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Maddy Cusack’s Family Calls for a New Investigation into Her Death: Special Report

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. Sheffield United paid tribute to Cusack on September 24 (George Wood/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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.

GO DEEPER Are WSL and Premier League clubs doing enough to support players’ mental health?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…

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