Jason Wilcox: What Manchester United can expect from former Man City academy chief

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Jason Wilcox: What Manchester United can expect from former Man City academy chief

Manchester United are in a hurry.

No sooner had they made Dan Ashworth, Newcastle United’s sporting director, their top target to fill the same role at Old Trafford — he has now been placed on gardening leave at St James’ Park after asking to leave — The Athletic exclusively revealed they were working on a deal to poach Jason Wilcox from Southampton.

Wilcox, the 53-year-old former academy director at Manchester City and current director of football at St Mary’s after moving there last summer, is highly regarded within the industry and United expect him to become a key figure in the new hierarchy.

When United formally approached Southampton, they indicated they would be prepared to place Wilcox on gardening leave for 12 months if the two clubs could not agree compensation. United initially offered the equivalent of a year of Wilcox’s salary and, even though Southampton were holding out for a bigger payment there was optimism that an agreement can be struck amicably.

Today United confirmed he had joined as technical director with immediate effect.

“He will work with all technical areas of the football department to achieve the highest standards of performance,” United said in a statement.

The plan is for the former Blackburn Rovers winger to report to Ashworth, when he eventually joins, who in turn will report to Omar Berrada, the club’s incoming chief executive and until recently chief football operations officer at City. Sir Jim Ratcliffe and the British billionaire’s petrochemicals company, INEOS, had been eager to hit the ground running once they completed their deal to buy a 25 per cent stake in United, with this another statement of intent.

Berrada, who will not begin his role as CEO until the summer, knows Wilcox from their time together at City and tried to keep him at the Etihad Stadium — including offering him an improved contract — before he decided to gain experience in a first-team role elsewhere.

INEOS will have explored a variety of candidates for the role but, given the fact Berrada would have discussed a leadership team with United during his own interview process, it is more than likely Wilcox’s name was mentioned as someone he would want to bring in. It is safe to assume, too, that Ashworth will be on board with his appointment.

This is what United can expect from Wilcox.



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While it is too early to say precisely what Wilcox’s role at United will look like, it is reasonable to expect it to encompass both performance and recruitment.

Darren Fletcher is United’s current technical director but his closeness to the first team, where he is often out on the training pitch, and the academy, acting as a liaison between the senior and junior setups, means the former United and Scotland midfielder isn’t carrying out that role in a traditional manner.

Fletcher will continue to work across the first team and academy but bringing in Wilcox shows United are determined to close the gap to neighbours City, who have outperformed them in every department over the past decade. Wilcox will bring winning experience, important know-how and a mindset focused on building a successful team.

A Premier League winner with Blackburn as a player and a three-cap England international, he is best known for his work at City where he oversaw their academy from 2017 to 2023, having initially joined them as a youth coach in 2012 and becoming under-18s manager the following year. In 2022-23, his final season before the move to Southampton, the club’s under-18s and under-21s completed an unprecedented third consecutive youth title-winning double in their respective leagues, further cementing City as the country’s elite youth system.

Wilcox created a culture where it was acceptable to fail but only if lessons were learned from and errors fixed at pace.

Jason Wilcox

Wilcox was Manchester City’s academy director (Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)

He oversaw a leadership team that included Joe Shields, now Chelsea’s co-director of recruitment and talent, Paul McLaren, Stewart Thompson and Samuel Fagbemi. Between them, they recruited talented youngsters from across the world and oversaw their development.

Wilcox had the final say on which players were signed and those who were to be released, with his most important intervention being to retain a then 16-year-old Cole Palmer.



Why Palmer’s form for Chelsea doesn’t mean City regret his exit

Palmer, now 21, was on the list to be let go before Wilcox overturned the decision. Palmer eventually became a first-team player at City before being sold to Chelsea last summer in a deal worth up to £42.5million ($53.6m). He has excelled at Stamford Bridge and also won his first two England caps this season.

Cole Palmer

Wilcox stepped in to stop City releasing Palmer, right (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

City’s academy also started generating significant funds for the club, with a slew of players who had never played for the first team being sold for notable fees. These included midfielder Romeo Lavia and goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu, who both joined Southampton, in deals worth just under £30million combined in summer 2022. Lavia, too, is now at Chelsea.

Given the success he had in charge of City’s academy, coupled with the fact he was completing his sporting director courses, it did not come as a surprise when, after its January 2022 takeover at St Mary’s, Sport Republic pinpointed Wilcox as the person it wanted to replace Matt Crocker as director of football.

Although you can argue Southampton were taking a risk by hiring someone who had not worked in a first-team environment, the jeopardy worked both ways. Wilcox was giving up being part of a winning machine to join a side destined to be playing Championship football this season.

Such was his desire to hit the ground running at Southampton, he spent countless hours planning what he was going to do once he officially started working for them last summer.



Why Manchester United want Dan Ashworth

Having inherited a mess behind the scenes, with several senior figures leaving, Wilcox came in with a clear idea about who he wanted to appoint in certain roles: most importantly the manager.

He immediately went after Russell Martin, then at fellow Championship side Swansea City, and got his man — and in an all-staff meeting in September, a month where Southampton lost four games out of five to sit 15th in the 24-team second tier, he told everyone that when they return to the Premier League, they will thrive instead of merely looking to survive.

Wilcox spoke with conviction, backed Martin and then watched Southampton embark on a 25-game unbeaten run between September 30 and February 13, setting a new club record and putting them in promotion contention.

Martin saw his team beaten in added time at the end at Portman Road on Monday (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

“I hope it’s people putting two and two together and coming up with five,” Martin said in February when asked about United targeting Wilcox. “I’ve got a great relationship with him. It’s no surprise that people will see the work he has done here and want him.

“I’ve got nothing but praise for Jason. I can’t speak on behalf of Jason but I hope that I work with him for a long time. He’s a big driver of the culture here.”

In February, the online reaction to the news of a possible exit among Southampton fans, which was largely one of disappointment, highlighted the positive impact Wilcox has had at the club in a short space of time. The news of United’s official approach, which came during the first half of Southampton’s defeat to Ipswich earlier this year was greeted less amicably, with many supporters believing it was an unwanted distraction on such a pivotal night in the race for promotion.



Empathy, trust and total faith in his philosophy – how Martin is rebuilding Southampton

The widely-held view inside the wider football industry is that Wilcox is a brilliant operator and observers note it should not come as a surprise that United have targeted him. But, in the same way some questioned whether he would thrive at Southampton having never worked at first-team level, people will ask whether he is experienced enough to make an impact at Old Trafford in a senior first-team role.

It is a valid question, but INEOS and Berrada are confident it won’t be an issue.

INEOS always wanted to move quickly and start slotting key personnel into important positions once their buy-in to the club was concluded. Wilcox, along with Ashworth and Berrada, is seemingly just the beginning of a more dramatic overhaul.

(Top photo: Robin Jones/Getty Images)