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Published on June 14th, 2013 | by Seb

The Issue With Academies

Many thanks to Dan Yeo for this piece on football academies in England.

There’s no doubt that football academies are harsh environments. The FA’s official website even describes the process of getting released by one as ‘heart-breaking’, which, considering they’re trying to increase participation levels, is hardly encouraging…

It’s entirely truthful though and not particularly surprising; when the stakes are so high, the consequences of being rejected become even more considerable. The disappointment of being let go by a big-name Premier League club would be enough to crush any youngster so, when the huge financial influence is also factored in, the pressure can often become unbearable.

Children not even old enough to attend secondary school are exposed to a stressful, ruthless environment in which their every move is carefully monitored and analysed. Those judged to be progressing too slowly are filtered out of the system as early as possible, but the players really at risk are the ones that succeed in making the first few cuts.

The reason for this is simple and something the FA’s site also alludes to; young footballers tend to get carried away. Tell a ten-year-old he’s good and he’ll dream about being the next Messi. Tell a sixteen-year-old he’s good and he’ll think he really is the next Messi. The further teenagers progress down the path of becoming a professional footballer, the more they begin to prioritise the beautiful game over everything else in their lives. Football, for many, becomes an obsession and this is something that authorities need to guard against.

While it’s fantastic that the next generation are competitive and hungry to do well, the current clamour for more home-grown talent and the amount of money being spent on the best academy graduates means that, if anything, academies are encouraging rather than discouraging this kind of compulsive attitude. This has to change.

Spurring youth players on to succeed at all costs may benefit those who finally make the grade but, for the majority who don’t, it can very seriously damage their career prospects and later lives. The PFA estimates that, for every five players offered academy scholarships, only two will receive full-time contracts at the age of eighteen and only one will still be playing professionally by the time they’re twenty-one.

This is a result of a number of factors. Firstly, many young players are simply not good enough to progress. It’s a harsh truth but clubs understandably only want to invest their resources in the most talented youngsters that they believe can mature and reach their full potential.

Secondly, some players become disillusioned and fall out of love with the sport, due to the aforementioned degree of stress and pressure, which is something Dr Andrew Hill has researched. In matches, being left on the substitute bench in favour of technically superior youngsters can instil self-doubt and take the fun out of the game. Even if they do play regularly, the competitiveness and high level of regular scrutiny means that many simply stop enjoying football and quit.

Thirdly, injuries suffered in or outside of the sport can immediately destroy players’ futures and this, more than anything else, emphasises the importance of preparing for a life beyond playing football. Recently, Sean Highland became one of the most high-profile casualties of a career-ending injury, suffering a car crash in 2008. He won a significant legal battle for compensation and, while this will go some way towards helping the former Liverpool youth captain and England under-16s player, it won’t make up for the curtailing of his career. Sean, like many others his age, must now look elsewhere for a new vocation.

Academies must therefore do more to help this 80% majority of scholars that don’t end up playing. Helping young players to achieve GCSEs and A-levels helps immensely, should they fail to make the grade in football, and career paths like physiotherapy and sports psychology mean that they can remain in touch with sport if they have a real passion for it.

Sam Allardyce recently suggested that footballers who don’t quite make it should be entered into refereeing academies, which is a sensational idea. For many years, there has been an argument against officials who have never played the game at a high level; encouraging rejected academy prospects to move into this area could help bridge the gap between players and referees and allow youngsters to remain in football.

Another route, into coaching, would also suit many young players and could really end up benefitting the English game. Foreign managers like Carlos Alberto Parreira and José Mourinho have no experience playing professional football but have made excellent coaches. Bringing through educated, intelligent and experienced young managers is something the FA will be keen to encourage; the idea of our country producing the next Mourinho or Villas-Boas is a tantalising one.

All of these options are great for academy drop-outs, but it’s up to the academies and governing bodies to advocate them more proactively. They need to refocus their efforts on providing more help for the vast majority who are destined not to make the cut, as so few actually end up with a career in the sport. The relevant institutions must stop obsessing over the minority for a second and instead look to better prepare the majority for life away from playing football.

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