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Friday, June 21, 2024

How Jonathan Morgan’s ‘immoral’ relationship with his teenage player led to Sheffield United sacking

For almost three years, Jonathan Morgan hid a secret from the rest of his football team and almost everybody else in his life.

Today, though, it can be revealed why the manager at the centre of the Football Association’s Maddy Cusack inquiry was sacked on Friday by Sheffield United’s women’s team — and why the announcement was quickly followed by his management agency terminating its contract to represent him.

His club took the decision after The Athletic presented a portfolio of evidence that Morgan, when manager of Leicester City’s women’s side, had embarked on a secret relationship lasting nearly three years with a teenage player from his own team.

The player in question, who spoke to The Athletic on condition of anonymity for her family, says she was 17 when the relationship started and that Morgan, then in his late twenties, took advantage of her immaturity.

Her mother also believes she was 17 at the time and has described Morgan’s behaviour as “inappropriate and immoral”.

“He wouldn’t have wanted to keep the relationship a secret unless he knew he was doing something wrong,” she says. “It was her age, more than anything. He was supposed to be in a position of trust.”

Morgan, now 35, insists they are wrong about the girl’s age and says she was 18. However, he accepts that he crossed the line of what is deemed as acceptable and that it could conceivably mean the end for him in football. He does, however, say he has been the victim of a “witch hunt” since the Cusack story was first reported.

What cannot be disputed is that the girl joined Leicester’s senior squad at the age of 16.

To begin with, it was a normal manager-player relationship. Over time, however, the girl says she began to notice Morgan paying her extra attention.

Morgan was in his first managerial job and, by his own admission, knew it was ethically wrong, though not illegal, to start a relationship with one of his own players, particularly one so young.

He sent her a Snapchat message, she says, commenting “cute pyjamas” on one of her photos. Another time, she says he gave her chocolate as a way of congratulating her after a good game.

“He told me that if I scored a goal in the next match he would take me to Nando’s,” says the player, now in her mid-twenties. “I did score a goal, so we went to Nando’s, and that was the start of a relationship that went on until I was 20.”

The player contacted The Athletic, with the backing of her family, after reading the story about Cusack’s parents, David and Deborah, submitting a seven-page complaint to Sheffield United about Morgan’s alleged behaviour towards their daughter before she took her own life.

The family of Maddy Cusack, one of Jonathan Morgan’s former players, asked the FA to investigate the circumstances of her death (Cameron Smith – The FA/The FA via Getty Images )

Cusack, 27, was found at her parents’ house in Derbyshire on September 20. Morgan strenuously denies causing her emotional anguish, as her family allege, or doing anything to make her believe he disliked her. He was exonerated by an external inquiry, commissioned by Sheffield United, that found “no evidence of wrongdoing”.

The club’s chief executive, Stephen Bettis, did, however, accept in a letter to Cusack’s parents that Morgan had “divided opinion” among the witnesses who were interviewed. Some found him supportive and caring. Others saw him as “isolating, quite authoritative and intimidating”.

The Football Association has subsequently opened a formal investigation of its own and, though the scope of that inquiry has never been announced officially, it was reported earlier this week that the interview process will be broadened out to involve potential witnesses from Leicester and Burnley, another of Morgan’s former clubs.

Morgan has faced a previous complaint from another Leicester player and also one at Sheffield United — at least one is understood to have ended in a financial settlement — but these latest allegations are the first time he has admitted any wrongdoing.

“Sometimes he would say weird things that stuck in my mind, like telling me, ‘When you’re older, I know you’re going to be a really good-looking woman’,” says the player. “He said we had to keep it secret because he was very family-orientated and that his father, in particular, would not approve.

“He said it wouldn’t have been well received among the other Leicester players. I understood why he said this and I went along with it. The other players would probably have thought he was a bit weird and that he was taking advantage of me. However, at the time I was not experienced enough in life to realise exactly how wrong it looked.

“At my age now, I feel a completely different person, whereas when I was that young and someone is older than you — and he’s the manager — it draws you in. I know what I’m doing now. Back then, however, I was really immature, silly and easily drawn in.

“He was older, he was my manager and he should have known better. I feel angry about it, because it was an abuse of his power and my career has suffered as a result. I had to leave Leicester to take myself away from the situation. I do think about it most days. It’s been a bit rubbish — I just wanted to play football.”

Leicester’s women’s side were independent from the Premier League-winning men’s club at the time. They were owned by Morgan’s father, Rohan, who doubled up as the chairman — the takeover by King Power, the parent company of Leicester City men’s team, did not happen until 2020. One of Morgan’s sisters, Jade, was the general manager and another, Holly, was team captain. The presence of so many members of the family, it is alleged, worked in his favour.

When the girl’s mother became suspicious that she was involved in a relationship with Morgan, it led to a difficult discussion with her daughter. The girl, who lived at home, admitted it was true. Morgan, she said, used to pick her up in his car but waited around the corner from their house to make sure he was not seen. She seemed happy, describing it as a serious relationship, and explained they had been staying in hotels together.

“That placed me in a dilemma,” says her mother. “If I tried to stop the relationship, I knew it would carry on anyway. If I complained to Leicester, I was concerned it would go against her and almost certainly impact her career. Plus, who do you complain to at Leicester if his dad is the chairman, one of his sisters is the general manager and another is the team captain?”

Reluctantly, the mother concluded that it would be better to give the relationship some form of consent and, after that, Morgan started to stay at the family house. This, in turn, caused friction with other members of her family.

“I didn’t want to damage her career,” says the mother. “Jonathan and his family had complete control and influence of the club, so I could not see how complaining could do any good. It would have harmed my daughter and potentially created a wedge between myself and her. There was no outside or impartial involvement in the club. It was a one-family arrangement from ownership to management to club captain.”

Morgan, she says, would never acknowledge or introduce her at games or training sessions as his girlfriend’s mother. Everything had to be kept quiet to make sure none of the other players or parents knew. But when the relationship ended, it created awkwardness and, according to the girl and her family, some moments of unpleasantness.

“Jonathan’s improper conduct ultimately led my daughter to leave the club,” says the girl’s mother. “She felt forced to leave Leicester due to Jonathan’s inappropriate and predatory behaviour.”

Jonathan Morgan was sacked by Sheffield United on Friday (Steve Bardens – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

The player’s account is that Morgan started treating her differently and that the tension of the break-up led, at times, to him blanking her or reducing her to tears. When she was left out of certain games, she felt that her manager was deliberately trying to upset her.

In a long telephone conversation with The Athletic on Friday, Morgan stated repeatedly that the girl was definitely 18 when he started dating her, arranging nights out in Nottingham, rather than Leicester, to minimise the risk of being caught.

“On the first date, she wore a white jumper with jeans and a green Parka coat,” he said. “I can tell you all these things because I remember exactly when it was.”

Morgan said the football industry had changed, including Leicester becoming a professional operation, when previously there had been more of a “social element” within the club.

Ethically, he said, he could understand why it would be seen by many as an abuse of power. “I get that side of it. But you need to look back in the context of the time. A lot has changed in that time. Would I ever do it again? Of course not. But it was an 18-year-old adult, not a 17-year-old.”

Pressed on what he meant by the changes in the sport, Morgan said: “There is much more education around it (dressing-room relationships) and the implications, the impact, it can have on a team environment. The impact can be quite negative and, from the point of view of (it being) a manager or member of staff, you would analyse it differently.”

In a series of frank admissions, Morgan went on to state he was fully aware that Mark Sampson had lost his job as England Women’s manager in 2017 when the FA found out about “inappropriate and unacceptable” relationships with female players in his previous role at Bristol Academy (now Bristol City).

Sampson’s sacking brought a wave of publicity and, to put it into context, that was the same time as Morgan was involved in his own relationship with one of his team’s younger players.

Sampson was sacked as England women’s manager after relationships with players at Bristol Academy were exposed (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Against that backdrop, the FA outlined its position in January 2022 by stating that “in general, coach and adult player relationships are not advised because of the potential for power imbalance and the impact on team culture and dynamics. These are usually matters for clubs to manage via codes of conduct and expected standards of behaviour.”

Since June 2022, the law states that those in a position of trust in sports organisations, such as a coach, cannot legally have a sexual relationship with anyone they look after under the age of 18. Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, has said previously she regards player-coach personal relationships as “a concern”.

Neither of these provisions were in force when Morgan was in the relationship with the player. Morgan, however, says such relationships are rife throughout the sport. While understanding that it was wrong, he should not be vilified, he argued, for something he regarded as commonplace: “I genuinely liked the girl. We had a proper connection. It was very much consensual. I wouldn’t say it got as far as being in love, but it was a very strong relationship. It wasn’t like it was her, then someone else, then someone else, then someone else (in the team that he had relationships with). It was just her.”

Asked why he had kept the relationship secret, Morgan said it was to protect the girl because he had been under the belief she was anxious for no one to find out. He said the player had started 80 per cent of matches after their break-up and that he had tried to talk her into staying at Leicester when she announced she wanted to leave. He denied treating her differently after they split up.

What Morgan did not tell The Athletic was that he had already learned, a few hours before our conversation, that Sheffield United’s board had decided to remove him as manager. He and the club, he told us, were “navigating through it”.

In fact, the club had sacked him that morning, as well as calling a meeting of the players to explain why his position was “no longer tenable”. A statement from the club said this was “due to new information that has come to light within the last few days, with regards to Mr Morgan’s conduct before arriving at Bramall Lane.”

That was followed by a statement from Jo Tongue, Morgan’s agent, to confirm she was severing her ties with the manager, whose bio on her company’s website, Tongue Tied Management (TTM), previously listed “man-management” and “creating a positive environment” among his key strengths.

Agent Jo Tongue (left, with her client, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes) has dropped Jonathan Morgan (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for London Football Awards)

“In the last 24 hours, we have learnt new information regarding Jonathan Morgan and a relationship with a player under his charge,” read a statement from TTM. “We will no longer be working with him in any capacity and the termination of our relationship is with immediate effect. The termination of this contract is a critical measure in preserving the integrity of our agency.”

Tongue, a director of the Women In Football group, is regarded as one of the more influential agents in the women’s game, with hugely successful Chelsea manager Emma Hayes — the manager-in-waiting of the U.S. women’s national team — among her clients. Tongue was awarded an MBE in 2023 for her services to women’s football.

“We are absolute in our view that safeguarding standards and processes should apply to all athletes, be they male or female,” her statement added. “At Tongue Tied Management we are committed to maintaining an environment of respect, integrity, trust and accountability within the sports industry.”

(Top photo: Jess Hornby – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

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