Surprisingly, this question may not necessarily be a straightforward yes and in fact more and more people are becoming concerned of the well-being of children who are playing at academies in England. But the question is, why?
First of all, I think it is important to defend the academies. It has become commonplace for grassroots coaches and parents to lay the blame for children not making it as professionals solely at the door of the clubs, almost to the point where there is no acknowledgement of the potential benefits they offer.
An academy will typically offer young players in any given location the best facilities and coaching available as well as the opportunity to play regularly with and against the other best players in the area: these three factors can have an enormous positive impact on the development of young football players.
The prestige and thrill for a young player who can say they play for a professional academy is huge, I certainly dreamed of being signed to an academy as a youngster, as did the vast majority of my friends – most of us still do! Why then could the answer to the initial question posed be no?
Figures regularly show that approximately 0.01% of children signed to professional academies in England at under 9 level go on to make a living from the game or that of the 1.5 million boys currently playing organized youth football only 180 will play a single minute in the Premier League.
So after years of being in professional academies with the aim of becoming a professional footballer, nearly all will ultimately fail, leaving these youngsters in a situation where they are entering adulthood viewing themselves as failures, with little in the way of education and qualifications and wider life experiences.
This is a serious issue and one that is acknowledged by the FA and professional clubs so hopefully more will be done in future in terms of providing support to these young men throughout their academy experiences and beyond when they are released.
So, to be cynical, it could be said that the reason to say no to the initial question is that it is because it is a waste of time. In reality it is highly more probable that although an academy wish to sign your child right now, they will not be offering that same child a professional first team contract.
Although I would hope that most people have a more positive outlook than this and both parent and child believe that they can make that professional dream a reality! And they can! Although most don’t, some do – and it is that which makes it so exciting.
I believe that the key to making the journey less traumatic in terms of the potential disappointment at the end is greater transparency from clubs. The 0.01% statistic is widely reported, however how often do academies reveal it to parents when they are trying to recruit their child? Do they say that even if you come to every single training session and game and follow every instruction and all the advice we ever give you from 9 years old to 18, you still will most probably be told that you have not made the grade? If they did then at least parents and children would be more prepared for what potentially lay ahead.
I began by defending the academies because I believe that they do a lot of good and have no doubt that many people within them have their own concerns about the young children in their care and want to improve the current system and mechanisms in future.
Nicky Butt the former Manchester United midfielder who is now the head of academy there has recently being interviewed about the way young children are recruited at professional clubs and how he disagrees with it. But, how can he afford not to recruit young children if it means a potential world superstar was instead signed by a rival? This is the primary reason that academies are recruiting so many young players. But there are many other reasons.
For example, let us imagine that a club is looking for players for it’s under 10s team and so they scout local teams to find players. The scouts then report back and all in all they have two players who they think are showing enough talent and potential to succeed in the game (of course there are many more issues here including late developers and how talent at that age is no precursor for success, but humour me!). An academy team cannot work with two players!
They would have to recruit more players simply to enable them to run training sessions and field a team on match days. But a club couldn’t really approach a parent and say we want to sign your child as we think they are showing enough quality to be a good team mate and training partner of other players who we think have a genuine chance of making it! Thankfully, there are stories of these squad players who have been released or close to release and then gone on to make it professionally which are always fantastic to hear and give hope to us all!
An extremely serious issue for parents to consider when answering the title question is – is this actually the academy? I have experienced an innumerable amount of children and parents who say they play for an academy but in reality they are playing for a development centre in which they are paying to be there.
I have never heard of a club who charges players to play for them. Ever. If you are being asked to pay, most probably having being asked for a six week trial, then your child is not playing for the academy. They are a few steps below and although this can be a route into the academy proper, it is unfortunately sold to parents and players as the real deal, and usually after a six week period players are told they are not quite at the required standard or are very nearly there and just need a little bit more coaching.
So they are asked to sign up for the next six weeks (paying of course!). I am aware of players who are over two years into these six week cycles! It is things like this that portray academies in negative lights, although again in their defence these development setups for some clubs are not directly linked to their academies (again though, this is not disclosed to parents).
I have no problem at all with professional academies trying to make money through coaching, I would in fact encourage it and like to see them offering high level coaching to more children, it is just the fact that they are not open enough in some instances about their motives.
I feel that these development centres are designed to make money and possibly identify some talent to pass on to the real academy as a bonus, whereas parents are just told they are purely development centres and children are only invited there when showing exceptional talent – when in reality anyone can join so long as they pay.
A final note on these centres and in particular the idea of six week cycles is the potential psychological damage they can cause young children. A trial environment can cause huge stress for a child, if they are told they are not good enough this can damage their self-confidence massively.
Furthermore, turning football into something so serious for so many children is surely wrong. The game is played for fun, and enjoyment is the reason so many youngsters start to play, everyone involved with youth football should be striving to protect the enjoyment factor for as long as possible, not turning children’s favourite activity into something which stresses and upsets them.
This goes for academy football in general, but the six week cycles can be particularly traumatic as children involved can dread the sixth week where they receive a letter to tell them whether they are going to be invited back or not. Imagine having to go through this every six weeks for two years!
In conclusion, academies should certainly be viewed as a place for elite footballers and any child or parent who is asked to join should be extremely proud and excited! Without question they can be one of the best environments for children to develop and have the best opportunity of making it in the game.
Just be aware that an academy may not be right for you and your child (at a particular point, it might become right when they are older) and be prepared for a journey which will have many ups but also many downs. That being said, if it was easy everyone would do it and then it wouldn’t be as alluring!
Best of luck to all on your individual football journeys – someone’s got to be that 0.01% after all!