‘I wouldn’t wish it on anyone’: The former academy footballers fighting for a better future

Almost a year since Max Noble shared with the world his experiences at Fulham’s academy that resulted in anxiety and depression that he still lives with today, has football really listened?

Not just to Noble’s story, but the countless others. Former academy footballers such as Ashley Thompson, who came forward to me after Noble. Those who spoke to Sky News for in-depth reports.

The more than 100 footballers released from one of the English game’s 92 professional clubs surveyed by ITV News, who found that almost 90 per cent had experienced depression or anxiety since being let go, and that almost three quarters did not believe they were given enough support upon release.

And the treatment and lack of aftercare for released academy footballers was mentioned so many times to MP Tracey Crouch during her fan-led review of the governance of English football that she went outside her remit to include an entire section on the subject in the 162-page report.

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Clearly, this is far from an individual problem at a specific club in a certain league. It’s not a few bad apples, more a broken apple cart. Now, a new short video titled The Dream Factory released by Certified Sports includes accounts from 18 former academy footballers, and their experiences are harrowing. They, too, share individual stories, but all have one thing in common: none felt they received adequate help or support after they were released. No phone call, no meeting, no email to ask how they were doing.

“I was honestly thinking if I jumped now it’d be less pain than I’m feeling now,” one says. It “was a very downward hill spiral from there”, says another. In the three-minute clip, the voices cascade from one to another creating a torrent of emotion reflecting what being released from a football club is like.

“The feeling was horrendous, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

“I felt completely distraught.”

“I was just numb.”

“Then went into depression.”

“I lost my identity.”

“I couldn’t really cope.”

“Didn’t want to speak to no one.”

“I’m a loser, two years of my life crying myself to sleep.”

“I went to a really dark place.”

“I just burst out in tears.”

“Anxiety.” “Ashamed.” “Angry.” “Despondent.” “Sad.” “Distraught.” “Confused.” “Emotional trauma.” “A failure.” “A deep depression.”

“There were some really dark times where I thought I don’t want to be here anymore.”

Noble created the chilling video by stitching together voice notes sent to him. It’s merely a snapshot, a small spark hoping to start a social media fire. He is encouraging others to share their own experiences via the Certified Sports website.

And Noble is trying to get answers from inside football, too, via a trail of unanswered emails, unreturned calls, weeks spent weeks chasing the appropriate person to speak with.

Working with law firm Fieldfisher they have created a 13-page document outlining ways young footballers can be better supported, questioning whether the Elite Player Performance Plan is in need of reform nearly a decade after it was implemented.

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The EPPP, it writes, was supposed to put players “at the centre of the process”, early outlines published by the Premier League claimed. But has it, really? Some good work has been done by some clubs – Liverpool, for example – but across the board has that player-centred ethos truly survived the money-making churn and burn of modern academy football?

And what of the majority who will be let go? “We are calling for clubs to revisit their aftercare policies and processes and to ask: is enough being done to prepare players for the time when they exit the elite football environment?” the document says.

“What can clubs learn from other industries when helping people find new careers?”

The Premier League has made aftercare a priority area as part of an ongoing review into the EPPP, I was told, and pointed to enhanced player care, clubs making players available for one, single 45 to 90-minute session to promote emotional wellbeing per season, each club having an individual act as Mental and Emotional Wellbeing Lead, the creation of Academy Alumni networks, residential programs, pre-season preparation camps.

It sounded an awful lot like more passing of bucks, and failing to listen to those brave enough to speak up.