Jeremy Wisten had dreamed of following in the footsteps of his idol Vincent Kompany. At age 12, the Malawian-born youngster was excelling among his age group as a quick, ball-playing centre-half. When Manchester City approached him playing for his local club, the opportunity for Jeremy, like so many other young boys and girls across the country, seemed too good to turn down.
Following successful trials, Wisten was transferred to St. Bede’s College, where he received a private-education alongside relentless training at City’s Etihad Campus. As an aspiring footballer, there are few better places to be than City’s two-hundred million pound sports complex. The facility, which opened in 2014, accommodates players right the way from youth-level to first team. Academy players brush shoulders with their idols from an early age, and just across the road looms the Etihad Stadium. The bright lights are seemingly in touching distance.
The statistics, however, reveal a much bleaker reality. Of the kids that enter the system at the age of 9, less than 1% will go on to become professional at any level. Only 0.012% will go on to play in the Premier League.
On October 24 2020, two years on from his release, Wisten was found dead in his family home having suffered from long-bouts of depression. His father, Manila, said in an interview with The Times that his son’s death was a result of football. Jeremy would be plagued by thoughts of ‘what if I had never got injured?’, ‘what if I found another club?’ Tributes to Wisten reverberated across the football community, with Chelsea star Reece James taking to twitter to urge mental health sufferers to ‘talk to someone’, yet as an industry, football must do better.
The perception of football academies has long been one of kids being ‘chewed up’ and ‘spat out’ by the football industry. Kids are recruited as young as 9, asked to sacrifice local teams, communities and school hours, only to be told they’re not good enough further down the line. Once these players are cast out, adjusting to a life outside of football can be immensely difficult. A study undertaken by Teeside University in 2015 found that 55% of players suffer clinical levels of psychological distress after being released. Having long developed an ‘athletic identity’, founded on sporting achievement and success, once this identity starts to become fractured it leaves youth players suffering from lack of self-worth and self-confidence.
Yet given that statistically the chances of having a successful career in football are so miniscule, football must assess why so many kids leave the development system unprepared for this transition. Any child is going to be deflated by having their dreams crushed, but often by the time they are told this news, little arrangements have been made for a life outside of football. Football has already taken precedence over education, and many have already sidelined everything else in pursuit of their dream.
The issues faced by released players are carved across demographic lines. Eddie Oshodi, who set up a foundation to help young boys suffering from mental health problems, explained how kids that come from more working-class backgrounds are hit hardest by rejection. In almost all cases, kids who have fewer resources to fall back on, and whose parents were less able to foresee their child’s shortcomings, leave the system ill-prepared and are less able to adapt to a life outside the game. On the other hand, children who received greater educational support and whose families were able to put alternative provisions in place, are more able to cope with the impact of release.
‘Coming from a single parent background, I’d have to get the bus for an hour to training every night, so there just wasn’t much time to sit down with my mum and do my homework, or focus on education. I quickly got to an age where I realised I was good at football, I didn’t need my mum to tell me how to do that, so education quickly got knocked on the head.’ Explained Footballer Shay Facey, who having spent eleven years at City as a youth player, now finds himself without a club.
The problem, however, runs deeper than players having little time for education. Facey explains that there is a fundamental problem with the mindset academies foster in their youth players. ‘As a kid, you’re constantly reminded that nothing should come before football, when you get to football, you’re told to leave your problems at home. It felt like even a death in your family couldn’t get in the way of football’. Once this sentiment is shared across players and staff, it is unsurprising that kids lose sight of alternative career paths.
The English Development system has seen some reform in the last decade. The introduction of the Elite Players Performance Plan in 2011, an initiative implemented to improve the quality of home-grown players, oversaw improvements in education and player welfare. Top tier academies introduced a head-of-education who oversees that players fulfill a minimum of twenty hours of education a week, and clubs such as Chelsea, Man City and Liverpool now provide aftercare programs that track the welfare of released players.
However, if the pandemic has highlighted anything in English football, it’s the inequality that exists across the football pyramid. Lower down, the luxury of aftercare programs and teams of psychologists just aren’t in place. Throughout March and April, many staff at lower-league clubs were forced onto the furlough scheme, leaving youth players frozen out with few support networks. One agent said, ‘there’s no one checking on the wellbeing of their existing lads, let alone trying to recruit new ones … At smaller clubs they basically have a choice of breaching the furlough laws and getting their staff to carry on working or they are honouring the furlough laws and they are ignoring the kids. It’s Hobson’s choice.’
A study carried out by Fifpro during the shutdown of football found that the number of footballers reporting symptoms of depression had doubled, with 22% of 468 female players and 13% of 1,134 male players reporting feelings of depression and anxiety amidst the shutdown. The study sighted financial insecurity, feelings of isolation and doubts about their future, all concerns that in the youth game, are not exclusive to a pandemic.
In February 2020, the Premier League launched a campaign with charity Heads Up pledging to make mental health a priority across all levels of football. Yet in the youth game, there is an imperative safeguarding issue that is still being ignored. Wisten’s death is the latest, in a line of youth players that have been failed by the English Development System. Spurs fans will remember former youth player, Josh Lyons, who following his release spiralled into depression before taking his own life. Following Lyon’s death, the coroner delivered a damning indictment on the ‘cruel’ nature of the football industry, and the nature in which it ‘dashes young boys dreams at such a critical age.’
Despite football’s increasing consciousness of the issues of mental health over the last few years, still not enough has changed. Football needs to adopt a more holistic approach towards its youth players. Right now we have a system that nurtures footballing talent, while neglecting other areas of a child’s growth. Football owes it to its youth players to properly inform them of their chances from an early age, and ensure that the foundations for an alternative career are put in place during the academy process. Facey recalls constantly being told, ‘you need a plan B’, yet when it came to it, ‘nothing was ever put in place’ to help that plan B materialise.
For those that are taken on full-time at the age of 16, the Premier League mandates that all scholars must continue with education. This is most commonly a B-TEC Sports Diploma, padded with media, well-being and financial training. However, most players recall these courses, which offer little in the way of practical skills, as a box-ticking exercise that impedes playing time. Facey believes all this can change if clubs instill a focus on education from an early age. ‘The ideology now is that you need to sacrifice everything, and I think that comes from the top. If we can change the message that coaches give from an early age, because if you hear something from 16, 17,18 and you’re already playing in the reserves and you’re a stone’s throw away from the first team, it’s too late really, but if it’s a mindset that’s instilled from an early age, then definitely things can change.’
While equipping players with transferable skills would break this fall, the PFA needs to make sure that rigorous systems of aftercare are in place across the academy system, with mental health education being extended to coaches and parents. Regular contact needs to be established between former players and clubs, and youth setups need to take on a greater responsibility for their players even after release.
Another aid would be offering players a series of parachute payments after release. These sums of money could be reserved for spending on future educational programs and resettlement costs. Not only would these payments provide a springboard into a different career path, but forcing clubs to take a greater responsibility for both current and former players would certify that more responsible decisions are made in the recruitment process.
Moreover, football should recognise there is no rigid formula to top level sporting success. Across the Atlantic, America’s Collegiate System shows how players can receive a top class education whilst still going on to play sport at the highest-level. In Germany, DFB-certified ‘Elite Football Schools’ prioritise vocational skills and personality development alongside talent development. Back home, Liverpool’s Alumni Project demonstrates how giving greater weight to education, and creating sufficient exit-strategies from the system, life after football is far from the end.
Back in 2017, the Chief Executive of the PFA described the distress found in youth players following release as ‘the game’s biggest issue’. Yet three years on, football finds itself at the heart of another premature death.
As we round the corner of the pandemic, with many lower-league clubs tightening the purse strings just to stay in existence, football runs the risk of allowing youth players to bear the brunt of cost-cutting measures lower down. Wisten’s death is a cruel reminder that the EFL must do more to protect young players, and bring about the reform the system so desperately needs.
Facey, now without a club due to cutbacks at Walsall, is using his newly-found free-time to focus on education and personal growth he believes he missed out on as a youth at City. ‘Having been fortunate to earn good money and save it, now is the time to focus on myself.’ However, as he sharply points out, not all are quite so lucky.
Words by James Beardsworth
Illustration by Lee Martin