Watford, like all academies, provided two reviews each year – one before Christmas, another at the end of the season. The aim is to ensure there are no surprises when important decisions are made such as a player being released or retained. Reviews were attended by the player and one of his parents, the academy manager, assistant academy manager and your age group coach, and were held at the stadium.
This seemed perfectly normal as dad and I drove the 30 minutes or so from home to Vicarage Road for my final mid-season review. We hoped to hear I was on track for that important final decision to be made some time in the new year. Yet when we parked up, we met DeReece, another player from the team, who had just been told he was being released. My body stiffened and my mind went blank. I felt terrible for him and didn’t know what to say.
DeReece was with his mum and grandad, who always watched, and was visibly upset. As we said our goodbyes to DeReece, his grandad assured me I would be fine. I wasn’t so sure. DeReece was a ‘definite’ in our eyes. What chance did I stand?
Dad and I were met by Nick Cox who guided us into a room with fellow coaches Barry Quin and Dave Reddington. My heart pounded and my hands were sweaty as they opened by announcing their decision. I wasn’t being offered a scholarship and they explained their decision for another 10 to 15 minutes. I was numb and unable to digest anything they said so just stared straight through them, unresponsive.
Dad answered their questions as he knew if I tried to speak, I’d probably burst into tears. As the meeting closed, they offered to help me find another club, listing some smaller clubs where they had good contacts. I felt insulted. So that is what you think of me? A lower-league player. Dad jumped in and told them we would sort it ourselves.
Neither of us said a word as we walked back to the car. We just sat there in silence. The news broke me in two. All that hard work for all those years hadn’t been good enough. Dad, thankfully, did his best to keep my spirits up. Calmly, he told me not to be upset, this wasn’t the end of the road. There were loads of other clubs out there. He believed in me, which was such a confidence boost.
On the journey home something stirred. More than anger, it was positive energy. People always define anger as a bad thing but right now I felt more motivated and determined than ever. I wanted to go home and go straight into the garden to practise. The only thing on my mind was proving them wrong.
That night, I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, trying to work out what I’d done wrong and could have done better. I was the only midfielder out of four who wasn’t offered a scholarship. What did they have that I didn’t? What was I going to do now? These thoughts ran over in my mind until I came back to the feeling I had in the car. I was determined to show them how good I was.
We drew up a plan of action. I would attend as many trials as possible, with dad using the connections he had made with scouts and coaches. We agreed that regardless of how many trials I was offered, I would attend them all before making a decision. It was possible, of course, that I might fail to impress any of them and my dream of becoming a professional footballer would end. My mind at rest, I was in a more positive mood.
Not every child has a dad so rational and used to business planning. I fear for kids whose parents lack those skills in this sort of situation. The following morning, I spoke to one of the senior academy coaches who told me my major downfall had been my positioning, which seemed a strange thing to say to a 15-year-old as surely having trained for 15 hours a week over four years that was something they should have noticed and taught me to do properly?
All I could do was try to prove them wrong. That said, I have issues with how it was handled. Ultimately, I was OK because I had good support from friends and family. Not all kids are from a similar failsafe background. They struggle to cope and we see stories of players whose lives are irreparably damaged by the disappointment of failing to make it as a professional footballer. As a mature 26-year-old at the time of writing, I wonder if there isn’t a better way to cushion the crushing blow for kids who have given it their all from such a young age.
Academy coaches have an unenviable task of releasing young players in a business designed to leave no stone unturned. They must deliver bad news as the weaker players are filtered out. But surely the game must shoulder its pastoral care more thoughtfully, not least as some clubs now recruit players as young as five or six.
They barely have any memories of life before being coached in an academy. Clubs come crashing into the lives of children and their families, massaging egos and destabilising the concept of a ‘normal’ home life. The family structure, their routines, leisure time, who-does-what-when, bends to the will of the club.
Some lads aren’t from stable two-parent families. They’ll have single parents, or their mum and dad may have split up and have new partners. Some come from challenging backgrounds or fractured communities where crime is rife and young people feel socially alienated. It is one thing to shatter those dreams in a handful of words but surely the easing-down process needs to be measured so it comes as no surprise if or when that happens. We can’t prevent disappointment but clubs can manage expectations far better.
It is fair to say most academy footballers believe they’ll make it. With the dream so tantalisingly close, little else matters. They don’t think about school, further or higher education or work. This is dangerous. No matter how talented you are, there are so many factors that can go right or wrong – not just ability and attitude but injury. The only certainty is there are no guarantees.
Chris Green, who has edited this book for me and is the author of the seminal Every Boy’s Dream (A&C Black – 2009), estimated it to be, at best, a 1% chance of a nine-year-old academy player becoming a professional footballer. One percent. At best. You do the maths. Yet all the talk among elite academies is always about playing in the Premier League. There is never a suggestion of settling down at a Championship, League One or League Two club. Players have great careers in these leagues too. I have flitted between them for most of my career so far. Yet if you’d have told me that at 15, I’d have felt I’d failed.
From Winning Teams to Broken Dreams is available now (£11.99). All proceeds go to Sarcoma UK, a charity which supports research into a rare form of bone cancer.