Michael Calvin’s final book in his trilogy that includes ‘The Nowhere Men’ (scouting) and ‘Living on the Volcano’ (management) is a telling critique of youth development in English football.
He journeys through the landscape of youth football interviewing players, parents and coaches from deprived inner city areas; non-league grounds, mega-rich Premier League academies and the English national headquarters.
He identifies many of the problems afflicting youth development: excessive money at the top of the game, unscrupulous greedy agents, children treated as commodities, loss of childhood, dinosaur coaches, bullying and the failure of FIFA and the FA to police the industry.
There are some shocking revelations about young players and the money in the system. ‘A 9 year-old at a Premier League club is being paid £24,000 a year through his parents’.
‘A member of the England U15 squad, is understood to have been offered a two-year professional contract worth £45,000 a week.’
Academy football is tainted by a black economy that gives incentives to parents that include houses, cars and cash.
Chris Ramsay believes that agents have spoiled the game by giving poor parents false hope and Karl Robinson says some parents are sacrificing their kids in pursuit of personal wealth.
Those who go in search of the dream should be aware of the high level of failure. ‘Less than one half of one per cent of boys who enter an academy structure at the age of 9 will make a first team appearance’.
‘A recent study revealed only 8 out of 400 players given a professional Premier League contract remained at the highest level by the time of their 22nd birthday. Since only 180 of 1.5m boys who play youth football in England at any one time become Premier League pros, the success rate is 0.012 per cent.’
There are however positive stories about enlightened coaches, tutors and parents and some boys have done very well to overcome hardship and make a good career in the game.
Calvin identifies some well-run academies and the current England manager Gareth Southgate emerges as a sensible voice against the excesses of a high-pressure money orientated system.
Sadly bullying remains ingrained in the game. Simon Edwards, a psychologist who works with MK Dons comments,
‘Bullying is everywhere in modern life. There are some fantastic people in football, but if coaches were in a legal firm in the city or in a regional supermarket they wouldn’t be able to say those things to their employees or each other.
Everyone in football has the caveat. ”Well, it has always been like that.” It’s the dinosaur effect: “I was treated like that, so I am going to treat you like that.”
Arsene Wenger believes the whole academy system has to be questioned. ‘They organized a system where the best players finish at the biggest clubs. But they do not always have the best chance to play at the biggest clubs.’
Calvin’s extensive evidence confirms that the current youth system is bloated, intoxicated by its wealth and haphazard.
Ultimately he does offer some positive thoughts about some of the up and coming young players but the overwhelming feeling is that the system needs a major sea change.
No Hunger in Paradise is highly recommended and it should be compulsory reading for all young players, parents and coaches.
No Hunger in Paradise – The Players. The Journey. The Dream by Michael Calvin. Published by Century. Price £16.99.
This review was published in the June/July 2017 edition of Late Tackle magazine.