It’ a Long Way to the Top

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It’s a sunny July afternoon and I am sat on the front row of the stand at Matlock Town’s Causeway Lane. We are in the beautiful Derwent Valley, a World Heritage site deep in the Derbyshire Dales. On top of a majestic hill to my left sits Riber Castle. It was once a zoo. I went there on a school trip in the early mid 70s. It was a bit of a dive as zoos go if truth be told. Muddy and a moth eaten lss than impressive animals. As this is a preseason friendly I am allowed to sit with a cold beer in my hand. With the view and the warming sun and the beer it’s all I can do to actually watch the game as the Brewers send out a mix of academy and fringe players. Only one of the Burton team is someone who was a regular first team squad player last season and also a product of theAcademy. As the song goes “Matty Palmer…He’s one of our own”.

This gets me thinking about academy players, trainees, scholars and lads on “schoolboy contracts” both in general and of one young man I happen to know. The lad shall for obvious reasons, remain anonymous but he is the son of a friend.
It is well known that most of the boys who sign school boy forms with league clubs fail to get a pro contract. This may sound a lot but internet research is telling me a former Liverpool FC coach puts the failure rate at 98%. But what it like to be one of those lads chasing the dream and what is it like to be a parent of a young hopeful?

It all starts at a very young age. 11 years ago for the lad I am talking about. At 7 years old he is playing junior football for his local junior team. He is a good player in a good team. Good players gravitate to good teams even at junior level. In one particular game he scores 7 goals as the team win 17 nil. Before he knows it he is being offered schoolboy contracts by a number of League Clubs.

With their son at such a tender age his parents immediately are faced with 2 difficult decisions:

1. Do they actually want their son on a schoolboy contract with a professional football club (and all that may entail) and

2. If so, which one to choose and why?

If they know what they may be letting themselves in for then even question 1 is tougher than you may think.

In the end the parents are keen to support the son’s dream and therefore consent for him to join a League Club with a reputable academy, less than an hours drive away. I choose my words carefully. Whilst not only avoiding naming the club in question (and it isn’t Burton Albion) I am hinting at something that will become hugely significant over the next 11 years.

For what follows is a display of parental support that is not only remarkable, but also, only possible because they are relatively well off and are prepared to make huge sacrifices. The lad is required to attend training sessions 3 times a week and one match day also a week. Consider the pressures this puts on the parents. They need transport (having 2 cars helps), they need the fuel and they need the time (not at work) to start the 4 times a week 2 hour round journey. Parental career prospects may even be put on hold for this. The parents start clocking up hundreds of hours and thousands of miles on the road. I hope they claimed their air miles or clubcard points! As the years go by and the young lad continues to be retained by his club (as others fall by the wayside) his parents find the responsibilities only increase. With the lad moving up to High School and then the start of GCSE course work they find themselves in the Headmasters Office seeking permission for their young prodigy to have time off school to meet the demands of the Football Club. Knowing the attrition rate for young footballers this itself can be seen as a risk. But for a lad who has set his heart on a dream, how can they be anything but supportive? And how will the lad himself react to school work when he thinks he is going to be a pro footballer? It must be easy to this “I don’t need this. Im going to be a famous footballer”. Parents evening become a worry.

Performance targets on school attainments are put in place that must be met in order for the lad to be released. The pressure and the worries can only increase. And all the time that nagging doubt…only 2% ever make it.

More years pass. GCSEs are taken. To the relief of everyone in the family he is offered a 2 year apprenticeship and thus at just 16 years of age he packs his bags and moves into apprentices digs at the club. The dream moves a little closer, but even so most of his peers will not be offered a pro contract. Maybe none of them will.

And all the time the pressure is on the impress. To get picked every week. To play well . They are in direct completion with their own team mates and yet are just 16 years of age and away from home with all the emotional baggage it brings. What targets do the lads set themselves? Wayne Rooney played 1st team football for Everton at just 16. Theo Walcott was named in England’s World Cup squad at 17. The first year apprentices aim to get in the under 18s. The under 18s aim to get into the under 23s. Being left out of the team or subbed can feel like a hammer blow. Then suddenly one of their team mates find himself off with club first team and before you know it has scored a goal and is suddenly on a pro contract and in the England under 19s. From a room mate in the apprentice house on £150 a week to several thousand pounds a week and companies beating a path to the door to offer sponsorship deals in a few days. How do the other apprentices deal with that? Would you wish it on your son?

And of course there are agents, scouts and gossip. The parents on the touchlines gossip. There’s a scout from X, and agent from Y, the manager of Z here. The youngsters are approached by agents. (Yes apprentices do have agents). The parents are approached by agents…would you like free hospitality passes to the box I’ve got at Old Trafford/Emirates/Anfield etc.?
It must be a head turning world for the young people involved. One that could in an instance throw them into fame and fortune or rejection and disappointment, the promises of an agent, the lure of other clubs?

And what happens to those lads who parent(s) cannot afford the time or the costs involved? Do they fall by the wayside? Did the English “Messi” give up the game at 12 because his Mum could afford the bus fare? And what happens to those released by the clubs. What support is offered for young people who feel like their lives ambition has been snatched away?

Next time you are at a game and a youngster is making his debut, think on what he has already gone through to get this far, and make sure you give him a fair chance. As for the “secret” player. Maybe one day I’ll be able to say who he is.

Maybe one day you will all know his name.

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