This week the very welcomed news of a dedicated 3-year aftercare package for released Crystal Palace FC academy scholars hit the headlines. The football Family caught up with Gary Issott (Academy Director) to get his thoughts on why and how this came about.
Louis put the questions to Gary at the newly opened Training Ground Complex at Copers Cope Road.
LL. As far as I’m aware Crystal Palace FC is the first club to publicly confirm a period of aftercare provision, can you tell us why you made the commitment to offer deselected players a 3-year aftercare programme?
We’re all aware of the sheer volume of players that can drop out at PDP (professional development stage (17-22) after maybe 10 years of being in Academy football from 8 to 18 or 12 to 22 and we know the academy system enriches players experience. We know they leave with additional skill and competencies that place them advantageously in a world outside of football. But, it’s often very difficult for those players sometimes to deal with the initial trauma of leaving a professional club and understanding what transferable skills they have, what value they add to other career pathways, or even how they begin to pursue other interests and passions.
We’ve seen lots of boys’ struggle when leaving the game, and I can talk about my experience. I struggled leaving Luton Town in the early 90’s and I can only go back retrospectively and understand that was due to a bit of grieving, I was missing football and my friendship group. So, with likeminded people at the club, we made the decision that we want to give players a three-year after-care package. The Chairman (Steve Parish) has been very supportive in this initiative, not only is our remit to produce first team players for CPFC, but we have a duty to nurture and guide the players within our academy should they make the first team or not and he’s always promoted the values of empathy and places the human at the heart of our processes.
LL- How did you arrive at a three year after care package?
We didn’t just stumble on the length of support, we tasked a working group within the club to consider the rationale behind when, how and why players might need or seek our guidance. For example, post release feelings and challenges can present differently for boys. Some are fixed up very quickly with another club and therefore need nothing in terms of support, others trial and are focused on securing full-time football and will be perfectly fine. Then there is the player who doesn’t really want to come back to us. That player still carries a status here, and they aren’t likely to say, “I’m going to come back to a club filled with people I’m close to”. Unfortunately, there carries an embarrassment factor about returning. Being ask what you’re doing now, and have you got a club, and so on, it can be very delicate and hugely negative for a released player, so they often avoid that embarrassment by staying clear of the club and people who work for it. We must break through that, and promote the many great opportunities within, that if you love football a new pathway may exist at this club for you other than playing.
Maybe that’s within medical, analysis, or the sport science department, maybe they want to be technical directors, maybe a coach, maybe along the mentoring/ player support area, or maybe in the business domain of the club such as marketing, media, graphic design, teaching, the list is endless. We’re just trying to consistently re-engage with as many players as you can who love football to show them there is another way in life other than playing for the club.
LL. What can the wider football community do to push the very real issue of after care for young men?
I think player care, or whatever the term will be going forward, is the biggest growing department in Academy football right now, and rightly so. There is a very real of men not asking for help, this is reflective of society as a whole, and this is why we were determined to employ someone that can take that pressure off a young man and have a dedicate point of contact who can open communication channels in a number of ways. It’s crucial the contact point has a relationship with the young player, so for us it was about sourcing that contact within our resources. If us being overt about the issues that may present for some players, and the steps we’re trying in stemming those negative effects, can lead to other sports or football clubs adopting or develop their own strategies then it’s a win for us, and for the young players within the system nationwide.
LL. What would you see as a success?
For us, with clubs providing that support and point of contact I would hope where before we were seeing players visit us after maybe five years and asking for guidance, probably because the old system dictated that, you’re now hopeful of shortening that time significantly and finding a solution to the barriers young men face in a search for a new passion and career. One thing we’re going to promote and promote early in the academy system is ‘my second career visions’ for everybody because at one stage your footballing career will finish, this is the one certainty all footballers face.
For us to have former academy players like Michael Kamara (U13 coach) return and add good value and enhance our football program is exactly what I’d like to see. These players have so many transferable skills and if we can light a fire under a new pathway from within, or outside, of the football club and be there to help navigate the process until they no longer need us, then that will be our success story. And for everyone connected to the club, one we will celebrate just as much as our primary aim of producing footballers for Crystal Palace.
Please feel free to share this story in the hope a collective effort to raise awareness of new initiatives might influence a change in other club approaches to deselection procedures. Let’s celebrate good practice by sharing.