Depression, crime, and falling out of love with the so-called beautiful game at a young age.
These were some of the issues addressed in the BT Sport documentary ‘No Hunger In Paradise’, based on the book by Michael Calvin and presented by award-winning writer himself.
Speaking to various players, managers, coaches and agents around the country, Calvin delivered a compelling glimpse into the brutal reality of English football’s academy system.
Given the riches on offer to elite players, it’s the dream of an increasing number of youngsters to become the next David Beckham, Harry Kane or Wayne Rooney.
Parents often push them to pursue this ambition, yet by the end of the documentary, it’s anyone’s guess as to why they would put their child through such a tough ordeal.
The killer statistic that only 0.012 percent of young English hopefuls become Premier League players set the tone for what was at times an uncomfortable watch.
Heartbreak through football
As someone who has been on the end of several setbacks in football at youth level, a real empathy and connection was felt with these players. Most prominently the story of former West Ham under-21 captain Kieran Bywater.
Despite captaining the side as a promising talent, he was released by the Hammers and recalled his experience of breaking down in tears on the pitch during a trial game, where he walked off the pitch.
His father emotionally told Calvin how his son’s “world came crashing down around him” during the trial.
Despite now enjoying his football at Charleston University in the USA, his story hit home and showed there is no contingency plan for failure for most of these boys.
Once you are chewed up, spat out and released, you are thrown into a world of unknowns, often with very few options.
Of course, players do make it through the system and into Premier League sides. Clubs and media alike then glorify these rare academy triumphs.
But the reality is, with the amount of truly talented footballers wasted, the odd success story makes for only a small drop in an ocean of failures.
The success of England’s young champions at U17, U20 and U21 level were lauded by some of the documentary’s interviewees, but how many of those players will end up plying their trade at the highest level?
A new age?
So, is the academy system becoming obsolete?
We are seeing more and more English clubs overlook the prospects in their academies, just to bring in a ready-made players likely of a proven ability, for a large sum of money.
Huddersfield Town and Brentford are two clubs that have disbanded their academies in recent years. Despite criticism for their decisions, can they be blamed for doing so?
‘Once you are chewed up, spat out and released, you are thrown into a world of unknowns with often very few options’
If anything, these two clubs are facing up to the reality of today’s game.
Calvin spoke to Brentford’s co-director of football Phil Giles, who said the club recognised that most of their academy players will not go on to play for the first team.
His logic was that it was a waste of money to string along hundreds of hopefuls, when in reality they knew that their eventual fate would not lie at the club.
Calvin spoke of how the Premier League are committed to investing £800m into youth football development by 2020.
Money, money, money
Money, as is in life, has become the main focus of Premier League clubs. Who cares if Man City have invested millions in their academy? As the documentary showed, it is simply providing most of these boys with false hope.
‘The sad truth is that the clubs are viewing players as commodities and assets, rather than human beings’
Calvin’s interview with Joey Barton spoke volumes on the attitude of the players at academies: once again, money is not the solution, it is in fact the problem.
The former Premier League midfielder spoke of his desire for clubs to introduce a wage cap for young players.
The phrase “stuck in the machine” was an expert description from Barton of the number of players in the English academy system who aren’t getting a chance.
“The players are scared to go down and play in the lower divisions,” claimed Barton, voicing his disapproval of the stockpiling of talent that prevents player development.
The sad truth is that the clubs are viewing players as commodities and assets, rather than human beings. Therefore, the focus of the players isn’t right, the ‘hunger’ of academy players on tens of thousands of pounds a week is simply not there.
A key figure in the documentary was Zac Brunt, a once highly sought-after young talent who had played at both Manchester City’s and Manchester United’s academies.
Brunt had been at five professional clubs before the age of 15, supplying him as Calvin said, with the CV of someone at least twice his age.
It did not come as a surprise when it was revealed that he was now playing in the seventh tier of English football at Matlock Town, aged 16.
Brunt, however shocking his case may seem, is just one of thousands of boys who have been given too much, too young.
A sense of pride was felt when his father revealed that Brunt is playing at a lower level of football now because he enjoys it.
He doesn’t want to be associated with the cut-throat English football system despite interest from professional clubs.
Calvin, who narrated the documentary perfectly, closed his narrative with one simple but wonderful statement: protect the innocent.
I couldn’t think of anything more appropriately put than that. The clubs and governing bodies alike need to take a long, hard look at themselves.
One can only hope they watched ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ and that the message hits home.