Traditionally, the education of young footballers in the academy development system has not been a priority. But over the past decade academies in England appear to have improved, but it is far from a perfect system.
Football is one of the most competitive professions in the world, and a shockingly low percentage of people playing at any given time will ever make a living from the game.
Given that football has only become more competitive and if players want to succeed they must work harder than ever, questions must be asked over how effective the educational revolution has been inside British football academies.
Paul Raven, who is an Executive in the Education department of the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) and an ex-professional footballer for West Bromwich Albion, Doncaster Rovers, Grimsby Town, Rotherham United and Carlisle United provided insight into the PFA’s role from an education perspective.
Paul stressed one fundamental mantra right away that drives the Education department of the PFA: “The only inevitable thing about becoming a footballer is that at some point, you’ll become an ex-footballer.”
This is something true of all players, but some careers finish far earlier than others. This is why the PFA offer educational guidance and provide the opportunity for players to earn qualifications, anticipating the day that ones playing career comes to an end.
For an academy player and even for a professional that day could come at any time.
“We very rarely refer to the word retirement as the vast majority of footballers don’t get to voluntarily retire, it just doesn’t happen. It only happens to the very top players in general.
“The rest of them are either too old, too young and don’t have the experience or they become injured or they aren’t offered a contract.” Paul said.
One of the most pivotal times in a person’s development is their teen years, connections in the brain are strengthened and certain processes become more efficient as the human mind learns to adapt and specialise in the day-to-day tasks one carries out.
In the modern scholarship framework, players in the 16 to 18 age-bracket are mandatorily enrolled for a BTEC qualification, with the right level of attainment, players will be able to apply to any university in the country.
Paul stressed that although younger players are pushed towards these qualifications, the PFA still encourage more senior players to consider their next steps as early as possible saying: “Even if you are successful and earn yourself loads of money, you still need a purpose in life.”
In the 16-18 age-range, players also have the opportunity to earn a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) and a Level 2 coaching certificate. For those who wish to travel down the road of coaching, they already have a head-start into that pathway.
Paul acknowledged that like many other academic pursuits, it can be very difficult to attain the grades you’d like and that not all players will receive the same levels of support.
But the question remains, with the knowledge of how few players make a living from the game, could the PFA be doing more to support the grade attainment of these players and should that be of higher priority in the development football industry.
Simone Pound, Head of PFA Equalities, stated that in fact there is actually a small percentage of players who even want to transition into coaching.
“That kind of consideration tends to come into a players’ mind later in their career, so for the majority of players who exit the game before the age of 30, coaching is very rarely on their agenda.” Said Simone.
This raises some concern over how rigorous the educational provisions for these players actually are, if so much time and resource goes into a scheme with a very low up-take from academy prospects or professionals alike, it may need a rethink.
Looking at the big picture, The PFA generally have between three and three and a half thousand current players, and around 50 thousand former players on their books at any given time.
So, despite Paul’s claims that the PFA have been a driving force behind the educational standards present in academy football, it seems likely that players will slip through the cracks or end up not receiving the holistic support they aim to provide.
In combatting the problem of struggling to pay attention to all of their members, players are largely encouraged to reach out to the PFA, not the other way around.
The dynamic can be strange for a footballer released from an academy, especially if support is minimal. If they have been unlucky enough to commit their time to football completely and have ended up being told they must progress with their careers elsewhere, often the reaction is to look for the quickest means of making money.
The reality is, academy players have been moulded to care about football, and through no fault of their own many of them do not attain the grades which will lead them on to a happy and fulfilling career elsewhere.
In Michael Calvin’s book No Hunger in Paradise on the difficulties facing players in the academy system, he mentions the work of prison councillor Albert Barnes whose case-load at the time included multiple ex-academy players from Arsenal, Fulham, Tottenham and Chelsea – all imprisoned for drugs charges or armed robbery.
Barnes visits these ex-footballers to gain an understanding of the issues that run parallel between them and those who have completed military service.
Both disciplines require ones identity to be strongly attached to it, this is immeasurably useful when carrying out their respective roles, but this identity attachment often leaves individuals feeling lost once they face a transition of career.
One of the main causes cited by these individuals when taking to a life of crime, is their lack of options after they were released from football or once they had completed their service.
A lack of education and holistic development leads to a lack of opportunities, especially in adulthood, these people are the very worst affected by the educational frameworks that have been present in the academy system to date.
The game they loved gave them structure and drive, but they were dropped at a pivotal time in their lives. A time where they should have been given the tools to survive in the adult world.
Speaking about the difficulties of providing young players with appropriate education, Paul predicts that advancements in technology will be the next frontier for improvement saying: “We are always looking for ways that we can make education more accessible and more portable.”
“One thing that COVID-19 did help, was the proliferation of flexible and online platforms for learning. Online learning is not for everyone but at least it makes many a subject matter more accessible and portable. Something we hope will improve the educational experience of young players coming through the development system.” Paul said.
It is clear that football needs to change the way they see young players. In too many instances they are a means to an end, rather than being perceived as human beings who require the appropriate tools to survive in the adult world.
The importance of feeling comfortable in your own skin cannot be underestimated, and these players aren’t being taught to feel comfortable anywhere other than the football pitch.
Until football as an industry starts taking the transition between playing and life-after playing seriously, these tragic stories will continue to persist.