I’ve wanted to write this for some time but have always refrained, but continuously see stories in the press about academy football and how players are used as commodities, are mistreated and left on the scrapheap after being in an academy system. There are lots of statistics out there and I saw another today that prompted this, stating that 97% of players never make the grade and to become Premier League players, and many others never going on to play any kind of professional football. The reality is football is the most played sport in the world and the Premier League is (at present) the best league in the world by quite some distance. There is a clear and harsh reality that not everyone will get to fulfil that ambition of becoming a Premier League footballer. One of the first things to say is that this needs to be laid on as clear as possible to any parent when they sign their papers up for their son to join an academy. Your son has not made it by signing for an under 9 team. They are a million miles away from becoming a first team player. They may wear the same kit, but it does not make them a Premier League footballer. Let the kid dream and let them give it absolutely everything they’ve got, but also be realistic and keep them grounded. Look at it this way; your child is getting top coaching, at great facilities, he’s off the streets, he’s being active, he’s mixing with friends, he’s developing character, he’s competing, learning, and all of this is for free. If he wasn’t at an academy, you would probably be paying for all of this. Don’t look at it as he’s going to be a first team player at that club, but instead on the journey. Then if he is good enough, he will find his level and possibly even develop a professional career for himself at some level. If he isn’t and things don’t go the way he had hoped it will be tough, he will have to become resilient, he will need support, but he will have so many valuable life experiences and unbelievable learning that he wouldn’t have got anywhere else. One thing I would change about the academy system is the age that young players are taken out of school at. I don’t believe a 12 year old boy should be leaving his school and almost becoming a mini professional. They may get extra training and top education privately, but I worry about what it does mentally.
It’s a tough and brutal industry and I know things haven’t been perfect by any means. I know lots of players that have been let go and never thought about again. Players that have had a hard time, players that were released too soon and players that feel like their world has ended. There have been members of staff that have been bullies and plenty that have had zero emotional intelligence. But I have also seen some of the unbelievable work that takes place at academies and how well these boys are supported on and off the field and after they leave a club. There aren’t many other industries or sports that offer that same level. I see a lot of ex-players talk that in the media or on social media have no idea of the changes that have been made over the last 20 years. They have been out of the game for a number of years and haven’t seen the changes.
One thing that does really annoy me though, is the lack of accountability some people have. Players and parents that blame the rest of the world for their son not becoming a professional footballer. One former player in particular that I actually played with at one point has been very vocal in the media speaking of his mistreatment. This lad was lazy, had a poor attitude, didn’t want to listen, thought he had already made it, and was released by a Premier League club in his late teens. He has since come out and blamed everybody but himself. For some that’s the easier option. To tell themselves this story and make excuses instead of facing up to the truth.
I was released by Chelsea after spending 7 years in the academy. I was never the best player, never going to become a first team player, but I worked my nuts off, tried to learn as much as possible and get as far as I could. When I was released, the club arranged a trial for me at another club but I was unsuccessful. I then took ownership and sent letters out to every single academy in the country and tried to get a trial. My mum phoned a friend who’s son played for Brentford and asked him to speak to the manager. I managed to get a trial and ended up going on to sign a professional contract there. Other lads that got released sat at home waiting for the phone to ring. Their ego got in the way. They thought asking for a trial at a League 1 club was beneath them. The parents had this ego as well. Many of these lads were much better players than I was, but ended up blaming the coaches and the club for everything that happened after that. They blamed their future behaviour on the club for releasing them. I have since seen players that were disruptive, lazy and disrespectful whilst at a football club, come out and blame the football club for not offering them enough help. Newspapers and social media pile on and support this narrative. When you read these articles about ex academy players just be mindful that it isn’t always the full story. I’m never judgemental with these stories. I’m empathetic to the journey and how hard it can be. But when you know people personally that are portraying a very different narrative in the press, it is difficult to keep accepting.
I agree that lots have had it tough over the years, coach education needs continuous improving and more can always be done, but academies can be great places. Football clubs will want to help good people. I was released by Chelsea over 15 years ago. I built great relationships with members of staff there and always gave my best whilst I was at the club. There are people at the club that I am still in contact with at the club now. They have also introduced me to new members of staff. A lot of staff members at the club are players that were released as academy players. In 2019 when I retired, I was invited back into the training ground. I was sent of courses free of charge, allowed to shadow members of staff and learn from some top people, I was introduced to people in other industries, and the club sent an U23 team to play against my former club Newport County in a testimonial match for me to help my family through a difficult period. Chelsea never once publicised this or shouted it from the rooftops. Clubs get tarnished with the same brush and deemed nothing more than a place that chews up and spits out young boys. But there are lots of stories that people don’t see.
I just wanted to post this as I continuously see headlines and articles about academy football and professional football that are one sided and uninformed. The whole world knows how tough it is to become a Premier League footballer. It is the dream of most young children. It is difficult when if feels like that dream is taken away. It has been difficult for me not having football anymore. But those experiences I wouldn’t change for the world. It has taught me so many lessons that I can take with me for life.