A look at the cruel side of football; the side we don’t see on Sky Sports at 4pm Sunday
Football academies are often heralded as the breeding ground for the stars of today. But what about those that don’t make it? Its a harsh reality but recent figures suggest less than 5% of academy prospects go on to make a professional debut, even less in the case of the Premier League. Why do the players and their families chase such a long shot? Well thousands upon thousands of them do, because the rewards no matter how small the odds, may just be worthwhile.
This Mental Health Awareness week I have spoken to former Manchester United & Aston Villa academy starlet Jason Lampkin. We look back at his experiences in professional football academies and the effects of living your childhood chasing a dream can have.
Jason might’ve been forgiven for believing the hype and he was in fact going to be the next ‘big thing’, to all intents and purposes he was right. Hailing from the same school as Michael Owen did nothing to dampen the furore that surrounded him even at a tender age. Known for his pace and athleticism Lampkin was purpose built for a career in top level football and was proving it. After making his England schoolboys debut whilst at Manchester United and enjoying a successful time with Aston Villa it was one fateful night in April 2009 when his dream took an abrupt turn.
I chatted with Jason on his experiences of elite football academies, the lure of being in the minority that make the grade and how the crippling disappointment of a career defining injury affected him both physically and mentally.
”No remorse for releasing us of our duties”
At the age of 12 Jason Lampkin completed what was to be the biggest move of his career; Manchester United had paid compensation to Tranmere Rovers in order for him to switch academies – a move to one of the worlds biggest clubs instantly gave him something to justify. The club’s academy system needs little to no introduction, a production line of stars, most notably the ‘Class of 92’ (Neville, Beckham, Giggs etc.) who went on to win numerous trophies in the first team.
He describes his time with the club ”United was like a pressure cooker, you’re constantly reminded that your position in the academy was one of privilege.” One thing you can be certain of is there will always be a queue of others vying to get the chance to become a professional footballer – seemingly something the coaches were all too aware of. They knew they had rich pickings and these boys were easily disposable.
Instead of feeling free to express himself, Jason recalls having a ”fear of failure” as well as ”counting the times he may of gave the ball away in a game”. A thought process that can’t allow for optimum performance at a young age, it seems the fear of being released had overcome his ability to perform.
After a turbulent spell in the United setup, Jason fell foul of the precarious nature of his position and was subsequently released, something he described as at the time being a ”crushing blow”. Feeling that his chance may have come and gone and the only way was down.
Soon after he was picked up by Aston Villa, another big club in their own right who had a famed academy system producing the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Lee Hendrie, Gabby Agbonlahor and more recently Jack Grealish – Jason could be optimistic of joining these names. Jason Lampkin Aston Villa Highlights
Immediately the feeling of being wanted somewhere returned, having been discarded as ”damaged goods” by United. Jason enjoyed a successful period in the Under 18 side at Villa, playing as a right-winger and becoming a key player in a style of football that suited his attributes, utilising his pace at every opportunity. In his own words just as he was ”getting ready to burst on the scene” Jason’s knee ”disintegrated” in an FA youth cup match v Newcastle.
He suffered a snap of his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) on his right knee. An injury that left scars, both from the surgery that followed as well as mentally, something Jason still deals with to this day.
In many ways, the pressure Jason describes, certainly during his spell at Manchester United is par for the course, after all their role as an academy is primarily to produce professional footballers; seemingly by hook or by crook. But what about pressures from outside influences, Jason’s peers, parents and even teachers, how would they alleviate or add to the pressures he faced from the clubs. On this Jason said ”I did (feel pressure) but the most pressure I felt was from myself.”
‘‘I sustained all of Michael’s injuries before the glittering career”
Not lost on those close to Jason were the footsteps he was following. Called up to make his England schoolboys debut whilst with United in 2007, something Michael Owen had done years before out of the same school; comparisons were inevitable. He was destined to become the next Michael Owen. Unfortunately for Jason, the similarities didn’t stop with home town and attributes, his career was to be hampered by injury much like Owen’s. Micahel Owen England schoolboys goal v Brazil
The memories from that night are now a constant in the family home where his framed shirt hangs to provide a sense of pride having represented his country. Jason revealed he gets a ”shuddering sense of regret” as to what might have been when he walks past.
Read more on a young Michael Owen: At age 15 I can’t think of anyone better: The Michael Owen story (Part One)
”I’ve seen world-beaters at 12 years old that now sell steak bakes at Greggs”
This was not the response I had anticipated when I asked who were the best players he had played with and against. During his time in Manchester, he was on the same books as Sheffield United’s Ravel Morrison. Recently Wayne Rooney spoke about Morrison’s as being ‘better than Pogba by a country mile’, his career hasn’t quite panned out that way; yet. Jason regarded Ravel as ”perhaps the best ‘5-a-side’ player he’d seen” but also commented on his off-field discipline maybe not being conducive to a top class career, something that up to now has proved accurate.
Danny Welbeck (Watford), Matty James (Leicester) and Olly Norwood (Sheff Utd) all players from the same academy described as ”out of this world” by Jason. At Villa Jason recalls the plight of Mark Albrighton ”he was brought down an age group at 19, narrowly avoiding release” Albrighton has since enjoyed a long top flight playing career including a title success with Leicester in 2014/15.
Two players Lampkin played with who have surprised him in forging their careers are Jesse Lingard (Man United) and Michael Keane (Everton). As for the opposition, Jason named ex Chelsea midfielder Oscar and Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara, ”It was obvious they were going to have a career in the game”.
”A healthy man wants 1000 things, a sick man only wants 1”
It was a week before his 18th birthday, the time the professional contracts are given. Having scored four in the FA Youth Cup Quarter Final, Jason and his Aston Villa teammates had in the semi-final v Newcastle at Villa Park. In the final 20 minutes Lampkin got in a battle with Paul Dummett (Newcastle United), leading to Jason on the floor awaiting treatment. ”I knew it was serious, but I hoped the pain was an overreaction” recalled Jason. Unfortunately, he was right about the severity; at his consultation, Jason was told it he may never walk again unassisted – news that lead him and his Dad to tears.
The injury brought to an end Lampkin’s immediate development. ”As soon as I got the injury I was seen as damaged goods” said Jason. Remarkably Lampkin recalled that ”reserve team manager Kevin MacDonald told me I was ‘of no use to the club any more’ as I hobbled down the hallway”. This after a week prior to sustaining the injury he was told by his Under 18s coach, he could be the ”best player the academy had produced.”
Jason was kept on at Aston Villa on a month to month contract, not the professional deal he had all but secured before the injury. During this time the club doctor sought out counselling to help him deal with the setback, something Jason found it hard to relate with ”what did she know about the thoughts running through my mind as an 18 year old academy footballer?” said Jason.
Instead of talking Jason would rather of been working on a now required contingency plan or studying, the life he had envisaged since joining Man United at 12 of becoming a professional footballer may have been stripped from him. All his time and every bit of energy to this point had been put into football, a game he may never play again with his mates.
”My body couldn’t do what my mind wanted to”
Words you would normally attribute to a player past their best, coming to the end of what has been a stellar career, not a 19 year old lad who had the world at his feet. This was the reality that faced Jason now; after completing his rehab he found himself repeatedly rushing back to training in an attempt to prove his worth all over again, leading to more injuries and eventually another knee operation.
I asked Jason if had expected to be released – ”Definitely expected, I felt embarrassed every time I stepped on the pitch” citing an internal conflict between his mind and his body. You can discover more on the subject of injury and rehabilitation here The physio: Fit for kick off
On the day he left Jason said ”it was one of the saddest I’ve had, it confirmed the end of a dream”. Recalling passing bridges on the drive back to North Wales and seeing each one as a ”missed opportunity to swerve off and never think about football again” further highlighting the enormity of the news he had received that day. This situation proves the need for aftercare for these players, some may argue Jason should never have been allowed to drive home given his obvious mental frailty.
”Every former academy lad I talk to has struggled with mental health issues”
Much is made of what ex pro’s do when they hang up their boots, tending to stay in the game in either a coaching or media capacity. But what about those who never get that far, where do they turn next? ”Nobody ever thinks they won’t make it” said Jason. When he was at United he was taken out of school one day a week amounting to 20% of his education, admitting football came at the ”detriment of everything else”. Despite the odds being so heavily weighted to dropping out of the game, Jason stated ”Everything is geared towards football (at the academies)”.
During his years as a scholar, he did an NVQ course and a BTEC in Sport, something he described as a ”token gesture from the clubs to look responsible”. Jason still has many friends from his academy days, who now ply their trades in various walks of life but all of whom have dealt with the rejection football served them in different ways.
”At 5’8, I’m not cut out for life in non-league”
Following a short hiatus from the game, Lampkin floated around non-league clubs but couldn’t find his feet. He knew his career was never going to be as long or as littered with trophies as he had once hoped, so he could either try and forge out a career with what his body had left to give or move onto pastures new. He headed to New York on an ever increasingly popular path of soccer scholarships in an attempt to keep the fading dream alive whilst getting some real education under his belt; something he had missed out on previously.
In the US Jason achieved a bachelors degree before he left due to an inexplicable visa denial 18 months ago, another setback seemingly out of his control that’ ”sent me into another deep hole” he admitted. It would be not beyond the realms of possibility to give up in Jason’s shoes given the constant curve balls he seemingly gets thrown, however, he has a far more positive outlook ”each failure gets me closer to success” a mantra each one of us may require from time to time.
As for the dream of ‘making it’, did it still live on? ”I’ve doused and reignited that flame a few times over” Jason expanded ”Once you’ve programmed your mind it’s so hard to give up on something”. During his time in New York, there were occasions whilst playing he’d think he could still get back to a professional career, but the next injury would be just around the corner to curtail those thoughts, something that Jason had trouble dealing with ”each injury would lead to me locking myself away for weeks” he said.
Clearly skeletons remained from the original setback. On the dream being over – ”it’s something I’m still coming to terms with – I think about it every day”
”I still have down days – definitely”
Now 27 and back in the family home alongside that England shirt, Jason pursues the career he forged for himself in the fitness industry in New York. He strongly believes the experiences he had during his life in football have made him more resilient, it would be difficult to doubt that. To my mind, most players won’t experience what Jason did before he was 20 in a 30year career in the game. As far as football goes Jason still plays, primarily with mates now. Something he’s eternally grateful for given the initial diagnosis following his ACL injury. His interest in top flight football, however, is now resigned to a fan capacity.
I got Jason’s thoughts on the academy process ”I don’t believe players should be taken out of school” he replied. Given the slim chances of ‘making it’ via the numbers game that is evident in these academies, depriving youngsters of any education may not be justified. ”Speaking from experience the best academy players at 10,11 won’t be the best at 16,17 you just need to be ready when the time comes” said Jason.
On advice for youngsters, Jason said ”Don’t focus on getting to the big clubs too early” using the example of Aaron Ramsey as somebody who stayed at their boyhood club, got the best possible attention and development around people who knew and cared for him before making his move to the top.
If you had your time again? ”Hindsight is a wonderful thing…..keep studying and pursue other passions” answered Jason. Also during our chat he did make the admission that had things gone differently for him and he had in fact made a professional career from the game, his thoughts towards the academy systems would be completely different.
Finally….any advice for staying fit and clear minded? ”Build good habits, do what’s good for you” Jason advised. From his football days Jason carries forward much of the mindset that was instilled in him into everyday life; sacrifice and work hard.
Whilst academies around the country continue to produce stars year in year out, these are the ones you hear about or see on TV. The success stories are what drives on the next batch of youngsters forward in pursuing a dream in a near impossible industry. Driven by all things from the accolades, a love for football and the fame & fortune that come with it.
It is important to remember whilst you follow football in some cases with an unblemished view on a seemingly perfect utopia, much like any industry, unfortunately, there’s always a few or in this case more than a few casualties; Jason can vouch for that.
Should football academies do more to help those that fall by the wayside? Other forms of education, work experience programs, fallout care and follow up programmes are just a few options. Thousands of youngsters drop out of the system each year before turning pro without an education to speak of, these people need help. Not only in pursuing a new career but also to help recover from the mental scars of having your dreams squashed can undoubtedly cause.
I’d like to thank Jason for his time and being so honest throughout the course of the interview and I wish him all the best for his future