The tragic death of Jeremy Wisten, is another reminder to the professional game of the responsibilities it faces, in providing academy players with a safe journey, from its beginning to the end and beyond.
The power of sport and especially brand football is obvious to all, possibly with the exception of some MP’s choking on their ‘common sense’ cornflakes. The Covid 19 epidemic, alongside the Black Lives Matter and Marcus Rashford’s ‘free school meals’ campaign has only highlighted this reality.
Maybe though, the real issue, is that the clubs themselves still greatly underestimate the power of their brand values and their own potential to develop top quality personnel on and off the pitch, and across communities in all business and social sectors.
Take the elite player performance programmes. How many clubs genuinely have the values in place to create a pathway for these children that starts with their development as individual people, and from that foundation, supports them to have great careers either in or outside football?
It could start with changes to the recruitment process and support that is offered to parents before the children sign. The work of Education teams and Community support staff, would be involved from the outset and the awareness of what is needed to develop the individuals specific to their personality traits would be embedded.
All staff involved would be following the core values and belief that by creating great young human beings – you greatly increase the chances of developing great football players.
It is a process that has a proven track record of success at Borussia Dortmund, who carry out many months of research and fact finding before ‘signing’ players aged as young as 9 or 10. Probably in some cases more than many clubs carry out when investing millions of pounds on a first team squad player.
The fact is that the great players will increasingly be able to maximise their value to clubs earlier and arrive as multi-million-pound assets on the balance sheet, in some cases, whilst still officially being children!
Sancho, Haaland, Pedri, Fati are changing the outdated view that you ‘don’t win anything with kids’ and as essentially the game is simple, it is a trend that will become commonplace.
Young people are also able to become role models that can impact across generations and be a force for good. It amuses me how many comments referring to the amazing work of Marcus Rashford are caveated by the fact that he is only 22. As if social responsibility and doing the right thing, was something that only became possible in middle age!
Football Community programmes have come a long way since the days, when any extra cash was syphoned off to pay the first team’s win bonus, and the partnerships created with external partners is remarkable.
Maybe now is the time for clubs along with the F.A, the Premier and Football League to look inwards and create authentic internal community programmes that bring the organisation together around values that apply from top to bottom and across all departments of the business.
Silos still prevail in many clubs, with the First Team, Academies, Education and Community departments often working to values that differ vastly.
The issue of safeguarding players in the Academy is a prime case for embedding those values.
From when they sign often as young as seven, a community could be formed including parents. The clubs currently still see many parents as a threat to the chances of the players maximising their potential. Parents themselves, see infiltrators (trialists) as threats and parents, who don’t fit in, as outcasts.
By recognising the huge role parents and guardians are to the programmes and by integrating them alongside their siblings and the team of experts managing the process, the damaging impact of those led by ego driven attitudes, can be minimised.
There have to be boundaries that, if consistently crossed, must result in the removal of the player and the family from the group, but these cases will be rare, if the right values are embedded at the start of the journey.
By focusing on the priority of firstly developing good human beings, not only will it improve the asset value of academy players, but more importantly it will greatly reduce the possibility of a repeat of the awful circumstances that resulted in Jeremy’s death.
Russell Grocott founder of Futelite Ltd and Director of Impact AiM.