It is the heartbreaking story of a talented and popular footballer, her tragic death and the investigation into a family’s complaints about what they believe caused her emotional anguish.
Maddy Cusack’s death in September sent shockwaves throughout the sport and plunged Sheffield United into a state of mourning for their longest-serving player. As her parents, David and Deborah, tried to get through their first Christmas without their eldest daughter, fans launched a petition to retire her No 8 shirt as a permanent tribute.
“She fell in love with Sheffield United, the fans and the city of Sheffield,” Deborah told a memorial service in October. “Maddy became Miss Sheffield United and adored every minute of it. This was her home, the place she envisioned she would hang up her boots one day.”
Cusack started playing football at the age of five and spent time in the junior setups at Chesterfield, Nottingham Forest and Leicester City before being taken on by Aston Villa and representing England’s under-19s. An energetic, tough-tackling midfielder, she went on to play for Birmingham City and Leicester City before moving to Sheffield, where she became the team’s first women’s player to make more than 100 appearances.
That everything ended so tragically has caused immeasurable hurt for Cusack’s family. It also led to the club commissioning an investigation, on the family’s request, and an announcement from Bramall Lane shortly before Christmas that “there was no evidence of any wrongdoing”.
What has never been reported, however, is what compelled the family to make an official complaint and what, they believe, led a previously happy 27-year-old to take her own life.
Their complaint stretched to seven pages and more than 3,350 words. It was written by David, an experienced solicitor, and details a wide range of grievances relating to Cusack’s last seven months at the club — coinciding with the appointment of Jonathan Morgan as the team’s manager.
“There were a number of factors that troubled her in the end, but they all spring from the relationship with JM (Morgan),” the complaint states. “As she confided to us (her family), every issue had its origin in JM’s appointment. We know she would still be with us had he not been appointed. Her text messages and conversations support this.”
The allegations were serious enough for the club to arrange an external inquiry that concluded on December 15 with the chief executive, Stephen Bettis, writing to Cusack’s family to confirm no disciplinary action was being taken against Morgan.
Morgan, who had previously been Cusack’s manager at Leicester, vehemently denied treating her unfavourably and has been vindicated by a nine-week inquiry. His account was that he had tried to be a positive influence in her life and that it was completely unfounded to suggest their working relationship had contributed to her emotional anguish and, ultimately, death.
RIP Maddy. A true professional until the end. You will be missed by many 🕊️🕊️
— JM (@jonnojmorgan) September 21, 2023
In a letter to the family, Bettis stated that none of the people interviewed for the inquiry had “heard or witnessed any bullying or inappropriate behaviour” towards Cusack or any other player. He did, however, acknowledge that Morgan’s behaviour “divided opinion” among the people interviewed. Some found him supportive and caring. Others described Morgan’s style of management as “isolating some players, quite authoritative and intimidating”. According to the family, that was very much Cusack’s experience as she reported it to them.
Against that backdrop, the English Football Association (FA) has subsequently begun to gather evidence ahead of a possible investigation of its own. The players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association, is understood to be supporting the family and, with the matter ongoing, it also raises a wider debate that goes to the very heart of what is acceptable in a football environment and what is not.
It has also transpired that Morgan, appointed in February last year, has been the subject of two previous complaints, unrelated to Cusack, including one from another United player towards the end of last season. The club will not discuss its outcome.
The other case involved a complaint being lodged against Morgan while he was coaching Leicester, where one of his sisters, Jade, was the general manager, another, Holly, was the team captain, and their father, Rohan, was the chairman. The complaint, it is understood, related to alleged bullying and exclusion and was dealt with, for the most part, by Jade. The player in question left the club after accepting a financial settlement in relation to her contract, with the complaint not being taken further. Morgan denied any wrongdoing in both cases.
In Cusack’s case, the family’s complaint alleged:
- Cusack left Leicester in 2019 because she was convinced Morgan, then the manager, had taken a personal dislike to her and felt worn down by his behaviour.
- Morgan went on to manage Burnley’s women’s team and, when she played against them for United, he called her a “psycho” when she ran near his dugout. She was not unduly bothered because he was no longer her manager but saw it as further evidence that he disliked her.
- His appointment at Sheffield United left her feeling anxious about their history but hopeful, as an established first-team player, that they could put it behind them. Instead, he dropped her from the starting line-up, complaining she was overweight, and allegedly told other players about their previous issues, which she felt created the impression she was difficult to manage.
- She feared history was repeating itself but stayed at Sheffield United because of her affinity with the club and all the friends she had made. She had bought a house, taken jobs in United’s community and marketing departments, and enjoyed her happiest times in football at Bramall Lane.
- She found it difficult to understand the issues with Morgan because she had never encountered any conflict from previous managers and was popular within the club.
- Cusack became unwell as a result of the anxiety it created, resulting in her moving back in with her parents, being prescribed medication and asking the club’s doctor at the start of September about counselling.
The complaint was delivered to the club on September 27, a week after Cusack’s body was found at her parents’ house in Derbyshire. An inquest has been opened into her death and the police say there are no suspicious circumstances.
According to the family’s evidence, Cusack had complained during numerous conversations about feeling marginalised and encountering “personal antipathy” from Morgan in what has been described by some former team-mates as a tough, divisive and often hard-faced environment. This had a devastating impact on her mental health, her family say, breaking her confidence at a time when she had the pressures of juggling her playing career with working for the club as a marketing executive.
The club took the complaint seriously enough to appoint Dennis Shotton, a retired detective superintendent from Northumbria police, to oversee an investigation.
Shotton, whose police career involved working on the Raoul Moat manhunt after the shooting of three people, including a policeman, throughout the north east of England in 2010, was brought in because of his role as an investigator for Safecall, a Sunderland-based company specialising in whistleblowing disputes.
In his correspondence with the family, he misspelt Cusack’s first and second names, introducing her as “Madeline Cussack”, as well as getting other names mixed up and making a number of basic errors. Shotton interviewed David Cusack for a witness statement but did not record what was said and then twice referred to him in his write-up as a club employee rather than Maddy’s father.
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Shotton spoke to 18 witnesses, including current members of the team. Each was assured their identities would not be made public, meaning they could speak more openly.
However, the selection process has left the Cusack family with a number of unanswered questions. Shotton, it is said, was given the details of a close confidante to Cusack who had no connections to the club and, for reasons unexplained, he did not contact the relevant person. He is also said not to have contacted some of the players the family recommended.
“I can confirm that Safecall carried out an investigation on behalf of Sheffield United,” says Safecall director Tim Smith. “We have no further comment at this time.”
Shotton’s inquiry looked at a number of specific incidents, dismissing them all, but the scope of his investigation remains unclear. The family argues that it seems to have focused too much on what could be corroborated by witnesses rather than their own accounts of the numerous conversations they had with Cusack and that it does not sufficiently take into account how she viewed Morgan and the effect it had on her. One former team-mate recalls Cusack never being herself, seeming anxious and withdrawn, when Morgan was around.
The family reject the verdict and, having been told there is no appeal process, they have asked the FA to carry out a follow-up investigation, taking into account a greater need for transparency. The club’s admission that Morgan could be seen as intimidating, as well as isolating certain players, feels particularly relevant when this, according to the family, fits in with what Cusack used to tell them.
Bettis reiterated his sympathies for the family’s loss and said the club wanted to support the charity foundation that had been set up in Cusack’s name, raising money to help young, female footballers. But he also made it clear that the family would not be allowed to see Shotton’s report. Nor will it be released publicly, meaning there is no way for them to find out what testimony was put forward, who was interviewed and, perhaps just as importantly, who was not.
Although the family have declined to comment, this has been particularly hard for them to accept: that they could ask for the club to hold an investigation but then be denied the right to know what exactly is in that investigation, even on an anonymised basis.
People who knew Cusack well talk about an all-round athlete who was devoted to fitness and healthy living and kept herself in supreme shape, going back to her days as a talented runner with Derbyshire’s Amber Valley & Erewash Athletics Club.
In 2021, she hired her own strength and conditioning coach, Luke Ashton, who has worked with Leicester City and Mansfield Town, and he remembers her test results being higher in some categories than the average of the England national team.
“She was phenomenal,” says Ashton. “Everyone knows Maddy was a devoted and extremely dedicated athlete. Her application, effort levels and enthusiasm were second to none. For her to reach out to me when she already had such a demanding schedule just shows how dedicated she was.”
Morgan denies telling Cusack she was overweight and says he simply informed her she needed to improve her conditioning because the club’s GPS fitness tests had shown she was lagging behind most of her team-mates. He says he arranged for a specially tailored fitness programme, taking into account that she already had a difficult schedule holding down two jobs.
Morgan’s position is that he had a normal and supportive working relationship with Cusack. He denies shouting that Cusack was a “psycho” while he was Burnley manager, telling the other Sheffield United players anything negative about her from Leicester, or doing anything to leave her with the impression that he disliked her.
On the contrary, he says he repeatedly tried to help Cusack, making her vice-captain and putting her in touch with the club doctor when he suspected she was struggling with mental health issues.
A video was submitted to the investigation showing him and Cusack working together, apparently getting on fine, on May 5.
Morgan says he regularly used to buy Tesco meal deals (a sandwich, snack and a drink for a set price) as lunch for the players, including Cusack, because there was a time when the club did not provide them with food. He says he campaigned for her to get a pay rise, from an annual salary of £6,000 to £18,000 (now $7,700 to $23,000), when the club was moving from a part-time setup to a full-time one and the players’ contracts were being upgraded. This, he says, shows he did not treat her badly or hold negative feelings towards her. It also appears that some of the claims against him, such as criticising her to team-mates after his appointment in Sheffield, have not been corroborated.
There is, however, considerable evidence to demonstrate why, to use the club’s own terminology, some of the people giving evidence reported that Morgan could leave some players feeling isolated and intimidated.
The Athletic has spoken to several of Cusack’s former team-mates who talk negatively about their experiences of his management. Although they did not witness any such behaviour towards Cusack, some allege it could be a divisive and sometimes unpleasant environment in which certain players were favoured by Morgan while others were blanked and, in some cases, almost completely frozen out. They say they wanted to talk — requesting anonymity because of the sensitivities of the case — because they believe it will encourage others to share their experiences.
One former team-mate, Player A, says she confided in Cusack that she wanted to leave the club because of the manager. She and Cusack secretly used prison puns as a form of gallows humour to keep up their spirits. If they were given playing time, they joked they were “on parole”. Morgan was referred to as the “prison warden”.
Another of Cusack’s former team-mates, Player B, recalls Morgan getting the job and quickly establishing a strong relationship with certain players, inviting them into his office and generally being approachable and amenable. But she recalls seeing a different side to him when it came to a number of players who were a bit older on average and treated, she says, in an entirely different fashion.
“When Jonathan came in, there was almost a sense of a new beginning for some people. But others weren’t given a chance from the minute he stepped through the door,” says Player B.
“He wouldn’t make eye contact. He’d walk past in the training ground and say nothing. (Players were) getting the cold shoulder for pretty much no reason. If he decided he didn’t want you, that was it. He’s not going to give you the time of day, he’s not going to shake your hand, he’s not even going to make eye contact. You have no chance.”
Morgan is represented by Tongue Tied Management and his bio on the company’s website lists “man-management” and “creating a positive environment” among his key strengths, as well as “understanding players” and “conflict resolution”.
Bettis, however, acknowledges that Morgan’s management style “divided opinion” and that also appears to have been the case at his previous clubs.
Many players and colleagues saw him as a positive leader with likeable attributes and a CV that earned him respect, taking Leicester into the Women’s Super League as champions of the second tier in 2020-21.
Yet one person — not involved in the Shotton investigation — recalls being with him at Leicester and finding the experience so distressing she would end up “crying most days” on her way home. She, too, has spoken to The Athletic at length about the negative impact on her life. And, again, it shows he could polarise opinion.
“Jonathan Morgan — the way he was and the culture he created — is the reason I’m not in football anymore,” she says.
In Cusack’s case, Player A says she noticed her team-mate no longer seemed as happy as she had been under the previous manager, Neil Redfearn. Cusack, she says, had started to “retreat a little bit” but tended to deflect questions when asked if she was OK.
“She was not the same as she was the year before his (Morgan’s) arrival. I knew she wasn’t a fan (of Morgan). When we were told his appointment was imminent, it was like, ‘Oh, f***, here we go’. It didn’t take long to realise there were obviously underlying issues because she was a starter for every Sheffield manager (previously).
“She’d captained when Redfearn was there and then, suddenly, to be dropped like that (clicks fingers). She was an experienced 27-year-old with 100 appearances for Sheffield. So why? We were in a relegation battle — you need all the experience and all the firepower you can get. It just didn’t make sense… this kind of instant dropping.”
Some players, according to Player A, seemed to have “disappeared off the face of the earth and not gone back to training” because, she assumed, “that was how much they hated it”.
She continued: “He’d ignore certain people, while others would get hugs and high fives or lift-shares. If you were liked, you were fine. But if you weren’t liked, you were made to feel, and know, that you weren’t liked by how he spoke to you, or ignored you, or if you made one mistake and he was straight down on you.
“I would literally have to pull over on the way to training because I was crying so I could wipe my eyes and see where I was driving. I genuinely felt I had no value, not only as a player but as a person.”
Of Cusack, she added: “There were a lot (of players) last season who were in the same boat and it could have been any of us. It feels awful coming out of my mouth, but there were at least four or five players who were on that path and, fortunately, could escape it.”
Morgan has been reluctant to speak publicly, according to people close to him, because of the sensitivities surrounding the case and for fear of it causing further upset for a family who are, ultimately, grieving a loved one. He has declined The Athletic’s request for an interview.
Instead, his management company has been dealing with media inquiries on his behalf. He is said to have found it traumatic to be accused and feels vindicated, yet not surprised, by Shotton’s findings.
There are, however, a number of issues arising from this case and, on a wider level, it does lead to a separate debate about some of the accepted norms in a dressing-room environment and how football, as a workplace, can be very different to other walks of life.
Morgan does not deny that he could be blunt with his language, including one dressing-room scene when one of his players broke down in tears after he identified, and criticised, her for being to blame for one of the opposition’s goals.
Even the people who speak positively about Morgan describe him as being direct and to the point. There have been times when he could get angry, in common with many football managers. However, he has always maintained that this did not involve Cusack, that it was never personal with anyone, and that it was quite normal for a manager to dish out some harsh words if the team were doing badly.
In a lot of cases, there are members of his profession, including some highly successful managers, who are championed for their occasional outbursts of temper and authoritarian style. Many clubs operate “bomb squads” for players who have been frozen out and marginalised. It is, in many ways, an accepted part of the football industry.
Sheffield United were in the lower reaches of the Women’s Championship last season, finishing eighth in a 12-team league. It was, says Player B, a challenging campaign in all sorts of ways. “It didn’t feel like a team any more. It didn’t feel like people had each other’s backs. Some people didn’t know where they stood, others were like his (Morgan’s) best mate and in his office all the time.”
Cusack, from a family of Derby County fans, was in her sixth season at Bramall Lane and her popularity can be gauged by the volume of tributes after her death. Her family say they have been overwhelmed by the public’s kindness and, having set up the Maddy Cusack Foundation in November, the response of United’s fans, in particular.
“Those who knew Maddy well will be aware she had no long-standing mental health issues or troubles,” read a social media post from the foundation. “Maddy was a happy-go-lucky, carefree girl with everything to live for and, by last Christmas (2022), could be described as being at her happiest. This all changed gradually from February.”
Some people will inevitably ask why, if she became so unhappy, she did not try to find another club.
Cusack, who was in and out of Morgan’s team, signed a one-year contract at the end of June ahead of the club’s transition to a full-time operation. She did that, according to her family, because she had settled in Sheffield, did not want to leave a club she loved, and had the financial pressures and obligations of being a homeowner.
Her family say they had numerous conversations with her about the impact her work life was having on her confidence and health. The family’s complaint says Cusack and her mother discussed many of the issues about Morgan often. Maddy decided, they say, not to do anything that might risk upsetting her manager. One colleague, it is said, was aware of how Cusack felt and told her to “kill him with kindness”.
Instead, her death has left the Cusack family — including Maddy’s brother, Richard, and sisters, Olivia and Felicia — trying to come to terms with what her mother has described as an “unthinkable, unimaginable and unbearable” loss.
A few photos we reflected on during our @itvnews tribute for Maddy earlier today.
It never mattered where we were or what we were doing. As long as we were together, as a family.. we were happy. ❤️
Moments to last a lifetime, held in our hearts.
— themaddycusackfoundation (@MC8_Foundation) November 9, 2023
Morgan’s sympathisers say that he, too, has suffered and that his family have found it incredibly difficult to see his name attached to such a heartbreaking story.
This weekend, however, he will be back in the dugout when United, eighth in the Women’s Championship, travel to London for an FA Women’s Cup fourth-round tie against Tottenham Hotspur. It will be his first appearance in the dugout since a 1-0 victory over Lewes on September 17, sitting out 11 fixtures while the investigation was underway.
In a statement published on United’s website on December 18, the club announced the investigation had been completed and, without mentioning Morgan once, said they wanted “to increase the learning and development opportunities for all staff around language and culture, welfare and mental health awareness”.
The club were “always looking for ways to evolve and will reflect on the outcomes and recommendations arising from the investigation to consider how processes and policies may be improved”.
What has not been made clear is whether those recommendations refer to Morgan specifically or just the club in general. Nor is that likely to change given United will not let anybody know, including the family.
That, however, is unlikely to be the end of the matter.
David Matthews, the FA’s senior integrity investigations manager, has already started interviewing Cusack’s close relatives, as well as visiting the club, as part of the governing body’s evidence-gathering process. If that leads to a new investigation, it may take a wider scope than Shotton’s inquiry and examine Morgan’s time at Leicester and Burnley.
Even then, however, it is unclear whether United will pass over the details of their own report to the FA’s investigators.
The club have been asked by The Athletic, among a number of questions relating to the case, but declined to respond other than referring back to their previous statement. “The independent investigation commissioned by the club at the request of, and in cooperation with, Maddy’s family concluded in December,” said a club spokesman. “The valuable input provided by the key witnesses put forward by Maddy’s family and by the club was thoroughly reviewed and no evidence of wrongdoing was found.”
In the meantime, the club’s chaplain, Delroy Hall, has resigned from his role. Among a number of wide-ranging complaints, Hall informed the club that he felt ignored by a number of people in senior positions after he, an experienced counsellor, tried to help staff cope with their grief in light of Cusack’s death.
To contact the Samaritans, go to samaritans.org or call 116 123 in the UK, and to reach CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) go to thecalmzone.net or ring 0800 58 58 58
(Top photo: Jacques Feeney/The FA/Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)