dropping off the radar when they move from primary to secondary school, for example.
“We want our university partners to research it,” John explains. “If we see that kids who go to these ‘supported’ schools do better, then that has to be looked at as a new system of education. That team of support people don’t necessarily have to wear Manchester United Foundation tracksuits. It could be other influential organisations, it could be the biggest employer in the town. But I think it could be one way of linking the education world with the adult world.”
'It means a lot to the fans' Video

'It means a lot to the fans'

Andy Cole expresses his pride at being involved in the big Legends game with Liverpool...

Brentwood headteacher Lomas describes Shiels and the Foundation’s work as “visionary”, and the trial with Ulster University is evidence of that innovative thinking. But perhaps what’s most heartening, after a series of United Review interviews with Foundation staff, is that there’s no sense of a round of backslapping accompanying the 15-year anniversary. The focus is very much on the future.
“I just want us to keep the growth going,” says Hannah Mitchell. “What is available now for kids is a lot bigger than when I was younger. I had to get two buses to find the nearest session! We’ve got 14 Street Reds sites now but we want to have something available in every local area for those participants that can’t travel; ones we can’t reach at the moment.”
Shiels says a bit of anniversary cake might be acceptable, but that the next 15 and 50 years are more interesting to him. “Fifteen years has gone quick. Scarily so,” he smiles. “I’m very proud of what we’ve been a part of. It’s organic, it’s evolving. We’re an optimistic organisation, even with the dark clouds that are over us. 
“The main thing to say is that we’re grateful. Grateful that more and more fans are getting involved and they can see the power of what we’re doing. Grateful that our partners trust us. Grateful that we can get up every day and know that we can change someone’s life for the better.”
Total unique participants: 75,500+
Project growth: 2,325% Total income: £50m
Total donations and sponsorship income: £12m (including £8m from the club)
Total income from legends matches: £8m
Total income from matchday lottery: £5m (522k tickets sold)
21,000 items provided to support external charities (including health, education, grassroots football and animal charities, plus the British Armed Forces and international organisations)