Road to the top

Clubs and parents of budding superstars plan everything from technique to diet in pursuit of the dream. One parent and Fitzdares employee describes how it works.

My son was always far more on it that any of my friends’ boys, even from a very young age. We started taking him to Little Kickers, which offers football to youngsters from the age of about two upwards. That, really, is about as early as you can start, although my boy started when he was three. I used to take him every Saturday morning to a class of about 15-20. Even then he was miles better than the others, so we started looking at grass-roots clubs in the area that suited his level. By the time he was seven, he was starting to play competitive football on a weekly basis. That’s when he was scouted for the first time. It was quite simple: one of the coaches, a scout, had come to watch one of his games. He approached me after the game and asked if my boy wanted to start training with them on Saturday mornings on a six-week trial. It was very professional from the outset. Everyone was very welcoming and the sessions well organised. This early on in a footballer’s progression there’s no money involved and the emphasis is on good, competitive fun.

Straight away you could see these boys were all of the same standard, if not better. It was a real challenge, but he embraced it and got off to a good start. The moment it gets more serious is at Under-9s. At that age you sign for the academy on a two-year contract and then every year after that is a rolling one-year deal. After the two years, there’s a big cut. In my boy’s case it was from 23 down to 15, but others can be more severe. This is the traditional route, although they can sometimes get scouted much later. A friend of mine has a son who plays in goal and has never been in an academy.

That said, he is a real all-rounder. He plays all the sports, from rugby to golf, and because of his physicality, they really like him. Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Charlton were all after him and he ended up with Palace. It’s important to remember these kids aren’t even teenagers yet. Personally, I tend to keep out of any politics, and you’re always aware some parents are pushier than others; some moan about particular coaches and training methods. What they don’t realise is that there are always reasons behind any decision, on and off the pitch. For instance, a lad will be having a blinder, score five goals and then get put in defence. As a parent, you might think: “Why has he done that? He’s just scored five goals.” They do it to see how he reacts. Does he sulk? How does he deal out of his comfort zone? When they get to 12, they start getting designated positions, and that’s when it gets more competitive. Some positions can be more popular than others and if another boy your age is better than you, the chances are you’ll be released.

This is when some parents can get carried away, especially at the end of the season. They’re on the case all the time, making sure they’re always trying their hardest. Games are recorded by the academies, so encouragement, coaching or shouting is not allowed. Of course, you can applaud good play, but only modestly.

The relationship between the parents and the academies is usually pretty distant until players get older, although there are biannual reviews. One thing that is communicated clearly to parents is the importance of education. It’s a big deal. If a boy is misbehaving at school, the club won’t tolerate bad behaviour and he won’t be able to train. We, as parents, have to send his school reports to the club, which are monitored by the head of welfare and education. If they felt his education was falling behind as a result of his football, as a duty of care they would intervene until he got himself into line. It’s the responsibility of the parents to make sure there’s a good work/football balance.

If he trains three nights a week, the other two nights he has to do his homework, and he has tutors. The chances of him being a footballer are minuscule, so his education must come first. Academies love the all-rounder: educated, bright, coachable, who trains hard and has got talent – the Frank Lampards of this world. The emphasis now on sports science and education is massive.

They really encourage the boys to eat healthily, and there are even nutrition workshops. We’ll be given examples of what they should eat before and after training. If it has to be a takeaway, they go into what your choice should be – for example, at a Chinese, have boiled rice instead of special fried rice, and lemon chicken instead of beef in black bean sauce. This starts at as young as nine.

We do a weekly report on training and performance: he has to highlight three things he did well that week and three he could have done better. This happens every week and the coaches offer their thoughts using the same method. Agents will get involved when boys sign for their scholarships from Under-17 and Under-18s. Only after their GCSEs do they then sign their first real contract at the club (scholarship). They then do two years and when they’re 18, or even before, they get their pro deal. With prodigies, some people do quietly hang around and certain agents get feedback from their players. All the clubs were banging down the door of the new Barcelona prodigy Ansu Fati when he was 13.

Loads of agents heard about him and now Leo Messi’s brother represents him. On the other hand, you hear of kids being released from academies and going to others and making the grade. England star Declan Rice was released from Chelsea, then went straight into West Ham, literally the following day. Often kids at lower-league academies are spotted at 14 or 15, monitored by the bigger clubs and then signed when the time is right. Manchester City bought two boys from my son’s club and moved them up north to coach and educate them.

They’ve put the younger lad into a private boarding school until he reaches scholarship age; the older lad went straight into the academy to do his scholarship, which has its own education and accommodation facilities, and is studying for his A-levels from within the club. His previous club will get the best part of £2 million for him if he achieves certain targets. The parents have been given accommodation whenever they visit. There are great risks, but the clubs are happy to take a few chances. Chelsea have five players in the first-team squad, which justifies this level of investment: Reece James, Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Fikayo Tomori.

If you put them on the market now, you might get up to £200 million. How much does the academy cost to set up and run? Not that much is the answer. Money well spent. My boy has been at his club for four years and loves it, but my advice would be to weigh up the commitment. They have to train three times a week, which involves a lot of travelling. My view is that being in an academy will only enhance a boy’s potential, so why hold him back? When you let him play in an academy on a weekly basis with better boys, his level is only going to improve. I’m not going to hold him back!

Thomas Bentley works at Fitzdares.

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