David Preece: Academy pressure can leave kids hating game they once loved

Steven Gerrard.
Steven Gerrard.
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In football utopia, all footballers would be as balletic in their movements as Rudolf Nureyev with the deftness of touch Michaelangelo had with a paintbrush.

Creatively brilliant with supreme physical attributes that turn a game into art. And yet, for those who have both, this still isn’t always enough to “make it”, whatever that constitutes in your eyes.

For some people, making it is turning professional, signing that first contract. For others, it’s making their debut in a first-team game. For me, it became a destination that I never arrived at. Over 20 years in the game and I retired with the feeling I hadn’t made it simply because I hadn’t achieved what I had set out to do.

People call it a dream and as a player you run with the narrative that you are living yours by carving out a career playing football, but much of my mine was spent wading through a path littered knee-high with disappointments and setbacks.

Not that it was the professional side of the game that diminished my enjoyment. That went as soon as I left the playground and stood on a pitch for the very first time.

In a funny way though, I think that’s what helped me. I never really thought I was any good so every day and every session was a never-ending pursuit of becoming a “good” goalkeeper. Looking back, I was never going to achieve that because it would have meant putting an end to the motivation that drove me on to push myself every day. It became a competition with myself. If it was footwork exercise I was doing, every time I did a drill I’d try to do it quicker than the last. If I was on a cross-trainer machine in the gym, I’d push myself harder to get further than I did the morning before. If I didn’t catch a ball perfectly during a drill, I wouldn’t be happy until I had during the next repetition.

Whether I was any good or not, it’s that mindset that got me to the position I did, beyond most of the players I played with and against growing up, beyond the vast majority of the players I started with at Sunderland.

It doesn’t register what an achievement it is to stay in the game at a professional level or how fortunate you are because of your tunnel vision. If you relax for a minute and let your eyes wander to take in the scenery you’ll be thrown off course like a hamster whose legs can’t keep up with its wheel. And as easy as you’re thrown off, it’s as difficult to get back on.

I often wonder whether I’d still make it to the level I did if I’d been born two decades later and I’m not sure I would. I know how I felt as an eight-year-old joining in training for the school team for the first time, and that first taste of competitive pressure can be multiplied under the umbrella of a Premier League club.

As I grew older, I learnt to cope with the pressure that was mostly self-imposed but I couldn’t imagine having to cope with the added notion of performances at that stage having direct consequences, or at least a coach making the link, to a career that hasn’t even yet begun to sprout.

The first time you seriously took a possible future in the game seriously was at 12/13 years old when clubs could approach you. It was only then you were mentally mature enough to harbour those thoughts realistically and cope without it becoming too much.

The problem then is your coping mechanism can also become your downfall. Of course everyone says you need to have a plan B, an answer to “what if?”, but delusion carries you through.

You brainwash yourself to the point where there is nothing else and the competition is so tough that you can’t afford for there to be anything else.

Steven Gerrard this week spoke of his obsession in becoming a footballer and how his single-mindedness made him stand out but how do you manage that obsession if it ends in disappointment and failure?

How do you come to terms with that when you’ve been inside that club’s academy since you were eight years old and at 16 it’s the end of the road? Retirement is hard enough to come to terms with as a player in your late thirties but imagine haven’t to go through that as teenager.

I’m not sure how I would have handled the rejection at that age, once I had put the blinkers on. When your self-worth and identity has been invested in your position within a team and that is taken away from you, I don’t think I would have have recovered from being turned away. The heartless manner with which you hear young players are dismissed compounds the agony further still. Football might be a business but it doesn’t have to be faceless and cold.

All of this is the subject of Michael Calvin’s new book “No Hunger in Paradise”, a brilliant insight into the journey young kids now make from kicking a ball around in their back garden, through the glossy facilities of academy football.

It’s a far cry from the system I came through but at least I still kicked a ball around with my mates until I joined Sunderland. Many are robbed of that before they’ve reached double figures.

It’s a line that needs to be trodden carefully or we’ll end up with 16-year-olds hating the game they once loved.

If they ever got the chance to fall in love with it at all, that is.