FA Chairman Greg Dyke has a vision: For England to win the World Cup in 2022. English Youth Academies also have a vision: To stop failing 90% of the boys in their ranks.
Matthew Smith was in that 90%. He flirted with the prospect of a future in Premier League football for several years, before parting company with Southampton at the age of 15. Towards the end of his three-year spell with The Saints, he was faced with a life changing decision. The club informed Smith that they required him to spend a full day at the training ground three times a week, and that he would have to sit his GCSE exams in Southampton. A big decision rested on the shoulders of this 15-year-old lad from Worthing, his tone of voice suggesting that it is still a niggle in the back of his mind: “After much deliberation and talking about it with my parents, it wasn’t really something I wanted to fully commit too yet.
“I was still only doing my GCSE’s and I was thinking, if I don’t concentrate fully on my exams and my qualifications, I’m going to be left with nothing if I don’t end up becoming a footballer. I would have had nothing to fall back on.”
Despite being captain at the time, Smith decided it was in his best interests to leave Southampton’s academy, undeterred by his coaches stressing how highly they rated him. He is now plying his trade in the Ryman South League, as captain of Burgess Hill Under 21’s, and believes the influx of foreign players into the Premier League Youth systems is what ultimately drives the deficit of young English stars: “The money in football now is just ridiculous and you have to point the finger at the big clubs.
“They can just go and buy a 16-year-old from Portugal who is labelled the next Ronaldo, turn round to the boy that has been with them for eight years, and go ‘sorry mate, we’ve just bought this kid from Portugal, we’re going to have to release you’.”
And just like that, it is over. 8 years of hard work, commitment and belief, squandered with one nonchalant decision. Thankfully, this is something that Bournemouth Under 21’s defender Callum Buckley has never had the unfortunate pleasure of hearing. After impressing in a loan spell at Eastbourne Borough this season, Buckley has recently penned a new one-year contract extension with the Cherries, and feels a big part of his success has been mastering the psychological side of the game:
“We can all be good footballers with ability, but if you’re not there mentally, and you can’t cope with the everyday challenges, you won’t make it in any form of football.”
“I don’t believe I’m better than anyone else, I just try to work my hardest every day and stay as positive as possible to see where it will take me.”
During his time at Southampton, Smith also noted that Premier League clubs are seeking strong cerebral capability, seemingly a pitfall for even the most gifted of young footballers: “I think they were definitely looking for mental strength more than anything. Could you deal with the games, the high pace, the pressure of coming in three or four times a week whilst balancing your other commitments.
“If you didn’t have the mental strength for it, you’d pull out or they would release you. It’s as simple and as cut throat as that.”
It is no secret that at the big clubs, in addition to a poor mental attitude, a lack of opportunities is what ultimately puts premature ends to highly promising careers. Take Chelsea FC for example. This is a club whose Under 19 side have just been crowned European Champions for the second year in a row: The first team at any age group to retain a major European title. This is a club whose Under 18’s have just won the FA Youth Cup for a record breaking third consecutive year. In spite of all this success, the stats do not look good for these incredibly talented young hopefuls. Since 2010, Chelsea have won 5 FA Youth Cups. Yet only ten players from these teams have gone on to register a first-team appearance, with four of those only featuring on one sole occasion.
Worryingly, this is not an issue exclusive to big clubs. A visit to the East coast of Scotland sees a Dundee United side staring at the prospect of relegation to the Scottish Championship. In a season in which their first team has failed to fire, Under 20’s starlet Reghan Tumilty has been frustrated by the apparent lack of opportunities: “It’s not just me, the whole youth team is full of discontent. Why go with the same ‘experienced’ team game after game when they’ve won about three matches all season?
“If a youth team player keeps on doing well and standing out then a manager must surely see that.”
Tumilty is currently in search of a new club, after deciding to try and further his career away from Tannadice. Luckily for this exciting young right-back, even if it doesn’t work out at a professional club, the dream of becoming a pro footballer is not dead in the water.
Deemed surplus to requirements by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of 16, you only have to look at the incredible story of Jamie Vardy to know that it is possible. He came from the depths of non-league football only to grace the Premier League in the most sensational of styles. He was on the brink of giving up football. Now he is in the Premier League record books for scoring in 11 consecutive top-flight games. Had it not been for the early season heroics of his Leicester teammate Riyad Mahrez, he would probably have won PFA Player of the Year. Not bad for a man who was playing in the Bluesquare Premier just four years ago.
Whether it be the influx of foreign players, the absence of mental strength or the lack of first team opportunities, the current state of our national side is enough to tell us that this country has a problem with it’s academy system.
Now all we have to do is win the World Cup in 2022.