Football is a dangerous game that brings with it many risks and potential health issues, such as concussion and tears that need to be monitored. The latest batch of players to leave the academy under the age of 18 include those who have suffered from mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
So far this year, we’ve kept a close eye on the mental health impact of leaving academy football behind some of our top players. We’ve asked them to share some of their experiences of being released from Manchester United’s academy, and whether they’ve been affected by some of the issues raised as a result of the pressure they felt as youngsters.
In a new study, a team of researchers from the University of Birmingham at the University of Manchester University Hospitals Trust (UHB) and Manchester City FC (in partnership with the M.E.N.) have discovered that the mental health of professional football players has suffered as a consequence of being released by clubs.
7:00 a.m. ET
Dawson, Rob Correspondent
Demetri Mitchell was named Manchester United’s U23 player of the year in 2018 and is being touted as a first-team prospect by Jose Mourinho. courtesy of Getty Images
The start of a new season is exciting for players all across the United Kingdom. However, for others, the big kick-off serves as a reminder that their own dream has come to an end.
At any one moment, more than 10,000 boys are involved in football’s youth development system, with 3,000 to 4,000 of them connected with Premier League teams. Less than 1% of individuals who enter academies at the age of nine go on to earn a career from the sport. Many are released after having only known football, and the summer months are spent frantically looking for a way back in or accepting the fact that they will not be the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
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Demetri Mitchell went through this a year ago when his long connection with Manchester United, which he joined when he was ten years old, came to an end. He had expected the news, but it didn’t help to ease the pain.
“As my contract at Man United drew to a close, I realized my time was up,” Mitchell says ESPN. “I knew it was coming, but the news still strikes you like a ton of bricks.” I didn’t expect it to be difficult since I already knew my time was up, but it was difficult when I was informed.
“At my lowest moment, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to play again.” ‘Am I going to play again, am I going to be all right, what am I going to do if I can’t play?’ I was maybe overthinking and being a little dramatic, but in my mind I was thinking, ‘Am I going to play again, am I going to be all right, what am I going to do if I can’t play?’
“That was a very trying moment for me psychologically. I tried not to exhibit it as much as possible, but those close to me could sense it, and I was fortunate to have that support.”
Mitchell, who is 24 years old, is one of the fortunate ones. He took a trial with League One club Blackpool after joining Sunderland to recover fitness after an 18-month struggle with injuries. His efforts in friendlies against Everton and Blackburn won him a contract, and he was walking out at Wembley a year later, leading his new club to a 2-1 victory against Lincoln City in the playoff final to earn a place in the Championship this season.
Demetri Mitchell, now 24, joined Manchester United’s academy at the age of ten, having previously played for Fletcher Moss Rangers, where Marcus Rashford began his career. Getty Images/Kevin Barnes/CameraSport
Some of the guys he grew up with did not have the same luck.
“You witness hundreds of players being let go and not making it as you go through the [age groups],” he adds. “I still keep in touch with a lot of my former teammates, and they’ve told me how difficult it can be. You hear about things occurring in the news. It’s a difficult period; it’s not easy.
“The hardest part is when you’re under the age of 18 and you’re notified whether you’ll receive a contract. If you’re a pro at a great club, you can move on to other clubs, but if you leave as a scholar, it may be difficult to find another club.”
The ambition to be a professional football player may be overwhelming. For others, it’s about realizing a long-held ambition; for others, the riches on offer at exclusive clubs is a means to assist their whole family transcend a poor upbringing.
Raheem Sterling, now of Manchester City, has stated that he felt pressured to achieve because his skill was a “ticket out” of Neasden’s St. Raphael’s Estate. At the age of 13, he would ride three buses to Queens Park Rangers training, frequently accompanied by his sister while his mother was at work, leaving the home at 3 p.m. and not returning until after 11 p.m.
In the last ten years, the way academies are managed has evolved dramatically. There is now a greater emphasis on education to assist players in transitioning to life outside of football if they are released, and more is being done to care after the players’ emotional as well as physical well-being — although sad tales do occur on occasion.
Jeremy Wisten, an 18-year-old promising defender, committed himself after being released from Manchester City’s academy in October 2023. Wisten, who spent three years in the City program from 2016 to 2019, battled a knee ailment in his last season with the club.
“During the last year at Manchester City, he was wounded and went a long period without playing,” Wisten’s father stated in a statement soon after his death. He recovered, but not enough football had been played the year before for him to be considered for the next level. It was, without a doubt, very aggravating for him. He tried out for other teams, but it was tough for him since he hadn’t played much football.
“He really liked his stint with Manchester City… We are thankful for the chance they provided our youngster.”
In late 2023, an inquiry investigating his death will begin.
Di’shon Bernard, seen with Manchester United academy director Nick Cox (L), joined the team four years ago at the age of 16 and just signed a new five-year contract. Manchester United/Getty Images/Matthew Peters
City, like many other Premier League teams, has procedures in place to assist young players when they leave the club. At Manchester United, this includes the employment of player-care teams and professional psychologists during their time at Old Trafford and beyond.
Nick Cox, United’s academy director, says ESPN, “I’m not convinced the answer for a young person’s mental health is to put a plaster on after it’s all gone wrong.” “If a young athlete is going to leave us, we need to have excellent departure plans in place, and we need to have specialists on hand if a young player is experiencing trouble.”
“The true art is figuring out how to build your program so that you don’t have to rush for after-care. We must have those things in place as well, but it will not be a healthy atmosphere if we just have those things in isolation. It’s a difficult business to get into simply because of the sheer amount of individuals who want to succeed and the number of people who can.”
When Cox started his career as an academy coach in the early 2000s, “it was simply a coach with a bag of balls and maybe an education officer,” he says the emphasis on young players’ mental health is “night and day.”
“Now we’re surrounded by specialists in young people,” he says. United’s aim, according to Cox, isn’t simply to create top-level players, but to prepare young people for life, whether in or out of the game.
“We hear tales of individuals who have had terrible experiences and people who have gone through difficult times, but football academies can be life-enriching and life-changing more often than not,” he adds.
“We assist them locate another club, but as they grow older, finding another club becomes more difficult, so we help them find work or go to school.” We have a long record of guys who have gone on to become teachers, financial advisers, accountants, and physiotherapists.
“We had a 16-year-old who was informed around Christmas that he wasn’t going to be kept on, but we promised to keep working with him.” We assisted him in his search for other teams, and he was given a scholarship by a Premier League club.
“The players and staff cheered him onto the Astroturf on his last night, giving him a United jersey autographed by all the lads, and we all celebrated his accomplishment because what he has accomplished is amazing. Even if he won’t be wearing a red jersey next season, it’s something to be proud of for both him and the club.”
That dream has lived on for another year, while Mitchell is looking forward to beginning a new chapter in a new league with the start of the new season. It’s a different tale for many others.
With the highs and lows of the game of football, the game itself can be mentally draining. This is especially true for young players, who are required to perform well at the highest level for years on end, but are not yet at their peak. This can lead to many young players suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.. Read more about footballers who never played for an academy and let us know what you think.
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