Tag: Solent University

Premier League Club launches innovative 3-year aftercare program

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.

Crystal Palace Academy Training Complex

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.

The Football Family’s Louis Langdown at the impressive new CPFC Academy training facility

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.

Deselection research in partnership with Solent University

Please view our research presentation slides in partnership with Southampton Solent University delivered at the BASES (British Association of Sport & Exercise Sciences) 2021 student conference.

Some excellent findings that football clubs and researchers might find useful from an extensive qualitative investigation of players experiences of deselection at Scholarship stage.

A video recording and the study abstract is to be published by BASES in the near future.

Please share with anyone who may wish to develop this research. Contact louis.langdown@solent.ac.uk for any further questions. Thank You.

Lessons from Liverpool FC

Liverpool FC Academy base at Kirkby

In a series entitled ‘inside the academy’ this blog reflects on the experience and insight gained from visiting professional football clubs and discussing pastoral care for players past, and present.

Liverpool FC are the first to feature. Accepting an invitation from Michael Edwards (Sporting Director), the gates to their new purpose built training facility in Kirkby opened, and a seat n the luxurious boardroom awaits. The two-day trip happily coincides with the visit of KRC Genk for a double header, result! The U19’s fell to their first UEFA Youth League defeat of the season after Genk scored a stoppage-time winner claiming a 1-0 win at the academy. Only for the senior side to avenge that loss with a convincing 2-1 win at Anfield only a few hours later. Honours even.

Top; Kirkby Training ground LFC U19’s 0-1 KRC Genk U19’s. Bottom; Anfield Stadium LFC 2-1 KRC Genk

In truth, this was a fact finding mission with the focus on pastoral care, and the aim of sharing good practice. Firstly, it is worth saying that the experience we receive from club to club varies greatly. You simply cannot second guess what might happen when you enter a training ground as an ‘unknown’.

If you’ve never had the privilege to step foot beyond the imposing iron gates of any Category 1 training ground, allow me to paint the picture. On arrival most share a striking resemblance to that of a military base, or the institutions designed to house the countries undesirables. A gatehouse and barrier are always the first indication you’ve arrived at your destination. A security guard appears from the comfort of an enclosed office acutely aware of your arrival some 500 meters away as the multiple camera feeds update every inch of the sites boundary. Security checks conducted, questions answered via an interactive screen, photographic ID produced, the security staff satisfied and our arrival announced, a stark contrast awaits when you pass through the lacklustre entrance.

Greeted with immaculately presented grass pitches (thank heavens for some prevailing traditions of the modern game), roaming youth players and passing staff meet you with a hello and smile. Our first impressions? A welcoming atmosphere littered with polite and humble people. With striking logo emblazoned buildings and pitches as far as they eye can see, this is a disciplined functional environment.  

The enjoyment, the insight, and the importance of the information earned is dependent on the people you encounter. Our first meeting was with Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Manager).  I’d already had a few conversations with Alex over the phone, and knew by his tone and the passion in his voice, player welfare was firmly on his radar. We had an engaged audience. A good start.

Academy Manager Alex Inglethorpe

As is the case in the football world, and those that have made football their working life after playing has stopped, there’s a ‘feeling out’ period at that initial meet. You bounce questions and slowly latch onto each others stories of yesteryear. Crossover almost always happens in what is still a very insular and network driven industry. It’s not what you know and all that. Ours was a fairly obvious common thread. In the lavish surrounds of elite football we bond over non league coaching and management. Kindred spirits of all things non league Alex at Leatherhead and myself and Adam at AFC Totton. Cutting your teeth in coaching with players that love the game and play for for enjoyment and beer tokens (mainly). We talk about the relative unknown skills a manager needs in non league such as; washing kit, driving the mini-bus, pumping up balls, meeting sponsors to squeeze whatever money you can to keep your club afloat, not the usual coaching badge content.

However, it’s your development in dealing with people that is probably our biggest learning curve when transitioning from player to coach. Being both a mate and the gaffer throws all sorts of challenges and curve balls to any aspiring coach. To the non league player, football is their outlet, their enjoyment and often their distraction. You have to invest in the players’ life. Find out what stresses and strains they are enduring. And help! There is no safety net in non league, you become the expert in psychology by default, or you fail in helping the mental health and wellbeing of your players.

The talk of why myself and Adam have spent time to create a support network for ‘the football family’ takes us through the first 30 minutes of our time together. All fairly scripted, the standard dialogue you would expect from a person in a senior figure at an historic and established academy on the subject of mental health.

And then that human connection hits Adam and Alex like a train, almost instantly the guard drops. All it took was for Alex to mention Tommy Taylor (his former coach at Leyton Orient). Adam smiles, “he gave me my league debut for Cambridge United as a 17-year old”. Well that’s’ me done for the next 10 minutes.

Now firmly a lunch meeting, we had two new additions join our table. Enter Yvie Ryan the clubs Performance Coach. How Yvie is utilised by the club is interesting. The first of our three take homes messages. Traditionally, coaches and sport science staff would recognise a player showing signs of distress in their behaviour and would either refer the player to the club psychologist, or request the psychologist to arrange a meeting with the player. Either way, any diagnosis and initiated strategy would be owned by the appropriate department or staff member.

Here’s the twist. Alex sees Yvie’s work more akin to that of a ‘consultant’. She is there to educate and upskill the frontline staff involved with player development. Ensuring she is a regular visitor to the grass, the gym, the treatment room and analysis suit. In practice this places Yvie in effective collaboration with the player and staff member, increasing what we like to call in the academic world ‘ecological validity’.

King Kenny flanked by two over excited grown ups.

Ok, so I said earlier that we had two people join our table. Welcome King Kenny. Now I can’t tell you any of the wonderful anecdotes or memories of Sir Kenny Dalglish’s career, these past times remain his to tell, and ours to enjoy. Suffice to say, he can hold an audience and we were very fortunate to have the ear of such a footballing legend. Two hours flew by and it was now approaching kick off. What I can tell you is this, there is an ease and rapport between Kenny, the youth players, and the staff.

Kenny recalls with alarming accuracy a youth football festival some weeks prior to our visit, even naming the stand out players. The U19’s are huddled in the foyer awaiting a team meeting prior to beginning their pre match warm up. Each player that catches the eye of Kenny either nods, smiles or greets the man. Kenny had time for everyone. He added an enthused commentary on the game events throughout to the small cohort of people stood in close proximity from our balcony view. Often challenging the lads in certain situations (including the Genk players) and congratulating touches, skilful movements, and always praising brave blocks and individual work-rate for the team.

It was a great insight into how to integrate, respect, and treat a club legend. But key to this was the humility and eagerness of that club legend to be part of the process. Football courses through the veins of many an ex player. Having a former decorated player, coach, manager and director of football walk the walls of the training ground strengthens the ‘Liverpool connection’. I’ve not witnessed many operate in this way, but I’m hopeful it happens. Basic learning and teaching theory points to ‘lived experience’ as a key theme in the transfer of knowledge. Who better to act as a sounding board for staff and a presence around its youth players? This surely is ‘added value’.

And lastly, our third take home message. And this is quite innovative. Liverpool have created a new role tilted ‘Alumni Manager’. This was designed with the idea of contacting and supporting those players no longer at the club. In a shift from the norm, this adds a new dimension to player welfare. Focus has remained largely on the registered players for many successful academies with a conscious effort to reach out and assist released players. Now a leading football power is trialling a new initiative to promote ‘Alumni support’, could this be adopted by others?. Open to all players who have at one stage represented the club at any playing level or age.

This for me this missing across the sport. If you read the following extract from my former colleague Gary Issott, and Alex’s equivalent at Crystal Palace FC, he says; “As an industry we’ve got to do more for post-player care. It’s a traumatic experience, effectively players are being sacked if they don’t get a new contract. It affects your finances, your wellbeing, your ego and status, your dreams, you lose friends from a dressing room environment. So it’s a huge trauma leaving a professional football club.”

Candid, blunt and hard hitting from a man who’s spent over 20 years living and breathing everything associated with youth development. Players’ transitioning out of the game is so complex. Retirement, injury and unemployment all manifest a number of serious mental health issues.

The PFA will do well to share a coffee with Alex as his team capture this impactful longitudinal data. How can we triage the trauma? We can but raise awareness of the good initiatives and share practice that has a positive impact on individuals. This is after all about helping people. Get sharing, keep caring.

Match day at Anfield is always special. Just before kick off, and on cue, Liverpool supporters enter full Gerry and the Pacemakers mode. It’s a spine tingling moment. The presence of its former players at Kirkby and Anfield, together with the creation of the Alumni Manager are further evidence that at Liverpool FC ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

YNWA


The released footballer – gone but not forgotten.

Ian Herding is arguably the most important person at Southampton Football Club you’ve probably never heard of. But to all released academy players he is the go to man.

Lost in a mass of dedicated Academy staff befitting the now world renowned Category 1 Academy at their magnificent Staplewood base, the Performance Education and Life Care Officer conducts his pioneering work in typically understated fashion.

Southampton are an innovative football club. It’s a word that most organisations want to be associated with, and all too readily pronounce, but few ratify their claims with substance or evidence. This two-part interview provides insight into good practice with the hope it may spark the imagination of our footballing community. Separated into two themes titled; ‘The released footballer- gone but not forgotten’, and; ‘Life education-the Southampton way’.

How do you define innovation? For me, it’s simple;

“Innovation is anything new, useful, and surprising. Great innovation often leaves you thinking, wow that’s a good idea, why didn’t I think of that”.

None more so evident than their approach to the ‘released player’. While the world wakes to ever increasing stories documenting the struggle of mental health issues of footballers, it’s reassuring to hear that preventative actions have, and are, well under way when it comes to the 99.5% that don’t make it to first team level. Recent cases of bullying, depression, anxiety and unhappiness within Academy football settings are as alarming as they are distressing. Let’s try and redress the balance with some innovation.

With pleasant ‘surprise’ Ian opens his laptop to display the clubs ‘alumni database’. Eight years of data tracking 165 released players at the end of their scholarship (U18). A permanent evolving record of their current playing status, career pathway, and specific educational and vocational support offered by his team/ the club. A database that grows organically through the concerted efforts of its creator, as is customary with a practiced auditor. The crucial part is most notably the human interaction. Ian details their last communication logging the conversations. So much so that with an air of certainty he’s able to update me on some unfamiliar names to the average Southampton fan among this talented crop of 2010/11.

Southampton FC Youth Team 2010/11

The avid Saints fan with just a cursory glance at this youth team photo will probably be able to recognise the fresh faced footballing success stories of Ward-Prowse, Reed, Shaw, Chambers, Isgrove, Turnbull and Hoskins to name a few. But to a former employee pictured with this crop some eight-years past, it was the familiar names of Nicholas, Foot, Curtis, and Young etc. that grabbed my attention. Lee Nicholas was ‘let go’ after his scholarship, and Ian was able to update me on his timeline since. Entering full-time education and gaining qualifications from Loughborough and Solent University, the degree graduate then went on to improve his coaching qualifications with the support of the clubs academy staff acting as mentors. He is now employed as the Coaching and Development Officer in the foundation arm of the club. An FA affiliate tutor he’s also one of the academies foundation phase coaches, completing a full cycle in impressive fashion.    

Southampton Graduates right to left; Chambers, Sinclair, Shaw, Reed, Turnbull, Ward-Prowse.

Perhaps offering the most powerful testament or indictment of the work Ian and his team undertake are these honest opinions of the released player. Personal reflections from the player and their parents on how they perceive Southampton FC’s after care provision seem to vindicate the need and validate the process. What a rich collection of data! The academic in me is itching to investigate the qualitative data and examine player differences and perception (on hold for now). Within the remarks Ian highlights one or two negative statements in which he refers to as “important to appreciate so we can reflect, evaluate and improve our practice”. But on the whole, the feedback is heart warming.

“The club and the people involved with the club did more than enough to prepare myself and the other members of the team for life after football, and I couldn’t be more grateful! The help they supplied us with has led me to the next chapter of my life which is at a University in North Carolina, without the help I was given I would neither be prepared and able to do this without the club and the people within it”.

Player who spent 4 years at Southampton before release at 18.
SFC Youth team in action at Staplewood 2019.

“I will forever be grateful for the time people at the club have spent making sure my time there was the best it could be, but also the time they spent making sure we grew into be good all round people and live good lives whether it was with football or without”


A released Scholar.

In a data driven world why don’t we introduce some numbers. Southampton released 11 players from the U16 group from the 2017/18 season. All 11 players went on to sign a Scholarship at a professional football club, a 100% success rate. The following season 10 players were released of which 7 have signed with professional clubs, 2 have entered higher education, and 1 is unaccounted for at the time of writing. Is this tremendous statistic by chance? No chance.

The club operate an exit strategy for all released players. It is of course the nature of the beast in this occupation, and considered by many academy football practitioners as the toughest part of the job. Ian, aware of the decisions and which player’s will need his support, prior to parent and child meetings begins his work immediately. Acting almost as an agent or intermediary on behalf of the player. Contacting clubs through an extensive network built over time he is able to forward a comprehensive dossier showcasing their talents to any prospective new employer.

The detail is exhaustive. A combination of written documents and video files offer a true reflection of the players’ performance metrics. It’s true that since the inception of the The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2012, accountability at club and staff level has increased tenfold. Every staff member associated with that player’s development contribute to a mix of objective and subjective information. Technical coaches offer summary of their skills, highlighting strengths and weaknesses supported by game statistics and periodic performance reviews; analysts capture game and training footage; conditioning coaches map the physical load, training data, and current maintenance or production programming, with a mix of performance measurements that chronologically define the player’s output. Some CV!

It is not always an easy process for both Ian and the player. The administrative duties are far-reaching , player incomings and outgoings within an academy take considerable expertise and knowhow. Notwithstanding the logistics of transport, accommodation and kit, there is always the overriding governance of the Premier League, the Football League, the Football Association, and the club’s internal policy and procedures to comply and satisfy. On behalf of one individual Ian contacted 54 clubs, with the player unsuccessfully trialing at 9.

Today, the player remains unattached and Ian remains determined.

Please hit the link for the second part of the interview; https://thefootballfamily.co.uk/life-education-the-southampton-way/