Are clubs doing enough to tackle Academy bullying?
Written by Simon Austin — January 6, 2019
HAVING worked in professional football for 21 years, latterly as Head of Education for Manchester City, Pete Lowe knew there was a need for an organisation focussing on the welfare of young footballers and their parents.
Still, the volume and severity of the cases that have come his way since setting up PlayersNet two years ago have come as a major surprise.
“We’ve dealt with more than 30 cases,” Lowe tells TGG, “and as a father and lover of football, I’ve been shocked at what has come to light.”
Lowe says he is currently dealing with a welfare issue at an unnamed Championship club that “could potentially be the worst duty of care case we’ve come across.”
One of his earliest cases involved the Aston Villa Academy.
“A father had put his concerns about the emotional and verbal bullying suffered by his son down in writing and sent it to the club,” Lowe explains, “but they came back and said nothing untoward had gone on.”
After that, Lowe helped the father take his concerns to the Premier League, which has regulatory oversight of its Academies. In February 2017, having conducted its own investigation, the League wrote to the father with damning findings against both Villa and their Under-23 coach Kevin MacDonald.
“There is evidence of bullying, aggressive behaviour and unacceptable language by Mr MacDonald,” the letter stated.
“I have never seen a letter as damning as that,” Lowe remembers. “The club said that nothing untoward had gone on. Then, 17 months later, they suspend the member of staff for exactly the same allegations that had been brought in the first place.”
Villa, under their new chief executive Christian Purslow, are now conducting an internal inquiry after four youth players came forward to tell The Guardian’s David Conn about the sustained bullying and abuse they suffered at the hands of MacDonald and another coach, Tony McAndrew, in the 1990s.
One of the players, Gareth Farrelly, said: “It was a culture of verbal and physical bullying, but there were no checks and balances. He (MacDonald) operated with impunity.”
TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Other top clubs have faced allegations of bullying in the last couple of seasons, leading to action being taken against staff. However, the quality of the processes and level of transparency at the clubs concerned have raised serious questions.
In May, Arsenal suspended U23 coach Steve Gatting and his assistant Carl Laraman following complaints of bullying from several players. The club announced it had “launched an investigation” and the duo were subsequently replaced - by Freddie Ljungberg with the U23s and Ryan Garry - but there has been no official announcement about Gatting and Laraman, nor about about the findings of the investigation.
Before Christmas, TGG was told by the club’s media department, “for guidance”, that the pair would not be returning to work at Arsenal again. Subsequent calls to the club's media department about the issue have gone unanswered.
This, in turn, leaves a lot of unanswered questions, which could potentially be of concern to both players and parents:
- On what terms did the two coaches leave?
- What were the findings of the club's internal investigation?
- Were these issues deemed to be down purely to the individuals concerned, or were there more systemic problems at the Academy?
- What measures have been put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again?
- What has been said to the players concerned?
At Newcastle United, U23 coach Peter Beardsley was suspended in January 2018 following accusations of bullying and racism. Again, an investigation was launched by the club; again there has been no official outcome. Beardsley remains employed by Newcastle and was coaching at nearby Gateshead before Christmas.
Last week, another case came to light involving a Premier League club and this time Craig Bellamy stepped down from his role as Head of Player Development at Cardiff City.
The parents of former U18s captain Alfie Madden had accused the former Liverpool and Wales player of bullying, saying he had discriminated against their son because he was English and humiliated him in front of his team-mates.
Bellamy has “categorically refuted” the allegations and said “I fully expect to return to my coaching role”.
In his statement, the Welshman added that he was “saddened by the manner in which the allegations were made” - in the Daily Mail newspaper.
However, the player’s parents have subsequently raised concerns about the way their initial complaint was dealt with by the club.
When they complained, in writing, to Cardiff, they “never got one reply”, according to the player’s father; and when they had a “formal meeting” with Bellamy and Academy Manager James McCarthy, “he (Bellamy) was like a naughty schoolboy, slouched back in his chair, kicking the chair, swearing in front of my wife.”
“You’re talking to someone who should not be involved in kids’ football,” Madden senior concluded.
Following the Daily Mail's story, the club hastily announced an internal inquiry into the matter. This will be led by the club’s new Head of Safeguarding, Rob Cronick, who has been in post since last November following a career as a Detective Chief Inspector with South Wales Police.
When TGG contacted Cronick, he said: “I can assure everyone that this will be a diligent and expedient process.”
The Premier League’s EPPP guidelines recommend that every Category 1 and 2 Academy (Cardiff are Category 2) should have a full-time Safeguarding Officer.
Cronick also coaches the club’s goalkeepers from the ages of 12 to 16, but told TGG: “Head of Safeguarding is my full-time role and I will again emphasise that this will be a diligent and expedient process.”
BALANCE OF POWER
A common definition of bullying is “using superior strength or influence to intimidate”.
It’s easy to see how football Academies, where an inner circle of staff hold the destiny of aspiring young footballers in their hands, could be fertile ground for such behaviour.
Lowe says “it’s crucial that complaints are raised, otherwise these issues will never come to light.”
During the last few months, TGG has been contacted by parents raising concerns about bullying at different Academies. All said they did not wish to make official complaints because of fears it would hinder opportunities for their children.
“The parents are often young and are dealing with staff who are much more experienced in life and certainly in football than they are,” Lowe says.
"Players and parents often fear for their future at the club if they make a complaint.”
Alfie Madden’s father, David, was different, a former professional footballer, who had played in an FA Cup final for Crystal Palace; the owner of a successful property business; and now without the worries of jeopardising his son's footballing future, because he is now at a College in the United States.
Even Madden admits he was worried “am I making too much of a fuss?” and “will he (Alfie) be blackballed if he goes to another club?” at one stage though.
Players and parents are likely to be even more wary of making a complaint when the staff member concerned is a legendary former player. When Bellamy was appointed in 2016, Cardiff City chief executive Ken Choo emphasised his status as a former star.
“Having somebody of Craig’s stature in this role can be of huge significance to us moving forward,” Choo said. “We hope that our younger players will see Craig as a role model, somebody whose playing career they want to emulate.”
Even coaches - with the same club or an opposition one - can be reluctant to raise concerns.
An experienced Academy coach told TGG: “I’ve got a family to think of and you don’t want a disgruntled coach turning up at your house looking for retribution after you’ve caused him to lose his job.”
Discussing Bellamy’s case on Talksport last Wednesday, based on the information he had read in the Daily Mail that morning and his personal knowledge of the coach, ex-Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan said: “There’s a balance here between this generation of young people who have an expectation of life and the reality of the world we live in.
“There’s too much of this political correctness and limousine liberalism. Football environments are about producing winners and leaders and this is why we don’t produce enough of them.
“I believe you build culture and strength of character by subjecting people at times to environments that build character in them.”
You can listen to his comments in full below. When discussing the issue on social media, other respondents talked about the need for young players to ‘man up’, have ‘tough love’ and be ‘toughened up’.
Jordan emphasised that he abhorred bullying, but the problem is that the term is subjective, and phrases like ‘limousine liberalism’ can be used by some as justification for tormenting, sarcasm and name-calling, which are all listed as potential forms of bullying by the Football Association.
Madden’s father emphasised that his son was not a “wet fish” and there can be a misapprehension that only the weak are victims of bullying. This is where toxic masculinity, described by the Good Men Project as "the cultural ideal of manliness where strength is everything and emotions are a weakness" comes into play.
Lowe says: “I absolutely detest the term tough love. You have to understand players as people, because every single one is different.
“The majority of players will not like, nor respond well, to the shouting, bawling, aggressive approach which has often been prevalent in youth coaching in this country. We had a rule at Manchester City's Academy that the staff didn’t swear at the players, whatever age they were.
“Our standards certainly weren’t slack and we weren't unsuccessful - in the 10 years I was there, 74 Academy players made their professional debuts for the club. A lot of people seem to confuse respect and understanding with being soft.”
OPEN & INCLUSIVE COACHING
Aside from the distress it can causes, it is doubtful whether this “shouting, bawling, aggressive” approach works anyway. TGG has already published several pieces about the benefits of an open, inclusive coaching philosophy.
Burnley boss Sean Dyche has said: "You don't scream at your kid when they are learning to read or write, so why do it when they are learning how to play football?"
Dr Perry Walters, who works as a psychology consultant for the Football Association, told us: “In the last 10 years, new brain imaging technology has shown that the networks in the frontal region that underpin judgement, decision-making and control of emotions are still developing well into the mid-20s.”
Risk taking is an important part of this rewiring and can be hindered by excessively authoritarian leadership. In addition, adolescents have been shown to be especially sensitive to criticism and social inclusion.
Brian Ashton has told us about his philosophy of giving more power to the players, which involves “integrating them fully, with the objective of the coach becoming a resource to be used as and when both parties feel the need, not a looming figure dominating the landscape.”
Danny Cipriani, who worked with Ashton as a teenager and then in the full England team, said: “Brian was always trying to get us to answer the questions, because on the field we’re going to be the ones answering the questions."
Mauricio Pochettino, who has also proven adept at both developing young players and achieving results, has perhaps summed it up best of all.
"Nowadays the more human leader is the one that is successful," the Spurs manager said. "The iron fist is a thing of the past.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT BULLYING?
As mentioned above, an initial problem is that bullying can be a very subjective term. Most people agree it is unacceptable, but there are varying views about what it actually means.
In its anti-bullying charter, the FA suggests a definition of “use of aggression with the intention of hurting another person". The Charter goes on to explain that this can include physical, emotional and verbal bullying.
Lowe also suggests that clubs be concerned with duty of care rather than just welfare.
“Duty of care means everybody has a responsibility, not just the welfare or safeguarding officer at a club, and no-one can get away from it.
"At an Academy you are in loco parentis (in place of a parent), with an ethical and moral responsibility to every child. Academies should be developing people as well as players.”
We’ve also outlined why players, parents and even coaches can be reluctant to report bullying, so this is also something that needs to be addressed.
One prominent Academy coach suggested there should be an anonymous phone line for whistleblowers to report bullying specifically, administered by one of the governing bodies (the FA does have a whistleblower line for "misconduct or malpractice" regarding children at clubs - 0800 169 1863).
Another suggestion we've heard is that clubs should hand out questionnaires for Academy players to fill in anonymously every quarter, asking about instances of bullying.
Clubs should also, surely, have mandatory staff training for these procedures.
“Many Academies have more than 200 registered players," Lowe says. "Although you have to be nine years of age to sign Academy forms, there will often be players attending who will be as young as five.
“The current situation we’re seeing is unacceptable, especially in a multi-billion pound industry like English football.”