Former Premier League prospect on the real horrors of youth football
"The bottom line is, players have been killing themselves"
James* was a hot prospect. When he was nine years old, a number of Premier League clubs approached his family, expressing interest in signing him to their academies. He was offered the opportunities that millions of other boys can only dream of.
After considering every offer, his family agreed that he would join a highly rated academy that has produced a fair amount of England legends.
Despite a strong start, James' dream slowly became a nightmare. While the hype around his ability didn't fade, feeling let down by the club became a consistent theme of his adolescence.
In his early teens, James' best friend died in a freak accident. This had a profound effect on him. "It became something that was a part of me," he explains.
"It was at that point I got the drive to become a professional. It pushed me on.
"Every time I scored, I owed it to him.
"I played with aggression and didn't know how to deal with loss at that age, so I dealt with it all through football."
But James felt his club weren't able to give him the support he so badly needed away from the pitch.
"I didn't have any support for how I was doing with different things."
Still, he continued to perform at a high level, while agents circled around him.
His family stood firm, resisting their attempts to sign him up. After playing in numerous U18 and U21 matches, up against current England internationals, James seemed a shoo-in for a professional contract.
But then tragedy struck again, as a close friend of his from the academy died of cancer.
"It brought up all those old wounds, not just with my teammate but with my childhood friend as well. I found it difficult to deal with," he says. "I just used football as my release."
James bounced back, representing the club at events, training with the first team, and continuing to score goals for the U21s.
"There was a time when I thought, I could jump off the bridge."
"There was no form of support."
After being released by Ipswich Town at 18, Lewis Reed explains how his footballing dream became a nightmare. pic.twitter.com/UaBs1qr8Sk
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) February 27, 2021
'I didn't see it coming'
Then came the big conversation about a contract extension. The academy director had offered to get him an agent to oversee the negotiations - a two-year contract seemed guaranteed.
"There were conversations with numerous different agents that I was pointed towards," he explains.
When he was told that the contract offer was off the table and he was free to leave, James says he was "shocked more than anything."
"I was pretty confused to be honest, I didn't see it coming. I hadn't been out of the team or anything like that - I was captaining the side.
"My immediate reaction was, 'I'm going to get somewhere else', but you become just another released player at that point.
"I was turning 20 as well, with no league experience, it was a difficult time."
James then went on a few trials at a few other Premier League clubs, but to no avail.
"When I started having issues in football - I didn't know how to deal with it because I'd dealt with all my other issues through football.
"I had a bit of a breakdown."
James' story is an all too familiar tale of young footballers who are sold false promises and given bad advice, only to be cast adrift when they don't make the final cut. Traditionally, it's been left to their families to pick up the pieces and help these devastated 20-year-olds rebuild their lives.
'There's more to you than football'
Thankfully, for James there's a happy ending. He's now working as a financial adviser for other young footballers, thanks to the help of PlayersNet, an independent service that supports players, parents, clubs, staff and volunteers.
"I sat down with them at a point where I didn't know what I wanted to do next. They pointed me in the direction of getting into wealth management, and creating a new career for myself," he explains.
"With my personal experiences, I thought I could add real value to players up and down the country.
"I didn't want to be around football all the time, which is why I chose finance. Having seen the flip side of it once you're done playing, I want those I help to be in the best position in five, 10, 15 years time, because once the lights go, there's not going to be many people around.
"PlayersNet helped me with the emotional side and the self-pity. They helped me realise I had a lot to give.
"Just because you're done with playing... There's a lot more to you than football."
James knows how fortunate he was to find help when he needed it the most.
"Not everyone is so lucky when they're in that dark spot," he says.
"The bottom line is, players have been killing themselves."
Among those tragic losses is the late Jeremy Wisten, former Manchester City youth player who took his own life at the age of 18. His death shone a light on the difficulties endured by released academy players.
"I know it's a young, male thing in the country right now, but they're the ones who didn't get those conversations, that opportunity. There's a duty of care that is owed to players when they are finished."
A helping hand
That duty of care is the foundation of the ethos of PlayersNet, founded by Peter Lowe, a former head of education and coaching at Manchester City, who has worked with young footballers for the best part of 25 years.
His experiences compelled him to create the support service with Simon Andrews, who had previously set up The Players Trust.
"It was quite clear there was a need for help out there - parents in particular, don’t know where to go with certain issues that need answering... One of the major things at this moment in time being talked about in life, let alone professional sport, is mental health," Lowe tells JOE.
"If we don’t look after our young players' needs, then [these issues] are going to become even more significant. This is something you can’t just talk about. You either do it or you don’t."
Lowe reels off examples of families in football that his organisation has helped in recent months. They range from an agency acting on behalf of the player and their parents during a period of suspension, to parents not knowing how to approach a club about their son being "inappropriately dealt with, verbally".
What Lowe wants to achieve is nothing radical. As he puts it: "Welfare and duty of care, is that not just a basic thing? Is that not something that every organisation, no matter the age of an employee, should be dealing with?"
Agents have a mixed reputation in football, often characterised as self-serving and exploitative, but they are only a part of the problem, Lowe believes.
"Parents should not be allowing an agent to interview them, parents should be interviewing agents," he says.
"There are issues that young players face which are different to those of more established professionals like how to manage adversity and the pressure of the environment," he explains, using the example of a goalkeeper mentally preparing for a half-time telling off if his team are 2-0 down.
"If the agent wants the services of that young player who might be a big hitter, to the point where he benefits from that in years to come, then he's got to put a bit in at this end as well," he says.
"Two phone calls in seven months. That’s what my son meant to a Premier League club..."
Even with increased focus on mental health in football, more work needs to be done to protect those youngsters released by academies | @SmnLlyd5https://t.co/oiuE5JrS14
— FootballJOE (@FootballJOE) February 25, 2021
But the majority of issues he deals with through his organisation focus around how young footballers are handled during their formative years.
"There are so many different ways of inappropriate actions. Verbal abuse, for example. It’s a very big thing. We’re handling one now, on behalf of a group of parents, which is quite significant to say the least.
"One of the significant things about life now, let alone football, is that people have changed. People evolve, and they evolve because life evolves."
And thanks to PlayersNet, James' life has evolved in a way that he didn't envisage after his dream of footballing success was shattered. Six years later, he's moved on and holds no grudges against his old club, describing the experience as all "part of the journey".
*James is a pseudonym.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article help and support is available here.
Call the Samaritans on 116 123.