Becoming a professional footballer is a powerful dream. How do clubs get better at helping young players to cope with the moment when the dream comes to an end?
Chloe Beresford: Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world of football.
Today, how do you “make” a footballer?
The BBC recently aired a Panorama investigation called “football’s broken dreams.” It highlighted many issues with football’s academy system which can damage the mental health of young players.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire said these young footballers are viewed by some clubs as “potential profit centres”. The system is sometimes nicknamed a “football farm” or a “football factory.”
And clubs are not allowed to sign players to their academies until they’re nine years old but there is no minimum age when they can begin training with professional teams.
When clubs sign children in such high numbers, there’s naturally going to be a big percentage of players that don’t make it. And mismanagement of those who are cast aside has led to many suffering from mental health issues.
Sean Conlon works in the academy at Chelsea. He also started a company back in 2008 called “We Make Footballers.” They have two thousand five hundred children of all abilities enrolled across forty centres.
For those who have a chance of making it into an academy, We Make Footballers helps to manage the transition, explaining the process to both the parents and the child.
But how do you “make a footballer?” and how do you navigate an academy system that is fraught with problems?
Sean thinks that the solution lies in three areas.
With more governance from the authorities, that’s the FA and the Premier League.
“There should be more funding to support these clubs to say no, this is essential because there’s risk of certain players mental health and going through this awful rejection and this you know, troubling experience of exiting part of like their dream. Yeah I think that the consistency, the rules have to be there. There has to be a certain number of follow-ups. There has to be some communication between the club and the Premier League to say there has been follow-ups done.”Sean Conlon
With better systems within the clubs themselves.
“Yeah there has to be more care. I think on a consistent level, there has to be more follow-ups from clubs, checking in with parents and child. Especially at the older age groups, I think that’s key for the teenagers around fifteen, sixteen especially. Because they could have been in the club for so long, so it’s even more of a dramatic change for them.”Sean Conlon
And with better education and support for parents.
“We actually have our own podcast which works with footballers and parents who’ve got their children into academies and we talk about their journeys, the journeys of their children and if they’ve been footballers, we talk about themselves. And everything we talk about on that podcast is all about hard work, there are going to be bumps in the road, you can never take anything for granted. You can never get complacent.”Sean Conlon
And like with every industry that takes only the elite few, there are some essential attributes that the child must have.
“You don’t have to be super tall to be a footballer but I think you have to move well, physically you have to be able to get across the pitch in the modern game, so that’s something that parents have to understand. And then yeah, it’s a fifteen year road, it’s a fifteen year journey that’s going to have lots of bumps in the road. There’s going to be pitfalls. They have to have a lot of resilience. They have to absolutely love the game, so they are practicing every day.”Sean Conlon
Sean says it adds up to at least two hours of practice every day from the age of five to the age of eighteen.
So “making a footballer” is hard work. The vast majority don’t make it at all.
And the focus from clubs seems to be on the tiny percentage of players who will sign a professional contract, leaving the vast majority without a safety net, other than people like Sean who step in on their behalf.
There’s no way to avoid disappointment in elite sport; it’s part of the deal.
But if academies can help to prepare children to handle disappointment as well as success, maybe they’d be helping them to deal with life, not just football?
Today’s episode was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Studio Klong.