Forgotten footballers: The heartache of being released from an academy
Young talent in English football has always been cherished. As a country, we love seeing a promising new player who has come up through the ranks of an academy go on to thrive in the league. In recent times, the likes of Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Declan Rice and Bukayo Saka have been at the forefront for exciting young talent. They are living out their boyhood dreams, providing hope for all those who aspire to be the next in line.
However, beyond the celebration of those who have ‘made it’, are those who are simply left behind. Thousands of boys have sacrificed their childhoods in the hopes of playing professionally, joining an academy as young as 6 years old only to be told at 18 they were no longer needed. The inner turmoil of having to give up the prospect of playing in the richest and most successful league in the world often leaves players devastated. The goal of becoming a professional, now disallowed.
At any given moment there are 12,000 aspiring footballers in the youth development system, yet less than 1% of these will ever go professional. The Premier League also revealed that 97% of the former elite academy players aged 21 to 26 years old failed to play a minute of a game in the top flight. These statistics show the harsh and cruel reality of trying to chase the dream of becoming a professional football player.
The system can leave released players traumatised, revealing a dark side to the beautiful game. In 2020, a Man City academy player, Jeremy Winston, took his own life at just 17 after being released – a sinister wake-up call to all football clubs on why providing aftercare for academy players must be a priority. It is now two years on from Jeremy’s death – has anything changed?
Earlier this year, Crystal Palace announced it was going to provide a three-year aftercare programme for released players to help them cope with the trauma of being released. On the club’s website, it states that each released player will be assigned a “Playcare Officer” to guide them through a world outside of football. From helping players find a new job to entering an education programme, the innovative scheme has been very welcomed news.
Many clubs do provide support for released players, yet they are not obliged to. There are now talks about the Premier League considering making it compulsory for all clubs to take on a formal aftercare system, with Crystal Palace being the pioneering club in this commitment to their released players. Whilst more conversations around the aftercare of released players is positive, it does bring up the question as to why it has taken so long? Last year, ITV News surveyed more than 100 footballers released from their professional contracts, finding that 90% of them reported having suffered from depression and anxiety. A damming insight into the lack of support provided by clubs.
University of Manchester student Luke Merrill, who played in various academies including Man City and Blackburn, has experienced this. He was released by both clubs and spoke about the pressures placed on aspiring players despite it never being guaranteed that they will go on to be professional. He gave insight about feeling this pressure as young as 12 and 13 at Man City. At one point, Luke was training 5 times a week, his life consumed by football yet he still faced “not feeling good enough to make it”, which he described as “tough to take”.
When I asked about how the whole process affected his mental health, he discussed how “one bad game at the weekend would affect his mood for the rest of the week”. After being released, he said he had no contact from the clubs, arguing it would have been appreciated “if someone from either club could have reached out for at least six months after”.
Luke felt academies owe it to their released players to provide some form of support and that “more should be done” especially when it comes to protecting the “mental health side” of it all. Luke was able to rely on his academic achievements to ensure his future did not rely on whether he made it as a footballer, however, he said that for others around him, football was their only opportunity at a better life for them and their families. For these individuals, investing in the Premier League dream left them with nothing.
The pursuit of becoming a professional footballer is one of hard work and dedication but also one consumed by rejection. Much like the game of football itself, it is a journey of exhilarating highs and devastating lows. In the wake of Crystal Palace’s new scheme, the momentum surrounding the aftercare for released players will hopefully continue in the effort to protect every player’s mental health, whether they have been released or not.