On Wednesday night Mason Greenwood scored his first goal in the Champions League with United’s opener against RB Leipzig. After scoring such a momentous goal his first thoughts were not about himself or this landmark achievement. He dropped to his knees and pointed to the sky in honour of Jeremy Wisten, who died a few days before. After the match he tweeted: “That one was for you bro. RIP Jeremy Wisten.” Greenwood’s and Wisten’s football careers had run in parallel for a few years as they both excelled at academies in Manchester. 19 year-old Greenwood had been with United since he was six while Wisten joined City’s Academy in 2016 at the age of thirteen.
Their paths diverged drastically in the latter half of 2018. Greenwood joined the first team squad on their pre-season tour to the US in August and signed his first professional contract in October. Meanwhile Wisten was struggling with a knee injury for most of the year and in December he was informed that he was going to be released by City at the end of the season. He drifted away from football, disillusioned and dispirited while Greenwood made his full England debut in the 1-0 win against Iceland in September this year.
Born in Malawi, Wisten came over to England when he was four years old, supported by a loving family, he was seemingly on the right track. As his parents said in their statement following his untimely death: “He was a very happy boy who was taken away too soon. He was very friendly and always smiling. He loved football and was aiming for a career in the game.”
But after that much sought-after career hit a bump he became another of the thousands of young players who do not quite make the grade. As Oliver Kay pointed out in The Athletic: “Even among those who enter the academy structure at the age of nine, it is less than one per cent [who will become professionals in the Premier League]. The majority of the other 99 per cent fall by the wayside between the ages of 13 and 16. Even among those who are given a scholarship at 16, the overwhelming majority end up falling short of Premier League level.”
However realistic one’s expectations might be and however aware of the discouraging statistics of becoming an elite footballer, there is no preparation for such a crushing blow. Once selected for an academy, which is a considerable achievement in itself, it is difficult not to imagine yourself playing at the highest level, especially for a teenager. The clubs are fully aware of their responsibility and their duty of care, making every effort to not only warn the players of the slim chances of success but also offering support through their player welfare system and insisting on continued dialogue with those that are released.
As Head of Development at Kick It Out, Troy Townsend has been involved in delivering educational workshops to academies since 2012 and has a consummate working knowledge of the academy system. He acknowledges the giant strides that clubs have made in looking after their players but he emphasises that there is still so much more to do especially for those who do not gain scholarships. “Young players won’t open up,” Townsend says. “They don’t want any questions and they become adept at hiding the signs. Nobody knows what they’re truly going through.”
All may seem fine on the surface but underneath there are problems that remain hidden. “Jeremy would have spent time with Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Jeremie Frimpong,” Townsend continues. “He would have seen them progress and he would have also been eating in the same canteen as Sergio Agüero. Manchester City are a fantastic club with an amazing academy who have done so much good work but the fact is being released is utterly devastating. No amount of after care and support can possibly soften the blow. Despite all the reassurances and support the only thing a player hears is ‘you’re not good enough’. So after all the adulation you question your ability, your talent, your very being.”
Tackling these issues is a massive and complex task. Townsend is a supporter of the Heads Up mental health campaign which the FA launched in May 2019, and which his son Andros is a part of. “The Heads Up campaign focuses solely on the pros who have already made it. It is not targeted at the young players and hopefully in the near future Heads Up will do that because it is sorely needed. Football needs to provide more clarity on how clubs release players and pay very close attention to what is said, by whom and the follow-up guidance.”
The Professional Footballers Association also provide counselling to all its members. In 2013 the PFA’s Director of Player Welfare, Michael Bennett set up a confidential counselling service via the Sporting Chance clinic as well as a 24-hour telephone hotline. “In 2016 we had 160 players approaching us,” says Bennett. “By 2017 it rose to just over 400 and in 2018 there were 438 players. It is interesting to see that the proportion of current and former players, which used to be evenly split, has now become 70-30.”
Tragically this support system was not enough to pick up on Wisten’s torment and there are many in the game who insist that much more needs to be done to address the mental health issues that are endemic in football. Former Premier League player Marvin Sordell suffered from depression which at the lowest point drove him to attempt suicide. I spoke to Sordell for a Guardian piece last year and he acknowledges that, while inroads have been made in creating a more open environment, significant barriers still exist.
“Clubs have become more accepting and tolerant,” says Sordell. “But there is still a prevailing attitude from some who view mental health problems as a sign of weakness. They have only just scratched the surface. There isn’t enough in place for players and it is so reactive, there is much more we can do to be proactive and enable players to not have to go to those depths as I did myself.”
Unfortunately, Jeremy was one of those who did reach the same depths as Sordell did, and although not yet confirmed, it seems as though he became another young man who took his own life. In the UK in 2019 4,303 men committed suicide and it remains the biggest killer of men aged under 45. Last month Mason Greenwood became an England international but for every Greenwood there are thousands who fall by the wayside just as Jeremy Wisten did with such awful consequences.
It is worth bearing in mind that despite his achievements Greenwood has had his own much-publicised off the field problems. He was sent home for breaking COVID-19 protocols while away on England duty in Iceland, which was swiftly followed by a series of photographs showing him inhaling nitrous oxide. He became a target for the press who then referred to disciplinary problems at United that led to Ole Gunnar Solksjær having to leap to his defence: “I think Mason learned a harsh lesson this summer, of course,” and in response to Greenwood missing a couple of games recently Solksjær referred to “his illness.” This could well serve as a warning as to how we should treat teenagers, even hugely talented and successful ones, as nobody is immune to the devastating impact of mental health issues so rather than widespread vilification, surely a more appropriate response would focus on support and understanding.