In 1997, the FA decided to revolutionise youth development in this country. Doing away with the national football school based in Lilleshall, Premier League clubs would now provide an academy system.
Late last year, Howard Wilkinson – the man who helped transition the league from the old to the new 21 years ago – called for a review and overhaul of the current system claiming clubs are failing in their ‘moral responisbility’.
With young players being churned out at every decreasing ages – do clubs properly care for the well being of those prospective kids?
Chris Green, along with being the late Cyril Regis’ biographer, has previously worked for BBC Radio 5 Live and Radio 4 as a broadcaster.
Along with having written three other books on football, he also charted the trials and tribulations of the academy system since its inception.
Every Boys Dream
‘Every Boys Dream’ is his fourth football tome and was written after years of following various academy systems as a journalist.
He tells me that he decided to write it nine years ago due to the well-being of young players seemingly being a non-issue in football.
“Nobody had really covered what had happened after setting up the academy system in 1997.”
The catalyst for finally writing the book being a local story he had been gathering for Radio 4.
“After I did a really small piece on the FA coming down on a small club in Gloucestershire called Cirencester Town, because they had set something up called an academy and the FA were attempting to take legal action against them for using a word that they deemed in football now belonged to them.”
“Cirencester had actually trademarked their academy before the FA had set up the academy system. It was a satirical piece talking about how the FA now think they have ownership of a word with Ancient Greek origin; it was a place where Plato taught his students and now they are claiming it’s theirs.”
This then led Green to writing to the then technical director of football, Wilkinson, to gain a broader knowledge of just what the FA were proposing.
“He kindly sent me the blueprint for how the academy system was going to operate and that was called ‘a charter for quality’.”
Too much too young?
As he began mulling over what was supposedly the new layout for how the future of English football would play out, the journalist was surprised to find that the new regulations meant kids in Primary School would now be scouted.
‘It didn’t take too much imagination to think that this was going to be a big ask for the clubs to now deliver this’
Previously the scouting system dictated that players aged 13 and upwards was the past policy when identifying young talents.
“It didn’t take too much imagination to think that this was going to be a big ask for the clubs to now deliver this. It’s going to be fraught with issues surrounding the education of kids, the distance they travel to academies and the safety standards being brought in – many welcome – some I believed were a distraction.”
“I then found out by speaking to people, that was indeed the case. Although, it didn’t mean clubs were getting more players through or producing necessarily better players.”
Chris then highlights the role the media have played in hyping up young kids – after a newspaper in Sunderland published a piece about a young prospect recently signed by the Black Cats.
“They were parading a child around as the next Wayne Rooney. He was five and they had on him on the pitch before a game against Arsenal signing something.”
Green then detailed a story he had also heard recently of “how a Premier League club had signed a four year old and when he got to training, one of the coaches noticed he was still wearing a nappy.”
He continues, “Anybody who says they can spot a five year old and predict that he can be a footballer at 18 is mad, in my opinion. I think there are a lot of coaches who don’t want to be coaching kids at that age, and I know because I’ve spoken with many.
“They don’t see the value in it, they think it’s all about trying to make sure you have kids signed to your academy; just in case.”
Pay to play?
Based in Worcester, Chris now operates from his media centre where I am speaking to him. He believes that since stepping away from his job as an active journalist recently, little improvement in standards have been made.
“Scouts, as I hear it, are currently being paid to get five year olds to development centres that are unregulated – they are getting paid by clubs just simply to fill up the surrounding local centres.
“I know there are scouts operating in the local area, I say scouts in inverted commas of course. We often have no idea whether these are club officials or qualified coaches due to the lack of regulation.”
In light of the recent case of Barry Bennell at Crewe Alexandra – where young players were sexually abused over the course of many years in the 1990s and 1980s – this kind of dream weaving opportunity could present an even greater immediate threat for young footballers.
With no presence of proper regulation, Green questions how the club can truly protect that child and the motives behind this method of recruitment.
“They can get any number of these kids to a centre and go to these things because there is no paperwork; and to me the whole area is where the money is being spent.”
Mental well-being in youth football
More and more we are seeing cases of players after or during their playing careers, struggling and attempting to deal with personal demons.
However the same level of understanding – which is now afforded to those who have been lucky enough to play the game – is often found lacking for those who do not make the grade.
Chris tells me that he considers it “the biggest scandal of the whole system”.
“The fact that clubs can have such a big influence on young people and then just completely wash their hands of any responsibility.”
Often for those who cannot quite realise their ambition after years within a system, this can prove devastating. It has even led to some former academy players taking their own lives after being released.
Whether the FA decide to take advice from the man who provided Chris with the academy system blueprint in 1997 remains to be seen.
But with the emphasis so far simply on putting academy prospects into a professional setting from early; the other issues within the system seem to still be largely ignored.
Chris finishes with a quote from a man he says was a highly respected Premier League youth coach: “He told me that ‘the child is supposed to be first and foremost in the minds of Premier League clubs and that is a f*****g million miles away from how they think’.”
Photos Courtesy of @ChrisGreenMedia