Academies in England have produced some great talent over the years. Players of international calibre, often valued at tens of millions of pounds, have emerged from some of the country’s most high-profile footballing institutions. While glittering careers in the Premier League and beyond await the cream of the home-grown crop, there are many others that fall by the wayside, which academies need to do something about.
The PFA have calculated that, of the sixteen-year-olds lucky enough to achieve academy scholarships, only around 40% will be offered a contract two years later. Even more worryingly, they estimate that, by the age of twenty-one, just 20% of these former scholars will be playing at a professional level, and this is a result of a number of factors.
Some stop because they fall out of love with the game. Dr Andrew Hill has conducted considerable research into burnout in youth footballers, arguing that many become disillusioned with the game due to the high levels of pressure and subsequently lose interest. Others are quite simply not good enough; with the huge amounts of money going into the top academies, clubs only accept the absolute elite.
More are plagued by injury. Sean Highdale, a recent high-profile case, played for Liverpool U18s and England U16s but had his career curtailed by a car crash in 2008, which emphasises the need for alternative options. Other injuries come as a direct result of competing at such a high level, which Dr Neeru Jayanthi explores in his study of overuse injuries in young athletes. His recommendations include not specialising in a sport until late adolescence, which clearly academies disregard.
All of this raises the question, what are academies doing for the youngsters that don’t make the grade? Because, let’s be honest, that constitutes the vast majority of them.
Some academies offer educational programs alongside their footballing tuition but this often seems like an afterthought. Institutions that encourage children and teenagers to pursue football at all costs by demanding such perfectionism must take more responsibility. They need to provide a better all-round service for their scholars that gives them an adequate education for if and when their playing careers come to an abrupt end.
As well as offering an appropriate balance between football and GCSEs/A-levels that should be a prerequisite, academies could also do more to promote alternative career paths within football. Endorsing courses in sports science, physiotherapy and sports psychology could really help the more academically-minded scholars to pursue university qualifications in an area that interests them.
The Football Association is keen to bring through more home-grown managerial talent, so academies should also be urging more of their prospects to undertake coaching courses. José Mourinho and André Villas-Boas have had magnificent success in recent years without any professional playing experience and it would be highly beneficial to the national game if we could produce their British equivalents.
Another option for those who don’t quite make the cut might be refereeing. Sam Allardyce said in a recent interview that authorities should introduce referee academies for rejected players between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two in an effort to bring more people with first-hand experience into officiating. Referees are often criticised for a lack of appreciation of what it’s like to actually play the game, so introducing former academy footballers who’ve been playing regularly since they were children would definitely help with this.
All of these are fantastic options but it’s ultimately up to academies to make sure that their scholars are aware of them. And this doesn’t mean handing out a few flyers about sports science degrees or coaching courses every now and again; academy prospects need to be educated in detail about the alternatives available to them. Considering many youth players spend their entire childhood obsessing about playing football as a career, academies have a responsibility to curb this enthusiasm and inform their scholars that playing football is not their only opportunity in life.
Guest post written by Dan Yeo.