By Mark Wyatt
They say there’s a better chance of being struck by lightning than becoming a Premier League footballer, yet every year a new generation of wannabe-superstars begin their journey down the most competitive career path in the UK.
Whilst the cameras are firmly fixated on the stars of English football’s most valued elite league (The Premier League recently sold 5 live packages of TV rights for £4.464bn to Sky and BT) there is next to no light shown onto the journey to becoming a professional football player.
Youth football has developed so much over the last 25 years that it’s now become a turf war between the top clubs to unearth the next ‘big thing’.
Soaring wages and bumper contracts are the outcome for these teenage players but with the cut-throat nature of the modern game it’s what happens when these players fall by the wayside that is of the biggest concern.
With the chance of success so slim, there are players cast aside at every age level all the time who are either too young to understand or too stubborn to accept that they won’t become professional players.
The academies that are tasked with producing the next wonder kids are acting in the interests of the club first and foremost but there is less and less regard for the children and teenagers that are released and forgotten about.
The added pressures that money has brought to the game means it is becoming more and more difficult for players to handle being dropped from their boyhood clubs and adjusting to life without football.
Dr Albert Barnes is the founder and CEO of Peace Enterprise, a community interest company that specifically deals with helping young people at risk of offending and ex-offenders who experience significant hardships at gaining sustainable employment.
Many of the people that have been helped by Peace Enterprise and Dr Barnes are well paid ex-football players who have been given ‘too much too soon’ and find themselves struggling financially, many of whom then resort to crime.
“Some of them call me at two or three in the morning with their problems, maybe they’ve had a fight with their girlfriend or they need some money.
“I always am there to listen to them and help them, not too many people are,” Dr Barnes said.
“At the end of the day it’s the money that does the talking. A 17-year-old being given £10,000 a week is crazy and they don’t know what to do all the time with that money,
“For me it’s all about one thing; parental guidance. It’s so important that parents support their child in this industry because without that, a player can lose his head very quickly.”
Dr Barnes and his charity have helped countless athletes over the years and his invaluable role in the sporting community should not be down-played.
Simply put, you can see why there is a very, very long list of ex-players who see ‘Barnsey’ as a father figure in the football world.
For Dr Barnes his job draws on personal experiences too, his son Aaron was released from the Arsenal youth academy at the age of 16 and now plays at Torquay United, on loan from League 2 outfit Colchester.
It’s been quite the journey for the now 21-year-old but he is now featuring regularly for the National League team and is thankful to be where he is.
“I’ve just worked as hard as I can really, I’m so glad to have my family and friends around me and supporting me and I can just do the best I can do for them. I’ve had a few setbacks during my time in football but they’ve motivated me to keep going.” Barnes said.
Having his dad to keep him on the right path seems to have been vital in Barnes’ career.
“There’s been times when I could’ve quit but he keeps encouraging me and supporting me. He knows so many people in the game too and he’s always working with ex-players so he’s got the first-hand experience that many players don’t ever get.”
As a product of the Arsenal academy Barnes has been involved in the football industry since the age of ten and has witnessed it’s harsh nature.
Of the 22 players that made up his youth team only a small handful are still playing and only one has remained at the club and has played in the Premier League, Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
And he was critical of the process used to forge his own career, arguing that playing in academies and youth teams could only take your career so far.
“In this country we pick up players at very young ages and we put them onto a conveyor belt to process them as if they are factory made. We tell them how to play and what they should iron out of their game.
“We’re not preparing our footballers healthily on or off the pitch by doing this.”
After leaving Arsenal, Barnes spent time at Charlton Athletic where he spent time in their youth teams regularly. Whilst there he met Ademola Lookman, currently playing in the German league with RB Leipzig on loan from Premier League Everton after he was signed for nearly £11m.
He was instantly identifiable on the pitch as he hadn’t ever been in an academy before.
“He played with that natural cuff and swagger that the academies try and beat out of you,” Barnes recalled.
“With Ademola he had come from such a raw background in terms of football ability and so he was different from the academy boys and he stood out.
“A lot of kids now are losing their love for the game because they’re being told what to do from such an early age and they hate it.
“You see kids who live and breathe football, they love the game but you can see sometimes the stress just drains the passion away from them and they end up hating the industry of it all so much that they want to quit.”
For Aaron and his father it’s been a very long road, one that has been littered with tough decisions and ‘make or break’ moments.
After a youth career that has stretched for over 11 years, Aaron can now finally make a name for himself playing regular football at a professional level, something that not too many people can say.