Sam Wallace: Footballers and rowers come from different worlds, so don't compare them

Talking Football: Many top players have come from tough backgrounds to be decent people

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The Independent Football

Good old Team GB: humble, successful, erudite, honest. They are the nation's new sporting favourites and deservedly so. You only have to hope for their sake that the bar has not been set unrealistically high. So exuberantly have they been praised, one half expects them to pop round to mow one's lawn between training sessions. Easy to forget they are only human after all.

Bad Premier League footballers: greedy, irresponsible, over-rewarded for mediocrity. The backlash started even before the Olympics finished and it will become more severe at the first disgrace of the season. Like problem children, they have been told so often how naughty they are, the criticism has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is the debate really as simple as that? Last week, I spoke to a senior figure in the academy of a leading London football club who has devoted his professional life to developing young kids into elite players and responsible adults. A dedicated, astute individual, he told me a story about the problems he has simply getting boys in to train at his club.

Around 70 per cent of his academy players come from what might politely be described as "challenging" areas. They are reluctant to hop on a train or bus to the academy because that would involve crossing those invisible lines that differentiate gang territories. These are borders that you and I do not have to worry about, but for a 14-year-old boy from a single-parent family living on a council estate they are very real and very frightening.

The situation became so bad that the club took to hiring minibuses to collect its players. When the drivers pulled into some of the estates they noticed large gangs of boys running away. They had assumed that the minibuses were unmarked police vehicles.

That is a small example of the reality of many clubs' elite football development schemes. They recruit largely from urban areas and from disadvantaged communities who happen to produce extremely talented players. In London the trend is that most white players tend to come in from surrounding counties outside the boroughs.

Many of the inner-city boys whom the clubs scout from the estates by word of mouth have had little or no experience of organised football with kits, referees and goal-nets, even by their teens. They may have played a handful of games for their school, which is often under-resourced. The reality is there are very few youth leagues for kids in places such as Brixton or Pimlico.

Some of these young men can be very difficult to mould into professional footballers and some of them who do make the grade do not always demonstrate the best judgement when it comes to their professional lives. There will always be exceptions to the rule – and I could name you dozens of top footballers who have come from a tough background to become decent, reliable individuals – but, by and large, this is what English football is dealing with.

Critics of football will point to Team GB's uplifting stories of athletes overcoming difficulties, such as Anthony Joshua, the boxing super-heavyweight gold medallist who had a drugs conviction, and others who come from modest backgrounds. With Team GB the glass is half-full; for English football it can be the other way around.

Take the example of Jermaine Pennant, a man whose football career has been punctuated by more than one regrettable episode, including a prison sentence. It is no secret that his mother died when he was three years old, leaving him and his siblings virtually to fend for themselves with the occasional help of his father, a convicted drug dealer.

What would his life have been without football and the intervention of his first club, Notts County? If you were to judge his life according to a handicapping system that took into account such an unpromising start, would it not be the case that he has not done too badly?

To a great extent, football draws its players from some of the lowest-income communities in the country – it has always done – and as such will always reflect some of the problems, as well as the strengths of those communities.

Unlike Team GB, in football university graduates are as rare as a Tony Hibbert goal. The structure of football is not built around higher education. Clubs naturally have a vested interest in their academy boys becoming successful footballers but they are also some of the few institutions reaching into the kind of urban environments that government and local authorities are struggling to improve.

They do so because football is not a sport like cycling and rowing, the two standout successes for Team GB, that lends itself to "late entry", as was the case with Helen Glover, who won Olympic gold with Heather Stanning in the women's pair, having only taken up the sport in 2008. It is not an option for Premier League clubs to recruit players by testing them for simple physical attributes, as has been the case with cycling and rowing.

The technical requirements of elite football mean players need to be immersed in it from a very young age, especially in those crucial years up to the age of 11 when, it is generally accepted, the core skills are learnt. As a result, many Premier League clubs now have pre-academy training centres for five- to eight-year-olds to identify talent and to provide the kind of coaching that neither schools nor youth clubs give to boys in inner-city estates.

Boys can only be officially registered to an academy when they reach Year 3 of school at the age of nine. If they stay in the academy after the age of 16 they will do a modern apprenticeship, which gives them some qualifications to fall back on. It is written into their academy contracts that they must finish their education.

It is a pity that football clubs do not make more of their academy staff who, on the whole, are excellent people. The rewards are there for those boys who make it as professionals, but their academy coaches will never be multi-millionaires. Unfortunately, the paranoia so many clubs have about losing talent means that the academies remain secretive, closed places.

English football, and more pertinently the dedicated, largely unheralded staff in its academies, will continue to try to work on the front line, coaching young players, often from difficult backgrounds. Many of those players will become likeable, responsible stars of the game who also happen to earn telephone-number salaries.

Others will become the kind of stars who crash their high-performance cars, behave inappropriately and generally look stroppy off the pitch with their oversized earphones and their surly entourages. People will sigh and wonder aloud why they are not more like Team GB.

But things are not always as simple as they seem. Just ask that 14-year-old boy on a London estate for whom the simple act of getting to training is a seriously dangerous exercise.