No football academy wants to be informed that he is released by his club after spending the best part of his youth to become professional. But for thousands of young players across the country, the odds are stacked against them.
Only a select few succeed at an English Football League club, let alone succeed at a top-flight team. Official statistics published by the Premier League earlier this year have shown, the 4109 players born between September 1995 and August 2000 who were enrolled in Category 1 academies, including the top level and several league clubs, 70% did not receive professional contract in the Premier League or EFL. Less than half of them have received a scholarship, usually given to players aged 16 at the end of their full-time studies.
Joel Bonner joined the academy in Liverpool at the age of 12 after being noticed while playing for his hometown team in Mossley Hill. He was taken to the development center to train once a week for several months before being offered a trial and finally agreed at the age of 13.
“It was a time really proud for me and my family, being Reds, it was an amazing feeling to sign,” he said, speaking exclusively to ECHO. “I was at Liverpool for four years, from Under-13 to Under-16.
“There were a lot of really good times. The journey of any academy player is quite hectic, you have to deal with that because it’s just football and life. But there have been a lot of positive moments, in terms of touring. I played against Paris Saint-Germain, I played against Real Madrid. I had opportunities that a lot of guys that age don’t really have. I played in tournaments across the country, again, it was a really exciting experience to have.
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“I was a central defender when I arrived and I was at Trent [Alexander-Arnold’s] age group too. I remember we played centre-back together for a few games and eventually, well I’m not saying I pushed him to right-back and he shot the best in the world, but there was no room for both of us to play centre-back! Somebody had to move and it was him off right back.”
Towards the end of the year less than 15 years of Bonner Liverpool informed he would not be able to receive a scholarship and continue at the age of 18 with the club. And so the process of finding a new club started, with the full support of the players responsible for the care of the Academy of Liverpool, Phil Roscoe.
Bonner, now aged 23, continued: “I spent my season under 16 years trying and trying to find another club but Liverpool really helped. I started in September and did my first try [with another club]every time i’ve been i’ve been knocked down and it wasn’t until march that i found a club.
“But Phil [Roscoe], he is responsible for following up and finding a club for the players, I remember in February he drove me and this other boy to an exit trial in Hull, so the teams could see us play in different games with different players. I also had some tests after that and I finally found myself Shrewsbury Town and got a scholarship out there for my age of 18.
A player’s club can change, or for some, their entire career path can change. But one thing that remains a constant is their membership in Liverpool and what that means. While Bonner was in Shrewsbury, he stayed in touch with Roscoe and help was there when he needed to understand his next steps.
“It’s moved on football, in terms of the amount of child support you have after,” Bonner added. “There are lots of different avenues for different organizations such as the LFE (Education Football League) and the PFA (Professional Footballers Association).
“I found information about the university through these organizations. But Phil was there, he always checked and watched where you were and was there for advice. He was definitely the one who pointed me in that direction.
“I did pretty well in school while I was at Liverpool, balancing my studies and still getting pretty high grades. I think Phil probably saw university as quite a natural progression for me. »
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When Bonner left Liverpool aged 16, he may not have anticipated a return to the club so early in his career. As he began a degree in sports psychology and exercise at the University of Loughborough, contacts in Merseyside were there to help him succeed in his new career.
“I stayed in touch with Phil throughout the university,” he said. “Initially, I was looking for a placement year, so I asked about it, but it was honest and said that the club was not really that kind of thing because it was a unpaid internship. Then I found another in football, but I stayed in touch throughout this.
“He was asking what I was interested in as I was working within a football club. The role was that of sports psychology, but even though I am doing this degree, I understood that I did not want to pursue this. I was more interested in the analysis and coaching side.
“My role now as Under 11s Coach and Under 15s and 16s Analyst came about after I had spoken to Phil about my ideas and avenues I wanted to pursue and he arranged for me to meet the Head of analysis at the academy, Tim Jenkins. So who was thinking about a cafe in the canteen, I didn’t have much. It was just a good chance for me to get some insight into potentially getting into the analytics side of the industry.
“I also spoke to Neil Bailey about the possibility of upgrading my UEFA B licence. So that was also a bit of a chat in the canteen and apparently I made a good impression! It would have taken about a year after that, a role was available thanks to different people who evolved within the club and I was recommended for it.
Alongside his studies, Bonner now works with the club’s academy and last year he received the Premier League Alumni Award, in recognition of his achievements away from playing professional football. But none of this would have been possible without the continued support of those at the club.
The “old project” Liverpool, launched in early 2020 was a formalization of the support already in place for players past and present. The program uses a large database to keep in touch with those parties and ensures that “exit strategy” is in place for those who undertake the next stage of their careers.
Roscoe explained to Liverpoolfc.com in 2020: “There is a common feeling around the Academy – which ranges from Alex [Inglethorpe] while up through all the staff – that these players make a beautiful journey with us through the Academy both on and off the field.
“Hopefully they leave the academy, then go to the first team at Liverpool, or if not then they go to a first team to another club. But no matter how successful, they go to leave points. This is when we have a duty of care to our side to continue to help – it has never been done to simply check a box.
“They’ve been with us for so many years and have so many experiences and we’re there to help them whenever they’re at Liverpool. We think it’s right that we do that when they leave as well.”
Last month, the Liverpool defender Trent Alexander Arnold expressed his desire to help players from the academy who are not successful professionally in strong message shared on social networks . The 23-year-old is one of the lucky few to reach an elite level, but he recognizes his privilege and what more he can do.
“I’m one of the very, very lucky ones who made it, but there are so many guys that I know personally, being on the same journey from age six to seven all the way through, and they’re coming at 16 and the decisions are made and they don’t quite make it,” Alexander-Arnold said.
“It’s hard for them, is to be a football player, everyone has always known what they were known to be in the academy, and then suddenly to 16/17, they are abandoned and their whole world is shaken. “I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions lately about what I’ve done to help these guys, my friends and if I’ve done enough.
“I think there’s a lot more I could do, so I want to be more involved in that and help those guys.”
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As someone who played alongside the Liverpool defender at youth level, Bonner appreciates Alexander-Arnold’s support and his desire to raise awareness, to ensure that every player in the academy knows the support at its disposition.
“It’s probably quite unique, as it passed through the academic system and is part of the small percentage of players who succeed,” concluded Bonner. “So for him to have the foresight to realize that the people he invented or other stories he might be aware that there is support and assistance they need is certainly encouraging.
“Given the profile and the role model he is, that can only be a good thing. But as I said, football has definitely changed in recent years in terms of player support and monitoring. There has a lot of options out there for players, but I guess the most important thing, like Trent is doing, is raising awareness of people and maybe MARKUP players because it can be quite intimidating.
“For me, I left for Liverpool seven years ago, Shrewbury four or five years ago and I was still getting the file then. In this time frame, there has still been plenty of support widely available. It’s about making sure everyone has access to it, which is probably where we’re heading to at the minute.”