Following on from last week’s piece on Palace’s innovative and much admired after-care programme [https://bit.ly/33245hS] here’s more detail on the South London club’s work as well as a look at what other clubs and organisations are doing.
Having spent a fair amount of time in the last year talking to player care/welfare officers and heads of education at academies, it is abundantly clear that each and every one of them are acutely aware of the need to treat and respect each player as a human being. Uppermost in their minds is that they are young people with the focus on looking after them rather than treating them as an expendable commodity, as might have been the case a few years back. The oft-repeated mantra is they are people first and a footballer second.
In a recent interview with Louis Langdown, founder of The Football Family, Palace’s head of academy Gary Issott was clear about the issues involved and the positive action the club has taken. “We’re all aware of the sheer volume of players that can drop out at PDP (professional development stage (17-22) after maybe 10 years of being in academy football from 8 to 18 or 12 to 22 and we know the academy system enriches players experience. We know they leave with additional skill and competencies that place them advantageously in a world outside of football. But, it’s often very difficult for those players sometimes to deal with the initial trauma of leaving a professional club and understanding what transferable skills they have, what value they add to other career pathways, or even how they begin to pursue other interests and passions.”
“We’ve seen lots of boys struggle when leaving the game, and I can talk about my experience. I struggled leaving Luton Town in the early nineties and I can only go back retrospectively and understand that was due to a bit of grieving, I was missing football and my friendship group. So, with likeminded people at the club, we made the decision that we want to give players a three-year after-care package. The Chairman (Steve Parish) has been very supportive in this initiative, not only is our remit to produce first team players for CPFC, but we have a duty to nurture and guide the players within our academy should they make the first team or not and he’s always promoted the values of empathy and places the human at the heart of our processes.”
Langdown set up The Football Family officially in 2017, whilst he was manager at AFC Totton, to address the myriad issues affecting academy players who are released. By taking on seven or eight players who had left professional academies at Totton, Langdown showed them there was another pathway after being released. He admits that quite a few lost interest when they did not picked up by professional clubs within a couple of weeks but he was convinced that there was a need for a third party organisation to offer help and advice to those players rather than relying on the clubs themselves.
Having worked within academies with a variety of clubs including Portsmouth and Palace, Langdown recognised the importance of providing a support system. The Football Family, a non-profit organisation, has established a network of mentors, who are available to those young players who have had their contracts terminated. This network acts as an initial safety net to help the boys cope with the harsh realities of rejection. Langdown enlisted the help of ex-Burnley player, Wade Elliott, who was the under-23 coach at Stoke City before becoming first team coach at Cheltenham Town in 2020.
Elliott’s experience as a former player and academy coach means he can offer invaluable insight from both sides of the coin and even more significantly, as he was released from Southampton’s academy at the age of 16 he knows how that feels. After being released, Elliott returned to full-time education, getting his A Levels he went on to study communications and sociology at Goldsmiths College. During this time Elliott continued playing at non-league Bashley, who are at Level 9 in the league pyramid, before returning to professional football with Bournemouth. The pinnacle of his playing career was his brilliant goal in the 2009 Championship Play-Off Final that secured promotion to the Premier League for Burnley, some fifteen years after being let go by Southampton.
“Wade is a friend from our time together in youth football,” Langdown says. “Our paths diverged as he went on to play professionally. As a high profile former player he has an important role in raising awareness of what we are trying to do.” Having spent thirteen years at Solent University, most recently as senior lecturer on biomechanics and performance, Langdown has understandably forged close ties with Southampton, hence why a couple of existing first team players are among the first mentors. Jack Stephens took on a couple of boys, Connor and Curtis, to oversee their transition after being released and they went on different paths. “Connor is just completing a sports therapy degree while Curtis is playing for Southern Premier League club Wimborne Town,” Langdown says. “Both are happy with their choices.”
Southampton are a club that take their responsibilities to those who leave their club to an admirably dedicated and detailed level of attention. Under the watchful gaze of Ian Herding, their performance education and life care officer, they have made significant progress with their after care operations, conducting a comprehensive exit strategy. Herding’s focus is on ensuring that contact is maintained with each and every player after their departure from the club.
The Saints have an excellent pedigree in ensuring those released players make the most of opportunities both within and outside football. This is exemplified by their ‘alumni database’, that houses over a decade of data, tracking more than 200 released players at the end of their scholarship (U18). Langdown describes it as “a permanent evolving record of their current playing status, career pathway, and specific educational and vocational support offered by his team/the club. A database that grows organically through the concerted efforts of its creator, as is customary with a practiced auditor. The crucial part is most notably the human interaction. Ian details their last communication logging the conversations.”
Beyond the mentoring and monitoring, The Football Family have hosted workshops with a few dozen Under-18s sharing their experiences of being released during group and individual education blocks. The culmination of the day long event was an open discussion on feelings and emotions, something that young men often find difficult. Addressing these uncomfortable truths is one of the first steps in being able to cope with rejection. While Palace’s recent announcement rightly attracted all the headlines, it should be recognised that there is plenty of admirable work going on within football to soften the blow for thousands of youngsters who will be released.