Youth football: What happens to those who don't 'make it'?

23 February 2021, 11:57 | Updated: 23 February 2021, 14:45

At any one time, there are between 10,000 and 12,000 boys in football's youth development system.

In Premier League academies alone there are around 3,500 boys; the youngest are nine years old although pre-academy training can start even younger.

Under the Premier League Rules of Development, each club is allowed to register 250 youngsters in their academy.

But of those entering academies at the age of nine, less than 0.5% will ever make a living from the game.

So what happens to those who don't "make it" - and does football adequately prepare them for life and alternative careers?

I travelled around the UK to meet some of the boys - now men - released from academies at various points over the past 15 years. All still bore scars, some mental and some physical, from their time in football.

The tragic death of 18-year-old Jeremy Wisten has reignited soul-searching about the role football academies play in developing young players and whether the sheer scale of the operation makes it exploitative.

Jeremy had been a very promising player in Manchester City's academy, beginning with City's Elite Squad at under-13 level in 2016, but after suffering an injury he was released by the club in May 2019.

He was found hanged in his bedroom in October last year.

His parents paid tribute to the coaching at Manchester City but said he had been left devastated after his release.

A full inquest will be held in the spring and the club has been asked to provide a statement detailing support that was given to him during his time at the club and following his release.

Separately, some current and former academy coaches I have spoken to believe there needs to be a football-wide conversation about the numbers being taken into academies.

Several boys mentioned to me that they felt they were taken on simply to act as "training partners" for the one or two boys in their cohort who were identified as having the potential to progress.

One individual working at an academy described it to me as a form of triaging - just deciding which order to prepare boys for their exit from football.

Although the academic education and welfare provisions in academies have improved drastically in the past 10-15 years, some believe there needs to be a reframing of the attitude within academies of football to place education at the core, even for those aged 16-18 who have been given scholarships at the club.

Tom Hamilton, now 31, was at the Bristol City Academy between the ages of 12-19. He was released after suffering an injury and his departure from the club signalled a downward spiral into crime.

"I wanted to find money and status and lifestyle that is similar to being a footballer, which at 18 or 19 years old, was part of what I kind of liked about it," he said.

"In the areas that I used to hang around in, some people I knew were making good money selling drugs."

Tom spent eight months in a youth offenders' institute after police caught him with cocaine.

"I was actually more scared when they took me to the station of having the phone call with my parents and how embarrassed they'd be with me," he said. "I was a son to be proud of, playing for Bristol City and now I've brought shame to the family because I'm now selling drugs."

Tom checked into the Sporting Chance clinic for sportsmen and women with addiction problems.

"I can actually remember sitting in the room with the therapist for the first time," he said.

"We were talking about my injury and what happened in my story. I just started crying and I was like, 'where did that come from?' And you start to dig in and actually I realised I just didn't know myself.

"My whole identity was built around being a footballer. That's in my eyes why I was popular, why people liked me. It was who I was. I've got lots of friends who were in academies too and they all, in some way, some shape or form have been affected by that loss of identity - some still cling onto that idea of being a footballer."

Tom has spoken at academies to warn young players of some of the pitfalls of being released. He is now a fitness coach and consultant.

Kofi Anokye-Boadi, 20, has been part of the football youth development system in London. He grew up on a council estate in Peckham and viewed football as a form of escape. As a kid he played alongside Arsenal's Reiss Nelson and Jadon Sancho - one of the world's best young players at the London Youth Games.

Kofi was scouted to play for two different academies. At 14 he lost his dad to cancer and struggled with football, coupled with the pressure of feeling like he now had to provide for his mum. He feels academies are sometimes uncaring environments.

"They expect you to 'grow up, man up', when you're on the pitch, when you get fouled - 'man up, it's not that difficult, it's not that bad'. But for some of us, sometimes it's not just a 'man up' thing. Sometimes it's a thing of I'm going through something here and I need some help. I understand that it's a very masculine game and the competition is fierce, but sometimes for some of us mentally, it's not easy. Sometimes you just need an arm around you."

When he was released by Barnet in 2018, Kofi flirted with gang life but has now resolved to get his football career back on track. He feels football, in the wrong hands, can be used to exploit youngsters, particularly from deprived backgrounds.

"Especially from where I've come from, it's literally the only escape if your father passes and you've got to look out for your mum," he said.

"I love football with all my heart. I'll give anything for it and the clubs that see that passion, that desire and the talent - they just keep you there and make it difficult to really move on or do anything."

Kofi's mentor, Sayce Holmes-Lewis, works with young players in south London and says some of those released by academies can be tempted by gang life.

"They're used to being that person who's the centre of attention, being an academy player, so when the attention goes, you're going to want attention in different ways," he said.

"That's human nature. What we're not doing is actually getting to the crux of the issue and saying, right, this comes down to the emotional regulation of young people, the emotional intelligence, but also understanding the opportunities and lack of opportunities that these young people have. If we don't understand that, then we're never understand the problem."

Max Noble has sparked much of the current conversation around football academies with allegations about his time at Fulham's academy.

In an interview with Sky News earlier this month, Noble said he suffered with depression after leaving the club.

"Football academies are really toxic environments," he said.

"They are young boys looked after by men, by coaches who don't care for them, and that's the biggest issue - there's no care in football.

He added: "At 16 I'm getting injections in my knees - painkillers given to me daily. I've got stories of friends with four or five strappings on just to train.

"You're playing through pain, you're playing through 'niggles' but they're not niggles and later down the line you're going to have a serious problem and that's what happened to me."

Max has created a clothing brand called Certified Sports - and a percentage from each sale will be donated to help and psychologically support former and injured athletes.

Ashley Thompson played with Max at Fulham academy. He alleges that a groin injury he suffered was not rehabilitated properly and that he it still causes him pain. He suffered from depression after being released aged 19.

"I went home and I waited for the football club to contact me and help me," he said.

"The help didn't come. By the time I was able to look into it myself and try to forge something for myself it was too late, and no football clubs were taking on players anymore. That sent me into a wild depression."

His mum, Lynda Dennis, was there to witness it. "I honestly don't know how we got through it," she said, holding back tears.

"I found myself every single day before I went to work going into my son's room to check he was breathing. I was taking days off work because I was absolutely convinced that that was the day he was going to take his life.

"I watched this beautiful, amazing, funny, loving child shrivel in front of me. I couldn't recognise who he was. And there was nothing I could do to help him. Absolutely nothing. I'm qualified, a counsellor, and I could do nothing to help my son."

Ashley says he wasn't adequately prepared for life outside an academy.

"I realised very quickly that I'm no longer in this world," he said.

"I'm in a completely different world, a world where I don't know how to make a CV, I don't know how to apply for jobs.

"I don't know how to how to do anything along those lines apart from playing football. It was a really dark time and the lack of support from anybody in the industry was really scary."

The boy still in the system

Ali Al-Hamadi is 18 and plays for Swansea City Under-23s. It's rare to hear a youngster in the system deliver a critical analysis but Ali's moral fibre runs deep, particularly when it comes to Jeremy Wisten, the 18-year-old released from Manchester City academy, who was found hanged in his bedroom last October.

"Jeremy was actually on trial here only a few months before that," Ali said. "I wasn't close to him or anything, but a few of the other boys were.

"I get goosebumps now thinking about when I found out, I was stretching on the mat and looked at my phone to see somebody has took their own life. Straight away you can relate to that, in the weirdest way possible, I haven't felt suicidal, but you can relate to them feeling like that - what that person was going through because you've been through them as well. You can relate to that loneliness, that stress and anxiety."

Ali - like many I speak to - talks of the pressure of unrelenting scrutiny and the toll it takes on young minds.

"You're going through the whole academy system constantly trying to impress other people," he said, "constantly trying to be better than the player above, better than the player below you.

"If you've been judged, you've been trying to impress and impress and impress."

Ali acknowledges that to have mental health awareness campaigns in football and increased attention on duty of care is a good thing but says there needs to be a change in "intention" alongside that.

"It feels a bit like box ticking," he said.

"It's 'have we got a welfare officer? Are we doing this twice a week?'

"You'd rather have that than not, but that needs to go into maybe another meeting asking if it's for the right reasons: 'Are we doing this because we want to help these players and want to help them further their career after us, or are we doing it because we have to do it?'

"Ultimately, we are products, unfortunately, and it is a business, so if you're not needed they're just going to pass you on or sell you."

What is being done?

The idea at the core of football academies is a positive one - the best players in the country paired up with the best coaches to give them the best possible chance of success.

The EPPP system, which currently governs football academies, was introduced in 2012 and developed following consultation with Premier League clubs, the FA and the Football League and designed to bring through more, and better, homegrown talent.

The holistic development of people as well as players in academies has undoubtedly improved in the past 10-15 years, and most of those working in football's youth development system have the very best intentions, acting within the framework.

Pat Lally is director of education at the Professional Footballers' Association and told me the players themselves have to take responsibility for considering alternative careers.

"At the age of 16, before the apprenticeship programme, we meet with boys and parents and we make them fully aware of what their sons are going to go through over the next few years," he said.

"It's mandatory for all of them to take a BTEC qualification, so the majority of them come out with the equivalent of a one, two or three A level qualification.

"We're all aware of the drop-out rate from the game; I think some young people don't take that onboard or understand that the rate is so high and that it's a dual career.

"We are continually looking as an organisation, the PFA, and as an industry to see how we can improve the support that's available to these young people. Our welfare department now has over 200 consultants around the country that these young people have access to if they have any issues around their mental health and welfare, and the information is there for them on our website."

Since the death of Jeremy Wisten, Manchester City has increased the frequency of "check-ins" with players recently released from their academy system and their mantra is to place as much importance on the departure of a player as the recruitment.

Most clubs also help players to get trials at other clubs by providing them with a highlight reel and giving access to a player database.

Club responses

Fulham said: "We condemn bullying, racism and discrimination in any form and work hard to ensure that they have no place here. The club is investigating and to date has found nothing to support the historic claims. The club is liaising with all relevant parties as the process continues, and has reached out on numerous occasions to the former players concerned, but is yet to receive a response."

Barnet said: "We would not like to comment on an individual's personal circumstances but would like to note that the club has always aimed to operate in the best interests of its young players. However, we are required to act within the limits imposed upon us by the EPPP scheme, which was devised and implemented by the FA and Premier League. It is for those regulatory bodies to consider whether or not that scheme is fit for purpose and structured so as to best protect the interests of young footballers. Indeed, the club has openly challenged the EPPP scheme on numerous occasions."