It's tempting to feel sorry for Jay Notley, the 18-year-old Charlton player whose career has been threatened by a positive drugs sample; to claim that he is subject to the same temptations as any other 18-year- old and should therefore be excused for stepping out of line. After all, football is often perceived as a microcosm of society, and the misuse of drugs is society's problem.
But the reality is that to be a professional footballer is to be among the chosen few - and I mean, few. When you consider that there are roughly 150 centres of excellence in the country, each catering for around 15,000 boys, yet just 2,300 professional players - that's a success rate of just 0.1 per cent - then excuses become as hard to find as FA Cup giant-killers.
Lucky men, those 0.1 per cent. Lucky Julian Dicks ("I'm not the brainiest person. I ain't got any O-Levels, nothing, because all I ever wanted to be was a professional footballer"). Lucky Terry Venables, Clive Allen, Martin Peters, Nick Barmby et al, former England schoolboys who actually made the step up on to the big stage. Lucky (if you believe the hype) John Curtis, "the next Duncan Edwards and a future England captain"; and Blackburn's Marlon Broomes (great name for a sweeper) who at 18 had Sutton and Shearer in his back pocket. Almost.
Not so lucky the other 99.9 per cent (Notley among them) who fall by the wayside. Football is littered with hard-luck stories of boys who promised to be the next George Best, but who became anything but the best. Mick Burns, chief executive of the Footballers' Further Education and Vocational Society, claims: "It's all in the lap of the gods. There are physical and mental elements in the recipe for success. I've seen 14-year-olds who are brilliant throughout their development but who can't take that final step. Conversely, I've seen youngsters who struggle easily make the grade. There's no logic in it."
Which goes some way towards explaining why such a small percentage of players from Youth Cup-winning sides make the first team. Take Leeds, for example. Howard Wilkinson's legacy to the club is an apparently thriving youth policy - but, to paraphrase Alan Hansen, you can never rely on kids. I remember watching Leeds win the 1993 Youth Cup with a wonderful overhead kick from Jamie Forrester - who is currently struggling to get off Grimsby's bench. In fact from that Leeds side only Noel Whelan and (occasionally) Mark Ford, have fully made the transition to first-team football.
The truth is that, Manchester United apart, just six players from the Youth Cup-winning teams of the 10 years previous to Leeds' victory are now playing regular top-flight football: Paul Gascoigne (Newcastle, 1985); Andy Hinchcliffe (Manchester City, 1986); Kevin Campbell, Alan Miller (Arsenal, 1988); David James (Watford, 1989); and Ian Walker (Spurs, 1990). For the rest - among them Joe Allon (now Hartlepool), Pat Scully (now Huddersfield), Scott Houghton (now Walsall) and Andy Thackeray (now Rochdale) - promise proved to be the proverbial kiss of death.
To help alleviate the pressure on them, players as young as 17 are taking on agents, infuriating their managers and restricting press access to them. But David Manasseh of Stellar Promotions, who have 60 young players on their books, says that the aim is to take away the aggravations of negotiating wages and contracts. "A player still has to do the business on the pitch. We can help steer him in the right direction, but we can't hold his hand at 4am in the morning."
The bottom line is that agents and managers are not nursemaids and players are not robots; their destinies lie in their own boots. No one said it was going to be easy; it isn't now, and it wasn't in 1967 when Lou Macari was trying to break into the Celtic first team. "It was a real dogfight to get established. I had to train it to Glasgow two nights a week, then get a bus to Celtic Park, where Jock Stein would flog me round a track for an hour. If we were lucky we'd get a wee 15-minute game. But I loved it, and believe that kept me playing until I was 35. But the rewards then weren't even worth talking about."
One hopes that the rewards - financial and otherwise - for those who make the grade today are worth not just talking about but staying on the straight and narrow for. The Jay Notleys of this world are few and far between - his is the first alleged failure in over 300 tests this season - but then so are footballers with the talent to reach the top.Reuse content