As many are already aware, players who are let go by their Academies often have a hard time adjusting to life outside the club, particularly if they find themselves outside of football and thus cut adrift with the dream they’d organized their lives around not realized.
The “duty of care” clubs and the other industry welfare organizations, like the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), have for youngsters is nothing new: in 2017 The Guardian wrote about mental healthcare and adjustment of released youths as “football’s biggest issue,” and this remains the case over three years later.
Though many may only think about these struggles when the worst news makes headlines — as happened when news emerged of Jeremy Winsten’s tragic loss of life last year following his release from Manchester City’s academy system after struggling with an injury — mental health difficulties remain a major issue even when such extreme tragedy is avoided.
This is also not a small issue: nearly 98 percent (or 75 percent, numbers vary) of players who are full-time scholars at 16 will be dropped by the age of 21; many of these young adults will have been attached to a club from as young as five years old, making football effectively central to their sense of self.
Both the pervasiveness and the seriousness of the issue means as much as possible should be done when it comes to aftercare for these players — and perhaps in terms of how elite academies are run (a complex and divisive subject, though one that should also perhaps get more attention than it does at present, that goes beyond the scope of this article).
Liverpool began revamping their own support system for ex-Academy players (and ex-players more generally) last year under the leadership of Phil Roscoe, the club’s Academy player care manager.
Roscoe spoke to Liverpoolfc.com in 2020 to explain the “exit strategy” the staff put in place for when an individual leaves their care, with options both inside and outside of football.
“It’s not a tick-box exercise at Liverpool,” Roscoe underlines repeatedly in his interview. “We are absolutely driven to make sure that if he wants to be a footballer, we’re going to exhaust every avenue possible to make sure that we can try to make that happen — whether that be in this country or another country.
“If it doesn’t happen from a football perspective then we’ll exhaust everything we’ve got available to maybe then look to find something to do with higher education — a scholarship in America — and looking at what another career looks like.”
The support systems are not limited to the immediate period following a player’s release, and can also be utilized later on if ex-players feel they have hit a wall.
“Everyone will leave Liverpool at some point. Hopefully it’s after 10, 15 long illustrious years with the first team but if it’s not, they will leave and they will never walk alone, there will always be help there ... Those [support] avenues might be used in the first week, they might be utilized after three or four years — but they’re always there for them. Long may this continue.”
This support system is not something introduced to players only when leaving the club, and does not come from the club alone.
The PFA provides an additional support system, as players might find it difficult forging continued connections with the club that they are no longer directly signed with — and players remain PFA members for life, not only while they are contracted players.
Given that not only do so many young players find themselves released by 21 but that an average playing career at the professional level is only eight years, the PFA seminar and informative sessions like it are an important way to make sure Academy players are able to think of themselves as more than just footballers.
“The LFC alumni were told more than 1,500 PFA grants were made last year, more than 80 percent for university courses, but also for coaching, professional courses such as law and accountancy, fitness qualifications, and trades such as plumbing and electricians.”
They also hope to engage young players with options to maintain their mental health hygiene throughout their careers in a time when male mental health is hopefully becoming less of a taboo subject.
Is this “coordinated effort between the PFA and Liverpool” enough? Probably not, given the challenges and the stakes involved — though everyone involved with these efforts are certainly doing so because they care deeply about player well-being.
Nonetheless, as football fans become more and more engaged with the ethics surrounding the sport they love it is perhaps more than timely to make sure our club does everything that it can to ensure positive mental health and career outcomes for children it takes into its care.