Tony Pulis: My plan to 'protect' thousands of released Academy players
Written by Simon Austin — March 23, 2023
FORMER Stoke City manager Tony Pulis says English clubs are “not doing enough to protect” youngsters who are released from Academies and is lobbying the Premier League to introduce a “dual scholarship system.”
The 65-year-old retired from professional football after being sacked as Sheffield Wednesday manager in December 2020. However, since then he has been researching the Academy system and has compiled an 11-page report on how to help those who are released.
The catalyst for this was the experience of his grandson, now aged nine, who entered the Academy system with a Category One club two years ago.
Pulis told TGG: “Our Academies have produced some very good players over the last 10 years - I don’t think there is any argument about that. But I was really concerned about the amount of time that my grandson was staying away from his friends because of his time at the Academy.
“There is definitely a bubble that these kids end up in. Some of them are travelling 40, 50, 60 minutes to go to training and they are losing contact with their mates at home. After nine years they are cut off.
“My grandson was seven when he started going to the Academy. If he makes it to 16, he will have been there for nine years and that’s a massive knock if someone tells him he’s not good enough.
"And they are put on a pedestal - ‘he’s going to be a professional footballer’ - and they find it hard to drop back into society.
“I spoke to a Dad the other day, whose son was released after four years at the age of 12. The effect that had on him - he didn’t want to play again. Now he’s back playing with his mates. Everything he had given up for those four years he has now got back, thankfully.
"If you are going to take kids three times a week and at weekends knowing that most of them are never going to make it, you have to look after them at the end of it. We can’t take the dreams away from these young lads, but what if that dream doesn’t come true? Finding out the stats was frightening. That's not something the Premier League do not produce or talk about."
Pulis, who managed 11 clubs during a managerial career spanning three decades, has proposed a system in which Academies are placed within six regions and have partnerships with accredited schools and colleges. Youngsters are able to take either academic or vocational courses, depending on their abilities and aspirations, with the additional option of taking football qualifications such as coaching courses.
Youngsters released by clubs at 16 would be able go to these schools and colleges full-time, while those who are retained by clubs would begin a “dual scholarship.” This would involve doing one day a week at the accredited school/ college, with an additional two evenings a week of virtual learning.
At the moment, football scholars are automatically enrolled on BTEC courses with the option of doing a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) and a Level 2 coaching certificate. Under Pulis's proposal, at the age of 18, there would be another intake of released Academy players, with accredited Universities now involved.
"At 18 years, players are given professional contracts or released," Pulis said. "The same process (proposed) would be maintained and it wouldn't stop until the lad is 21-years-old."
A significant innovation within his proposal is for the setting up of a new league specifically for these released Academy players. This is because Pulis says he has evidence that the majority of players who are released do not play football again.
A Head of Education at a Category One club has told him that 78% of those who turn pro at 18 are no longer playing any form of football three years later. TGG has not been able to verify this stat.
Pulis's report contains a number of statistics about the current Academy system, taken predominantly from media reports:
- 97% of former elite Academy players aged 21 to 26 found not to have made a Premier League appearance.
- at any one time between 10,000 and 12,000 boys in youth development system and only 0.5% of Under-9s at “top clubs” likely to make it to the first team.
- survey of more than 100 footballers released from professional clubs found almost three-quarters did not believe they were given adequate support, despite almost 90% having experienced anxiety and depression since being let go.
Pulis also asserts that the academic performance of youngsters declines as they progress through the Academy system.
"By measuring the SATs scores of Academy players, it is possible to demonstrate that when U9s are selected into the system as a group, they score higher on the SATs than the national average for children in this age group," he writes.
"This continues through to U10s, U11s. However, by the time these players have moved through to U16s age group, the same players are now progressing below national average. In short the players' education progress is compromised."
This is backed up by research carried out by the Premier League itself a few years ago. Speaking at TGG's Youth Development Webinar in 2021, former Director of Youth Ged Roddy, said: "When we started to measure inside the system, we found was that boys who came in were progressing above the national average in terms of their academic progression between the ages of nine and 11, but that by the time they reached 16 they were below the national average.
"So we were taking them on a journey from above average to mediocrity and that was a problem. It was something I believe has been addressed in many places now."
However, the Premier League argue that this stat has improved since their research was carried out, although new figures have not been released.
Pulis does not think the current system of mandatory BTECs is sufficient for many scholars - and does not like lessons being taught at club training grounds.
“A training ground is about football and getting teachers to go in and teach in that environment is ridiculous," he told TGG.
“I have seen a study that found that when children do homework in their bedrooms, it is not as effective as when they do it in a study or downstairs, because they associate the bedroom as a place of rest, not work.
“At a training ground, they have windows looking out onto pitches and see kids playing football. It's an environment they associate with football."
Pulis argues his “dual scholarship system” is a “safety net” for released Academy players.
Under the proposal, there would be six Directors of Operations, one in each of the North West, North East, West Midlands, East Midlands, South West and South East, acting as a link between the clubs and accredited schools, colleges and Universities.
Those offered a dual scholarship would undergo a needs analysis at the age of 16, which would assess whether they are best-suited to either an academic or vocational path, with the additional option of football qualifications such as coaching badges.
They would attend one day a week in-person at their school or college, as well as undertaking two evenings a week of virtual sessions. They would also be assigned a mentor. Even those who are not offered a (dual) scholarship by their club at 16 would be given the chance to go full-time into the accredited schools and colleges.
Former Premier League manager Tony Pulis has become an unlikely crusader for youngsters dropping out of Academy football.— Training Ground Guru (@ground_guru) March 24, 2023
"Finding out the stats was frightening. There is an enormous amount of fall-out & what they (clubs) are doing is not enough."
One unique feature of the proposal is a league specifically for released Academy youngsters to play in.
“You could set up a really top league where these lads are enjoying the competition, have the social side afterwards and are on their feet ready to go again,” Pulis told TGG.
“You can’t have it where they never play again - it’s the greatest game in the world and they will get so much enjoyment from it throughout their lives. But psychologically it’s so hard when they are released that they never want to see a football again and I think that’s tragic.
"Scouts working for the clubs could watch these games and keep tabs on some of these players who have been released and they might even come back into the professional game.
“Not only have they got covered with another career that suits them, but they have the opportunity to train and play, so they’re not suddenly going cold turkey from football. By 21 they will have played football, discovered another career and be well prepared to go into the big wide world.”
Pulis has presented his ideas to the Premier League, League Managers Association and Professional Footballers Association, but said getting them to take the ideas on board is “like pushing water uphill.”
“(Chief Executive) Richard Masters said he disagreed with me because the Academies were giving kids the opportunity to experience something in life they never would do otherwise," he said. "This is true, but what about afterwards?"
For their part, the Premier League point to the fact they have put an Academy Support Manager into every club and are the registered education provider for their clubs. In the Football League, League Football Education takes on the same responsibility.
The Premier League have also created a requirement for every Academy to have a Player Care Officer - which they fund - and there is provision for life skills workshops too.
Under new Premier League rules, clubs are not allowed to take Foundation Phase players away from their schools on day release. In the Youth Development Phase, they can be taken on day release for 10 hours a week. TGG knows of at least one Academy that thinks this is still too long and does not use day release in the YDP.
One unnamed Category One Academy Manager told TGG: "Most of what Tony has proposed is being provided by Academies already, apart from the separate games programme for released players, which is interesting.
"If you don't make a debut but gave it your best, then you will leave the Academy system with such a broad range of experiences and skills. I'm convinced of that. The journey is so special and being released shouldn't be regarded as a failure."