Review – ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ by Michael Calvin
Since signing for Everton in January 2016, Ademola Lookman has managed just one goal in 15 appearances for the Toffees. The 20 year-old is a way off convincing the Goodison faithful that the £9.5m they paid Charlton Athletic for his services was money well spent.
He is not the only one struggling to live up to a big price tag, but at least he made it though the academy system. Thousands of talented young players don’t.
Youth development is the subject of BT Sport documentary No Hunger in Paradise, based on the book of the same name by veteran sportswriter Michael Calvin.
The process of developing promising young footballers into elite players is a high-stakes business, both financially and emotionally, and with so much riding on it for those involved, the water can sometimes get muddied.
The film explores the wide range of issues you’d associate with the pursuit of turning boyhood dreams into the reality of fame and fortune achieved by a gilded few.
Pushy parents. Business-minded clubs ruthlessly pursuing their own interests, no matter what the damage this might inflict. Then you have the sharks that come in the form of agents and other third parties, looking to make big bucks.
With some of these themes very much linked and some relevant in isolation, every young players experience is different. It’s a minefield that Calvin explores in forensic detail.
After becoming the first nation to win three major tournaments at any men’s age group in one year, England’s best young players would seem set for bright futures in football.
However, it’s surely a telling statistic that before the U-21 European Championships, the Germany squad had collectively racked up 14,000 more minutes of Bundesliga action than their Three Lions counterparts had in the Premier League.
Calvin, who is well placed to analyse the issues having helped his own son traverse the cut-throat youth system, explores how the academies are failing to protect the futures of those young lads who don’t make the grade.
Once it becomes clear the individual is no longer worth their salt, they are cast off like “pieces of meat” – a fate that befell former West Ham United U-21 captain Kieran Bywater.
The midfielder was released in his final year of the academy after 10 years with the club, bringing to an end his childhood dream of playing for the Hammers first XI.
Calvin captures remarkably well the bitterness of this pill for the 19 year old to swallow, not only interviewing the player but also Bywater’s father, Simon, who offers more insight into the decision that left his son a “sobbing broken soul”.
‘Calvin uses journalistic vigour and a personable approach to get the right interviews and ascertain the uneasy truths’
“There was no indication that Kieran was going to get released – if anything he was expecting a new contract. He was looking forward to starting his life in London and committing to the club long term,” Simon reflects.
What made the pair particularly angry was that Kieran’s release and subsequent mental breakdown was not initially followed up by support from any group that arguably had a duty of care, such as the club itself or the PFA.
“I was totally alone,” Kieran explains. “I didn’t get the messages from close friends that I thought I would. Obviously, there is a lot [of interest] around mental health at the moment and as someone that struggled with it after my release, I think its key that it becomes more a part of people’s careers.”
Kieran is now doing well at the University of Charleston in the USA, and, following graduation next year, will be eligible for the MLS draft.
“When I was going to clubs [after release from West Ham] I was going through all this emotionally,” he recounts. “I just wasn’t the same person going out there on the pitch. It deeply affected me and my game. It was hard for everyone to see.”
Some cases can end tragically, like that of former Tottenham Hotspur academy player, Josh Lyons.
He took his own life after being let go and at an inquest into his death the coroner questioned clubs’ duty of care saying: “It is very difficult to build up the hopes of a young man only then to have them dashed at a young age. I find there was an absence and lack of support in football.”
Whilst the specific theme in this film is about how young people can be exploited in the world of football, there are common issues present that are not exclusive to sport.
Calvin speaks to the principal of renowned performing arts academy the BRIT School in Croydon, about how football clubs are trying to learn lessons from non-sporting organisations about how best to nurture young talent.
By delving deeper into the subject matter, the findings of the research are more credible and insightful making the film an important work on sociology as much as merely a sporting documentary.
He uses journalistic vigour and a personable approach to get the right interviews and ascertain the uneasy truths.
Even Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, a firm advocate of academies, has some reservations about certain practices.
Drawing on his 35 years of managerial experience, including 22 at Arsenal (in which time he’s seen the academy win three FA Youth Cups; only Chelsea have won it more), he joins England head coach Gareth Southgate in suggesting the clubs take boys on too young.
Chelsea’s principles are often criticised by fans of smaller clubs who accuse them hoovering up swathes of young talent. However, they are a organisation that has given to academy football the significance that football’s economics demand.
It seemingly begun with owner Roman Abramovich. “Developing home-grown players is a vitally important goal for Chelsea,” the Russian declared in 2007 whilst cutting the ribbon on their state-of-the-art Cobham Training Centre in Surrey.
One especially interesting part of the film is the look at how things are changing with regard to academy set-ups. In 2017, Championship side Brentford took the bold decision to close theirs, choosing to adopt a very different approach.
Phil Giles, co-director of football at the club, says it was more of a business decision.
“Rather than taking our resources, which are limited at a club this size, and try and spread them across the different age groups, we decided it would be better to focus more at the end of the spectrum where you can be more certain that the players you’re working with are going to have the opportunity to be professional footballers.”
While a “politically difficult” step to take, it matches up more closely to the philosophy of Wenger and Southgate; that 12 is too young an age to assess a player’s character and ability.
Giles states with honesty that clubs are keeping 80% of their players on when they realistically have no chance of making it as a pro, merely because the best players need others to train against.
Clearly, that is not a good model, either economically or morally, and goes some way to explaining the shock that registers when players, like Bywater, are presented with the truth – that they’re surplus to requirements.
Calvin points out that the young hopefuls are not only put under pressure by the clubs, but also by parents, and the film-maker faces the awkward questions this subject poses head on.
The Bywater’s are not the only father-son duo to feature. Glen Brunt tells of a similar story for his 16 year-old son Zak who having signed for seven different clubs since the age of five is now playing at eighth-tier side Matlock Town.
He is frank about how parents like him can be the biggest contributor to pressure on the youngsters. “Maybe they’ve not achieved what they wanted to in their lives and they’re trying to do it again through their kids,” he admits to Calvin.
The film makes an important contribution to the debate about giving these kids too much too soon. Whether that be money, pressure or stardom, the results are too often negative.
As former Manchester City academy product and first team player Joey Barton attests in his interview with Calvin, who has good rapport with the ex-footballer having ghostwritten his autobiography, “the national team is suffering” as a result of the academy system.
The midfielder (right) says it’s the “stockpiling” approach of the big clubs that are to blame, too frightened to let youngsters move elsewhere just in case, against the odds, they come good.
However, Barton knows better than to lay the blame purely at the door of clubs. ” I don’t see players at the big clubs saying ‘I’m not playing (minutes) here, I want to go and play for Plymouth and get a load of League 2 games under my belt.’
“They’re scared to go down the divisions because if they don’t do well then they can’t act like superstars.”
That is, he says, stunting the players’ growth as they’re denied vital game time.
Barton, ever the riveting interviewee, gives a wonderful anecdote in which he describes a time at QPR trying to explain to the academy boys the harsh reality of becoming a professional footballer.
“Who’s going to come and take my shirt off me? You don’t come across as being nastier than me and I don’t see you outworking me so how you gonna take my shirt?”
In an era when people are being encouraged to confront and tackle mental health issues, Calvin’s documentary shines a timely spotlight on an issue that is often overlooked.
It’s not only in the interest of the sport, but also society at large to ensure the right measures are in place to produce footballers that are well-rounded people as well as good players, and that academies are held accountable for what happens to their prospects that don’t make the cut.
No Hunger in Paradise was broadcast on BT Sport 1 and can now be viewed online.