What is the ultimate dream job?
Majority of young kids would say to be a footballer.
To step out onto the pitch at Wembley, with the Three Lions on the front and your name on the back.
Scoring a beautiful goal and making the crowd erupt as you wheel away in celebration.
Coming off the pitch to a standing ovation.
Sponsorship deals, big contracts, fancy cars and big houses.
Being a professional footballer truly is every kid’s dream and, in an age, where you can have so much handed to you at such a young age, it’s easy to see the appeal.
Being a footballer is goal for so many kids, and the route into the professional game is a brutal emotional and physical journey that kids are simply not always ready to go on.
Sure, some do make it and have been in academies since they were seven years old, but it takes a special kind of mental toughness to handle that pressure at such an age.
Is it something that should be expected of a growing mind and body?
The first thing to look at when talking about the process of making it as a professional footballer is going back to the very beginning, when aspiring footballers are still in primary school.
Opinions differ on how young a player should be allowed to be scouted by a club, but the facts remain that scouting a player at seven years old (the minimum age for a player to be scouted in the UK) instantly puts pressure on those young, underdeveloped shoulders.
Clubs swoop in like vultures on the most talented and dangle all their hopes and dreams in front of them, only for it to be snatched away later down the line most of the time.
A child who is not even fully developed or finished growing could be released because he’s “too short”, whilst Diego Maradona, arguably one of the greatest footballers ever, stood at five feet, five inches tall.
Out of all the kids who play for academies from the age of nine in the UK, only 1% of them will reach any professional level.
The flaw in the academy system in this country is not the number of players who get released, but it is the way in which players are discarded.
Clubs are on a mission to find the best players, and they cater more to that than they do nurturing the kids, especially the ones who are made surplus to requirements.
Kids should take away a lot of positives from that sort of experience when it sadly comes to an end, but what you see instead is them getting disheartened, set back, and unmotivated.
A survey carried out by the Sports Gazette in 2021 found that 72% of players felt they were not given enough support by the club who released them.
Not only that but it also found that 90% of players who get released reported depression or high levels of anxiety.
A tragic example of this is the deeply saddening story of Jeremy Winston.
Signed by Manchester City in 2016, Winston showed great promise as a young defender, featuring for the under-13’s elite squad.
However, he was later released by the club and spiralled into a deep depression, leading him to take his own life in 2020, aged just 17.
Such things should never happen, and clubs should be much more aware of the mental detriment that being released can leave, with little to no support.
Taking the focus away from those who don’t make it, let’s talk briefly about those who do.
What pressures and anxieties come with fulfilling your childhood dream?
So many footballers who are lucky to be handed a chance at senior football in the Premier League for example, are instantly put under a microscope by fans, pundits and media.
These days it only takes a few good games and they are branded ‘the next big thing’, but so many players can understandably crack under that pressure.
Take for example, Barcelona prodigy Pedri Gonzalez.
The Spaniard is without a doubt incredibly gifted young player, and a generational talent.
But one must call into question the physical and mental pressures being placed on him at such a young age.
71 games in a season is a staggering number for any player, but for a 20-21 year-old it is simply monstrous.
One could argue that he is in danger of either burning out, getting seriously injured, or both.
And that is without talking about the mental pressures.
Pedri is Barcelona’s most promising young player, which comes with added pressure from the fans and from within the club.
At the age of 21 the midfield maestro has a release clause of £1 billion, which goes without saying, puts even more weight on such young shoulders.
So to bring it full circle, what do the powers that be within the sport need to do to protect players who either make it big, or get released and never turn pro?
The structure of the academy systems are built to be highly productive machines, in which the young players are small cogs that can be taken out and replaced.
And there is nothing wrong with releasing players because the club geniunely feels as if they are not good enough, but there needs to be a better aftercare system in place for players who struggle with mental health and anxiety.
The last thing we want is another Jeremy Winston.