Google+ Blueprint for Football: The State of the Academy Game

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The State of the Academy Game

When Chris Green wrote Every Boy's Dream back in 2010, it presented a not too complimentary picture of the situation at English academies particularly criticising those running the game whilst at the same time presenting stories that offered hope for the future.  It was a book that struck a chord so much that it was short listed for the Best Football Book in the 2010 British Sport Book Awards.

"Every Boy’s Dream was the culmination of many years’ reporting on issues concerning the English football academy system since it was set up in the late 1990s," he says in an interview with Blueprint for Football. "The problems were there from the start and it gave me no joy to report on the inevitable failings as the years progressed."

"I am proud of the book. I think it encapsulates views from many sides, especially the often unheard voices of children and parents, but also club coaches who are being asked to deliver a system many of them don’t really have faith in. They deserve to be heard - especially those experienced youth developers with a track record of success who truly understand their profession and the needs of children. They are rarely listened to by the people who should listen most."

What really got to Green was the petty politics being played out by those running the various aspects of the game.  "A vicious turf war between the game’s three main governing bodies – the FA, the Premier League and the Football League - was being fought out during the period I wrote the book in 2009 – and although some sort of Glasnost has broken out of late I remain to be convinced that the needs of children will ever be put first by the football industry."

Although there are clear instances of clubs doing an excellent job at youth level, most of them didn't fare too well in Green's analysis.  "Clubs put their interests above the welfare of children playing in football academies.  There are too many players in professional club academies starting from too early an age, there is no justification for clubs to sign and train pre-teen children whatsoever (let alone kids as young as four or five years of age) and that attempts to profit financially from the efforts of children is morally repugnant and doesn’t work."

The result of this defective system can be seen at a national level.  "We have got football youth development so badly wrong in this country – and the evidence is clear to see. We don’t produce sufficient home grown players, we fly in the face of other sports in other countries (US sports wouldn’t allow their pro clubs anywhere near children) and we’re miles behind countries like Spain, who produce truly talented and gifted players in far greater numbers."

"For all of English football’s attempts to hoover up the best child talent from an early age - what starker contrast is more imaginable than Team GB’s multi-sport heroes and English football’s perennial big tournament underachievers?"

Raising Concerns
The feedback he received for the book was overwhelming and continues to this very day.  "From the moment Every Boy’s Dream was published I began to receive lots of emails and letters from players, parents and coaches wanting to tell me their personal stories and keep in touch. Three and a half years on I still receive emails on a daily or weekly basis. There is a community of people out there who have rallied around the book because it gave them a voice and raised their concerns."
Whilst he is in the early stages of planning a follow up, where the aim will be to focus on how those psychologically effected by seeing their hopes dashed, Green has continued following the main developments taking place in youth football level. And there have been few bigger developments than the introduction of the EPPP.

"Overall it has to be welcomed as good news and it is an improvement on a broken system but only time will tell."

"It think the dangerous parts are those elements which do away with the sensible child protection measures which were a key part of the Charter for Quality, the document drafted by the FA’s former technical director Howard Wilkinson in 1997, which set the academy rules such as restrictions on distances children could travel to attend academies and compensation to be paid by larger clubs to smaller club academies when they nab their best talent."

"For sheer self-interest and to flex its collective financial muscle, the Premier League has diluted these rules so their clubs can get their greedy hands on the best child talent."

Small Clubs Without Development Systems
One of the main worries surrounding the EPPP is that it will lead to the closure of youth development programmes at a number of smaller clubs.  Green agrees but, surprisingly, suggests that this was never inevitable.

“The inevitable consequence of the EPPP will be that small Football League clubs will, in time, be forced to close their academies so that football youth development will become an activity purely for rich and famous clubs….only they don’t have much of a track record with just 30 per cent of Premier League players being genuinely English home grown players."

"In some respects there are too many academies out there and too many boys in the pro club system – but this isn’t the way to change things. Many of our smaller clubs are in geographically isolated parts of the country so the loss of their professional club academy means players and parents will have to travel longer distances to reach bigger club academies."

"Travelling long distances to and from academies during the school week can be exhausting for children – some even eat and do their homework on the hoof – and some parents (unwisely in my opinion) slip off work early or drive at breakneck speeds to reach training sessions on time."

"The detrimental effect on a child’s well-being is obvious. Some of the biggest clubs in the country have driven coach and horses through the regulations and the inspection of the academies has been historically weak. Some of the behaviour outlined in Every Boy’s Dream: a six-year-old told he has  been ‘culled’; a 14-year-old boy travelling on his own by train an illegal distance from one metropolitan city to another to attend an academy; and, scandalously, a 10-year-old boy playing under an assumed name to bend the rules, is plain wrong"

"Make no mistake some of the biggest clubs in the country are engaging in this activity – and they are being protected by the Premier and Football Leagues. It is wrong, wrong, wrong and the people who allow this to happen should hang their heads in shame."

"Regional FA coaching centres would be the best way forward. Take the clubs’ self interest out of it – so that the best boys would get impartial, high quality coaching in the best interest of the boy and the game – but there’s no way that can happen because the Premier League hold the purse strings of English football and have disproportionate power and influence."

Not All Bad
It isn't all bad, however, and there are signs of progress particularly in the willingness to innovate.  "The coaches are (willing to innovate). The FA definitely are. I think there are some excellent people at clubs with the talent to create a really good system. My problem is with club owners and their executive staff who permeate into the governing organisations and committees. They only look at figures not the human cost of youth development."

As for the academies themselves, these also have their plus points.  "At best, academies can offer opportunity for talented boys to learn and develop their football skills in a great environment with some really great child-centred coaches. The coach/player ratios are right and the standard of facilities is wonderful. I think there are lots of caring people in the game and they combine to do things wonderfully at some clubs."

"The thing they do badly is sign boys too young, release those that don’t make without due care, fail to foster a real spirit and understanding among parents and genuinely work hard at looking after all the boys in their academies - not just the one or two per team that matter most to them."

"Ultimately they fail to provide enough first team opportunities from the masses of home grown players who flow through academies estimated to be some 10,000 boys from 9-18 years-old but many thousands more at younger ages in so-called foundation academies."

Having heard all this, the question is inevitable: how would you feel if your own son was asked to join an academy?

"My son is a mid-August birth which means, statistically, like all boys at the younger end of the school year age he always stood less change of being signed than other boys of his age."

"We had no pretensions or expectations on him playing football so playing for a pro club academy was never on the cards or an issue."

"Daft as it sounds though even at 10, he’s already missed the boat and although he is now experiencing a growth spurt so is catching up height-wise with his peers, he’s already had his heart broken by at least three coaches in local junior soccer who have lied to him, sidelined him, and on one occasion was told to shut up for asking when he might get a chance to play which made him cry – mainly because he was too small and because the coach wanted to put his own child’s interest first."

"Small wonder he’s stopped playing junior soccer – and, as parents, my wife and I have lost any appetite to heap any more misery on him….and we both rather feel we knew what we were letting ourselves in for more than most parents!"

"Away from this environment, which caused him a lot of distress, tension and unhappiness, he is thriving academically and is a delightful young boy – every dad’s dream! He plays sport purely for fun and is all the happier for it."

For those parents whose kids do make it to an academy only to then be released, life can become a nightmare.  "Because their hopes have been lifted too high and they struggle to cope emotionally with rejection when it comes."

"They feel they have failed - which isn’t true. They’ve often been prevented from playing school sport by clubs who assume once a parent has signed on the dotted line the boys are, in effect, their chattel so are separated from their peer group at sport - then suddenly have to drop back in, maybe even taking the place of another boy in the school team, which causes resentment and more isolation."

"Sometimes parents don’t help by heaping pressure on their children’s shoulders and have their own dreams of a rich and prosperous lifestyle should their son ‘make it’."

"School teachers will tell you that there are lots of these boys whose behaviour is delinquent and troublesome as they cope with disappointment and rejection. Psychologists have told me that some boys face potential serious problems in later life as pressure situations experienced in academy football can cause unbelievable panic attacks."

"I think we are only just beginning to see the symptoms and consequences with the long term issues being raised by this whole process."

The worst part of it all is that there is no support for parents whose kids go through such a traumatic experience.  "Parents get no independent help or advice whatsoever – only what suits the club or coach in question. I am hoping to be part of a group that will seek to offer genuine impartial advice and support to parents of children in sports academies – because they are often overwhelmed and bombarded with one sided view from clubs and coaches."

"There was lots of talk during London 2012 about volunteers - the ‘Games makers’ – but, to me, the biggest army of continual games makers in UK sport are the parents who ferry their children to play sport back and forth, which often causes sibling rivalry within families – and they often get little help from sports clubs concerned – only carping criticism about being too pushy if they dare ask too many questions."

Even away from academies it isn't much more positive.  "It (junior football) is set up to massage the egos of parents and coaches who want to win to promote their own son’s success and to live their dreams through their children. Someone told me an interesting observation – which from my experience I’d say is broadly true – 80 per cent of coaches in junior clubs play their own sons in attack. They want them to score the goals and the other boys to fetch and carry. That is wrong."

As a solution, Chris has opted to set up his own club.  "It is called FC Fun and it will do what it says – it is a non-competitive junior football club where smiles matter more than goals. The children who will attend will play for fun and will play small sided, inter club matches so the children build up skills in a fun and friendly environment. The results won’t matter – the skills and fun will. Every child will get an equal chance to play in every position."

Although issued in 2010, Every Boy's Dream is still a fantastic book that should be read by anyone with an interest in youth football (Kindle issue here).  

If you've read the book and enjoy that kind of analysis on youth football, then you will enjoy Blueprint for Football's own bi-weekly newsletter.  Blueprint for Football can also be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

More information on Chris Green and the current PR work he does can be found here.