WAtford, like all academies, offers two reviews each year – one before Christmas, and one at the end of the season. The goal is to ensure that there are no surprises when making important decisions such as releasing or keeping a player. The reviews were attended by the player, one of his parents, the academy director, the assistant academy director, and coach for your age group, and set up on the field.
This seemed just as normal as my dad and I drove the 30 minutes or so from home to Vicarage Road for the final mid-season review. We were hoping to hear that I was on the right track to making this important final decision sometime in the new year. However, when we stopped by, we met DeReece, another player from the team, who had just been told he was going to be released. My body froze and my mind went blank. I felt bad for him and didn’t know what to say.
DeReece was with his mother and grandfather, who were always watching, and he was visibly upset. As we said our goodbyes to Dris, his grandfather assured me that I would be fine. I wasn’t sure. DeReece was “sure” in our eyes. What chance did you stand?
My dad and I met Nick Cox who led us into a room with fellow coaches Barry Quinn and Dave Reddington. My heart pounded and my hands were sweating when they opened to announce their decision. I didn’t get a scholarship and they explained their decision for another 10 to 15 minutes. I was numb and unable to absorb anything they said, so I stared straight through them, unresponsive.
Dad answered their questions because he knew that if I tried to talk, I would probably burst into tears. As the meeting ended, they offered to help me find another club, listing some of the smaller clubs where they had good contacts. I felt insulted. So this is what you think of me? A player in the lower league. Dad jumped up and told them we were going to sort it out ourselves.
Neither of us said a word as we walked back to the car. We sat there in silence. The news broke me in two. All that hard work over those years just wasn’t good enough. My father, thank God, did his best to keep my spirits high. Quietly, he told me not to get angry, this was not the end of the road. There were a lot of other clubs there. He believed in me, and it was a confidence booster.
Something moved the way back. More than anger, it was positive energy. People always define anger as a bad thing, but I felt more motivated and determined than ever. I wanted to go home and go straight to the park to exercise. It was the only thing on my mind prove them wrong.
That night, I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, trying to figure out what I did wrong and I could have done better. I was the only midfielder out of every four players who wasn’t awarded a scholarship. What do they have and I didn’t? What would I do now? These thoughts ran through my mind until I came back to the feeling I had in the car. I was determined to show them how good I was.
We developed a business plan. I would attend as many trials as possible, with my father using the relationships he had forged with scouts and coaches. We agreed that no matter how many trials I was offered, I would attend them all before making a decision. I could, of course, fail to impress any of them and my dream of becoming a professional footballer would come to an end. I was at rest, I was in a more positive mood.
Not every child has a rational father and is accustomed to business planning. I fear for children whose parents lack those skills in this kind of situation. The next morning, I spoke to one of my senior academy coaches who told me that my big fall was my attitude, which seemed like a strange thing to say to a 15-year-old because he definitely trained 15 hours a week over four years that was something I should have. That they notice it and teach me to do it right?
All I can do is try to prove them wrong. However, I have issues with how to deal with it. In the end, I was fine because I had good support from friends and family. Not all children are from the same safe background. They struggle to cope and we see stories of players whose lives have been irreparably damaged by the disappointment of failing to make him a professional footballer. As a mature 26-year-old at the time of writing, I wonder if there was no better way to soften the crushing blow for children who have given their all from such a young age.
Academy coaches have the unenviable task of releasing young players into a project designed to leave no stone unturned. They must deliver bad news as the weaker players are eliminated. But the game should certainly bear its pastoral attention more thoughtfully, not least because some clubs are now recruiting players as young as five or six.
They hardly have any memories of life before they were trained in the academy. Clubs come to collide with the lives of children and their families, rub the ego and destabilize the concept of a “normal” home life. The structure of the family, their routine, leisure time, who does, what and when, bow to the will of the club.
Some boys are not from stable two-parent families. They will have one parent or their father and father have separated and have new partners. Some come from difficult backgrounds or fractured societies where crime is rampant and young people feel socially alienated.
Breaking down those dreams into a handful of words is one thing, but the mitigation definitely needs to be measured so that it’s not surprising if or when it does. We can’t prevent disappointment but clubs can manage expectations much better.
It is fair to say that most footballers in the academy think they will succeed. With the dream approaching impressively, nothing else matters. They do not think about school, further or higher education or work. This is dangerous. No matter how talented you are, there are many factors that can go right or wrong – not just ability and attitude but injury. The only certainty is that there are no guarantees.
Chris Green, who edited this book for me and is the author of Every Boy’s Dream, estimated that there is, at best, a 1% chance of a nine-year-old academy player becoming a professional soccer player. One percent. perfect. You do the math.
But all the talk among the elite academies always revolves around playing in the Premier League. There is never a suggestion of settling into a league, league or second division. Players have great careers in these tournaments. I’ve moved between them for most of my career. If you had told me that at 15, I would have felt like a failure.
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