As the season comes to a close, like every season, youth team players up and down the country will be clamouring for contracts. Some will be lucky enough to secure new deals and their first meaningful professional contract, but for the large majority there will be the harsh reality of disappointment which will see them faced with a level of rejection that can make or break them as footballers. For ninety per cent of footballers, possibly even more, rejection is part and parcel of the industry we aspire to succeed in, but it’s a players ability to respond to this rejection that can define a career. One thing that is certain in football, is that it is a game of opinions and every person has one whether it be good, bad or indifferent. One manager might see a player as surplus to requirements but another might see the same player as his main man and thus transform him from an also ran to a thoroughbred, similarly a player scapegoated by fans at one club might be a fans favourite at another. It really is a ‘funny old game’.
Throughout my youth years, I, like many other players I’m sure, have witnessed players with abundant ability fall off the footballing radar due to reasons away from football, usually centring on poor attitude. In the ultra competitive world of football, and youth team football in particular, there is very little tolerance in dealing with a ‘problem player’ as the competition for contracts is so fierce. As a result, in many youth cases, the offer of a contract isn’t always a question of talent but instead one of hunger and desire, and it is these key attributes above anything else that determine a footballer’s career. Yes, talent is important, but it is these factors of hunger and desire that maximise talent and potential and result in a player either making the grade or falling by the wayside. As renowned American football coach Vince Lombardi wrote, “the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary”, but regarding the youth teamers of today, when everything is handed to them on a plate at a very early age, is this desire to succeed and work hard really there?
From my experience at Leicester, I was limited to reserve team football which looking back now isn’t really competitive football. It aids in the development of a player sure enough but there comes a point in a player’s career when it serves its purpose and a player stagnates. I never really pushed to go out on loan because I was in the comfiest of comfort zones, earning good money at a fantastic club and training with top players. Unfortunately for me, I realised too late that I was stagnating and perhaps the vain label of being a ‘City’ player meant more to me than actually going out and playing but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Despite not kicking a first team football at Leicester, I had a naivity to think, upon my release, that I’d have no trouble picking up another club. How wrong was I? As the saying goes, it really is a jungle out there and professional football as we all know is a very unforgiving industry.
In the harshest of ways, I learned the harshest of lessons and found myself so dejected in football that I enrolled in university to secure some sort of future for myself. Thankfully, if nothing else, I’ve always had self belief and a hunger to succeed and prove people wrong, and perhaps I needed that kick in the arse to get my career as a footballer back on track, but for many youngsters today is there really that hunger to work hard and succeed, the desire to overcome setbacks or are they instead so used to having things handed to them on a plate that they believe football owes them a living?
Clubs up and down the country are littered with talent from their schoolboy levels right through to youth team standards. The desperation to tie down the most talented kids to contracts results in players being lavished with all the trappings of professional football before they’ve even kicked a competitive ball but is this their fault or are they, in fact, victims of a youth system that has sheltered them too much from the realities of football and life in particular? Is there indeed an argument to suggest that heart, desire and a will to succeed are more essential for success than ability?
I’m fortunate now to play for a club which goes over and beyond to provide everything required for a player to perform. Every detail is catered for our needs, from a fitness coach and masseuse providing input into fitness and recovery, to recovery/protein shakes, energy drinks and gels, all the way down to jelly babies and Jaffa cakes at half time. The examples of jelly babies and Jaffa cakes might seem a very trivial one but from my experiences at non league level, they are now an appreciated luxury and one that is now unfortunately taken for granted around the football league and premier league academies of today. At Leicester, playing in the reserves, we were treated like first teamers. We travelled on the first team coach to games and had every luxury available to us that was available to first teamers. It wasn’t until Micky Adams came in as manager and stopped all that with the attitude of “you’ll only get all the niceties when you deserve it”, and he couldn’t have been more right. At Orient, we want for nothing. We have a kitman that can’t do enough for us and has his job executed to precision, in fact if it wasn’t for him some of us players might forget our boots to play, but jokes aside if that kind of attention to detail and comfort is afforded to a team in League 1 then you can only imagine the level it rises to in the premier league?
Throughout my career I’ve seen loanees and trialists from top and second tier clubs come to wherever it was I was playing and the culture shock for them is quite dramatic. You can see the bewilderment in their eyes in the dressing room as they try to grasp a reason as to why the showers are cold or why you have to wash your own boots? They flit in and out of clubs either on loan or on trial wondering why people tackle them hard in games and even in training, or why the manager shouts at them to track something called a “runner”? They appear to be cocooned in a fairytale football bubble but who is to blame? When playing away from home, we have the luxury of training at some top clubs boasting some of the best academy facilities in the country and just observing the academy car park is enough to make you wish you were eighteen again. It could be said that this level of detachment between divisions exists because modern young players are mollycoddled, especially coming through the ranks at premier league clubs where their every need is catered for. Undoubtedly, some would have trouble wiping their own backside without direction.
For me, I love seeing young players from big clubs going out on loan to lower league teams as I feel it to be an invaluable learning experience for their development. It gives them a new sense of perspective and shows them how lucky they are to have the opportunity to utilise the facilities at a top club. They learn the rough and tumble of lower league football which can help them develop their game and mindset but most importantly it helps break down the arrogance and brashness of youth in the right portion and teaches them a certain humility which can stand to them both as a player and a person. If nothing else, it shows players from top clubs that there is life outside the premier league, an opportunity to make a good living and more importantly an opportunity to re-climb the ladder to success and prove the doubters wrong. Without question, some players will always have that will to succeed and learn either through birth or development but until we learn to re-dangle a carrot to inspire and motivate the majority of the elite youth of today then perhaps the most talented kids will continue down the road of disillusionment and unfulfillment.