Cast Adrift: How football is failing released academy players 1 year ago

Cast Adrift: How football is failing released academy players

"Two phone calls in seven months. That’s what my son meant to a Premier League club..."

Danny didn’t wait around. Within days of being told he would be released at the end of his contract, he left, stuffing his belongings into the back of his car one lunchtime and driving the 200-mile journey home.

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“It took him five hours to drive back,” says Steven, Danny’s father. “I was worried sick the whole time, imagining all sorts. He was alone and his head just wasn’t in the right space.”

For a boy with aspirations of becoming a professional footballer, the reminders of just how high the odds are stacked against you are near-constant. Even those select few who reach the latter stages of the academy system know that only a tiny fraction of them will actually make it. None of this, though, makes it any easier for them to hear the news that their dream - one many have devoted over half a life to chasing - is over. Such a rejection can leave a mark, especially when set against all the additional complexities that come with being a teenage boy.

For Danny, the dreaded day arrived last year. His father had been informed by the club that a meeting was scheduled but that there was no need for him to be with his son to attend it. After seven years spent progressing through the ranks of a Premier League club academy, 10 minutes was all it took to deliver the news. Danny was assured he could remain with the club until his contract expired, but was promptly told he would be better pressing ahead with his search to find opportunities elsewhere.

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“He felt they were pushing him out,” Steven says. “The week after the meeting he was given shitty jobs and, even though he played outfield, made to go in goal during training sessions. It was humiliating. He felt they wanted his room at his digs for another player. He had to get out, so he did.”

News of Danny’s release came amidst a difficult spell for him as he struggled with his mental health. Contact had been established with the club’s Player Care Manager prior to the expiration of his contract. The support he received amounted to two phone calls across a seven-month period.

“Small talk,” Steven remembers. “In the second call Danny asked for help with his mental health and said he was struggling. He’d left the club in a physical sense by this point but was still under contract. They still had a responsibility.

“The Player Care Manager advised him to speak to someone. He thought that might mean a chance to speak to the sports psychologist, but no. He was told to talk to his family, that ‘we all go through tough times’.

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“Two phone calls in seven months. That’s what my son meant to a Premier League club.”

Steven speaks at length about the months that have passed since Danny’s release, about the strain that the experience has placed on the family. He recalls the shellshocked expression on his son’s face when he finally reached home after his five-hour car journey; the silent tears that flowed soon after. He describes the nauseating sense of fear that washes over him every time he leaves for work in a morning, knowing his son is left alone in the house with only his thoughts.

“At the start, the club wooed him and us with their talk about doing things differently for the youth players and taking good care of them. It’s nonsense. They can talk a good game about mental health but they did nothing. He had no clue what he’d do next, no help to find another club. We were left to pick up the pieces. He wasn’t given so much as a leaflet.”

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At this point, it should be pointed out that Steven and Danny are not the names of the individuals concerned. Although willing to divulge some of his son’s experience, Steven expressed a wish that they remain anonymous.

“I’ve been toying with speaking out for a while,” he explains. “I never did because in this industry you are afraid to rock the boat and ruin your chances elsewhere.”

You don’t have to dig particularly deep into this topic to realise this is a common theme. Another parent, after making clear her disappointment in the lack of support received by her son following his release by a different Premier League club, declined an interview for fear of jeopardising his chances of earning a deal elsewhere.

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In recent years, Danny’s story has become an unsettlingly familiar one. Year on year, hundreds of boys are cut from academies nationwide, an unfortunate byproduct of an industry geared to developing only the very best. It is a cruel, unavoidable part of the process, but a necessary one when honing the skills of the elite. While little can be done to alter this fact, many feel the real problem lies in what happens - or, perhaps more accurately, what doesn’t happen - afterwards; that there is an obvious lack of support for the boys who are cast away into the great wide world after spending years in the relative shelter of academy football.

It’s a topic that, rightly or wrongly, has been thrust back into the spotlight by the tragic circumstances surrounding the recent death of 18-year-old Jeremy Wisten, a member of Manchester City's academy until his release in 2019.

To be clear, there are no suggestions that City acted improperly regarding the teenager’s release, or even that being let go had any direct link to his death. In a moving interview given to the Manchester Evening News, Wisten's heartbroken father only spoke highly of the club, thanking them for the opportunities given to his late son. He also added that more needed to be done to support young players after their release.

"I think boys or girls whose contracts come to an end or are released by all clubs need some care beyond that time," Manila Wisten is quoted as saying. "I think there is often a focus on this at the professional level in sport but maybe not so much at the lower level.”

Pete Lowe was Head of Education and Performance at City’s academy for 13 years. He is proud of the work he and his colleagues did during that time, overseeing a particularly productive spell. Now a director at PlayersNet, an organisation that offers welfare support to players, parents and club staff, Lowe is firmly of the belief that football is falling short of its duty of care for those young footballers discarded by academies. There are exceptions, he admits, but generally, far more improvement is required.

Lowe has given countless interviews since leaving professional football. Each time, he has been asked if enough is done to support those young players after their release. His response is unequivocal: “Football doesn’t do anywhere near enough. Absolutely nowhere near enough. I answer this the same way every time I’m asked.

“It would be wrong to say there aren’t some clubs who do good work when it comes to releasing young players, but do I think the business of football does enough? No. It’s nowhere near proactive enough.”

An increase in the number of players a club is permitted to register in its academy structure has exacerbated the problem, Lowe believes. Bloated squads of youngsters, all ultimately competing for an extremely limited number of places in the first team several years down the line, has inevitably led to a scenario where more are being released than ever before.

“If ‘excellence’ - and I hate using that word - is what academies are about, why do we try and bring so many players in?” Lowe asks. "That’s not ‘excellence’, that’s making sure you haven’t missed any. You can’t have 30 players in an age group that are all good enough. You just can’t. That in itself is setting players up to fail.”

The release of young players is, of course, an inescapable part of academy life. Lowe accepts this, but stresses it is the duty of an academy to handle the process as sensitively as they possibly can, maintaining a regular line of communication with the player and their family. Towards the end of his time at City, all academy players and their parents were issued with a copy of a report every six weeks, outlining precisely where they were in their development. This, he says, is crucial in preparing them for release and softening the blow when the eventuality befalls them.

"That communication leaves them in no uncertain terms as to how they are doing in the development process," he explains. "It's critical, because what you don’t want is a player that’s been at a club for five or six years, has made friends and created those incredible bonds that football forges, to suddenly have it taken away without warning. It can be hugely damaging.

"This way, at the time of the release, it’s not a cataclysm. You can’t get around the fact that they’re going to be disappointed - unbelievably so - but to not prepare them, to not have that dialogue before then, that isn't just unprofessional, it’s unforgivable.”

That sense of responsibility, Lowe adds, should extend to beyond a player's release. It is something owed not just to the player, but also to their family.

"A club gets found out more than anything when it releases its players. I’ve seen the results of exceptionally bad work and exceptionally good work when it comes to the release of players.

"You’ve been happy for them [the family] to be involved with your club because originally you saw something in their son as a player. The family might need you now. It’s for you to show to them that you can offer something that’s needed.”

To say that nothing is being done to help young players transition into life on the outside of academies would be unfair. Despite his obvious concerns, Lowe makes clear that some clubs and, at times, other organisations have done excellent work in this area.

Contacted by JOE, the Premier League were eager to show initiatives they have put in place. We were sent footage of their Under-16 Residential Programme, which offers recently released players the opportunity to work with elite football coaches while exploring possible exit-routes from the game. Stakeholder clubs, their response stressed, are also taking the matter extremely seriously, with Liverpool's Alumni Project a shining example.

In July, Neil Saunders, Head of Youth at the Premier League, also spoke of the collaborative work done with the PFA to track post-scholarship players.

“Each club is now creating their Academy alumni and through the Player Care Manager and the education staff, they’re trying to track those players more effectively to offer support or to keep in touch,” he said.

Perhaps things are slowly improving in this area. With an increased focus on mental health in football, there is no reason why this should not be the case. For now though, the feeling remains that there are too many gaps and inconsistencies. Any progress that has been made is nowhere near enough. Too many boys continue to be chewed up and spat out by the academy system with little consideration for what happens to them next, left to struggle with the pain of rejection on their own.

As for Danny, there has been no return to academy football since the day he bundled his things into his car and drove home. He is just one of the many forced to give up on his dream. There has been no contact with the club he left since his contract expired.

“I expected him to at least get a text or a call this week,” Steven says. “Danny knew of Jeremy Wisten. In light of his passing, I thought someone might just reach out and check on how he was doing. There’s been nothing at all.”

Steven still worries about his son. He is uncomfortable at the thought of him seeing Instagram posts from boys he grew up with, continuing their journey while he adapts to life on the outside.

Things are looking up though. An exciting scholarship opportunity in the United States awaits Danny, set up by an agency formed by ex-players and apprentices who were also cast aside by the academies of professional clubs.

“They couldn’t be more different to the pro clubs,” Steven says. “They’ve made him feel like part of a family from the start.

“I’m not bitter my son didn’t make it in professional football,” he adds. “I’m just very hurt for him that he was treated so badly during and after his release.”