Life after football – when academy players are released

Last week Crystal Palace launched the first ever comprehensive after care programme for released academy players. The Football Mine will cover this subject in two parts, Part 1 looks at the key issues and Palace’s bold initiative.

Over the next few weeks hundreds of teenage academy players will find out if they are going to be offered a scholarship by their clubs for the following season. Across all age ranges from the 92 league clubs, thousands will be released on an annual basis. There is nothing new in this as the Guardian’s Sean Ingle wrote in 2015 – “A few days ago James Bunce, the head of sport science at the Premier League asked this simple question to a roomful of coaches: what chance does an under-nine who joins a Premier League club’s academy have of graduating to its first team? No one was left shocked by the answer: just 0.5% – or one in 200.” 

Another couple of sobering statistics back up the remote chance of ‘making it’. Only 1% (or just over 100) of the 12,000 players currently at academies will ultimately make a living playing football. And even of those who do sign scholarship deals at aged sixteen or seventeen, 98% will have been released or dropped out of playing football by the age of 21. Behind such a low success rate lies a host of broken dreams and more significantly the impact on many of those youngsters’ mental health and well-being can often be devastating.

There are many distressing examples of how boys can be affected. Each of those young men who do not make the grade have their aspirations shattered and while there is a chance that they will find other clubs, a significant proportion of them will drift away from the game, thoroughly disillusioned and disheartened. The cautionary tale of Jeremy Wisten (see previous TFM piece – https://bit.ly/2GcLnZj) who took his own life after being released by Manchester City is thankfully rare but the negative impact on all those whose services are no longer required is a concern. Jeremy’s father acknowledged that City did everything to support his son during his time at the club, however, it is the period that followed Jeremy’s release that needs addressing.

There are signs that ever since the introduction of the Elite Players Performance Plan in 2012, clubs have begun to acknowledge these issues. In the last few years signs are that change is afoot with the vast majority of clubs having staff who take account of the boys’ welfare. In becoming the first football academy in this country to offer a dedicated programme of support to those released, Crystal Palace have been rightly applauded for taking the initiative.

Last week Palace announced that their academy was ‘enhancing their wide-ranging care programme for players aged 18-23 that are released from the club’. Positive steps include the appointment of a dedicated player care officer, who will be responsible for keeping in contact with all those who leave the club for a period of three years. That player care officer will provide continuous support for them by helping to find a new club, or an education programme or even a job outside the football environment. 

As the club announced at the time, this goes hand in hand with recent developments at the academy, having gained Category 1 status in 2020 and opening its £20 million academy base in October. Chairman Steve Parish went on to say: “The Academy’s primary role is of course to ultimately produce footballers for the club’s first team, but we have a duty and moral obligation to nurture and guide all the 200 plus players within our care. The academy experience is a truly enriching one for our young players, where they will obviously develop as footballers, but also as young men, being taught a range of hugely beneficial life skills. We provide an outstanding education provision for those in our full-time care and hybrid education programmes, which will broaden all players’ options in the future.”

“But we recognise that when an older academy player is released, it may feel like the end of the world for that young man,” Parish continued. “And we must do our utmost to offer support to affected players through that process and guide them with the next stage of their journey. That typically begins with us providing introductions to new clubs or continuing to include the players in matches to enable other clubs to watch them play. But it may also be about helping them continue their education or begin a life outside of football in the workplace. Whatever their path is, we want to offer our support to them to help them achieve success.”

The need to look after these young men who, as Parish puts it, ‘may feel like the end of the world’ and will be at their most vulnerable is paramount. Clubs have a responsibility  in their duty of care at this difficult time. In his excellent piece for Joe last year Simon Lloyd highlighted this issue and in particular the story of a boy who was released by a Premier League club who was given short shrift. “After seven years spent progressing through the ranks of a Premier League club academy, ten minutes was all it took to deliver the news. News of Danny’s [not his real name] release came amidst a difficult spell for him as he struggled with his mental health. Contact had been established with the club’s Player Care Manager prior to the expiration of his contract.” Danny’s father’s bitter summary leaves little doubt as to how he was treated. ‘Two phone calls in seven months. That’s what my son meant to a Premier League club.’

The good news is that ‘Danny’ ended up getting a football scholarship in the America and according to Lloyd who spoke to his Dad recently, he is thriving. It is hoped that Palace’s innovative lead in this area will encourage other clubs to pay more attention to the future of released players when they are at their most vulnerable and it will become common practice within every club’s academy. 

Part Two will cover Palace’s initiative in more depth as well as highlighting other clubs’ work in this area and that of The Football Family, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to helping the mental health & wellbeing of young ‘released’ academy footballers.  

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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