They’re worth millions and are hero-worshipped by fans all over the world. They earn a fortune in product endorsement deals; become film stars and celebrities, and some even go on to appear in their own television shows.
But how do you go from being a muddy little kid playing in the junior Sunday league football team to captaining a Premiership club team and representing your country at the World Cup? Have you got what it takes to become a professional footballer?
Some league clubs host talent-spotting days or club trials, but these are now more the exception than the rule. Instead, most now rely on a network of contacts at the local grassroots level; local schools and the managers of county or district teams for example. And of course, all league clubs have talent scouts on the lookout for the best young players nationwide.
To begin with, it’s all about getting yourself noticed and in order to do so you must play at the highest possible standard. Most players begin by representing their school or local club team before progressing to district or county level. If you are considered good enough to be chosen to represent your country at school or youth level, even better.
If you’re good enough; someone will find you.
What makes a potential Premiership footballer?
It’s easy to spot the best player on the pitch. Most avid fans can recognise raw talent but professional scouts are looking for much more than that. Roger Skyrme is a former scout who worked with Fulham FC. He explains just what he is looking for in a young player.
“You rarely see me with my eyes on the ball during a match.” he says. “I want to find out about a player’s character and attitude. I look at his position on the pitch; whether he’s ready to help his team mates or is just out for glory for himself.”
Competition is very tough and few players reach that Premiership pinnacle, though many aspire to. Success takes that certain ‘X’ factor; something special in your make-up that lets you rise above the rest. If you are spotted by a talent scout, it’s likely that they will want to meet your family and find out more about your background before deciding whether or not to recommend you to a club.
The Football Academy
You’ve been spotted by a talent scout and approached by a football club with an invitation to join its Academy. What happens next?
An Academy is a training scheme set up by a football clubs to enable them to develop talented young players. All Premiership clubs have one and lower league sides run either Academies or Centres of Excellence. Non-league clubs have their own talent development initiatives or similar projects which are run within the local community to encourage youngsters with ability to get involved in the game at a higher level.
The youngest age at which a player may join an Academy is nine years old. Many Premiership clubs also have development groups which take players even younger than that. There are pretty strict rules in place which state that clubs must sign young players from within their immediate catchment area and players aged under 12 must live within one hour’s travelling time from the club; 90 minutes for 13 – 16 year olds.
When a club invites a player to join their Academy, the youngster will be asked to sign “schoolboy” forms. These are renewed either annually or every two years, provided you are progressing and the club wishes to retain you. When you reach the age of 16, the club will make a decision as to whether it wants you to stay on and become a member of its Youth Training Scheme.
Places on Premiership clubs’ Youth Training Schemes are coveted and hard to come by. For example, Crystal Palace FC only takes on around six trainees from their Academy each year. If you are one of the lucky ones, you will be offered a scholarship which will last up to three years. During the course of this scholarship, you should move on from the Academy’s Youth team to the club’s Reserves. Premiership clubs also have Under-21 sides which slot in between the Reserves and the First team as a sort of stepping stone.
You can sign a professional contract once you reach the age of 17 but this is exceptional and most players will not be approached to sign until they are 19.
While at the Academy you will be expected to train regularly, usually three times weekly. At weekends you will play matches against other Academy teams, typically around 28 games per season. Up to age 11, teams comprise just eight players but after this, regular 11-a-side rules apply.
In addition to the scheduled training sessions, players are given homework like practical training drills which allow them to further develop their skills. Parents are also advised on areas such as mental preparation and nutrition. Clubs also discuss Academy members’ training requirements with their schools. It’s important that sports encouraging agility, such as gymnastics or basketball are included in a pupil’s physical education programme.
When a player approaches 16 years of age, discussions will be held between the club, the player and his parents to establish the best way forward. If a scholarship is to be offered, it is likely that he will be expected to live in “digs” near to the club. It’s not all about football either; the player will be expected to continue with his academic education. This is very important as there is always the risk that he will not make the grade as a professional footballer or may suffer a career-ending injury, so he will need qualifications to fall back on.
It’s far from glamorous at this stage and trainees are also expected to muck-in with jobs around the club too, like collected dirty kit and taking it to be laundered.
From a parent’s point of view, it’s important to keep their protégé’s feet firmly on the ground. The majority of trainees never make the grade. Once released from scholarship schemes they will be put into a central pool and other interested clubs may approach them.
Roger Skyrme thinks that there is nothing wrong with lowering your expectations.
“Don’t lose faith in your own ability, but be prepared to step down a level if you have to.” he advises.
There are many examples of players who, having been rejected by a Premiership club went on to play professionally in the lower leagues. One example is Darren Peacock. Darren was rejected by Bristol Rovers before being snapped up by lower league club, Newport County. He went on to make over 200 appearances in the Premiership for clubs including Newcastle, QPR and West Ham.
With a few exceptions, the shelf-life of a professional footballer is a short one, especially given the risk of career-ending injuries so it’s really important to have another career option. Many former players gravitate towards management (a precarious, results-driven profession) or some other role within their club. Others keep a skill in reserve, just in case; Mark Palios, former Tranmere Rovers FC player and coach is also a fully qualified accountant, for example.
For those who fail to make it to the “big time” there is a considerable disparity in salaries. Players in the lower leagues can expect to earn around £1,300 to £1,500 per week compared with £25,000 to £30,000 a week in the Premier League. It’s only the top flight players boasting impressive international pedigrees who can expect to receive up to £250,000 per week.
A career as a professional Premiership footballer is certainly exciting, lucrative and immensely satisfying. If you have the talent, work hard and have a little luck on your side, your Premiership dreams could come true.
Useful resources for aspiring Premiership players
http://www.thepfa.com (Professional Footballers’ Association)
http://www.thefa.com/my-football/football-volunteers/helpforparents/academies-cofe-dev (Information from the Football Association about Academies)