Transfer window or academy graduates? Making the grade and falling by the wayside

John McCormick: looking to the future
John McCormick: looking to the future

John McCormick takes a long, cool look at the way young would-be footballers’ dreams of top-flight careers are nurtured and, all too often, dashed …

There have recently
been comments that Martin O’Neill needed not only to get busy in the transfer window but also to start bringing in some of our academy players.

The latter may be wishful thinking. You may remember Goldy, on these pages, voicing early-season criticism of our academy’s attitude to young players. My own experience, gained when I talked to teachers and conducted pupil interviews in the North West, suggests that there is a problem but it’s not confined to Sunderland.

I’m thinking of three schools in particular.

In the first the entrance hall had photos of pupils who had achieved sporting excellence. Among them were a couple of England schoolboy footballers. One was, and still is, a household name. He had made it as well as anyone could, playing in the premiership, representing his country and winning trophies. The other meant nothing to me. To the best of my knowledge I’ve never heard of him. This may be because he did play professionally but for one of the many clubs to which I pay no heed. Or maybe he opted for a life outside football. If so, why would he do that?

In the second school one corridor contained a display of some people in football gear. Again, those I passed meant nothing to me. One of the teachers told me that a particular club’s academy was linked to the school and they were some of its former students.

I asked him how many academy pupils would go on and achieve success as professional players. His reply: “With the big clubs, hardly any.”

“How do you prepare the rest for that?”

We can’t. We really do try but their heads are full of stardom and they just don’t listen. We put up photos of students who do achieve success as players and also of those who go on to other things – one’s a mechanic, another runs a business and we consider them successes, but the message just doesn’t get through”.

“And how hard is it to teach the students?”

On one level it’s easy, the club is involved so discipline is rarely an issue. But getting them to fulfil academic potential is another matter. They are so convinced that they’ll make it in football that they don’t see the need to study.

What he said was confirmed in the third school, where I interviewed three boys on the books of different professional clubs.

At least one had represented England at schoolboy level and one of the others had been invited to play or train in some elite squad or system whose details escape me.

At 15 or 16 they all had agents and an unshakable belief they would make it. I asked them what they would do if they couldn’t follow a career in football and they couldn’t answer. They couldn’t consider any alternative, it just wasn’t in their frame of reference.

It struck me how similar they were in this respect; maybe it’s a necessary part of the make-up of any elite sportsperson and they’d have no chance of succeeding without it.

The sad truth is, of course, I haven’t heard of them since, although I have to say I haven’t made much of an effort. They might well be playing, but not in the clubs and at the level they expected, so what went wrong?

The answer from the clubs is probably: “Nothing, they just couldn’t cut it at this level.” But I’d expect the players to disagree. Maybe they would say they just weren’t given the time to develop or to show what they could do.

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Such a perspective is given credence by Graham Rix, formerly of Arsenal and England and now involved with the Glenn Hoddle Academy, which aims to offer at least some rejects a second chance. To paraphrase his and his interviewer’s comments at the webiste The Ball is Round, clubs have no need to exercise patience while developing young players and the wealthy clubs find it far too easy to dispense of them, preferring to flex their financial muscle to meet their short term goals.

The result is that, crushed by rejection, a lot of talent is slipping out of the game. Goldy and other readers may also be interested in one parent’s response to the article, on the same page.

It begins:

As a father of a boy (13) injured, whilst a contracted player for a well-known club, I am dismayed & disgusted at the severe lack of concern for his welfare, lack of contact and support from his coach and the management staff

A few simple estimates
give an idea of the issues. Jordan Henderson made his debut at 18 but it took another couple of years before he was an established player. Jack Colback had a couple of loans before playing regularly and then becoming an established first team player.

Martyn Waghorn made a debut against MUFC at the age of 17 (or was it 18?) but really came into his own at Leicester a couple of years later.

So we could say that academy players break through into first-team squads at about 21 years of age. A top rank player will probably play on past 32 these days but let’s say a career will last 12 years.

Premiership squads comprise 25 players over 21. On average, two players will reach the retirement age of 32 each year, so only two players per year need to step up from an academy to maintain the first team squad. I haven’t been able to find recent figures about how many players do make it but in 2007 the BBC ( gave an average of one genuine first-teamer per academy every two years.

Yet there are an estimated 8-9,000 boys in the academy system and there can’t be more than 3,000 professionals in the whole of English football, not all of whom are home-grown (about two thirds of the starting players in this season’s premiership weren’t). No wonder there’s such a drop-out rate.

How do footballing students fare at the SAFC academy? I would imagine no better or worse than at other academies.

The BBC website had us midway, with Middlesbrough and Man City producing most first-teamers but that is old data and I suspect City will be now be nearer Chelsea, who had a dismal record.

Before its revamp the Academy section of the SAFC website listed 32 players who “graduated from the system to represent the senior team” (their words, not mine). They include heroes such as Michael Gray but also players who you would struggle to think of as “senior team”, such as Chris Black, who made a couple of appearances before being given a free and then fading from the game, and others who are playing elsewhere, and not necessarily in those clubs’ first teams.

There might be former academy students who are not on the list because they left early who are playing professional football somewhere but let’s stick with 32 graduates for the moment.

Michael Gray made his debut in 1992 (aged 18), which stretches things as modern academies weren’t set up until 1997. Nevertheless, using 1992 as a starting point 32 names on the “roll of honour” equates to under two players making the grade per year, and 1998, the year academies really began, takes it a bit above two.

If they all were true first team calibre, which they aren’t, we’d just about be keeping pace with our needs. And how many youngsters does the club take on annually? I don’t know exactly, and it might vary from year to year, but at least seven youngsters were given two-year scholarship contracts in 2012 according to the SAFC website. I’d be surprised if more than one break through. My message to parents is: be afraid, be very afraid.

4 thoughts on “Transfer window or academy graduates? Making the grade and falling by the wayside”

  1. I’m taking a break from coaching.

    Disillusioned with it.

    Full of hypocrites spouting out their apparent high moral and unselfish codes of practice when they have their own best interests at heart throughout.

  2. Raw footballing talent get’s coached out of kids. Teamwork is encouraged ahead of invidualization a liitle too much at junior level.

    In recruitment, clubs go for pragmatism and physical strength ahead of skill and flair. Late physical developers have no chance. They may be able to take five players on and smash it into the top corner, but if they’re pushed off the ball by a limited but bigger kid once too often, it’s the latter who gets kept on.

    Regretfully, I took huge pleasure in watching the slight framed Hartlepool Under 9’s aka SAFC/NUFC rejects beat the significantly larger Sunderland Under 9’s at The Academy of Light.

  3. Excellent if salutary lesson. It has always been the way sadly. SAFC seem to rake their responsibities to the community seriously and this seems to extend to those involved in developing young players. The aspect of concern is the involvement of agents at such a young age. Do the agents offer a balanced view or alternatively stuff the young’ns heads with the sort of positive affirmation that renders them incapable of independent thought or self-awareness? Agents can make a lot of money from transfers such as Wickham…£8 million. This may skew their ethics somewhat.

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