The much-vaunted youth academies that peddle dreams and derail careers
IN Michael Calvin's brilliant football documentary ‘No Hunger in Paradise', screened on BT Sports last month, he revealed out of 1.5 million youth players in England only 0.012 per cent become Premier League players.
That is some amount of trimming.
Do you ever wonder about the fate of those hundreds of thousands of kids who don't ‘make it'?
What path did they go down? Are they still playing football at a decent level? And what of their educational attainment?
Does anybody care?
You could be forgiven in thinking that maybe all these youth academies with their state-of-the-art facilities and beautifully manicured pitches are merely peddling dreams to kids.
It's only after several years of frustration and lack of opportunities they realise they're a dog-eared lottery ticket.
Brentford Football Club thought as much, even if their decision to ditch their youth academy two years ago (they retained their reserve team) was probably driven more by economics than ethics.
“You see a lot of players getting towards fringes of teams, or at U23 level and they're stuck,” says former Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard.
"And when their chance comes they don't really do themselves justice and another chance takes longer to come. To actually get in and stay in [the first team] nowadays - the way the game has gone - you've got to be world class.”
Joey Barton, another talking head in Calvin's insightful documentary, accused big clubs of “stockpiling talent” which inevitably led to hurting players' development.
“There should be some process put in place where they're not allowed to do it," said Barton. "You're better being the best player at Bournemouth's youth team or the best player at Ipswich's youth team than you are than being one of a number of players at Chelsea.”
Kieran Bywater was an appropriate case study.
He spent 10 years at West Ham, captained their youth teams and seemed to tick every box. One day, out of the blue, he was released.
No longer required. His world, quite literally, fell apart.
He suffered a mental breakdown during a game and sought help from the Players' Trust, a non-profit-making organisation that provides counselling and consultation services for footballers and their families.
“Kieran paid his dues to the PFA just like everybody else,” Simon Bywater said, Kieran's father.
“But there was absolutely nothing for him. The governing body has a real responsibility to ensure that the boys that don't make it can fall back on other careers and be supported just as well as those that we see on the front pages of the newspapers every Saturday afternoon.”
Recently, I interviewed brothers Rory and Ronan Hale – which appeared in yesterday's edition of The Irish News – where Rory tells the story of his shock release from Aston Villa.
He was captaining the club's U23 and training with the first team. There was no reason to suspect he'd be shown the door two weeks before the end of last season.
First team manager Steve Bruce called him aside. And that was that. He was no longer required.
No support package. Nothing. They might have put a word in for him at a couple of clubs.
Rory was 20-years-old at the time and had spent four happy years at Villa Park.
When he arrived in England as a 16-year-old he had to fend for himself. He laughs at the memory of having to YouTube how to make scrambled eggs.
He described the news of his Aston Villa exit as a “reality check” - an understatement if ever there was one.
He probably felt the loneliest man in England for weeks and months after.
What would everybody think of him back home? All those expectations on him and now perceived as a failure.
He went on a few trials but his heart wasn't in it, and only rediscovered his love for the game when he joined League of Ireland club Galway United.
“I felt like coming home and playing football here. But when you've got good parents like we do, you have that strong mentality. You can face anything. I've overcome a lot of injuries – I did my cruciate at 15 – but getting let go was the biggest reality check I've ever had," Rory said.
“Everybody thinks we have it easy. I know they're short days but when everybody goes home, you're going back to your digs, curtains closed, just watching TV.
“I was signing one-year deals. You're out of a job. And when you're coming from a small place like Newington everybody knows who you are and there are big expectations of you.”
Liam Boyce spent several months with Werder Bremen's U21s in 2011 before returning to play for his former club Cliftonville.
I remember watching him in one of his games soon after returning and thinking that he was overweight and nothing special.
Looking back, it was a very harsh assessment. From the stands and terraces nobody really appreciates just how mentally challenging that year was for a 19-year-old.
Last season he finished top scorer in the Scottish Premier League and became the most expensive signing in Burton Albion's history.
A week before the new season started, Boyce ruptured his ACL and his first season in The Championship looked as though it would be a write-off.
He climbed another mountain and scored a goal upon his return after five months on the sidelines.
Everybody has their own mechanism to find resilience in themselves. Boyce found it in his daughter and partner.
“I realised that it wasn't the end of the world, and when you come home and you see your missus and your daughter [Scout] – you think: ‘I can always go again next week.'”
Joe Gormley's dream cross-channel move to Peterborough United was derailed by a cruciate injury. Joe was in his mid-20s but it was deemed too old to ‘make it', particularly being sidelined in his first season in England.
Gormley is back playing for Cliftonville.
Rory Hale has joined Derry City and is intent on returning to England.
Liam Boyce is nearing full fitness again and will hope to haul Burton Albion out of the relegation zone.
You sift through almost every team-sheet in the Irish League every Saturday and there are umpteen players that have been across the water and have felt the jagged edges of a ruthless industry.
They've all been that dog-eared lottery ticket in the much-vaunted youth academies that promise the moon and the stars that, in many cases, hurt players' careers rather than further them.
But their lives shall never be defined by not 'making it' across the water.
No, their victory is the remarkable resilience they've shown to be still playing the game that they love, to still have career ambitions and to be the best that they can be - something that was never likely to be afforded to them in the academies across the water.