The title of this piece is an oxymoron: children cannot be professional footballers. Yet, for some adults involved in the professional football industry, child footballers are treated as such and, as a consequence, abused and exploited by the clubs they play for. The adults range from coaches to parents, from players to scouts. (I write as a former academy scout for two Premiership clubs.)
Youngsters as little as eight who are talented footballers are treated as young professionals, not children playing football (albeit at a professional club). Take their playing season: it does not follow the rhythm and schedule of the most influential institution in their lives outside of their family, the school, but rather that of the professional leagues. They end in May and resume at the beginning of July. So, as their classmates are looking forward to the 6 week holidays, academy footballers will be getting stuck into their version of pre-season. Okay, it wont be as strenuous and vomit-inducing as the pros they – literally – look up to at the training ground but it will burn deep into a period of their calender when their lives should be characterised by carefree indulgence.
UK schools are places of pressure. The demands of the National Curriculum and league tables has produced an environment that has a series of Beecher’s Brooks for pupils to hurdle from September to July, from age five to age 16: exams, tests and other forms of numerical evaluations dominate at the expense of organic creativity and expression. (Though thankfully, as I write, Year 1 SATs has been abandoned.) They have competition and hierarchy as their core values, replicating the business world. Yet for all of this ruthless intensity, according to the PISA rankings, British schools punch well below their weight given the relative size of our economy. This has produced, by international comparison, unhappy and fearful children. A 2105 survey report co-edited by York University’s Jonathan Bradshaw found that, out of 16 countries, English schoolchildren were three from the bottom in feelings of happiness, contentment and safety.
So, for the child footballer attached to a professional club just as he – it is exclusively boys who are signed as primary-age children by pro clubs – is blinded by the light of the pressure cooker lid being lifted, he is thrown back into the intense environment of pre-season. For those lucky enough to have a family/summer holiday the feelings of guilt and fear accompany them on their travels: the coaches may not think I’m committed enough; will someone else shine while I’m away and make it hard for me to be seen as the number one for my preferred position?
Parents also feel this pressure to conform and usually go along with the club’s training and schedule. Yet, I know the parents of a child who is an excellent footballer at a Premiership club who allow their son to enjoy his summer holidays. He does no pre-season training at the club. He has been considered by the FA as a potential England schoolboy candidate. And, having watched him myself over four seasons I’d argue he is one of the players in his team most likely to have a career in the game. I’d also argue that he thrives as a child footballer because his parents recognise what all good coaches recognise: a reduction in pressure usually results in a rising level of performance. To play with freedom is to play without fear.
Those in the football industry in England in charge of making the rules governing the relationship clubs have with their child footballers the FA, the PL and EFL have implemented the Elite Player Performance Plan. At its core is the commodification of the child footballer. The latter are not free to move from one club academy to another without money changing hands. And guess who doesn’t see any of this hard earned lucre? The player and their parents (officially, at least). An inter-club compensation structure operates, similar to a transfer system. This effectively means that if player is unhappy at a club with a grade one academy and would like to move to a smaller club with a lower graded academy he cannot do so unless tens of thousands of pounds are paid in compensation. This usually prevents clubs with very limited resources signing grade one academy players. More importantly, it stops children playing football for clubs of their choice.
Incredibly, as if to add insult to injury, no allowance is written into this compensation structure for repayment of costs and expenses outlaid by the parents should their child be released by the club before signing a scholarship/pro contract. So, while clubs are guaranteed compensation for their outlay, the parents have no such cushion should their child fail to make a living in the game as an adult. The logic governing this legal framework – within which clubs sign child footballers – ensures the financial benefit is always with those wielding the greatest power in the relationship: the richer clubs.
It is the same logic that sees companies demanding the right to sue elected governments for compensation if they pass laws that threaten the profits of those companies. This ignores the sovereignty of the people who voted for their political administration on the basis of the manifesto of policies offered. It places all human transactions within the cash nexus. All relationships have to be commodified. The bottom line rules. What is not considered is the notion of emotional well-being, natural justice, morality and other existential qualities and values.
This environment of commodity fetishism in football leads to other numerous and consistent abuses of child footballers as well as economic exploitation. The worst form is that of the body itself through sexual degradation.
Yet, what constitutes a child in UK law has long been legally ambiguous: criminal responsibility begins at 10 (in England and Wales); voting at 18; marriage at 16. Yet, almost unbelievably the protection of the bodies of children from sexual exploitation by adults stopped at puberty until, historically, quite recently: for 590 years the age of consent in the UK remained at 12. It wasn’t raised to 16 until 1885.
Over 100 years later the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child codified a 20th century version of the rights of children. It defined as a child any person below 18. It stated in Article 3 that any decision affecting children should have their best interests as its primary concern. There are 54 Articles covering issues such as family reunification, refugee children, respecting the views of the child, protection from violence, sexual exploitation and leisure, play and culture amongst many others. The British government under Thatcher ratified the Children’s Charter but excluded itself from the articles protecting 16/17 year olds in the labour market, immigration laws affecting children and preventing children from being locked up in adult prisons. The 1989 Children’s Act reflected these exclusions. The primary concern of the Thatcher regime seemed to be limiting the legal rights of the child, rather than ensuring their welfare.
The raised consciousness of the place, role and protection of the child by the UN assisted in facilitating an environment in the UK in which abuses of children could now be raised publicly. Academics such as Henry Kemp and Celia Brackenridge were instrumental in this. However, sports bodies were initially hostile to the suggestion that children could be abused in their care: Brackenridge was told by senior official of Sport England that they “do not take kindly in being told what to do”.
The commodification of child sporting activity, most acute and obvious in the compensation structure football of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), creates an environment where the gatekeepers of Eldorado – the coaches – have enormous prestige and power. The unscrupulous can recast themselves as power brokers. Do what I say and I’ll help you achieve your dreams; disobey me and you’ll be excluded. It is the scenario in which sexually abusive coaches like Barry Bennell and John Denham (formerly known as Benjamin Harrop) ruthlessly exploited young players. The EPPP did not create the phenomenon of child sexual abuse (CSA) but it certainly is a structural template which facilitates it and in which it has the ability to flourish.
The recent exposure by brave survivors of historic CSA in football has shone a light into a dark festering corner of the game that it’s administrators have done their best to keep hidden. Barry Bennell was convicted in the 1990s for CSA as a football coach. While the current head of the FA Greg Clarke finds the suppression and non-investigation of claims of sexual abuse ‘repugnant’ it was the FA who found that Crewe Alexandra had ‘no case to answer’ when responding to accusations about Bennell’s time there in the early 2000’s. Chelsea tried to keep secret historic sexual abuse at their club. The FA have yet to release the findings of their 2005 report into CSA in football.
Given the recent fiasco over the national investigation into CSA by Establishment figures with the resignation of its three heads and the mainstream media campaign to rubbish the claims of certain key survivors, it is not surprising that the football Establishment did the same. Jimmy Savile’s sickening and chronic predatory abuse was a badly kept secret but he was left alone because of what he knew and who – a friend and confidante of Prince Charles and Thatcher – he could bring down with him.
In 2016 the Exharo News website was closed down when its backer withdrew funding. Exharo had been at the forefront of the campaign to expose CSA. It was fearless in its pursuit. Along with its closure we have been treated to sympathetic portrayals of suspects such as Leon Brittan, Greville Janner and Harvey Proctor fighting CSA accusations. They may well have been innocent but we will never know as court proceedings – including in Janner’s case, a test of the evidence that didn’t legally require his presence – have been dropped. Indeed, Operation Midland, the police investigation investigating these figures, was closed down in 2016 after 16 months investigation by 31 detectives and expenditure of £2m.
An upmarket block of flats – Dolphin Square, Pimlico – lived in by many politicians was rumoured to be the site of much CSA of boys from London and Northern Ireland Children’s Homes. A middle-aged survivor, Richard Kerr, returned in 2016 to Britain from the US intending to give evidence to the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry looking at CSA at the Kincora Boys Home in Belfast. So intent was the Establishment that sleeping dogs should be left to silently lie the inquiry dismissed long-standing claims that senior politicians, civil servants and businessmen were complicit in a paedophile ring that operated at the home in the 1970s and for which three staff members were jailed.
The report also rejected associated allegations that the UK security services knew what was going on and, instead of intervening, used the information to blackmail the Establishment figures involved, observed the Irish News. On publication of the HIA findings, inquiry chairman Sir Anthony Hart said of Kincora: “It was not a homosexual brothel, nor was it used by any of the security agencies as a honey pot to entrap, blackmail or otherwise exploit homosexuals.” The retired judge added: “It is now time to finally lay these unfounded myths to rest.”
Until 2016 Football’s administrators have acted in a very similar way, closing ranks when accusations of CSA have been made. Concerned parents wrote to Manchester City in the 1990s complaining about Bennell says Deborah Davies a reporter for the Dispatches documentary team which covered CSA in football in 1997. In 2005 the Independent Football Commission (IFC) identified four cases of CSA at Premiership clubs over the previous three years. This was eight years after Barry Bennell had been jailed for nine years for CSA offences. The IFC report – after an 18-month investigation – revealed that 250 suspected child abuse cases were being examined by the FA. As stated above the FA have so far refused to release the report.
The cover-up of CSA in football and the commodification of child footballers as a source of profit are connected. Coaches like Bennell used their position and status at professional clubs to bribe and coerce vulnerable children with promises of wealth and stardom in order to sexually abuse them. The Premier League, FA and the UK’s professional clubs entice talented child footballers to sign and put their childhood on hold with the same promise of wealth and stardom in the full knowledge that statistically no more than 2% will achieve a career in the game.
Almost 98 percent of boys given a scholarship at 16 are no longer in the top five tiers of the game domestic game at the age of 18. A recent study revealed only 8 out of 400 players given a professional Premier League contract at 18 remained at the highest level by the time of their twenty-second birthday. Since only 180 of the 1.5 million boys who play organised youth football in England at any one time become Premier League pros, the success rate is 0.012. Calvin, M. (2017) No hunger in Paradise: The Players, The Journey, The Dream (London: Century) pp 6-7.
Given these statistics the contractual lock professional clubs impose upon child footballers is a form of abuse that needs to be tested in the courts with reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and laws covering child employment and protection. I have no legal expertise or training but I do have experience of working for two Premiership academies where the contractual, legal and moral environments need to be reassessed. I have the utmost respect for academy coaches, the vast majority of whom do have the child’s welfare at heart and do their best to facilitate a safe and welcoming environment. However, the corporate structures under which they operate are not fit for purpose and diminish the good work they do.
Childhood needs to be given back to gifted children footballers . There should be an age limit – 14? – at which they are allowed to be signed to professional clubs. Until then the resources allocated to coaching children should be invested into school football. If academy coaches worked with schools in their communities their impact as experts would have a far greater influence. All would benefit, not just the most gifted male footballers. It would raise the skills, understanding and (hopefully) enjoyment of all participants. It could, further down the line, also stop the decline in (male) adult grassroots football where the number of players and teams is decreasing nationally (in contrast to women’s football which is booming). The Premier League, FA, EFL, SPL and football’s other administrative bodies have been complicit in the decline of organised school football. With the enormous cuts to school budgets now ongoing and childhood obesity a real problem, it is almost a social duty that clubs, which rely on their communities for their existence, recognise their responsibility in helping to solve this problem.
If clubs were truly embedded in their communities as pro-bono experts in this practical and positive way, the necessity, opportunity and ability for sexual and economic exploitation is lessened: the skills of child footballers are not commodified through being contracted; and the communal setting of coaching and matches allows greater transparency for all participants, coaches, players, parents, carers and teachers.
For most of the 20th century the English Schools Football Association (ESFA) was the administrative body that regulated and oversaw football played in schools and the relationship of school age footballers with professional clubs. Dr Tony Whelan, head of coaching at Manchester United’s Academy has outlined the benefits of this arrangement in his 2015 thesis Professional Practice and Pastoral Care: A Critical Analysis of the Manchester United Schoolboy Scholarship 2007–2012. The pastoral care of pupils was at the forefront the ESFA’s concerns and objectives. The cash nexus didn’t intrude into the dynamics of personal relationships held between the child footballer and the teams for which he played. It wasn’t until 1963 that talented schoolboys could sign with their local professional club on Associated Schoolboy Forms. This permitted clubs to offer the boys weekday evening and weekend coaching.
With the creation of the Premier League (PL) in 1992, an initiative that had the protection of income and resources by elite clubs as its primary (but covert) imperative, the compulsion to commodify young talent became overwhelming. The ESFA now became an obstacle to this economic objective. As Whelan argues this tension between the neo-liberal PL and the now archaic ESFA caused a rupture that would inevitably have only one winner in this new environment of naked market competition to capture the best schoolboy talent. With Howard Wilkinson’s 1997 Charter for Quality came the formal transference of power over talented schoolboy footballers to professional clubs. The Charter allowed for the creation of FA licensed academies and sanctioned the formal signing of players as young as eight. Whelan argues
Clubs wishing to establish an academy had to apply for a licence, and comply with an extensive set of rules and regulations which included player registration, staff quota, coaching and training, as well as compensation procedures in case a player wanted to leave the club. Thus youth football was now becoming a major industry as very young boys could now be bought and sold in the same way as senior players. This raised a range of child welfare issues that needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency. (Whelan, 2015: 10).
Unfortunately, it cannot be argued that the FA, PL and EFL did take their child welfare responsibilities seriously. Had the FA put child welfare at the centre of priorities it would have made public its 2005 report into CSA at professional clubs. It would also have acted definitively upon the Lewis Review (2007) which argued that the emphasis upon the result in youth football was detrimental to young players emotional health and enjoyment of the game.
The Charter has now been superseded by the introduction in 2011 of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). As Whelan argues, the EPPP is a minefield of rules yet once again, if we use the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as our guide, it does not place the emotional, psychological and physical protection and welfare of the child at the heart of its vision. Whelan argues that this one of the greatest challenges to coaches is the reconciliation of the dual but often conflicting objectives of team success and individual well-being. He suggests more awareness of the legal framework within which their relationships and activities take place would help.
Young athletes do not have to accept the harmful affects of intense training and competition as a way of life, as they have legal rights under International law. (Whelan, 2015: 106)
He cites article 3.1 “in all acts concerning children…the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration.” Yet, as he points out, competitive sport in the professional domain does not facilitate the legal empowerment of the child. While the most enlightened coaches encourage their youngsters to ‘express themselves and play with a smile on their face’ I’ve never heard or read about club administrators urging child footballers and their parents/carers to fearlessly assert their rights in law. Indeed, this strengthening of the legal status of child footballers at professional clubs should have been a logical progression from the Bosman ruling of 1995 which allowed (adult) players freedom of movement once their contract had expired. How can it still be right not to allow child footballers to sign for any club they want to, at any time in their childhood? I would argue that the compensation structure should be scrapped and absolute freedom of movement be the norm for child footballers.
To achieve this professional clubs have to reimagine their interaction with young people with an essential first principle and two primary clauses: 1) The UN convention on the Rights of the Child should structure this relationship, morally and legally. A) De-commodification. There should be no contracts that position the child as a commercial investment. B) All resources needed to sustain the relationship should flow from the professional game into schools and similar local institutions on the basis that professional football clubs are communal assets with (at elite level) enormous wealth.
If this vision could be realised much exploitation and abuse that now occurs would be suffocated. The ability and power of the violators would be diminished as a direct result of the legal empowerment of the child footballer. As important would be the consequential transformation of cultural attitudes and behaviour. Young footballers coached in school would be pupils learning a game in familiar surroundings that are physically and socially child centred, characterised by security, enjoyment and pleasure. I would argue also that remaining in the community in their most formative years to learn the game would make them better footballers. They would get that variety of game environments – street, school playground, park, back garden – which create the ‘malandro’ – street footballer – so characteristic of the best in the world: Pele, Suarez, Sanchez, Maradona, Cruyff and dare I say it, Rashford!
This restructuring will seem far-fetched and unobtainable to some. If it seen as utopian it will be seen as such because of the relative dystopia we are in: the overwhelming majority of academy footballers on scholarship contracts will not achieve a full-time career in the game. While they will have received excellent coaching and social skills that will enhance their adult opportunities and experiences, childhood should not be sacrificed to feed the beast. Professional football clubs, for the ultimate good of the children they coach, need to turn current relationship on their head: ask not what the child can do for you, but what can you do for the child. And, you never know, further down the road PL clubs might achieve the success in Europe similar to that of the old First Division with their relatively under-coached (and home grown) talent.