'It’s going to be very hard': pandemic leaves academy players in limbo

Ed Aarons

Zubayr Boadi thought his big chance had finally arrived. Having spent two years on the fringes of the academy system, the 16-year-old defensive midfielder from south London who models his game on Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté was invited for a week’s trial at Derby in March in the hope of earning his first professional contract.

“It was a great experience for me,” says Boadi, who attended trials at the French clubs Le Havre and Amiens in February. Despite all three having indicated a desire to sign a player previously briefly on the books at Chelsea, Tottenham and Fulham, the coronavirus pandemic has meant his fledgling career has been put on hold.

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He is not alone. Since the end of March – as is traditional in the academy system – hundreds of teenagers have been released, although this time the majority have been unable to find new clubs because of the lockdown.

“There are an awful lot who have been left in limbo,” says an agent who does not want to be identified. “Many of the players at the big clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham who have been released would have been going on trial at Southampton or Norwich and places like that over the past few weeks, but there haven’t been any trials. They are really going to have to fight to stay in shape and won’t be in an ideal condition whenever everything starts again.”

It is understood Manchester City have retained all their players under the age of 16 because of the situation, having informed four in January they would not be retained. Three have found new clubs and will continue to receive additional support until they are able to move. The Football Association has estimated about 10% of academy players end up being offered contracts, and the agent believes the Covid-19 crisis has forced many clubs into tough decisions.

“What might happen is a lot of players who wouldn’t make it in the end will be gone from the game sooner,” he says. “It’s going to be very hard for them to find a new entry point with so many clubs in the lower leagues struggling financially.”

I feel for any parents whose child has just been released – there is nothing we can say to them

Agent

One solution could be for clubs to organise large-scale trials similar to those in some American sports, as soon as they are allowed, although another agent is extremely doubtful whether many down the pyramid will be able to recruit as heavily as in previous years.

“Most academies will have been told that they can’t spend any money on bringing players in until everything is more certain,” he says. “The budgets will be on pause, so a lot of clubs are saying even when we can do trials, we don’t know when we will get any money because the board needs to see what’s happening with everything else. In short, it’s going to be a nightmare.

“I feel for any parents whose child has just been released – there is nothing we can say to them at the moment. We can’t tell them when the academies are going to open again and we can’t tell them when recruitment people will start answering their phones again. We just have to tell them to be patient but I presume that academies are done until at least August now.”

The situation for those lucky enough to still be on the books is only slightly better. Whereas players at Premier League academies have continued to interact with their coaches over the past nine weeks, financial concerns have forced many clubs in Leagues One and Two to furlough the majority of their staff.

“At the bigger clubs, there’s very little impact,” says a coach at a Premier League academy. “It may even be good for them to have a break from that lifestyle when they are constantly trying and going to school. But for the boys at the lower end it might actually affect them staying in the game.”

The agent says of some lower-division clubs: “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.”

The strict compensation laws introduced in 2011 by the Elite Player Performance Plan could also hamper a young player’s chances of finding a club when released, with the Premier League and Football League yet to announce whether those rules may be relaxed. As for Boadi, he has been trying to use this time as productively as possibly.

“I have a couple of offers but we just have to wait for everything to be sorted out financially,” he says. “I’ve been watching a lot of old matches from the Premier League and Ligue 1 and I’m trying to understand how certain players go about things. It’s important to assess your weaknesses so you can get better. Hopefully my time will come soon.”