Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Football: England’s lost generation

Posted on 1 November 2021 by Arif Islam

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There are not many nations on the planet that can rival the array of young exciting footballers England are currently producing.

The Golden Boy award, an award given to Europe’s best young footballer has five players who came through the English academy system on its 2021 shortlist.

However, for every Phil Foden there is a Ravel Morrison. Football fans are far too familiar with the wonderkid that never was. Players that have had their career cut short by constant injuries or a lack of dedication to the game.

Unfortunately, there are some that do not even get to that stage. Not for lack of talent on the pitch but issues off it.

Deprived communities and tough childhoods

Several Premier league stars have highlighted how their upbringing and surroundings played a major role in their development as players. Wilfried Zaha is a high-profile example. In an interview with Sky Sports, he said:

“Maybe that’s what pushes kids from South London much more because there’s so much stuff that can derail you and bring you to not so good places.”

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South London has long since established itself as one of the breeding grounds for the country’s most exciting talents. In recent times, it seems scouts across the continent have noticed the talent coming out of these communities.

The Bundesliga has given both Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham platforms to showcase their talents.

South London and many similar areas across the country, while producing great footballing conditions through the intense street football environment, are also some of the most deprived.

Many youngsters are involved in gangs and violent crime in the “not so good places” Zaha alludes to.

Anton Noble and Guiding Young Minds 

There is an amalgamation of factors which contribute to the difficulties for a young footballer navigating their way towards a professional career.

To get a greater overview and shed some light on lesser-publicised communities in England I spoke with Anton Noble. Anton, 30, a youth worker/coach and an urban specialist in gang and youth violence.

Anton grew up in Coventry, one of many cities in England which suffers from a high level of youth gang violence, drug and knife related crime. Personal experiences growing up led Anton to ‘Guiding Young Minds’.

Anton Noble speaking at a school

Guiding Young Minds intervention is a service set up to help vulnerable children and young people from low socio-economic backgrounds predominately in Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Coventry. Recently, the project has extended to London.

It aims to help young people to take control of their lives and chase their dreams. Naturally, for most English kids, becoming a professional footballer is top of the list. Anton explains the harsh reality for a lot of young boys trying to make their way into football.

“I’ve been doing this sort of work for around eight years; I’ve worked with hundreds of kids in that time. A lot of the kids that were trying to get into football were talented enough.

“Around 40% of the ones that were playing, and training had trials at clubs at some level but for one reason or another didn’t make it.”

Gang troubles

Anton delves into some of the reasons for this, highlighting the hardships present for these communities:

“I’ve had kids that can’t go to certain games because of gang trouble, like they’re not allowed in the area, but they don’t want to tell their coaches. So the coaches would think they’re not serious which would lead them to being dropped.”

Anton Noble speaking at a protest following the stabbing of promising young footballer

“Also, there’s not enough funding. There are boys that I know that have been told by older boys in gangs not to go to trials and would give them money because at the time they need it.”

Financial Struggles 

The money that characterises the Premier League is far out of reach for these local clubs and foundations at grassroots level. Basic resources such as boots and transport links are severely lacking, a problem familiar to Zaha himself:

“I’ve gone to training without having boots and I have had to play in trainers whilst everyone else has boots on. I can’t afford boots like everyone else.”

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Anton speaks about the impact it can have on the confidence of these boys:

“With where these boys come from their parents can’t afford the newest kits or boots, so when they go to train and see some other kids with new stuff it is a big hit to their confidence. Some will just stop turning up.”

Out of the hundreds of kids Anton has worked with over the years only four have made into professional academies. But two were dropped over attitude problems.

Anton expands upon this:

“A lot of these kids, their parents are busy trying to provide for them. So, a lot don’t have role models in their lives. When they don’t understand or agree with something they get really frustrated. What I think really frustrates them is when they feel like nobody is listening to them.”

What does the future hold?

For many young would-be footballers across the country, it would seem sometimes the obstacles off the pitch are greater than the ones on it. The key difference for many in these situations who make it as a professional and the ones that do not, is a mentor figure or a support system.

Organisations like Guiding Young Minds attempt to bridge the gap but do not have the reach or funding to make a national impact. With all the wealth football generates there should be more done for young people from deprived communities up and down the football pyramid.

Anton offers his view on how football clubs can improve for future generations. In cities such as Coventry, which does not garner the same attention as the major cities such as London, Manchester and Birmingham, Anton feels like it is a “lottery” for young footballers.

“Scouts that come to games should sometimes let the locals know they are coming in advance and come more consistently. If they did this, the boys would be more serious.”

Adding to this, Anton suggests that boys outside football academies should be offered some sort of programme across a 6-week period.  Which would allow the boys to feel like they have a genuine chance to showcase their talents and focus on football.

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Anton concludes with this important point:

“For the young people that weren’t good enough their pathway into football shouldn’t end there. The clubs or organisations should offer and train them in other roles within football.”

The path to becoming a professional footballer in England is already one of the most difficult career goals in the country. Less than one percent of boys enrolled in an academy by the age of nine make it professional or make a living from the sport per the Business Insider.

If clubs across all levels had a voice like Anton Noble, not only would this be to the betterment of English football but society generally.