Ipswich Town has been accused of failing to adequately support the mental health of a former academy youngster after mishandling an injury the player sustained during his time at the club, The Independent can reveal.
The player, who was 16 at the time, was initially diagnosed with lower-back complications in August 2015 – which later transpired to be two prolapsed discs – and subsequently placed on a rehabilitation programme.
The teenager returned to training after seven weeks but the pain persisted in his lower back for the next four months. He spent much of this period on the sidelines, struggling for form, fitness and game time, with the club unable to establish the full nature of the injury.
By this stage, an MRI scan had yet to be provided.
The youngster returned home for the Christmas break in 2015 without a clear diagnosis and management plan. The pain subsequently intensified in his back to the point where, on some days, walking became a significant difficulty and he was “unable to live a normal life”.
Upon the recommendation of a private chiropractic, the player’s parents approached the club in January 2016 asking for an MRI. This was duly provided – six months on from the youngster’s first diagnosis.
The scan revealed two prolapsed discs. An independent medical review, commissioned by the Professional Footballers’ Association and conducted by a leading sports physician, later established that Ipswich, in delaying the scan, had “fallen below the standards expected of a Championship Club academy”.
The PFA report also found that the player had a pre-existing back condition that was not compatible with the demands of full-time training and that the club was not legally liable for his injury. While the medical expert predicted that the player would struggle to return to professional football, he believed that the youngster could make a good physical recovery with the correct rehabilitation programme.
The player, 16 at the time, subsequently underwent two epidurals. For the second, in February 2016, he was driven to Lister Hospital in London by an Ipswich member of staff, as agreed with his parents, but then left unsupervised to undergo a general anaesthetic. He was told to ring the driver to pick him up after the procedure.
The independent medical review says “a member of the medical team” or “a responsible adult” should have been present with him in the hospital.
The pain faded, allowing the player to return to action for the 2016/17 pre-season. At this point, his parents allege they were urged by an internal figure at Ipswich to file a complaint against the club’s medical team. They say they opted against doing so out of fear of risking their son’s chances of securing a permanent contract.
However, the teenager’s pain returned in September following an intense weights session involving heavy-loaded squat exercises, with it later transpiring that the club had not provided a tailored programme during the 2016 off-season.
An email sent by one of Ipswich’s physiotherapists that month read: “A written programme detailing daily exercises was not required.”
The youngster spent the rest of his scholarship with Ipswich injured, or out on loan in a bid to improve his fitness, and eventually stopped playing in 2018.
The medical review commissioned by the PFA “identified a number of apparent failings” regarding Ipswich’s handling of the player’s injury. These included: “poor communication … [the] delay in obtaining an MRI … [a] lack of written plan for pre-season 2016 and inappropriate loaded squat exercises for his medical condition.”
The review, completed in July 2017, urged the club to “lead a critical incident review into these matters and ensure appropriate systems are in place. Investigations into the safeguarding issues would possibly need to be undertaken with the agreement of the local social services department.”
The player’s parents believe their son developed depression during the episode, having become “withdrawn” and “morose”, while the PFA’s medical review concluded that the player’s “psychological health” needed to be addressed to improve his recovery at the time.
Although he did not raise concerns at the time, the youngster himself admitted to the English Football League in July 2018 that, “looking back now”, it’s likely he struggled mentally during his time at the club.
Regarding his treatment under Ipswich’s physios, he said: “As it was going on over the two or three years, I don’t think they really 100 per cent knew what they were doing. They were trying different stuff, and it wasn’t helping at all.
“…They kind of ran out of ideas. They were just doing the same thing.”
He added that the club never fully communicated to him a clear plan to help with his recovery and how long he would be sidelined for, and that he was left for hours of each day during his rehabilitation “not really doing anything”.
“We’d go in first thing in the morning, he’s [the physio] normally too busy first thing in the morning, so you’d kind of sit around for the first hour or two not really doing anything,” he said. “Just kind of sit in the changing rooms with the other injured players.
“Then you do the physio for about an hour before lunch, and then, have lunch, then after that, not really normally anything to do in the afternoon. Occasionally they’ll have something for you, but normally you just sit around in the afternoon until we’re allowed to go, which is about 3.30-4.00pm.”
The dispute, which is now into its fourth year, was taken to the PFA, the EFL and the Football Association by the teenager’s parents in 2016.
In an email to the FA, a senior executive at the PFA said: “The PFA request that the FA urgently carries out a thorough and far-reaching safeguarding investigation.”
The FA has since confirmed to The Independent that “this case fell outside the jurisdiction of The FA and was investigated by the EFL.”
Although Ipswich claims the three bodies have “found no substantiation to such allegations to warrant any action,” The Independent understands that the EFL’s investigation into the case remains ongoing.
The PFA told The Independent: “The PFA treats its members’ welfare as paramount and we have supported the player throughout this situation, both in terms of pursuing his complaints and also to assist him with medical and rehabilitation assistance.
“This case has highlighted the urgent need for greater clarity as to the process players should follow in regard to safeguarding issues.”
The Independent also understands that, to this date, the chief executive of Ipswich has not responded to the parents’ formal complaint nor offered an apology for the club’s treatment of their son.
In response, a spokesperson for Ipswich said: “The Academy staff, including the director of football operations have done everything possible to assist the player and his family over a prolonged period and have given full co-operation to the football authorities."
The spokesperson added: “Our Academy has an outstanding reputation in the game for not only developing young talent and providing a pathway into the first-team but even more importantly, for ensuring the welfare and general well-being of all the scholars.
“The player concerned was provided with that same expert support from the Academy both in terms of the physical treatment of the injury – including guidance from one of Europe’s leading consultants in spinal surgery – and the mental challenges surrounding dealing with a long-term injury.
“The Club has acted to the highest standards in the player’s medical treatment in line with the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines and in his general well-being."
The teenager now coaches at the club for two hours a week at a separate site away from the main academy centre.
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