Among some fairly stiff competition, the past week must rank among the grimmest in the history of English football.
The tin lid which suppressed historic child abuse in England’s football academies has burst open. The ensuing months will be a tough time for all who cherish the national game.
But make no mistake – this day was always coming.
Although safeguarding and child protection is rightly at the heart of the game’s national coaching strategy, England’s academy system – and the less organised structure it replaced – is a bloated, undignified, often desperate, numbers-game search for talent.
At the moment, the sex abuse cases mentioned seem purely historic. The fear is it may be more current and systemic.
But the abuse runs deeper. More insidiously, it is often psychological and tinged with bullying as academies provide the near perfect breeding ground for abusers – a lack of will to speak out, isolation, desperation, coaches believing they have a right to play God over young lives.
England’s professional club academies have been allowed to routinely crash into boys’ lives at pre-teen ages, often as young as five-years-old, disrupting families, unsettling their education, undermining schoolteachers, separating them sports-wise from their peer group and treating kids as commodities, their chattel to barter at will.
Only a handful ever make it but the flickering flame of hope keeps the dream alive.
Immediate remedies are needed to rebuild the belief in the system and help young boys to face brighter, fresher futures, whether inside or outside of football. Surely now is the time for the game to listen and to listen good. Here are some short term fixes:
1 The Football Association should regain control of the academy system it set up in 1997. The Premier League MUST be told its financial muscle doesn’t grant a moral right to govern. Ten years ago, when they refused the FA the right to inspect club academies, (in effect, ‘marking their own exam paper’ as the FA’s former head of development, Sir Trevor Brooking, described it), they protected potentially failing academies so failed to safeguard the children attending them and parents who take their sons to them. This is plain wrong.
2. Reduce the number of boys in professional club academies. There are too many – 10,000 boys legally from the age of nine upwards – and just one per cent make it. There’s also a welter of ‘development centres’ operating at younger, more vulnerable, age levels often recruited by nebulous ‘scouts’ who hover around grass roots junior football clubs, sweet talking lads and dads with the promise of places at club academies. Half the numbers, half the disappointment.
3. Fine clubs to within an inch of their existence who infringe child protection regimes designed to safeguard children. When writing Every Boy’s Dream I was appalled to discover that to circumvent the rules one of the game’s biggest clubs encouraged a 10-year-old boy to lie about his name and where he lived to evade rules designed to protect his own safety. He was so exhausted from travelling long distances after school to midweek matches he frequently needed the next day off school to recover. The club, when found guilty, was fined £5,000. The lightest slap on the wrist imaginable.
4. Raise the age boys start to attend academies. In other countries and in other sports, professional clubs don’t get near young talent until their teens (or post-college in the USA). Why can’t pre-teen kids learn to love sport and play for fun before it starts to get serious?
5. Stop clubs bartering children for cash. The game hates this phrase but exchanging children for money has been coined ‘child trafficking’. In the strict sense of the term it is hard to disagree. Kids are bought and sold by clubs for money – and the academy system is driven by finance.
6. Listen to academy staff. Many academy directors feel the suits running clubs don’t listen to them as they fight a vicious turf war for control of a wonky system. It’s not like it is working. Look at the parlous state of England’s senior team and the lamentable lack of home grown players in the Premier League. It is embarrassing.
7. Get the parents involved more. Instead of viewing parents as ‘a nightmare’ (a frequent gripe of academy coaches, I found) how about fostering a family atmosphere? The best clubs do this already – but commonly you’ll hear parents complain about kept in the dark about their sons’ progress. The practice of preventing parents from travelling on team coaches to academy away games is reprehensible.
8. Prohibit clubs from stopping children play school sport. Peer group education – sport or non-sport – is vital. It is none of the club’s business what goes on in school and it is arrogance beyond belief.
9. Provide academy scholars with proper education. Academy graduates often face an uncertain future after they leave the game as too many have inadequate qualifications, training and vocational experience under their belts which limits their opportunities.
10. Clubs should keep in touch with former academy players. The most important person in each academy, whose word should be final and judgment paramount, are the education and welfare officers whose role is to safeguard children.
Only when the game takes these issues and others seriously can it start to truly clean up its act.
Chris Green is the author of Every Boy’s Dream, England’s Football Future on the Line which was nominated for the 2010 British Sports Book of the Year and is currently working on a sequel, Rebuilding the Belief – Life Beyond England’s Football Academies.