Saturday, 30 September

Trent Alexander-Arnold: Your stories of football academy experiences

Sports News
Trent Alexander-Arnold

Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold has launched 'The After Academy' - an initiative to help young players released by football clubs.

BBC Sport & BBC Radio 5 Live asked readers and listeners for their academy experiences - and this is what they said.

Many of you who got in touch spoke of a lost 'identity', when you're no longer a 'footballer' after being released from a club.

Richard, 35, from Newcastle said he was "devastated" when his mum told him he had been dropped from an academy.

"I felt like I had no personality, no identity, it was everything about who I was," he said.

"Immediately after, I said I'd never play football again and slid into drug and alcohol addiction which I still struggle with today.

"Gazza said something like 'all the lads in Newcastle play football and when they don't make it they just get drunk'."

Some respondents said they had struggled with their mental health after being let go by clubs, while others still deal with the physical impact of injuries.

Ryan, 18, from Brighton said he still "feels lost" three years after his release.

"I was an academy footballer from age six up to 15 - it was everything, and consumed my life and I didn't see much else beyond that.

"Now, I'm a few weeks away from my A-levels. I'm academically not there due to sacrifices at a younger age and I have no jobs I can go to after college because of my entire life's dedication to becoming pro."

Rich from Wrexham said he was released by Aston Villa and Coventry as a teenager, and believes the emotional wounds are hard to heal for most young footballers.

"Every single friend or family member knows about the career you are hoping to build," he said.

"Then when you get released it is humiliating and embarrassing, not only in front of your ex team-mates but also to your friends at school or family members you feel you have let down.

"Is the time and miles travelled going to youth games, trials, national schoolboy games really worth it? I suppose there will always be people ready to roll the dice and have a gamble.

"But none of the team-mates I had at Villa, Coventry or Wales went on to any big-time career, not one."

Former Reading apprentice Tom, 34, came through the Royals system with Shane Long and Hal Robson-Kanu before being released at 19.

He took a scholarship to play for Team Bath and study at the University of Bath before forging a career in finance.

"Your life is placed at a crossroads and you immediately go from an incredible opportunity to being back at square one - the contrast between success and failure is so stark," he said.

"I was fortunate to have a strong support network of family and friends around me.

"Others were not so fortunate and are left at the end of their teenage years with no or limited qualifications and much more challenging situations. Some of my ex-team-mates served time in prison."

'Unhappy memories of crushed boys and families'

Many parents also got in touch, with criticism of some clubs for 'selling a dream' to too many youngsters.

Billy from Ayrshire said his son's experiences of academy football in Scotland left him with "numerous unhappy memories of crushed boys and families".

"The way underachieving boys were treated was horrendous. They were let go without notice and with no aftercare support. It's tragic."

Neil from Dumfries, meanwhile, pointed the finger squarely at clubs' greed in stockpiling young players, only to discard the majority.

"Kids are being devastated left, right and centre - it's the clubs' fault because they are allowing scouts to sign 200-300 kids at a time and being paid on three or four making it," he said.

"They are signing anybody they can which stops them playing for schools, stops the enjoyment of the game - everything is training but it is all for financial benefit."

'Football should learn from American college system'

Philip from Plymouth classes his son's release from a club academy at the age of 16 as a "very lucky escape" because it enabled him to stay at school and study A-levels before continuing his education in the US, where he is undertaking a biochemistry degree and playing football in their college system.

In America, colleges are used as a precursor to professional sport, ensuring future stars have an education to fall back on.

"None of this would have been possible if he had been offered an apprenticeship with the club between 16 and 18," Philip said.

"He would have had to leave school and could not have taken A-levels - the only continued education on offer was a BTEC in PE. We could learn a lot from the American college system where it is possible to continue meaningful academic study while training as an athlete.

"This means if you do not make it at 18 or 21 you still have a lot of options. With the academy system if you are released any time after the age of 16 you are effectively left with nothing, having been forced to abandon your education."

Paul from Harrogate shared his son's similar experience of moving to the States after being released, adding: "How does the USA manage to offer incentivised elite performance sport provision in tertiary education - why aren't the richest clubs in the world here in the UK obliged to fund such programmes through our own colleges and universities?"

'A duty and moral obligation'

While the lack of care from clubs for released players was a recurring theme among the responses, Crystal Palace received praise for the way it supports young footballers faced with such situations.

Palace was credited by one respondent as being a "model to follow" in terms of aftercare.

When the Eagles enhanced their programme in 2022, chairman Steve Parish said: "We have a duty and moral obligation to nurture and guide all the 200-plus players within our care.

"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.

"It may also be about helping them continue their education or begin a life outside of football in the workplace."

BBC Sport asked both the Premier League and English Football League (EFL) for comment.

"Ensuring the academy experience is a life-enriching one for every young player is a key part of taking a broader view of success," said Neil Saunders, the Premier League's director of football.

"Around 16% of the academy workforce have experienced the academy as a player and those lived experiences can only help to support the development of young people."

The EFL said there was an increasing awareness of the issue among clubs who were taking measures to improve in the area.

"While not all young players who come through academies will succeed in getting a professional contract or having a prolonged professional career, provisions are in place which help to prepare each individual for life outside of professional sport, equipping them with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed," an EFL spokesperson said.

Source: BBC