THE HOPE AND HEARTBREAK OF SCHOOLBOY ACADEMIES

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There is something incomparably fulfilling in garnering a reputation as a good footballer. A compliment upon one’s footballing abilities will, for many, surpass any other positive critique of character, intellect or appearance. This is especially true in the younger years of a footballer; reputations in the schoolyard are often carved out of footballing ability, as envy and admiration emanate from a fierce mist of hormones and bravado. Most kids would tell you they’ve got a shot at making it when they’re thirteen.

My brother, ten years my junior, is unequivocally better than I am at sport. I would consider myself average at best, as a footballer. A decent left foot. Plenty of vision. Less of the execution.

I was put forward for county schoolboy trials as a teenager, and vehemently attributed my failure to make the cut toward my birthday being in December, and the trials being operated on a calendar-year basis, as opposed to school-year. I was the youngest, so had less of a chance. No such excuses have been necessary for Cottrell the younger. A 100m county sprinting champion, club rugby star, and now inducted into the world of youth football academies, he successfully made the cut for Cardiff and Vale County Schoolboys after a number of highly competitive trials. An age gap of ten years between us eliminates any of the vicious, hormonal smog of envy from the school years, and I feel only an enormous sense of pride in my brother’s sporting achievements. He’s a fantastic athlete, and what’s more, a good kid. And that’s what concerns me.

Football academies have developed a notorious reputation over the years, especially in the 21st century. Indeed, reservations are high amongst families of young footballers before making such commitments to an endeavour that could well accumulate in nothing but memories and regret.

However, Chris Green articulates the dilemma succinctly in Every Boy’s Dream, a modern dissection of the cut-throat nature of youth football academies: ‘No parent wants to deny his or her son the chance to make it as a footballer because of their own reservations that it might all end in tears. The clubs know it – which is why they get so much acquiescence from parents.’ Green hits the nail on the head. What parent could live with themselves, knowing that they’ve denied their child a shot at the big time?

Often, the downsides of football academies are negated by the fact that they are the first rung on the ladder towards an exclusive world of majesty, glory and grandeur. The burning reality – that there is still only a minute chance of succeeding – is mitigated by the land of footballing promise.

Every village, town and county has a player that nearly made it, and some can go one better. In my hometown, for example, there was a talented player around my age who is now plying his trade at a League 1 team. I played against him when I was my brother’s age, and by that time he was already 6”2, wielding the booming voice of a thirty-year-old and shoulders to match. This lad was enormous, brave, and supremely calm on the ball, and he’s been lucky enough to forge a career out of these talents. But he was the best. One in a thousand? One in a hundred-thousand? And he’s only in League 1.

So, what if you are the best player in your year-group? The best in your school? The best in your county, maybe? The best in your academy? Nick Hornby’s hilarious and profound anecdote in his autobiographical essay, Fever Pitch, takes a closer look at such a notion in its exploration of the rise and fall of English player Gus Caesar. This name is synonymous with football comedy and failure, but this is a man who wore the Arsenal red and white at Wembley Stadium.

“At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he’s still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he’s offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford or even West Ham, but with the mighty Arsenal.”

Caesar climbed to the top of footballing tree by being the best at every level he played at. Yet after his fateful error that cost Arsenal that final, he saw his career peter into obscurity with startling pace. Booed by Arsenal fans on the few occasions he made it back onto the pitch, Caesar was transferred away, and four seasons later was playing for Colchester United in the fourth tier of English football. “To get where he did,” says Hornby, “Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly every one of his generation (the rest of us can only dream about having his kind of skill) and it still wasn’t quite enough.”

Putting such faith in your ability that you believe you can carve out a career as a professional footballer is emphatically bold, and in this climate, barely conceivable. Yet it’s exactly what football academies want these youngsters to do. To believe. David Conn delivered a damning indictment upon the current youth academy system in an article for The Guardian in 2009:

“Professional clubs, rich as oligarchs, are trawling for boys their own coaches know are too young, giving scant opportunities to the few who come through, while waving their wallets to likelier lads in other countries. It is a system crying out for reform, from top to bottom.”

The young age at which boys are swept up by rich clubs and groomed for a career in football is controversial, to say the least. There is high competition between professional clubs to spot the best of the best, and often raw talent shining through at an early age can promise a future starlet in the making. But this bypasses the subsequent childhood that will be spent under enormous pressure to succeed and deliver. “What are the consequences of taking a boy aged six, telling him he is going to become a professional footballer, then crushing those dreams and telling him he’s not wanted when he fails to make the grade?”, asks Chris Green.

Academy footballers are letting themselves in for a world of heartbreak.

How aware are these young hopefuls of the small success rate? How do they cope with the pressure? How do you deal with being told that you’re not good enough? I wanted these questions answered and had to look no further than one of my closest friends, Rob, who became a part of the Swansea City Academy when we were in school. He remained there for the best part of two years, before being let go at age sixteen.

Rob was categorically the best footballer I played alongside as a schoolboy. Throughout school at club level, Rob was both a teammate and an opponent at various stages of our teenagerhood. On the same side, he was a joy to play with. When he was on the opposition side, I hated him. In our younger years, Rob was one of ‘those’ kids who, at age seven, somehow managed to look a cut above the rest. Whilst everyone else would be taking swipes at the ball, Rob could control it, dummy it, caress it with his foot in a way that many would struggle to do as adults. To this day, my father still refers to him as ‘Super Rob’, a nickname coined years before he was picked up by any academy.

Being the best in the year, the best in the school, and the best in the county, it came as no surprise to most of us when Rob was picked up by a professional football academy. It was only when I decided to get in touch to ask him about his experiences with Swansea that I realised how little he had ever mentioned it before. Though a humble character, his radio silence on the matter had always intrigued me.

When we got talking, Rob told me that his expectations were not as high as his peers during his time in the academy, due to his acute awareness of the slim possibility of it happening for any of them.

“The year before my group at the (Swansea City) Academy, there were 16 boys and only two of them were kept on. In my year, there were 14 boys, and two ended up being kept on. It’s true when they say you’ve got to be the best of the best.”

Interestingly, one of those two in Rob’s cohort who made it past the under-16 stage is current Swansea City full-back Connor Roberts, who made his first-team debut in January. “I’ve got Connor on Facebook now, and that boy is living the life,” Rob told me. A success story such as Connor Roberts, rising from the football academy to make the cut at the top level, is a refreshing challenge to the perpetual dialogue of hopelessness for young, prospective footballers in these youth set-ups. One in a million?

There’s no denying the difficulty to keep one’s feet on the ground must be for teenagers who are in a position that promises a career in professional football. This must be especially true when they are given a taste of the limelight. Doing so is, according to Rob, a lucrative means of keeping players on the books.

“When you sign, they (the academy) take you to a home game and present you to the fans. You have a picture with the manager, which was Brendan Rogers at the time, then they walk you out onto the pitch at half time and announce to the crowd that you’ve just signed for the academy. Then you watch the game in the Players’ Lounge. You could say they give you more than ‘just a taste’ for it.

“There were other people who were big headed and into it, although they didn’t have a head on their shoulders. For them it was ‘I’m either doing this, or I’m laying bricks for the rest of my life.’ And of course, that’s fine. But the pressure then is massive, when it’s all you’ve got.”

I consider the implications upon my own mental state as a grown man, were I to be showcased as a commodity to a crowd of thousands to a packed football stadium and invited to meetings where I looked down upon the hallowed turf of a professional club as I put pen to paper, only to be dropped coldly from such a promising lifestyle. It would no doubt take its toll. But for a teenager, the implications are enormous, and potentially very damaging. Rob told me that he had to record all of the exercises he was doing each day, as well his strict diet, into a diary for the academy to sift through. That’s a lot to handle for a fifteen-year-old. But this is the nature of football.

Generally, an inscrutable character, I was struck by the poignant nostalgia that submerged Rob as he began to recall the more emotional moments of his time at the academy. Namely, how he handled the rejection. He told me about the car ride on the way home from Swansea, about the hours sat in silence in his bedroom that night. But the magnitude of the rejection was made particularly clear when Rob admitted his evasiveness from any previous discussion about the subject.

“One thing I would say, is that I have literally never talked about this in as much detail as I am now. What went wrong, what was good about it. Never before. Not even to my family, not to my closest friends.

“It all just ended, and then the family didn’t really talk about it again. Maybe the disappointment was so much that I never actually wanted to talk about it. It was too much. You keep it bottled up. I know it sounds stupid.”

I was genuinely touched that I was able to finally pry this moving testament from my friend. Despite his failure to make the grade at Swansea, Rob had plenty to fall back on academically. He did well in school, went to an esteemed university, and is now training to be an accountant. He plays in the second division of the Welsh Football League Division Two. “One of the boys I knew who was at Swansea and like me, didn’t make it, then went on trial at Hereford, at Wrexham,” Rob tells me. “He was desperate for it. I played against him last season. He’s playing for Pontardawe, now. It doesn’t always work out. That’s life, I guess.”

If you can look back upon your time at a football academy with rose-tinted sentimentality, despite it being your first ever heartbreak, there should be no regret. Rob told me he’d do it all again tomorrow, given the chance. But other elements must be considered. The hard-hours of week-day training, the driving back and forth along the motorways of England, the social sacrifices. All of this, only to be told one day that your chance is gone, has repercussions far wider than the death of a schoolboy dream. How many families will suffer those silent car-rides home from the final board meeting? How many families will regret it all, and tell you it’s a waste of time and money? One thing’s for sure. Connor Roberts’ family won’t.

BY CHARLIE COTTRELL