Football: First Night - The American Dreamers: New window of opportunity

Going West for these young men will put them on the first steps to a fresh start. By Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online
THE EXPRESSIONS were glazed, even without the window. The 23 teenagers gathered inside the pavilion at Blackpool Football Club's spartan training ground stared in silence at the scene outside. To their right, a group of Blackpool players were performing morning drills - still living the dream, in tangerine. On the pitch to their left were 22 crestfallen souls for whom, like them, the dream had died.

"I was told on Monday that I wouldn't be getting a professional contract," Andy Waller had confided before trotting out into the bitterly cold wind. "It was a big blow, obviously. But, at least, coming here's giving me something to look forward to." Deemed surplus to requirements after two years as a youth trainee at Southampton, the 18-year-old was taking his first steps on the road to recovery. It might take him a very long way.

Huddled at the side of the pitch, watching young Waller plough the left midfield furrow for the yellow and blue team, were 17 Puffa-jacketed gentlemen clutching clipboards and pens. They had it within their power to offer Waller and the other 44 released trainees the chance of another dream: the American dream.

In the eight years since the Professional Footballers' Association first hosted their American Scholarship Trials, more than 100 young players who failed to make the grade with English clubs have been given the chance to make a fresh start in the United States. "Most of them do very well for themselves, too," Tom Melville, head coach of Mercer University, Atlanta, said. "Obviously, their dream is to play professional football in England and they're disappointed to get cut by their clubs. But this gives them another chance and they make the most of it.

"We've got one boy just about to graduate, Dean Blaine, from Wallsend, who was released after two years as a youth trainee at Charlton. He's done really well. He's going to Sweden to play in the summer and he's got a few offers to come back here in the lower divisions next season. He's 22. He's young enough to still have a future in the game here. He's got a degree for himself, too.

"One of the first players I took out, Richard Vardy from York City, is now an assistant coach at the university and is married to a local girl. He's done well for himself. And so has Craig McCrory, who I brought from Scarborough. He did a business degree and is now back over here managing a Bird's Eye processing plant. That's why the degree side is important. It gives the lads another option if they're not going to stay involved in the game."

It was different in Mick McGuire's playing days. But, then, the PFA's assistant chief executive was an exception to the rule, having joined the professional ranks with Coventry City directly from Blackpool Grammar School without serving an apprenticeship. He happened to be an exceptional young player, too, starring alongside Trevor Francis in the England youth team that won the "Mini World Cup" in Czechoslovakia in 1971 and making his first-team debut the same year, at the age of 18. It was, however, his concern for the unwanted 18-year-olds that opened the gateway to America.

"It all started when a player from Ipswich got stranded out in America halfway through a scholarship and wanted to come home," McGuire reflected. "We'd heard about the scholarship system, of course, but never got actively involved with it. Youth trainees are our members, so we thought we should at least give them some form of protection. That's when I got this going.

"I wouldn't say we thought it might be a good way to redress the balance because at that time there weren't overseas players coming into this country. But it was a good opportunity for youth trainees who were not offered professional contracts and who were bright enough to take a degree course. They need to have five GCSEs in core subjects and to pass a scholastic aptitude test. They're going to the States to study a degree for four years but they're going to play football, too, to be the impact players in their collegiate teams.

"The first year we had just two college coaches here. This year we have 17 universities represented from all around the United States - from Cleveland, Buffalo, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Washington, even the aeronautical college at Cape Canaveral. They're offering between $16,000 and $20,000 scholarships per year for four-year courses, so for each offer we get something in the region of $80,000 is generated.

"Of the 45 lads we have here, we will get around 20 over to America. So you can see, we're generating $1.5m in effect for very little outlay. We've had over 100 players through the system now and, generally, they make an outstanding impact. That's why the Americans keep coming back, because our lads are the best. They've done two years of full-time training with a club and they've got the technique. We're very proud of the scheme really."

It is a two-way street, of course. Unlike the Britons who took the North American Soccer League money in the 1970s and ran back home (McGuire himself was temporarily a Tampa Bay Rowdie), around 50 per cent of the student- players remain in the United States. "A lot of them have forged good careers over there," McGuire said. "There's one lad, Ben Hickey, who has gone to St John's University in New York and helped them to the championship. He is a star player. He actually turned down a pro contract at Port Vale because he wanted to go over there. He'll go on to play in the Major League and he'll have a degree he'll be able to use."

McGuire has a degree of his own, as well as experience of playing in the United States as a team-mate of Rodney Marsh. He studied through the Open University while playing for Barnsley. "I was OK," he said. "But in my day there was no obligation for apprentices to go to college. Now there's a massive need to, when you consider that 50 per cent of the boys on youth trainee schemes don't sign professional and that 50 per cent of those who do sign are not in the game in two years. Only 25 per cent of lads who join a club at 16 are still in the professional game at 20. There's a big percentage of lads who are looking for employment at a difficult time and this is just one way of redressing the balance a little bit.

"These lads haven't had the benefit of the new system that will have boys as trainees for three years rather than two. Boys coming into football will be in a position to take a degree because they'll be able to take three A levels over those three years. These boys here haven't had that advantage but the great thing is I can say to them when they arrive, 'I'll get one in two of you into America on a four- year degree course.' That's a great lift when they've just been told they're not being kept on by their clubs."

Steve Nottingham, one of the hopefuls watching from the pavilion and waiting for the second trial match of the day, was told a year ago that he was not going to be offered professional terms by Scunthorpe. He stayed for six months on a non-contract basis, despite being given the chance to make the collegiate grade across the Atlantic. "I was offered scholarships by Oakland University and by Lewis University in Chicago," he said. "Knowing what I know now, I'd have taken one of them.

"I was released by Scunthorpe in March and if I don't get another offer here I'll just have to play non-League football. But even that's difficult, because I've only played the one League game and the best non-League clubs are looking for players with 100, 200 appearances. It's a desperate, really." But not as desperate as it would be without the chance to swap Scunthorpe for the States.