From pitch to podium, footy rejects get lifeline

Eighty per cent never make it – now the cast-offs can grab Olympic glory
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The Independent Online

It's that time of year again, when the dreams of hundreds of young footballers are brutally dashed. Called into the manager's office they are told: "Sorry son, you are not going to make it."

So what happens next? For many at best it's the Blue Square or at worst the JobCentre. But for some there is now a transfer window – one that opens into another sport.

A revolutionary new programme, backed by the football authorities and run jointly by the English Institute of Sport and UK Sport, aims to re-assign released young footballers – and also some rugby players – into different Olympic pursuits. The past year has seen more than 1,000 youngsters rejected by their clubs' academies turning up at a series of auditions in England and Scotland, and dozens have already been drafted into Olympic squads for canoeing, bobsleigh, hockey and cycling. The aptly-named Chelsea Warr, UK Sport's talent identification chief, says: "Football is the largest hotbed of athletic talent in Britain and many players leaving the professional game would already have developed the ready-made skills and abilities we'd be looking for. These, along with the right coaching and support system, may give them the potential to be fast-tracked toward the medal rostrum in 2012 and beyond."

Fresh aspirations were in the air at Reading's Madejski Stadium when academy footballers from Crystal Palace, Watford and Northampton, all anxious about their future, tested their prowess on rowing machines, bicycles and indoor sprinting. They were aware that some 80 per cent or more of Academy players never make it to the first team, so they were eager to hear that two of their former number, both 20-year-old ex-goalkeepers, Alex Jennings (Orient) and James Hoad (Watford), are on the brink of finding in the Olympic arena the stardom that eluded them on the pitch. Jennings is transferring his between-the-post skills to hockey, where he is said to have Olympic potential, while Hoad is hoping to be bobbing along for Team GB in next year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Hoad had spent 10 years in Watford's Academy before getting the dreaded summons to see the boss in 2007. "A professional football player was all I'd ever wanted to be," he says. "But that all changed the day when the manager told me my future wasn't at that club. It seemed my whole life had ended in one day.

"Less than a year later, I was working on a building site when I got the letter through the door about PitchPodium. I didn't think much of it at first, but it was my mum that put it under my nose and said: 'Look at this James, you should do this.' When I read the letter it really appealed to me. I went along with an open mind and a give-it-a-go attitude. I did the tests and they thought I might be useful at bob skeleton. The first time I went down the ice was scary, amazing. They are real speed demons. But when I got to the bottom I found I wanted to get straight back up and go faster and be a bit of a nutcase like them."

Hoad will know soon if he is on the trip to Vancouver. "OK, so it may not be like walking out at Wembley for an FA Cup final but if I get to the Olympics I'll go with the attitude that I'm going to get gold."

Jennings was similarly shattered when released by Orient last season after making it to their reserve team. "But I knew I had to bounce back up and put all my effort into another sport. I found the transition to hockey quite easy. The hardest thing for a hockey goalkeeper is the diving because of the pads but I overcame that right away. It came naturally to me and the training is very similar to football."

Coaches say Jennings, now studying sports science at Roehampton University, shows great promise and he will begin high-level hockey grooming at Loughborough in September. "Obviously there's no money in hockey but money has never motivated me, even when I was in football. Now it is nice to dream about 2012."

The Professional Footballers' Association have been proactive in providing grants to enable members to attend PitchPodium training camps once they have been short-listed by an Olympic sport. Chief executive Gordon Taylor says: "This is one initiative where we try to look after those youngsters who are cast aside. Of the 600 who join at 16, 500 are out the game by the time they are 21 which is a terrible waste of young talent. So it is good to see that a number of potential Olympic athletes can be sourced from football."

Of course, the East Germans invented the skills-swapping lark years ago and the Chinese are now dab hands at it. But the PitchPodium scheme may well be unique in world sport in showing that there is sporting life beyond football and that Britain has got alternative talent.