It’s easy to assume a professional footballer in their mid-twenties will always find another club after being released, yet the reality isn’t that simple.
Former Manchester United playmaker Josh Harrop is currently facing that problem. His contract at Championship side Preston was terminated by mutual consent earlier this month and, at 26, is on the hunt for a new club following a difficult few years.
United fans will remember Harrop’s memorable debut in May 2017. Jose Mourinho handed the youngster a surprise start in their final Premier League game of the season against Crystal Palace and he didn’t disappoint, scoring a stunning goal at Old Trafford.
Harrop danced into the box, shifted the ball onto his right foot and curled an effort into the far corner to make it 1-0. It was a strike that made the 21-year-old an overnight sensation and left fans wondering if they had just witnessed United’s next superstar.
“I have dreamed of that moment so many times so I cannot believe it came true,” said Harrop. “I have to thank Mourinho for giving me the opportunity to play.”
Yet that proved to be Harrop’s last act as a United player. He rejected the club’s offer of a contract extension and joined Preston in July. It was a transfer that stunned English football, yet the youngster’s reason for leaving Old Trafford was understandable.
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“I’m 21 now and I’m confident in myself, I need to play first-team football to get myself out there,” he said. “That wasn’t guaranteed at United, even though they offered me a new contract it was very limited in game time and so I couldn’t take that risk at my age. I need to be out there, proving myself and doing what I know I’m capable of.”
Injury curtails bright start
That initially proved to be a wise decision by Harrop. Although he wasn’t a regular starter during his debut season at Deepdale, he still played 38 Championship games to help Preston finish seventh in the table – missing out on a play-off spot by just two points.
Harrop continued his progress the following campaign before disaster struck in October 2018. Just two minutes after coming on in a home game against West Brom, the talent ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament – the injury every footballer dreads.
“He is devastated and we are obviously gutted for him,” said Preston boss Alex Neil. “He just loves to play football and he works hard in training so we are devastated for him. Josh was really upset as he feared it was a bad one and unfortunately that’s the case.”
Loses Preston spot
As expected, Harrop didn’t play again during the 2018/19 campaign. The injury also derailed the following pre-season, but that didn’t stop him from scoring on his return against Stoke City in August 2019. Harrop went on to score eight goals and provide two assists in 36 appearances that season – the most productive of his career to date.
“I think mentally you have a lot to reflect on and look at,” he said on his comeback. “Everything you have done up to that point in your football career, you start to look back on. You think about that and you think about all the things you want to do when you come back. It gives you a hunger inside to do more and do better.”
A new three-year contract followed in the summer of 2020, yet Harrop fell down the pecking order after that. He didn’t feature in any of Preston’s first six Championship games of the 2020/21 campaign and was forced to join Ipswich Town on loan in January.
Harrop’s loan spell didn’t go to plan, as he failed to score and provided just one assist in his 15 League One appearances. “I can’t wait to kick on now and show what I can do,” he said after signing his new Preston deal – yet it turned out to be a frustrating season.
Harrop encountered more injury problems ahead of last term and played just once before joining League One Fleetwood Town on loan in January. The former United star saw the move as a chance to get some minutes under his belt.
“I’m like every footballer, you can’t just play one game here, one game there and be amazing, you’ve got to play consistently,” he said on joining Fleetwood. “It takes five or six games to get fit and get into the rhythm of things so that’s what you need as a player, regular games to make sure you get to your best level of fitness and awareness on the ball.”
But again, the transfer didn’t work out. Harrop started just twice for Fleetwood and was subsequently transfer-listed by Preston. After failing to find a new club, his contract was terminated one year early and Preston announced the news with a 48-word statement.
Mourinho in the firing line
As Harrop’s career stalled, many started wondering why. Former United youth coach Lee Waddington took aim at Mourinho for not giving him enough opportunities at Old Trafford. It’s fair to say the Portuguese manager is not known for investing time in youngsters.
“He [Harrop] was born and bred in Stockport, just like myself, started coaching him when he was about five and look, I would never say that you can see it in a kid when they’re 5 or 6, but he just had something really special,” Waddington told the MEN.
“His technical ability and his ability to get out of tight spots and really do the unusual with a high level of creativity, underpinned by a real great work ethic.
“For me… just my opinion on this… If Mourinho would have been replaced earlier by Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] I think Josh would still be there and would have a big number of Premier League games under his belt but that’s the luck of the draw.”
And perhaps that sums up Harrop’s career to date – he’s been unlucky. He made a bold move by turning his back on Old Trafford, but injuries and his failure to consistently start games have left him in danger of being dumped on football’s scrap heap at just 26.
Whether Harrop finds a new club or is on the verge of joining a new club is not yet public knowledge. If his career is to continue, though, he needs to start playing week in, week out. If he fails to do that, there’s no chance he will grace the Premier League again.