Football academies are the youth arm of professional football clubs who aim to find and develop young players in the hope of bringing them into the professional game. Although positive in principle, the harsh nature of the academy systems (especially in the UK) has led many to assert that they are ‘in crisis’ and in need of dramatic reform.
In the UK, the astronomically high player release rates, lack of education provision, and detrimental effect on players’ mental health are some of the many issues highlighted in recent years. Crucially these issues are set to get worse with the additional pressures of Covid-19 prompting some clubs to consider closing their academies for good, making the entire system harsher and more competitive in the process.
In an interview with Business Insider, Michael Calvin identifies that young players are more likely to get ‘struck by a meteor’ than make it professionally. ‘Only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League pro. That's a success rate of 0.00012%.’ This is equivalent to flipping a coin and it showing heads 13 times in a row!
For those at academies from age 9 this statistic only rises to slightly less than 0.5%. Similarly, Chris Platt states that of the 303 17–18-year-olds he interviewed across 21 academies for his PhD research in 2012, only 4 had professional contracts by 2017. This represents a 99% dropout rate - presumably not the sign of a healthy academy system.
One explanation for this is that the topflight of English football is heavily dominated by foreign players. A study by the Swiss-based CIES Football Observatory revealed that Premier League clubs had on average 61.2% of their minutes played by foreign players. This put the Premier League 3rd out of 31 leagues analysed, with only the top-flight Turkish and Cypriot leagues ranking higher. This is significant as the other major leagues in countries such as France and Spain seem to average around 50%. The effect of this is twofold: young English players hardly play in foreign leagues and are also overlooked at home.
For Peter Lowe (Head of Education and Performance at Manchester City’s academy) this phenomenon coupled with an increase in the number of players that a club can recruit has led to academies over-recruiting to make sure they 'haven’t missed any’ as opposed to focusing on ‘excellence.’ For Lowe, essentially, the majority of academy players are ‘[set] up to fail.’
Although the implementation of the Elite Players Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2012 represents some effort to tackle some of these issues, its impact has been marginal at best. The EPPP initiative looks to produce ‘more and better homegrown players’ and ‘empower’ individuals through a ‘player-led approach.’ However, in 2017, from the 15 Premier League and 9 Championship clubs that make up Category One EPPP academies, from the 65% of 18-year-olds given initial professional contracts, five out of six are not playing professional football by age 21. Gordon Taylor (Chief Executive of the Professional Footballer’s Association) recognises this as 'a matter of major concern.’
A direct effect of these alarming statistics is the dramatic decline in the mental health of young academy players – especially those that get released. In 2015, Dr David Blakelock’s research found that 55% of players studied suffered “clinical levels of psychological distress” 21 days after being released. The significant number of suicides amongst released players over the years demonstrates this harsh truth and has prompted many clubs to take action. Some of the larger academies have increased the pastoral resources available to players, calling them multiple times per week and offering them food baskets to help during the Covid-19 crisis. However, this is something that is not available to smaller clubs that naturally have tighter budgets and minimal facilities.
Equally concerning is the reality that young aspiring footballers are forced to sacrifice education to properly persue their dream of football. Although all academies now offer education as part of their programs, it is often limited and centered exclusively around sport. This makes it hard for released players who have no fall-back option or qualifications that will help them outside the world of sports.
Overshadowing all of these existing problems are the effects of Covid-19 that have put clubs under immense pressure. Not only is it difficult for all clubs to provide players with the support they need, but Covid-19 has come with a host of logistical problems such as the inability to share youth facilities with first-team players or provide ‘Covid-safe’ accommodation. These additional issues alongside the large costs involved to run academies have caused some clubs to shut down their academy systems entirely.
Even if UK academies have inherent problems, closing them down is likely to be worse than keeping them open. If other clubs follow suit, there will be fewer available academies leaving young players subject to an even more competitive system. This would only make the inherent problems within the academy system worse; something that could have a detrimental impact on the lives of thousands of young players and have a tragic knock-on effect for years to come.
© Durodoluwa Adebayo 2021
Aarons, E. (2020) 'It’s going to be very hard': pandemic leaves academy players in limbo’, The Guardian, available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/may/24/its-going-to-be-very-hard-pandemic-leaves-academy-players-in-limbo, accessed on: 8th February 2021
Borgstrom, H. (2020) ‘What Happens to Young Footballers When They Are Released From an Academy?’, Portal, available online at: https://portal.spond.com/en/content/what-happens-to-young-footballers-when-released-from-an-academy/, accessed on: 5th February 2021
Conn, D. (2017) ‘‘Football’s biggest issue’: the struggle facing boys rejected by academies’, The Guardian, available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/oct/06/football-biggest-issue-boys-rejected-academies, accessed on 2nd February 2021
Conn, D. (2012) ‘Youth revolution aims for better England players – but will it work?’, The Guardian, available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/david-conn-inside-sport-blog/2012/aug/29/under-21-league-everton-west-ham, accessed on 2nd February 2021
Lloyd, S. (2020) ‘Cast Adrift: How Football is Failing Released Academy Players’, JOE, available online at: https://www.joe.co.uk/sport/cast-adrift-how-football-is-failing-released-academy-players-254047, accessed on: 7th February 2021
Owen, J. (2020) ‘Opinion: The issue with British football academies’, The Mancunion Manchester Media Group, available online at: https://mancunion.com/2020/02/20/opinion-the-issue-with-british-football-academies/, accessed on: 8th February 2021
PA Sport, (2017) ‘Premier League third-most reliant on foreign players in all of Europe – study’, ESPN, available online at: https://www.espn.co.uk/football/english-premier-league/story/3224746/premier-league-third-most-reliant-on-foreign-players-in-europe-study, accessed on 8th February 2021
Platts, C., & Smith, A. (2009). Education and welfare provision in professional football academies in England: Some implications of the white paper on sport. International Journal of Sport Policy, 1(3), pp. 323-329; Platts, C., & Smith, A. (2010). 'Money, money, money?' The development of financial inequalities in English professional football. Soccer and Society, 11(5), pp. 643-658
Romeo, C. (2017) ‘Children at football academies are more likely to 'get hit by a meteorite' than succeed as professionals – here’s the shocking statistic’, Business Insider, available online at: https://www.businessinsider.com/michael-calvin-shocking-statistic-why-children-football-academies-will-never-succeed-soccer-sport-2017-6?r=US&IR=T , accessed on 8th February 2021
Theo. ‘The trouble with football academies’, ROAR, available online at: https://www.theroar.com.au/2018/11/08/the-trouble-with-football-academies/, accessed on: 9th February 2021
‘Elite Players Performance Plan’, Premier League, available online at: https://www.premierleague.com/youth/EPPP, accessed on 8th February 2021