After the dream dies…should elite football clubs be doing more to help the young players they release?
Written by Dylan Taylor on 31st March 2023
Here we investigate the after-care – or lack of it – offered to youngsters released from professional English academies.
Local lad Kane Evans was at Sunderland for 12 years and the one dream he harboured for over a decade was to play professional football at his hometown club.
Sadly, this dream died a “terrible” death . . . with the final blow – the confirmation that he was being released after a dozen years at the academy in 2020 – delivered by telephone.
On the other side of that agony, an uncertain future lay ahead.
Evans said: “I enjoyed my time fully during my three years being a full-time footballer at Sunderland. It was a great experience, one which you can only wish for. However, at points, it was hard especially the final year as I was hardly playing and getting game time.”
And then there was a certain global pandemic to deal with.
“Asking to go on loan and getting refused was a waste of six months because then came covid. Obviously, covid affected everyone but more so footballers who were into the final few months of their contract not knowing what was happening.”
There had been doubts over Evans’ future before the final crushing blow was delivered, as he lacked game time in his final season with Sunderland, and the club refused to let him go out on loan to get minutes, even when Covid-19 was not stopping all games.
Evans added: “I did not have any contact from the club right up until the final day of my contract which was terrible mentally not knowing what the future was going to hold. It was then over the phone that they told me I had been released.
“I thought the way the club handled it was terrible. They say they are always here to help with anything we need after the news, but are they really? I know it was during covid, but I did not hear a thing from them, I was left to fend for myself.
“I literally had nothing.”
The club had left Evans’ feeling empty and, in an attempt, to figure out his next steps in life he planned to study at university and contacted the club to see if they could help with this.
“I had to contact the head of education at the academy for some advice and he helped me to get into university which I am grateful for. However, he was the only one that tried to help me.”
But while Evans was ultimately left with the bare minimum of help in picking up the pieces of his life, the experience of fellow former Sunderland player Bali Mumba has been a happier one.
So happy, that he feels “blessed”.
Mumba was also at the academy for many years and made a breakthrough to the first team at 16 years old. But although he left the club in 2020 after not getting the game time he desired, he stayed in the professional game at Norwich City, and is now enjoying a successful loan at Plymouth Argyle, and playing the best football of his career.
Mumba said: “I am blessed to be able to get the chance to just show what I can do I haven’t had it easy in my career, so to finally get the chance here, and it’s one of the best seasons I have had.”
The 21-year-old went from playing for Sunderland’s first team at 16 to then going back with U23s and this proved to be hard for him to deal with and led to him going out on loan to regain his confidence.
He added: “That season the U23s lost every game and that’s what got me to a period where I wasn’t liking football anymore and that’s when I went out on loan to non-league side South Shields just so I could enjoy it again.”
This shows a different side to the game for young players: making it pro but still going through trials and tribulations to finally break through.
In recent years we have seen some tragic incidents involving academy players who have failed to cope with rejection and have taken their own lives.
Former Manchester City youth player Jeremey Wisten was found hanged in his sister’s bedroom at home in Wythenshawe, Manchester, in October 2018.
With situations like this happening you do wonder whether these clubs are doing enough to take care of young players that are released.
But Newcastle United U18 coach Chris Moore insists the Magpies ARE doing much more to help the players who don’t quite make the grade at St James’ Park.
“At Newcastle, we must inform players whether they are getting released or not by the end of February, so they are not left in the dark,” said Moore.
“We have a head of individual development here, and their job is to help released players find new clubs or opportunities. They send highlight videos of players to other teams to help them.
“There is also an U18 health and wellbeing person who helps players who are struggling to come to terms with rejection mentally and need a person to speak to.”
Where Newcastle now lead, hopefully other clubs – Sunderland included – are following.