Tuesday 22 January 2019

Chasing the professional football dream can quickly turn into a nightmare


Liverpool U18 manager Steven Gerrard
Liverpool U18 manager Steven Gerrard

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

The road to fame and fortune in professional sport is strewn with sad cases and cautionary tales. But there's a statistic that is not so much cautionary as downright terrifying.

According to Michael Calvin, only 180 out of the 1.5 million youth players in England will become a Premier League pro. "That's a success rate," he adds, "of 0.012 per cent."

Calvin is a sportswriter and the author of acclaimed football books, the latest of which is No Hunger in Paradise. A documentary of the same name was broadcast on BT Sport last Sunday. Both book and film explore the vast youth system that produces professional footballers and discards thousands of hopefuls along the way.

It was always extremely difficult to make it into the game's paid ranks. The tidal wave of money over the last two decades has made it even harder. For one, it has resulted in a globalised workplace with recruits from all over the world converging on English clubs. A talented boy from Manchester, or indeed Dublin, is competing not just with his domestic peers but an international cast of brilliant young players.

The quantum leap in riches has intensified anxiety levels among everyone from top Premier League managers to academy directors and the parents of boys who might have a chance of succeeding. If they find a diamond, he is almost worth his weight in diamonds to the club that owns his contract. For parents struggling in life, for single mothers and jobbing fathers, "the golden child" can become the golden goose.

"It is almost like a lottery ticket, instant millionaire status," says Brian Laws, the former manager and Nottingham Forest footballer. Now he runs a business leasing luxury motors. Players who haven't even made their first-team debut, 18-year-olds, are driving round in £100,000 cars. "It's ridiculous, and it's quite scary," he adds.

Calvin paints a picture of gold rush fever, a sort of Klondike mania, where there's "a thriving black economy" in the search for the next wonderkid. Stories he's heard on the grapevine include that of a 13-year-old being offered a guaranteed pro contract worth £45,000 per week; a nine-year-old whose family is paid £24,000 a year by his club; of parents smuggling football agents into training grounds in their cars.

Inevitably, if some youngsters get too much too soon, it kills their ambition. "It diminishes the hunger index," Arsène Wenger tells Calvin. Joey Barton says that players until 18 should only be getting around five hundred quid a week. Barton may have been the archetypal wild child, bad boy and even one-time jailbird, but he went the distance in the pro game. Give a young lad any more than £500, says Joey, probably speaking from experience, and he's liable to blow it "in the bookies or on stupid clothes or stupid watches".

But of course this is a problem only for players who have climbed this far up the pyramid. The vast majority fall off the ladder long before an eye-popping contract is slid across the table.

If you want to make it with the top six or eight Premier League clubs, says Steven Gerrard, it is not enough anymore to be a "very good" player. The Liverpool legend is now in charge of the club's under 18 squad. "To actually get in and stay in nowadays, you have to be world-class."

But, as Stephen Hunt and Kevin Doyle will testify, you can still make a great living outside the top six or eight. Neither Irish man was a stand-out player; both of them oscillated between the lower end of the Premier League and various staging posts in the second division. But they made it. They enjoyed long careers in the paid ranks. They had the "hunger" that is a prevailing theme here. They did everything in their power to survive the rat race.

In this newspaper last Sunday, Doyle gave an insight that should become a manifesto for any aspiring pro. He went to England as "a nobody" and accepted he had a mountain to climb. "But I knew what I had to do. I knew I could convince people and change minds. I knew I wouldn't stay a nobody. I had belief in my own ability. Whether other people did or not didn't bother me, once you have your own belief, that's all that matters. Once I got to Reading, I remember saying to myself, 'I have no choice. I have to do this'."

What we saw with Doyle and Hunt and their friend Shane Long was the cluster effect, similar to Ireland's amateur boxers circa 2008-2014 or the culture at Skibbereen Rowing Club now. "We used each other as motivation," said Hunt, "because (Kevin) had just come from Cork and got straight into the team, so I thought if he can get in, I can too."

But this sort of mental toughness is the great imponderable, the elusive quality that cannot be coached or transplanted. Gareth Southgate, now the England manager, also had a long career in the Premier League. But he was plagued by "self-doubt" and worry. "Am I fit enough to play, am I good enough to play?"

Kieran Bywater, now 22 and rebuilding his career at a university in the United States, spent ten years at West Ham. He captained their under 21 side. He seemed to tick every box. Then he was suddenly let go. It was left to his family to pick up the pieces. They turned to Pete Lowe of the Players' Trust, a not-for-profit organisation that acts as a counselling and consultation service for footballers and their families.

"He was almost a broken soul," says Lowe of Bywater. "His world had fallen apart inside milliseconds. Overnight, bang, 'You're no longer needed, son, you can go now.'"

Southgate saw it happening in his own time as an apprentice at Crystal Palace. In Calvin's book he doesn't mince his words about the cruelty of the trade: "It's a shitty, horrible world really."

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