Ian Herbert: Football has failed to see that its would-be stars must be children first. Manchester City are recognising that

Of the 10,000 boys in the academy system, only one to two per cent will make it

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We will be discovering more today about the side of Manchester City which has been obscured by the cheap narrative about oil-rich sheikhs coming in with their money and killing our football. The club will open its new football academy to the world.

We can expect the level of investment and detail to be impressive. All will be revealed. But it is the more subtle appreciation of the complex psychology of young footballers which strikes you most.

The club realised several years ago that developing football skills was only a part of the story if the individuals in possession of them did not have the right frame of mind to go with that. Even as they prepared to celebrate the opening of the City Football Academy (CFA), there was another reminder of the wasted opportunity that comes when everyone focuses on the skill and no one thinks about the psychology.


Michael Johnson (above) was nicknamed FEC (“Future England Captain”) in the City dressing room in 2008, when his languid midfield skills suggested he might be one. If you had told him then that in December 2014 he would be investing to convert an unprepossessing corner property at Didsbury into a restaurant, he would have pictured it as a side-line to his main project in life. It is his main project in life: his first venture into the public domain since he announced his retirement after City cancelled his contract two years ago.

Stephen Ireland at City in 2008

City have come to feel that the generation of Johnson, Stephen Ireland and Joey Barton was a missed opportunity. Yes, they came through the ranks and played first-team football but not to the potential we would have seen if City had been more concerned to keep them on the straight and narrow.

That’s changed now. The teenage scholars the club take on are educated at the local St Bede’s private school – the most recent batch achieving GCSE grades 10 per cent above the national average last summer – and the CFA adds another dimension to the mission of developing something more than football. City will become the first club in the country to house their scholars, with four live-in house-parents – one couple and a mother and daughter. They believe that will help with some of the problems which can occur among the cohort of hyper-competitive young boys with money to burn and too much time on their hands. 

City are becoming surrogate parents as well as employers and what impresses most about Mark Allen, who heads the academy, is his obvious realisation of how subtle and complex that task can be. How – as those of us with children know – strict discipline is not always the answer, shouting never is, and that the respect of a teenager is a very hard-earned thing. “I think shouting is something that is done very little here,” Allen says.

City will kick out scholars who have the talent but lack the attitude: 10 in that category have gone in the past few years. It feels like a club where young players are also considered to be people who are entitled and encouraged to grow.

“I don’t want them to miss out on things because they are playing football,” Allen says. “The more rounded the person, the better they are in life.”

Perhaps not entirely intentionally, it seems to have helped that the scholars mix with members of City’s women’s team, who occupy the same CFA building, altering the alpha-male environment for the better.

Taking away some of the big football wages would also help. Allen supports the idea of it being mandatory for high-earning young players to put a substantial amount of that cash into trust funds.

Joey Barton is another graduate who didn't reach his potential at the club

Of course, the elephant in the room for all the boys is that a tiny percentage will make it in the game. I wonder whether City do enough to confront the teenagers with this truth. “I think any elite environment is elite because it’s difficult,” Allen says. “And that’s what you are looking to build in players – that character, that resilience, that mental toughness.” It’s a difficult one. How do you make a young player determined when you are telling him he will probably fail?

The father of a boy who was on the fringes at City before the club let him go says I am right to wonder. “They let him down gently and helped us find a club,” he tells me. “But it’s the not knowing which is the problem. You and he just want to know what your chances are but they just don’t tell you anything. It’s like they want to hold on to the possibility for as long as they can.”

The journey into this world took me back in my mind to the family of Reece Staples, a 14-year-old of such prodigious talent that Nottingham Forest paid Notts County handsomely for him in 2009 and who – with echoes of Johnson – was pictured beneath a Nottingham Evening Post banner headline as “the next big thing” in 2006. Staples’s life spiralled into chaos after the club released him two years later when his football progress hit a brick wall at 18. He died on a police station floor, aged 19. His family still hadn’t entirely come to terms with that when I last saw them, after the inquest into his death.

What wouldn’t those devastated people have given for their boy to get the opportunities that City will provide?

Jose Angel Pozo, who came on against Everton on Saturday

Would he have taken up some of the activities that Allen wants the boys to try – guitar classes, advanced driving lessons, business studies – to fill those empty hours after training?

Football is not to blame for every tragedy. But Reece wasn’t the only one. Carl Ansell (formerly of Wolves) is one more of many plunged into an abyss when the football merry-go-round cast them off. No wonder. Of the 10,000 boys currently in the academy system, only one to two per cent will make the grade.

City have not yet found all the answers to a football talent industry which sees only one in six of those who sign contracts at 18 stay in the game for longer than three years. The underlying problem is that big clubs take on far too many, in the relentless quest for the next big thing. But they are making a serious and significant start.

The players whose talents will one day absorb us must be children first. The wider football world would do well to recognise that.