Boys & Football Clubs

I’ve just read this, and it made me think about something which has bothered me for quite some time.

Like most teachers, I’ve taught boys who have dreamed of becoming professional footballers. And like many teachers, I’ve taught boys who have appeared to have been on the way to ‘making it.’

It feels to me like there are more such boys now than there used to be. As a schoolboy, over twenty years ago, I played in a league in which one club had one boy who was on Chelsea’s books. His status was legendary, though of course you’ve never heard of him, because of course he didn’t become a professional footballer. He was the only one. No one else in the league I played in, nor anyone at my school, had ever been taken on by any other football club.

So the first time I taught a boy and was told that he was part of a junior squad at a Football League club I was impressed.

I’ve learned not to be. At my school – and this is a private school, remember, which isn’t the usual breeding ground for professional footballers – I have known of several boys who have been described as ‘playing for’ one club or another.

This, needless to say, is something of which they are inordinately proud. They have indeed been selected by these clubs; they are indeed better than their peers; and of all the professional footballers, it is likely that they have come through these programmes. Not all of them ‘turn professional,’ but of the professional footballers at the peak of the game there aren’t many who were discovered at semi-professional levels. So if anyone is on his way to stardom, and of course someone is, it’ll be someone who has already been identified in this way.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. Nick Hornby wrote about the process in his brilliant chapter on Gus Caesar in Fever Pitch (1992):

At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he’s still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he’s offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford or even West Ham but with the mighty Arsenal. And it’s still not over, even then, because if you look at any First Division youth team of five years ago you won’t recognise the names, because most of them have disappeared.

But the sausage machine appears to be taking in many more boys than it used to.

The attitude of the clubs themselves is understandable. They want to gather as much talent as they can, harvest the wheat, and discard the chaff. It’s not as though the attrition rates are a secret. The boys know the deal. Their parents know the deal. Is it necessary for those clubs to give boys contracts to sign in which they agree not to play rugby for their school team? I doubt it, but I suppose they have their reasons.

And I also understand the desire on the part of the football fraternity as a whole to support these academies (as they are, perhaps misleadingly, known). English football in particular has been criticised for a lack of sophistication, and that lack of sophistication has been linked to the way young English footballers are treated when they first take up the game. I remember being ten years old and playing eleven-a-side games on full-size pitches with full-size goals; I remember the convention that the centre-half was selected on his ability to kick the ball as hard as possible; I remember games on windy days in which an entire half (as in the time period) would take place in one third of the pitch because even that lad couldn’t get his goal kicks any further; I remember the boys who were perennial substitutes; and yes, I certainly remember the parents’ behaviour.

That, infamously, was a major drawback of that wholly amateur system. Those adults who were involved in it were motivated, mostly, by nothing more than a desire to do their best for the boys (I wasn’t aware of any girls’ teams in my town at the time) and for the game itself. But those youth football clubs, Burke’s idyllic ‘little platoons,’ too often became wretched and twisted versions of the real thing.

When my brother was twelve (twelve!) his team played against another team, placed in a higher division, in the league cup; they took them to two replays (those were the days), and the coach of the opposing team then spent the next few weeks coaxing two of my brother’s team-mates to join his club, which they eventually did. When I was sixteen, a club in my league folded in December: it had spent the previous summer trying to persuade some of the best players in the area to join, and some did, promised the glories of being the glamour boys in the area; but existing players (some of whom had played for that team for years) were utterly alienated, and team spirit collapsed; one cold afternoon they found themselves 7-0 down at half-time, to the team top of the league who they’d expected to be their only rivals for the title, and they walked off, never to play another game together.

So look – I’ve got no illusions about the good old days.

And yet I wonder if the new system is better. I wonder if top football clubs are being grossly irresponsible in telling boys that they can now consider themselves A Chelsea Player, knowing that in a few years’ time they’ll be telling them that they’re not wanted. And I wonder if, in the long run, the boys themselves would enjoy their football more, and indeed their other sports, if they were playing for their local club instead.

Almost none of these boys are going to become professional footballers. I don’t quite know what we should do about this phenomenon, but the current situation – where we allow them to kid themselves that they are, and to allow their futures to be curtailed in the way that Jeff explains, is wrong.

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