For footballers up and down the U.K., the start of a new season is filled with hope. But for some, the big kick-off is just another reminder that their own dream is over.
There are usually more than 10,000 boys in football’s youth development system at any one time, and between 3,000 and 4,000 associated with Premier League clubs. Of those who join academies at the earliest possible opportunity aged 9, less than 1% go on to make a living out of the game. Many are released having known nothing else but football, and the summer months are spent desperately seeking another avenue back in or facing up to the realisation that they are not destined to be the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
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A year ago, Demetri Mitchell went through this when his lengthy association with Manchester United, whom he joined at the age of 10, came to an end. He was expecting the news, but it didn’t do much to soften the blow.
“Coming towards the end of my contract at Man United, I knew that my time was up,” Mitchell tells ESPN. “I knew it was coming, but when you get the news, it still hits you hard. I didn’t think it was going to be [hard] because I already knew that my time was up, but when I was told, it was tough.
“My lowest point was not knowing if I would play again. I was probably overthinking and being a bit dramatic, but in my head I was thinking, ‘Am I going to play again, am I going to be all right, what am I going to do if I can’t play?’
“That period was a very mentally challenging time for me. I tried not to show it as much as possible, but the people around me who are close to me could pick up on it and luckily I had that support.”
Mitchell, 24, is one of the lucky ones. After joining Sunderland to regain fitness following an 18-month battle with injury, he accepted a trial at League One side Blackpool. His performances in friendlies against Everton and Blackburn earned him a contract and 12 months later, he was walking out at Wembley and helping his new team to a 2-1 win over Lincoln City in the play-off final to earn a shot at the Championship this season.
Some of the players he grew up with have not been so fortunate.
“When you’re coming up through the [age groups] you see dozens of players being let go and not making it,” he says. “I’m still close to lots of former teammates, and they’ve told me how hard it can be. You hear stories in the news of things happening. It’s a challenging time; it’s not easy.
“When you’re under-18s and you’re being told if you’re getting a contract, that’s the toughest. If you’re a pro at a top club you’re in a position where you can go on to find other clubs, but leaving as a scholar, it can be tough to find somewhere else.”
The desire to become a professional footballer can become all-consuming. For some, it’s about realising a lifelong dream; others see the wealth on offer at top clubs as a way to help their entire family escape an underprivileged background.
Raheem Sterling, now at Manchester City, has admitted he felt pressure to succeed because his talent was a “ticket out” of St. Raphael’s Estate in Neasden, north-west London. At just 13 years old he would take three buses to training with Queens Park Rangers, often accompanied by his sister while his mother was at work, leaving the house at 3 p.m. every day and not returning until after 11 at night.
The way academies are run has changed drastically in the past 10 years. Now, there is a greater focus on education to help players transition to lives away from football if they are released, and there’s more being done to look after the players’ mental as well as physical well-being — but there occasionally still are tragic stories.
In October 2020, 18-year-old Jeremy Wisten, a talented defender, died by suicide in the aftermath of his release from Manchester City’s academy. Wisten, who was in the City academy for three years from 2016 to 2019, struggled with a knee injury in his final year with the club.
Wisten’s father said in a statement shortly after his death: “During the last year at Manchester City, he was injured and spent a long time without playing. He did recover, but then had not played enough football the year prior to be considered for the next level. Of course it was very frustrating for him. He went for trials elsewhere, but because he hadn’t played much football, it proved very difficult.
“He enjoyed his time at Manchester City very much. … We are very grateful for the opportunity they gave our son.”
An inquest into his death began in late 2020.
City, like a number of Premier League clubs, have processes in place to support youngsters once they leave the club. At Manchester United, those involve the use of player-care teams as well as clinical psychologists available throughout their stay at Old Trafford and beyond.
“I’m not sure the solution for a young person’s mental health is to stick a plaster on once it’s all gone wrong,” Nick Cox, head of United’s academy, tells ESPN. “We have to have good exit strategies if a young player is going to be leaving us, and we have to have experts around if a young player is having a tough time.
“The real art is how do you design your programme so you don’t need this scramble for some after-care. We have to have those things in place as well, but if we’ve only got those things in isolation, it’s not going to be a healthy environment. It’s a tough industry, simply because of the sheer numbers of people who want to have success and the number of people who are able to achieve it.”
Cox says the focus on the mental health of young players is “night and day” compared to when he began his career in academy coaching in the early 2000s, when “it was literally a coach with a bag of balls and maybe an education officer.”
He adds: “Now we’re surrounded by experts in young people.” United’s goal, according to Cox, is not just to produce top-level footballers, but to set up youngsters for life, whether it’s a life in the game or away from it.
“We hear stories of people who have had difficult experiences and people who have had tough times but more often than not, and it doesn’t get talked about enough, football academies can be life-enriching and life-changing,” he says.
“We help them find another club, but as they get older, finding another club gets harder, so we’re helping them into employment or helping them into education. We’ve got a wonderful list of success stories of boys who are teachers, financial advisors, accountants and physiotherapists.
“We had a 16-year-old who was told around Christmas that he wouldn’t be kept on by us, but we committed to continue to work with him. We helped him look for other clubs and he has been offered a scholarship with a Premier League club.
“On his last night, the players and staff applauded him onto the Astroturf, handing him a United shirt signed by all the boys, and we all celebrated his achievement because what he has achieved is incredible. He may not be pulling on a red shirt next season but it’s something to celebrate for him and for us as a club.”
That particular dream has survived for another year, while for Mitchell, the start of the new season is filled with the excitement of starting a new chapter in a new league. For many others, it’s a different story.