• Jason Lampkin

Opportunities may arise for academy footballers after Covid-1

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

The month of May typically marks the conclusion of the European football calendar, hence why the majority of footballer’s contracts culminate shortly after in June or July.

It is the duty of diligent managers to ensure that their prized assets are set to return before swanning off for the summer off-season. Lengthy and lucrative contracts often convince them to come back.

Although multi-year six figure salaries are typically well out of reach for academy prospects, the first rung on the ladder – a two year apprenticeship – is not. At 15 or 16 years of age, the possibility of a first professional contract and realizing their childhood dream beckons.

The odds of becoming a professional footballer are notoriously slim – even for those teenagers who show enough early promise make it into an academy. Statistically only around 0.5% of players that enter the system will go on to make the grade.

Having played for Manchester United’s youth teams from 12 to 16, I know just how challenging life in an academy – balancing sporting and scholastic commitments – can be.

Amongst other requirements, it takes relentless around-the-clock focus and sacrifice to even stand a chance against the stacked odds. It is not a normal nor balanced lifestyle for someone so young. I often felt like I was in a full-time job four years before I even began getting paid for it.

So add in the extra jeopardy of the current coronavirus lockdown and suspension of all sport and it must be an extremely stressful time for academy prospects to make decisions on their future.

But could the coronavirus crisis actually boost rather than blunt their chances of earning a living the beautiful game?

The financial fallout of Covid-19 will be fierce and far-ranging, and the business model of football will have to change to accommodate to the scars it will leave behind.

But although the delirium of Deadline Day may be somewhat dampened, the tightening of pursestrings could in fact open up opportunities for the adolescent hopefuls.

In recent weeks the owners of Brighton and Burnley both announced that the impact of the coronavirus could cost them north of £50 million. As two of the less affluent associates of the English top division, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce that that’s their respective summer transfer kitties gone.

Last season Brighton finished one place and two points above the relegation zone in 17th position. Burnley fared only marginally better, accumulating four more points and rounding out their campaign just two notches up the table from the Seagulls.

From those sorry statistics it’s clear to see that they need something to change if they want to do better than simply cling on to the coattails of the top tier.

A shake-up of the squad in the transfer seasons can often change the fortunes of such point-stricken sides, but now, with no budget to play with, they will be forced to consider other alternatives.

Unless they sell they will be unable to spend, it’s as simple as that, and the inability to invest could lead to a vicious yet stagnant circle. Similarly cash-strapped sides could all find themselves stranded in the doldrums for quite some time.

I think it’s unlikely that the football industry – one of the most beleaguered by the public for the privileges that those working within it are afforded – will receive a stimulus package to get the transfer market back in motion.

The days of £50 million transfers could well be gone, despite what sports press sensationalism and their need to sell papers might want you to believe.

Even cash-strapped clubs that won’t be as financially inflicted would be most wise to avoid making a rod for their own backs by baulking that prediction.

With the economy going downhill and clubs furloughing and even firing non-playing staff, would it be morally correct for them to then splash out more money on one player than many of those they’ve laid off will collectively earn in their lifetime?

I’m certain that big name signings would raise tensions and eyebrows in equal measure. So even wealthy clubs will have to rethink their transfer policies and succession planning strategies.

There will also undoubtedly be opportunities for clubs to cherry pick from sides with shallower pockets who will need to offload their assets to stay afloat.

The Premier League sharks will smell blood in the water and seize the opportunity to secure top talent at a snip of the price. Blooding their own talent could also be an attractive option to help supplement their squad.

Aside from the reduced cost benefits of promoting a player from the academy, the feel-good factor of handing a homegrown hot-shot a first team berth always boosts a clubs stock.

Manchester United, for instance, are one of the best supported clubs worldwide in no small part thanks to their insistence on populating their squad with as much talent from their youth system as possible: the 13 time Premier League winners have, commendably, named an academy graduate in every one of their matchday squads over the past 82 years.

Although the Red Devil’s may have lost some steam on the field in recent years, their commercial team has continued to forge forward off it which will allow them to make the most of the Covid-19 financial fallout.

Welsh youngster Daniel James, one of the shining lights in an otherwise unremarkable couple of seasons at Old Trafford, has illuminated the fact that there is cheap, top-class talent plying their trade in the lower leagues.

The spotlight will now be firmly fixed on finding them before anybody else does amid the cut-price sales. For some clubs it may well even be a case of ‘all stock must go.’ Cue free transfers and academy prospects stepping in to fill the vacancies.

Free agents will undoubtedly become hot property given that their contractual expiration and subsequent emancipation eliminates the need for clubs to stump up a transfer fee, but that’s not to say they’re cheap. Quite often they and their agents command heavier pay packets as a tax on their unique availability.

Academy players under the age of 16, however, are not legally allowed to be represented by agents and therefore bring an additional cost reduction in transaction fees not filtering to middlemen. Another plus on the side of the academy alumni.

To continue on the subject of expiring contracts, it’s also interesting to consider that clubs may actually find themselves forced to field their apprentices if enough first team players leave.

There are plenty of Premier League professionals on deals that will expire this or next summer. With little fiscal leeway, new deals could be out of the question, but fresh new faces may not be.

Even before the coronavirus put a halt on proceedings, many football fans had begun to wonder whether the excessive spending in the Premier League had become too much.

It has spiraled out of control and clubs – many of which are in debt and continue to incur losses – could risk bankruptcy by bolstering their 25 man deep squads. Cutting down the numbers and slashing the salary expenditure would prevent such occurrences.

Does a first team squad list really need to feature 25 players? Football is an 11-a-side game and an additional five substitutes make it on to a matchday teamsheet. So why not supplement those 16 with younger players from the academy system?

We often bemoan the fact that not enough English youngsters are granted game time in the Premier League, much to the detriment and demise of the national team.

Even potentially world class talents like Jadon Sancho opt to move abroad in search of more favorable openings. His equally talented former teammate Phil Foden might have done well to take notice as his progression has been stunted whilst he’s been stuck on the bench at the Etihad.

It would be a serendipitous silver lining if such a catastrophic event were to open the door to Foden and other gifted young guns.

Patience is a virtue that the privilege of youth often fails to appreciate, and with a glittering career within grasp – yet also hanging perilously in the balance, and for who knows how much longer – I can certainly empathize with how the academy players must be feeling.

Having spent an involuntary nine months on the sidelines through injury at a similar age myself I acknowledge that there’s no worse feeling as a sportsman than not being able to get on and get ahead with your career.

But to all the academy players out there itching to get back on the grass; use this time wisely to be proactive and plan for what may lie ahead. Luck is what happens when preparation – and in this case patience – meets opportunity. Make sure you’re best placed to make the most of it when the time comes.

If you or someone you know is an academy footballer and feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, please feel free to get in touch with Cezanne, Rosie and I at My Football Mind to see how we can help.

From our extensive network, we provide guidance and support from the most influential and credible people in the football industry to give honest trusted advice at whichever stage you are in your football journey. Similarly, if you are working in the football industry and would like to share your knowledge and experience with our community or via our podcasts we would love to hear from you.

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