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12.11.14
Sports

The beautiful game… and the thwarted dream

Football goal

Last April, sixteen-year old Danny received devastating news. After six years at a London football academy he was told he was no longer wanted. After what had seemed like a lifetime of his parents driving him three times a week from their home in south London to the training ground (plus matches on Sundays) in pursuit of his dream to play left wing for a London Premier League side, Danny had reached an abrupt end.

Danny is obsessed with football. He has the balance of a gazelle and can do so many keepy-uppies even he loses count. Being scouted for the academy was the best day of his life and he worked fantastically hard.  Football was his life but now his fantasy future is over. He still plays for a local club and for his school and he still works phenomenally hard training in his back garden. He continues to hope he might be spotted but the reality is that scouts like potential and they can find that in much younger kids.

Fact of the matter is, any elite sport is underpinned by an invisible division of talented also-rans. They are very, very good and work very, very hard. They deserve to be rewarded, but they won’t be because they’re not quite good enough. 

The big difference with football is volume. All the Premiership and leading Championship clubs have academies. The rest have schools of excellence. In all, there are some 9,000 boys attending these intensely competitive places. More than 90 per cent of those who join a Premiership academy will fail to make it into the first team - most won’t even become professional footballers. 

Jim White, journalist, broadcaster and the author of You’ll Win Nothing with Kids: Fathers, Sons and Football summarises the problem: “You’re talking about a lot of kids chasing very, very few options… One of the problems with the academy system is that its ethos, basically, is to throw enough **** against the wall and hope that some of it sticks. They take in 30 or 40 kids at eight, knowing full well that the chances of any of them becoming footballers is pretty unlikely. The trouble is, those kids who come in at eight think they already are footballers.” 

A friend’s eight-year-old was scouted for Chelsea, and he went from being top of the class to the skiver in the back. “Why aren’t you trying anymore?” his mother asked. “I’m a footballer and I’m going to be rich,” he replied. Needless to say, he was 'released’ a year later. At eight he still had time to recover. At 15 he might have sunk into a depression for the rest of his life. “The shedding of people at 16 has always been football’s hidden secret,” White says. “The brutality of axing kids hasn’t been improved by the academy system in any way. In fact, it’s probably made it worse.” 

Saturday November 29: The Grade II Myddleton House sits in about 21.5 acres of land in Bulls Cross, Enfield, North London. To many visitors it is a beautiful Royal Horticultural Society recommended garden with award-winning Bearded Iris. But for the Tottenham Hotspur Academy, it’s a great place for youth matches. The club leases the private sports field to the west of Myddleton House and at 9am the car park is packed with vehicles. Little boys in kit and coats are pouring out of cars. Parents are trailing behind with buggies, picnic bags, cameras, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Everywhere you look, boys are dumping bags, taking off coats, being reminded to take out chewing gum and do up their laces. Across its 16 pitches, wannabe Ronaldos and Beckhams are doing quick-fire sprints, dashing, darting, all fired up with competitive relish. “It’s like a puppy farm,” squeals one of the mums. '”We describe it as the factory,” corrects Richard Allen, the chief scout for the Tottenham academy. 

Today is particularly significant because it is trials day. Every eight weeks, Tottenham runs academy trials for the whizzes spotted by its 40 British scouts. (They scan for talent at youth matches from Sunday league to school kick-a-bouts.) In all, 67 boys aged eight to 15 are up for a place with Spurs and they know it’s a life-changing opportunity. 

The key advantage to being in an academy is you get to play as much football as possible (a minimum of three hours’ training a week at age eight; five hours for 12-16 years olds – time spent passing, moving, finishing, over and over again, so the skill becomes ingrained in the muscles). Plus, in an academy, you don’t communicate about anything but football and watch lots of live matches (free tickets are a perk), so a trial is a big deal. “I have to hold the trialists’ induction evenings at [Tottenham’s ground] White Hart Lane,” Allen says, “because I know all 67 boys will bring the whole extended family. It is the biggest thing that has ever happened to them. They think, this is it! Off we go!”

Tottenham also has development centres: waiting-rooms, basically, for those who have been earmarked as talented but are too young or not ready to be signed up for the academy. Tottenham has 10 development centres coaching a total of about 600 boys. Last year the club signed 20 under-nines. 

“So what are you looking for?” I ask Allen. “Technical skill,” he says. “It’s about trying to beat someone and get the ball past them - not pass it past them, we can all do that. Good movers; very smooth in the way they run. Plus, they have to be willowy and athletic-looking. You don’t get many stocky players.’” But what about Maradona? Gazza? Rooney? “There are always exceptions”, he says. “Scouting is not an exact science.” Particularly with the wild card of puberty. 

We watch the match. Number 5 looks great, but Number 3 is even better – floaty, graceful; his legs stretching and powering with mesmerising athleticism. “He’s a nicer shape,” Allen enthuses. “More slimline rather than heavy in his legs [like Number 5]. He is quick and agile and that is important in the modern game.” This may be why Number 3 has been scouted not only by Tottenham, but also by Charlton, Chelsea and Arsenal. And he is still only seven… But then young talent is like nectar, enough to get seasoned football addicts wide awake and licking their lips. 

I look at Number 5, cheated of his dream by heavy legs. Summer-borns are similarly outcast. Far more Premiership footballers are born in October and November than in June and July. “They are bigger and make more of an impact on the pitch,” White says, “then, of course, they get selected, better coached and leave the other guys behind.” What else do you need? Parents with cars and the kinds of jobs where they can drive to training twice a week for 5pm. “When I went to Manchester United Academy what struck me was the car-park full of smart cars,” White says. “The academy is in the middle of nowhere. There is no way you can get there unless you’ve got a car. No way you can get there three or four times a week unless your parents take you. What that is doing is middle-classing the game. The whole system precludes kids from the rougher end of town, because how the hell do you get there?”

Later, Allen gives me the results: 10 of the 67 boys were signed. 

Football academies were set up in 1998 to replace ‘centres of excellence’ following a landmark report, Charter for Quality, by Howard Wilkinson, then the Football Association’s technical director and now chairman of the League Managers’ Association. Boys are signed from age eight to 16 with signing sealing a mutual commitment: The boys agree to good behaviour and morals and to turn up to training and the club agrees to provide elite coaches, tournaments and physiotherapists. Boys are initially being offered yearly contracts ('retain’ and 'release’ are words that quickly enter boys’ vocabulary) extending to two-yearly at age 12. 

At 16, boys become full-time 'scholars’, often moving near the club to lodge with landladies. They are paid £100 a week as an apprentice, and education becomes the responsibility of the academy. (Every Thursday, Tottenham converts its hospitality room at White Hart Lane into a classroom for 'education day’). At 17, they sign a 'professional’ contract, which means they can start earning money. Just how much is down to the club. I was told the average is £15-30,000; more if you’re a Jacob Mellis (Chelsea), or Danny Welbeck (Manchester United). 

However, academies are now coming increasingly under attack: Arguments include that the boys are brought in too young; that clubs do too little for the schools and amateur clubs from which boys are taken; and that, ultimately, the pressure on boys and families simply isn’t worth it because there are too few places at the end of it all and those boys that do make it aren’t good enough anyway. 

But then, football has changed. Fifty years ago the game was community-based: The players and those who paid to watch them came from the same areas and the same social backgrounds. The directors were local dignitaries and businessmen and even the top-class players would play for the same local club for their entire career. This was before football became a global industry…

Now clubs are owned by billionaires who have little connection to the country, let alone the local area. After a game, spectators travel by Tube, train or car; players by Lear jet or limo. Players shift between clubs so often that John Terry’s eight years with Chelsea is seen as undying loyalty. What’s more, because of the massive money coming into the game, Premier League clubs are able to recruit from all over the world. On the first weekend of the first Premier League season in 1992, 76 per cent of the starting XIs were English. Today, that figure has dropped to 37 per cent. 

'”Opportunities [at the top level] are very tight,” agrees John McDermott, the academy head at Tottenham. “Boys have to realise the path is not what it was 10 years ago. You once had to be among the best players in Britain, now you have to be among the best in the world to make it here.” 

At age 16, clubs start to bring in boys from all over the world. “It must be hugely frustrating for kids at English clubs to be told they’re not good enough at 16 because of the number of overseas youngsters filling academies,” commented Trevor Brooking, the Football Association’s director of football development, in a recent attack on youth football. “When we set up the academy system, I don’t think anyone envisaged it would be filled with anything other than Brits.”

McDermott, a former FA national coach, takes a Darwinist line. “My belief is that talent will get you through. Cream will rise to the top.” But not necessarily the very top. 'If God has given you the ability to play in the second division and you achieve that, then that is a success.” Interestingly, Jim White told me that non-league football, which used to be filled with butchers, bakers and lorry drivers, is now full of kids who have gone through the academy system, but haven’t quite made it. 

Football, unfortunately, is not about absolutes and sometimes the choice between two players at academy level can appear quite arbitrary. It differs from a sport, such as swimming, which can be measured on speed. Glenn Hoddle, ex-footballer and former England coach and manager agrees: “There are no rights or wrongs in football,” he says. “One man’s opinion doesn’t mean it’s another’s.” 

Hoddle has launched the Glenn Hoddle Academy, a live-in academy in southern Spain, to offer a route back into professional football for those discarded by the system: “As a manager of Swindon and Chelsea back in the early 1990s, I had that horrible job of shattering dreams by telling young kids at 18 they weren’t going to be signed on [to a professional contract]. But 18 is far too young to make a judgement. I always wondered what would happen to these boys if they’d been given that extra bit of time. Unfortunately the system doesn’t allow it.”

Of those who are selected for the Hoddle’s academy’s places, he says. “They’re often very low. Some have been harshly dealt with. Some have been out for six or seven months because of injury and haven’t caught up and had a chance to show their true talent.” But motivation is not a problem. “Someone is giving them a second chance,” he says. “We’re changing their lives and that is as important as winning medals.” 

Back at the Tottenham academy, John McDermott talks me through options for boys who are 'released’: Lower league club; university (both here and in the States) to study something like sports science; club abroad; other apprenticeships; one Spurs reject recently went into the City. He says it’s never easy: Boys cry, parents cry… But, “Tottenham will look great on their cv,” he says. “They’re super-fit, disciplined, have travelled the world playing football, had a go at achieving their dream.” But aren’t their chances of reaching it minuscule in the first place? “The boys are told that, the parents are told that,” he stresses, “but you’re also trying not to burst their dreams.” That’s the thing about football academies, he says: “We’re focused on success, not failure.”