Football academies were developed by the leading clubs so that they could identify and nurture talented players from as young as eight. The 9,000 boys in their ranks are desperate to succeed, but only a handful will make it to the top.
By Sally Williams4:43PM GMT 04 Mar 2009CommentsComment
Last April, Danny, 16, received devastating news. After six years at a London football academy he was told he was no longer wanted. For those years his parents had driven three times a week from their home in south London to the training ground (plus matches on Sundays) in pursuit of Danny’s dream to play left wing for a London Premier League side in 2013.
Danny is obsessed with football. He has a framed photograph of Steven Gerrard on his bedroom wall, could do a Cruyff Turn at the age of eight, has the balance of a gazelle and can do so many keepy-uppies even he loses count. Being scouted for that academy was the best day of his life. He worked fantastically hard. He loved the training, camaraderie and free drinks – ‘loads of Lucozade, Yazoo. You could take as many as you wanted!’ He loved feeling special. ‘Saying who you play for at school makes you twice the man you are.’ Football is his life.
But now his fantasy future is over. ‘You feel like your head has been cut off,’ he says. ‘He was so quiet,’ his dad says. ‘Just destroyed. It was awful.’ And now he has his GCSEs coming up and the last thing he wants to do is study. ‘You’re thinking, I want to be a footballer, I don’t even need this stuff – and your mum is saying, “You’ve got to work.” And you think work is just a back-up because your real aim is to be a footballer.’
Danny has not turned his back on the dream. He still plays for a local club and for his school. He still works phenomenally hard training in his back garden. He still hopes he will be spotted. The trouble is, scouts like potential: six-, seven-, eight-, nine-year-olds. But should a scout turn up tomorrow, next week, whenever, Danny is ready. ‘I feel I’m still standing out,’ he says, ‘I’m killing these guys!’
Danny is not unique, of course. Any elite sport or rarefied field with few slots at the top is underpinned by an invisible stratum 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 are not quite good enough. But 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.
‘You’re talking about a lot of kids chasing very, very few options,’ points out Jim White, journalist, broadcaster and the author of You’ll Win Nothing with Kids: Fathers, Sons and Football. ‘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 any more?’ 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 is 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. The 1960s sports pavilion behind Myddleton House is brightly lit with large picture windows at one end showing the sports fields and the trees frosted white. 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 by a 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. (These scan for talent at youth matches from Sunday league to school knockabouts. ‘If you’re good, we’ll find you,’ they promise.) In all, 67 boys aged eight to 15 are up for a place with Spurs and they know it is a life-changing opportunity. The difference between being a very, very good footballer and a star, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers: The Story of Success, is practice. ‘In fact,’ he writes, ‘researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.’
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). Experts say this is the right sort of training, and the wrong sort can lead to ‘damaged goods’: players who are injury-prone (such as Tottenham’s captain, Ledley King: ‘over-trained and not properly managed as a boy,’ Allen says). 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, who says he has ‘the eye’ – the ability to spot potential. (His 24-year footballing career straddles the extremes of running the Crown and Manor, a boys’ club in the East End, and looking after visiting elite international teams.) 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?’ Take Theo Walcott, the England starlet, who came through the academy system at Southampton. His father served in the RAF, his mother is a midwife; his grandfather was an RAF Warrant Officer and one of the first black Conservative councillors in Britain.
Later, Allen gives me the results: 10 of the 67 boys were signed.
Football academies were set up in 1998, following a landmark report, Charter for Quality, by Howard Wilkinson, 65, then the Football Association’s technical director, and now chairman of the League Managers’ Association. Before academies, most clubs had ‘centres of excellence’ for talented young players. But the pinnacle of football education was Lilleshall Hall in Shropshire, a footballing boarding school for England’s elite 18 players, selected in trials at age 14. (Jermain Defoe, Michael Owen, Joe Cole, Scott Parker and Wes Brown are all Lilleshall graduates.) ‘The Lilleshall model was very efficient,’ Wilkinson recalls, ‘apart from the huge difficulty and inequity of selecting 18 players at such a young age from the whole of England.’ The aim of academies, he says, ‘was to establish a similar model to Lilleshall, but to do it locally and therefore the process of selecting would be fairer because you would have a large pool.’ The other advantage was control. ‘In the old centres of excellence the school, the city, the county, the district all had first call on the boys in terms of games played and practice times. Some boys played upwards of 100 games a season. In academies it is the club that has first call.’
At academies, boys are signed from age eight to 16. Signing seals mutual commitment: the boys agree to good behaviour and morals and to turn up to training; the club agrees to provide elite coaches, tournaments, 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).
The FA rule is that 8-11s have to live within 60 minutes’ travelling time of the training ground; 12-16-year- olds within 90 minutes. This gives Tottenham a catchment area that runs from Bedford and Buckinghamshire through north and south London around to Essex, and a pool of 15-20 million people. Southampton academy, on the other hand, is less lucky. Half its radius is the English Channel.
Now, of course, academies are under attack. People argue 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 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. Even top-class players would play for the same local club for their entire career. But 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. And 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. Three of the 23 scholars at Tottenham are European (a Swede, an Italian and a Belgian).
At age 16 the 90-minute rule goes out of the window and clubs start to bring in boys and their families 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. (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.) Plus, McDermott urges, give academies a chance. They’re only 10 years old. It’s only now and over the next year or two that you will see the real worth of the system, and he has several players who are ‘very interesting’.
He is keen for me to meet one of them, Ryan Mason, 17, a Tottenham scholar who is tipped to be a potent force. I find this hard to believe because the figure who emerges is unequivocally unathletic: pale, nervous, gangly, shuffling into the meeting room at the academy HQ at Spurs Lodge, Chigwell, with none of that high-testosterone swagger of pro footballers. ‘Physically he is very underdeveloped,’ admits Allen, who remembers him being so scrawny at 12 that he couldn’t even kick the ball across the pitch. But this doesn’t matter – everyone agrees he is brilliant and scores loads of goals and in fact recently played with the first team in the Uefa Cup game against Dinamo Zagreb.
Everyone is looking to Mason as evidence that the academy system works. He joined Tottenham’s academy soon after it launched in 1998, when he was seven. His father, a BT engineer, got him playing aged six for a Sunday league team near his home in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. Mason says he’s thrilled to be here. It’s fun, but also very hard. ‘I’ve seen around 100 boys released,’ he says. One was a good friend. ‘We’d been close for about six years, our families too. My dad would drive us [to training] on a Monday and his dad would do Wednesday, and then he got released.’ He shrugs. ‘But that’s football isn’t it? Technically he was fine, but mentally he wasn’t there. He would go out with his mates,’ he explains in a tone that says, ‘Need I say more?’
So what has Mason got that the others haven’t? Mono vision, says McDermott, who believes talent alone will take you to the age of 16, no further. ‘He’s incredibly dedicated, verging on obsessed.’ When Mason’s not playing football, he’s thinking about it or watching it and spent last night analysing the Arsenal game on Sky – he has a TV in his bedroom. Everything in his life is football and he never loses focus. He may be 17 and have left home – he lodges with a landlady – but he looks at me as if I’m deranged when I ask if he ever goes to clubs or gigs. ‘Nah! Nothing like that! I don’t do anything [that’s not related to football]. I’m pretty boring to be honest.’ So, what will he do with his four GCSEs should it not work out? ‘I’ve not thought about that,’ he replies. ‘I’d rather not.’
Martin Tolworth knows what happened to his son, Robert, 24, after he was ‘dumped’ from Crystal Palace Academy, aged 16, after six years with the club. ‘He went from being as high as a kite to devastation,’ he says. ‘One Saturday he was told he’d been picked for a scholarship, that after six years of waiting he’d got to the first rung of the ladder, a young apprentice. But then a new manager went in and the following Saturday, he said, “No, we’re not going to pick you.”?’ Robert’s mother, normally a placid woman, was very upset. ‘How can you treat boys like that,’ she raged. ‘Cut their ties and just get rid of them. He’s just like a piece of meat hanging in the butchers.’ Robert got angry, put on weight, drifted out of football and is now a carpenter in Spain. The problem with football, his dad says, is that it’s not about absolutes. ‘In swimming or athletics you’re picked on times. If you don’t make the time, you’re not in the swim team. But football is about the whims of managers. It’s a game of opinions.’
Glenn Hoddle, ex-footballer, 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.’ And to prove his point, last year Hoddle 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]. I even had to do that to my cousin, who came on trial for three months at Swindon. 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, and unfortunately the system doesn’t allow it.’
Last summer 60 players turned up to trials for the academy’s 24 places. More than 200 players are now registered on the website. ‘We have to work on them mentally as much as on techniques,’ Hoddle says. ‘They’re often very low. Some have been harshly dealt with. Some have been out of the academy 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.’
November 13, 2007, and Watford academy under-14s are working out, sprinting the length of the pitch, tracking back and marking. It is 11 on a Thursday morning and the boys should be at school. But they are at school. In September 2007, Watford moved its 11-16-year-olds to Harefield Academy, a secondary school in Uxbridge, west London, arguing that for the club to come to the boys made more sense than the other way around. The boys are picked up from their homes in the morning by special academy buses, coaches come to the school for sessions, special homework clubs are laid on after school, and then the boys are ferried home again for 7.30. This way the boys get to play more football, they say. They also get an education, which is important, said one coach, because ‘they’re more comfortable speaking in front of cameras’.
‘The academy product is flawed,’ says Mark Warburton, assistant academy manager and the architect of the new model, based on one at Ajax in Holland. ‘It involves hours and hours of driving, hours of standing outside watching the boys with the rain lashing down, getting home at half nine or 10, eating meals in the car, being behind on homework, and always being generally tired, because that is what it takes to be a pro footballer – it’s always been that way. But it’s not that way in Holland, or France. So if it works there and we’re buying their players, doesn’t that tell you that we’ve got to change the way we do things?’
It has certainly changed the life of Oli Sprague, 15, and his family. Oli, who lives in Ruislip, was scouted for Queens Park Rangers at age eight, then Chelsea, and now Watford. This means that Oli and his dad, Clinton, 44, a director of an accident management company, have a thorough knowledge of the M40 and M25. This was a problem for his wife, Susan, and his two other children, Jordan, 10, and Bliss, six. ‘Really that amount of travelling started to kill our lives,’ Clinton says. ‘It put a lot of strain on the family.’ But now Watford takes care of it all. ‘I’ve got a home life again!’ Plus, Oli is less tired, he says, ‘and incredibly happy playing football.’
This is a relief, because Oli hit a bad patch, aged nine, soon after he was bought by Chelsea for an alleged £25,000. The surprise is that it isn’t just pro footballers who are bought and sold. Children are too. It is ‘compensation’, I was told, for the money invested in training and so on. Neither the boys nor their families apparently get any of the money – indeed, many might wish it was the 1950s again when Mrs Edwards at least got a washing machine out of Manchester United for her son, the legendary Duncan Edwards. But still, £25,000 is a lot of money. ‘Theo Walcott cost £3 million at 16 when Arsenal bought him from Southampton,’ White points out; ‘£25,000 for a nine-year-old is good value if he turns out to be the next Theo Walcott.’
But Oli’s dad sees it differently. ‘It puts way too much pressure on the kids. For it not to put pressure on, you’ve got to be a Ronaldo or a Rooney, someone who is so excellent it’s not going to make a difference.’ When Oli reported for duty at Cobham, Chelsea’s training ground in Surrey, he says he felt scrutinised. ‘It was hard,’ he remembers. ‘They thought you were the star player and you could run rings around everyone, but it wasn’t as easy as that. I wasn’t amazingly better than anyone else.’ He also sprained his ankle soon after the season started. Oli’s dad says
he became a lot quieter, a lot more tired. Then Oli fell awkwardly during a match and damaged his knee. He was released after two years. ‘They thought I was a bit injury-prone.’ But he picked himself up, carried on and within a month or two was spotted by Watford – clubs operate as a network, and will often have trials for boys released from other clubs. ‘You scored a blinder, didn’t you?’ recalls Oli’s dad. ‘Within a few weeks he was signed up.’
So do academies treat boys like commodities? Some said yes.
I was told that one regime was so ‘brutish’ that the parents felt too scared to tell the coach their son had glandular fever. ‘We didn’t want him to look weak,’ his father says. ‘The ethos was you had to be tough at all costs. If you’re injured or poorly, you’re out.’ The eventual confession was greeted with a chilly silence. The boy quit soon after. I was told of favouritism (more free tickets to matches); of coaches screaming like sergeant-majors; of a pack mentality that turns on the losers. I was told they should be Ofsted-inspected; that the bosses are a shambles who need lessons in management because ‘they’re not dealing with a conveyor belt in a factory, but human beings – and young ones at that’. I was told of the pressure to impress all the time; and how the coaches reinforce that by standing there with clipboards, shouting, ‘There are lots of boys who want your place.’
But each academy is different. Take Manchester City’s, which is hugely successful – former academy boys Micah Richards, Joey Barton and Shaun Wright Phillips are now worth £40 million; 10 other boys are millionaires; sixty per cent of graduates make a living out of the game. ‘We’re by far the tops,’ says Jim Cassell, 61, the academy manager, who puts this down partly to ‘care, time, knowledge, understanding and patience with young players’. Cassell, a former bookkeeper and local government officer, looks like a schoolteacher, acts as a guru and sounds like a dad. This has been especially valuable to Kieran Trippier, 18, captain of Man City’s youth team, who joined the academy aged nine.
‘Kieran lives near me and I quite enjoy giving him a lift home after the game,’ Cassell says. ‘We have a chat and it’s usually pretty boring because I keep on reminding him of all the things he got to do. He’s probably glad when he gets out of the car.’ Trippier nods, smirking.
There is another problem, Cassell says. ‘There is so much pressure at the top, managers want instant results. They don’t have time to work on the players and grow them.’ Plus, managers change every year. ‘This doesn’t give the boys the stability they need. They’ve come from an environment where I’ve been their only manager for the last 10 years. This means boys have to adjust and not many people like change.’ Jim White predicts that opportunities for home-grown talent at Man City will be reduced now it has a new billionnaire owner, Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim, who heads the group linked to the Abu Dhabi royal family. ‘They bought Man City as a vehicle to promote Abu Dhabi. They’re not going to do that successfully if Man City’s got a bunch of unknown locals playing for them rather than world-known superstars.’ Last September Man City signed the Brazilian Robinho from Real Madrid, for £32.5 million.
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. One father expressed his heartbreak by pinning Allen against the wall with his hands around his neck. 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 their chances of reaching it were minuscule in the first place, I say. ‘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.’