I cant sit back and bite my tongue any longer.
With the new football season just underway I wanted to highlight a side of football only a few see and even less talk about.
10 years ago our 9yr old son was approached by a number of professional football clubs to join their academy programme.
At the time it was all very exciting for him. Having thought long and hard over what decision to make he decided to join West Ham United. Given the way they welcomed him and the history of the club it swayed our decision. There was however one small problem for us as we lived over 75 miles from the training ground. The FA clearly stated in their rules that any player under 13 years of age wouldn’t be able to do this journey of over an hour. Where we lived it was impossible for us to be within 1 hour of a premier league academy, a process seemingly penalising boys from rural areas.
“Don’t worry” the Club said, we can register him to a local address and support you with any travel costs as this is perfectly fine. We didn’t think anymore and assumed by their proposals that this was standard practice. I worked for myself and had to make massive sacrifices to get my son to training and games at the least four times a week. My Monthly fuel bill was in excess of £400 a month and we often got home after 11pm on school nights. Make no mistake it was a massive commitment.
Our son started very well at West Ham and from the age of 9years old he began to “play up” age groups every season. The coaches were always on the phone to us especially when they got the impression he was unhappy with something. On one occasion they even got paranoid and suspicious that another club had approached us to get him to leave the club. At 15years old there was even a suggestion by staff that he might be selected for England Schoolboys. I was unhappy about this as it built hopes up of probable trials which didn’t materialise as he was ill with tonsillitis in the match the representative from England attended and was not asked for trials.
The then very well thought of academy manager told my son and us that he was very disappointed he was not given a fair chance or even asked for trial. He was not as disappointed as a 15 yr old with massive ambition / hopes and dreams. This was another example of how they built up hopes, only for parents to manage it when it didn’t happen.
On reflection this theme of false promises began to increase and became a familiar pattern, but at the time we couldn’t see this. Despite phone calls and promises I never once saw any financial support to get him to the club for training having convinced us of this would be the case when getting him to sign. How could I turn around and say “no you can’t go anymore”. It would have broken his heart as an 11 year old and given our location in the country where else could he have gone for his football as West Ham would have sought compensation. So in effect we were caught in a Catch 22 situation over his registration if he wanted to leave.
Family life begins to revolve around the club. As a Parent school holidays are full of football tournaments / games and you have to be prepared to arrange things at minimal notice. Dropping family events is the norm. The sacrifices as a family will be unseen by most and certainly ignored by the club. With hindsight we were naïve but like many we couldn’t see it and had no one to ask advice from.
At the age of 13yrs we were seriously considering pulling him out of the club given the travel commitments and financial pressures on us as a family. The club representatives suggested that he could start living at the club house from Wednesdays to Saturdays which would benefit us from reduced travel costs and thus reduce demands on our son. The club certainly suggested it would be to his benefit if he wanted to keep progressing. ( I now know this was complete rubbish). The club loosely liaised with his school and it all seemed fine. Make no mistake the school were the “kingpins” to making it work for him and not the club.
On the night we were being shown around the impressive club house we were suddenly interrupted by a phone call to discover that our sons best friend had tragically died in a freak accident. He was 13 years old when he died and our son has never forgotten this night when we had to race home from London to be with our friends. This had a major impact on our son and it is still seen today during goal celebrations.
Things eventually settled down for a couple of years until he reached 16. He had been scoring lots of goals and had been playing very well. We found it hard to go to a home game without being pestered by agents asking us to sign up. I didn’t like this part of the game and it was all “hush hush,” conversations. We avoided these individuals who circled training grounds like vultures.
The Sacrifices our son was making at home, school and within friendship groups was massive. He was balancing lots of travel, school and large training programmes. Through no help from the club he managed to get all his GCSEs albeit we paid for a private maths tutor to pull him through the study pressure as a result of his football commitments.
Sixteen years of age is a very important age for a young player. It’s the time scholarships are awarded by clubs. There was lots of pressures from agents to sign and explore avenues with other clubs. We truly didn’t have a clue who to turn to for advice and nobody spoke about it. It was if it was some kind of a dirty conversation to have. At the time, our son wanted to remain loyal to West Ham and he chose not to have an agent at that time. To his credit he went in on his own and spoke to the academy director to discuss the offer of a scholarship. Some might think this is nothing, but it takes a bit of courage as a 15yr old to do this. He had been doing very well and the then director offered him a 2 year scholarship with a 1 year pro contract to follow.
The two years as a scholar went very quickly which saw him featuring at seventeen years of age for the U21s, playing against older players like Raheem sterling and Jonjo shelvy at Liverpool. Ian Abrahams (moose) even suggested via twitter he had been man of the match for West Ham setting up all three goals. He played behind a closed door game at Upton Park with the first team against QPR. He was captain of the U18s and U21s and during 2013/14 (as an U18) became the countries 2nd highest goal scorer despite being a midfielder. He was also nominated for the Academy player of the year. Videos and interviews started to appear via You tube and on the clubs web site. He regularly featured in “the goal of the month” videos at the club given that the first team were having a bad season and not scoring many goals.
As for our son everything seemed to be progressing well and at 18 years old he was really enjoying his football with a smile on his face.
That was until disaster struck for a second time with another tragic shock. One of his first friends from the Academy House, and someone he looked up to and admired both as a person and player- Dylan Tombides became unwell with testicular cancer and after a brave two year battle sadly died . It was another huge emotional blow. During one home game he walked out as captain of the U18s on behalf of the Club and laid a wreath in Memory Of Dylan. I know privately this was very very hard for him as it brought back so many memories. There was no support from the club and it was left to us to help him through this before and after games.
At the beginning of the 2014/15 season (his 1st year as a pro at West ham), everything seemed fine and he had been training regularly with the first team. A new Academy director had come to the club to replace the outgoing Tony Carr.
The new Academy director spoke to our son about his goal scoring and heaping praise upon him but was worried why he only had a year left on his contract. It all looked very positive for our son to keep progressing and in December 2014 he was asked to attend the Bobby Moore Foundation annual event in London to represent the club. Standing up with other famous sports stars like David Seaman and Mo Farah he was introduced as a top upcoming U21 player within the club. There was no indication that he would be leaving the club or hadn’t been performing.
He was at this time playing every game for the U21s in preseason against lower league first teams and doing well. However I began to notice during these Barclays U21s premier league games that the manager at the time seemed to have a difficult working relationship with the new Academy director. There was obviously something going on behind the scenes as I and other parents could sense the tension between staff. The new Academy director had brought in his own son and given him a long contract. Standing in the crowd watching games and performances his son who was a couple years older than ours was glaringly below standard to all onlookers and mutterings of how he was offered a contract were rife.
On one particular day The Academy director approached me outside Cambridge United’s ground where I was waiting for my son after he had just played for West hams U21s against Cambridge United first team. The Academy director asked me to confirm that our son only had a one year left on his contract and that he suggested he wanted this extended as soon as possible. We took this as positive feedback and I got the impression The Academy director was worried of losing our son at the end of his year contract, as other lads who weren’t making the team as regularly as our son were now on longer contracts.
Over the weeks before Christmas 2014 our son started every game bar one for the U21 due to injury. Scoring a number of goals in the European competitions, he was progressing well or so it appeared. There was no feedback to him from staff at the club, other than praise for performances, which is well documented in TV interviews on the clubs website. I can quote, “ he can score goals with both feet and play in any position”.
Not long after this, I had a conversation with my son and he informed me The Academy director had called him into the office to find out who his agent was. My son didn’t have an agent at the time so The Academy director advised that he would get one for him and would then extend his contract for a further 2 yrs. It all seemed like a conflict of interest so I advised my son to be careful and to explore all options for an agent. i.e One whom he could trust and build a good relationship with that had no affiliations to the club. We found a really nice guy, who had worked for the PFA and been a Police officer during a short career break from the game. We felt he was the ideal trustworthy person our son needed in the game.
The Academy director was unaware of this and again asked our son that he would get a further 2year contract and an agent. That was until he found out our son had appointed this different agent. Less than two weeks after appointing his agent (January 2015), The Academy director called our son into his office and told him that he wasn’t getting a new contract and was free to leave. Simple as that!
To say this was a shock to our son was a massive understatement. Everyone around the club was shocked. The Academy director couldn’t look my son in the face but assured him that he had wanted to keep him at the club but claimed Sam Allerdyce ( the manager at the time) was the only one at the club who had over ruled him despite coaching staff recommendations. Who could we believe and where did our son stand in all of this? He was devastated and once outside the office door cried his eyes out .
So in effect after 10 years of loyal and dedicated commitment to the club our son became a victim of this whole academy process. Sam Allerdyce was later sacked by the board and 6 months down the line our son is still exploring options in the hope he can find a new club or even new career.
As it stands a good young technical player released from a premier league academy has very little chance unless they have a club which is prepared to loan them out. So as a parent you must be prepared for this. When you are released as a young untested Professional at 19 years old it literally kills your career overnight, despite any previous performances in the U21s and such like.
“Why you might be asking”? Well its simply because lower league clubs can’t afford to pay or take a risk on a young untested player when there is little money in their annual budgets for squads.
Nobody around West Ham believed my son when he announced he was being released. We are still getting messages as I write this article. Our phone didn’t stop ringing from people stating they had heard the news and couldn’t believe it. All the clichés came out, “one door closes another one opens ”, “he will have no problem finding a club and be snapped up”, “they have made a huge mistake”. Privately this didn’t ease any of the pain for him and he is still without a club. He has even had to tell agents through his LinkedIn account to leave him alone and stop making contact.
So why this article? I want to warn other parents going down the academy football route. You will hear so much storytelling and false promises. Trust nothing you are told and always have a plan B outside football. Clubs and The Football association need to be brought to account as they are manipulating naive parents and young lads year on year for their own advantages. Clubs will say one thing but do something completely different. One minute your top dog the next your bottom of the pile and your son could become very isolated over night for no apparent reason.
Some will think I’m writing this article because I’m a bitter Dad because our son didn’t get an opportunity at West Ham. That’s not the case but this whole academy process does hugely affect a lads opportunities going forward once released.
What I’m bothered about here is the way clubs conduct themselves during the Academy process. I say this because I was recently stood on the touchline in the midlands of a U21 trial game. I spoke to parents of lads from Villa, Chelsea, Fulham and Arsenal to name a few. They all had similar stories to tell. Young lads facing the depression of isolation having given everything to a club from the ages of 7,8 or 9.
Don’t believe a word you are told by football clubs. West Ham have used our son, in effect to big themselves up about player development and then spat him out the back because it didn’t fit with certain staff when he chose a different agent.
I don’t personally have any frustration about what has happened to my son, more a huge disappointment given his selfless great attitude and a Commando ethos he learned from me over years of dedicated effort. To see him being discarded like trash while others of lesser attitude and ability move forward “for having the right contacts and agents” is deplorable.
We are very grateful for a number of coach’s who have supported our son , especially Nick Haycock and Steve Potts . Our son has many unanswered questions, but nobody at the club through the past 3 years has ever sat him down to say where to improve his game prior to being “let go”. On the contrary, staff were telling him from the age of 18 he was on a three year programme of development until he was 21. Why then did it suddenly change at 19. It was certainly not performance related. I suspect the only reason he was let go by the club was because he didn’t get the right agent. Very much like Ravel Morrison and the many other young players following in similar footsteps.
That however is for my new book and I would be keen to hear from other parents and players about their stories at academies from up and down the country.
I just hope our son and the many other players going through the same battle get the chance they deserve in English football. I hope English Clubs can start looking past trying to find the next Ronaldo in one off trial games and concentrate on consistent technical quality with excellent attitudes and ability to face defeat and learn how to overcome it.
Sadly having witnessed events in the past 12 months I have many doubts about English Football and the way its heading for our young English Players. There needs to be a massive change in the duty of care of our young player’s because years of promises in a player’s development can have a devastating effect when it comes to an end.
As for West Ham, the only person to have called our son to ensure he was ok is Nick Haycock who was incidentally forced out of West Ham by a certain person who has his own son happily in the squad. It’s a real shame because the fans at the club are probably the most loyal and dedicated fans in the world and the young players certainly deserve better protection.
YOU CANT WIN ANYTHING WITH KIDS- ALAN HANSEN