Academy players, from very young ages, are sold a dream. After joining academies for some of the very best clubs, there is no doubt in their minds that they will not reach their dream of being at the very top of the game.
But in reality, the odds are stacked against them, with 12,000 boys playing academy football each year, only 1% play for the first team. Despite their impressive talents, there is just far too much competition for most of them to stay at the best clubs. With most of their childhood and teenage years spent focusing on soccer at the highest level, they are released with few, if any, backup plans.
The youngsters leave top clubs, many without a full and proper education, nor a trade or apprenticeship to follow other avenues. Added to this, that a lot of these academy players are from underprivileged backgrounds where opportunities are sparce and a crisis develops.
The pressure from their families to find alternatives, when they have also sacrificed so much for their child’s potential soccer career, is extreme. Not only do these players have to deal with the need to look for other options, but deal with the knock in confidence, self-worth and identity.
Top clubs need to do more to support these players.
Currently top clubs have no formal aftercare process for academy players that are released. Clubs such as Liverpool and Southampton merely have a database which includes communication details of the players released. It is often the responsibility of one welfare officer to manage, who may contact ex-players on an individual basis.
With the resources these clubs have available to them, it is mindboggling that more is not done to support those who they have already invested so much in.
The academy system therefore relies on non-profit organisations, such as The Football Family, to provide these supportive services. They are dedicated to helping the mental health and wellbeing of these young players.
One club stepping up to the challenge is Crystal Palace. Outlined by Chairman Steve Parish, there is a duty and moral obligation to care for their young players. Therefore, they are becoming the first club to implement a three-year aftercare programme.
This programme will assist players between 17 and 21-years-old, and a dedicated Player Care Officer will be in regular contact with released players. They will ensure that the wellbeing of the youngster is paramount and help them find new clubs, education programmes or alternative jobs.
Academies are becoming the lifeline for many clubs, nurturing young talent to either introduce into the first team or sell on for profit. But what is often not considered is the vast majority that do not make it. The trauma of being released needs to be more widely considered.
Many should look towards Crystal Palace and follow in their footsteps, building a supportive and empathetic structure to their academy system, no matter the outcome. With the resources at their disposure there is no excuse that can justify the lack of care.
If at the base level soccer is about encouraging individuals to play the game we love and feel the health and social benefits of playing within a team, then top clubs need to be reminded of this and support the vast majority of youngsters who may have had the shattering realisation that their dream may now be out of reach.
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