Neil Ross remembers asking one of his club managers whether or not he could do a personal training qualification while out injured after knee surgery. “Don’t be f*cking stupid,” was the reply. “You’re a football player.”
The striker was on the books of a league club then – playing professionally – but that exchange signalled to him that not enough was being done to prepare players in the event that football didn't work out.
As it happens, Neil had to retire prematurely. An accumulation of injuries meant he could not capitalise on what had been a promising youth career. He first broke his leg in a friendly match the day before he was due to sign for Leeds United as a teenager and suffered the effects of that blow for his entire career.
Back then, Leeds were competing at the sharp end of not only the Premier League but the Champions League too with academy prospects like Alan Smith and Harry Kewell making waves in the first team. Not every player goes on to play at the highest level and that list includes Neil who - unlike some of today's top Premier League stars - did not have enough money in the bank to simply coast into retirement.
“I had to retire at 27,” he says. “No qualifications and 14 years of football on your CV doesn’t get you a job.
“I put everything into football and had to retire early. It’s a swinging door; one player out and one player in. You’re valued for as long as you’re valuable to the club.”
All young players in various academy systems across the country have hopes and dreams of the Premier League and England caps at Wembley but the crushing truth of the matter is very, very few will make it there.
In fact, the overwhelming majority are likely to be out of the game altogether by the time they are 21. The young men left behind are often ill-equipped to deal with life away from the game they always thought they'd earn their living from.
Neil's experiences led him to develop his Pathway2Pro programme, which has two broad aims. One, it gives players discarded by clubs a second chance at making it into professional football. And, failing that, it ensures at the very least they will be educated, trained and ready to take up a place in the real world.
“Club or job, it’s the same for us,” he says. “We help them to get a job and with interview skills. Any new player that comes in I send them straight to our recruitment officer. Classroom based learning is coming in September with extended diplomas for ones with GCSEs.”
Neil’s intake is aged between 16 and 21 and some have been on the books of some of the UK’s top professional clubs. Some drifted out of the game, some were let go. All are seeking a second opportunity.
Neil has devised a full training programme for his 17-strong squad with detailed plans for nutrition and conduct off the field. Recruits are treated - and expected to behave - like proper players. Games are organised against professional and semi-pro clubs to give opportunities to his players to be scouted, picked up and given another try.
Most professional clubs – admittedly - are unlikely to take a punt on a player that old. If a 16 year old sounds over-the-hill consider that Neil has had to chase a scout from an elite Premier League club away from a ball-contact session with children aged 4-6.
The process of picking players up, funnelling them through the system only to spit them out at the other end is one that leaves children giddy, bewildered and - more often than not - disillusioned.
“There’s that many development centres and kids think they play for Premier League clubs but they don’t even know who you are,” says Neil. “Clubs attach themselves to colleges and they wear the kit but it’s nothing to do with the clubs. It’s deceitful. It’s not fair to put them into that position.”
Many players leave school without relevant qualifications because football takes up so much of their time and thought. The next batch of Pathway2Pro candidates will benefit from an educational programme. BTEC (A-Level equivalent) and UEFA B Licenced coaching will be provided to the new group while the football only option will also remain in place.
“At academies there’s not much emphasis on whether they’re completing their assignments, whether they come out with a distinction, a merit or a pass,” he says. “As long as they do their work the clubs are not really bothered.
“But this is a commitment they have to make here. If your schoolwork is not hitting its targets or you’re not handing in your assignments you don’t play in games.
“That could be the game the Leeds United scout comes. We are embedding in them you have to work hard and you’ll get rewards. You’re not just going to get handed a contract.”
Neil is acutely aware of football's pitfalls. Just getting into it in the first place is a ruthless business and staying there is even tougher. However he is hoping that the new generation he is guiding have more success than many who have already fallen by the wayside before them.
“Most of it is to do with mentality, attitude and application,” Neil says. “I try to instil that into the players.”
He currently has one player on the books who he says could easily play at Premier League level but cannot be relied upon to show up for matches. He admits to having to teach his recruits how to shake hands properly and look people in the eye - little things that are taken for granted in the "real" world they never thought they'd be part of.
“There’s a support network here to advise the right things at the right time through my own experiences, what I’ve seen from other players,” he says.
“This is the kind of opportunity I didn’t get - to sort your frame of mind.
“They don’t realise what they’ve got at the minute. They’ll look back and ask why didn’t I just give it everything I’ve got?
“I've seen gifted players who didn’t make it and are now tarmacking on the streets.
“So I tell them: Don’t become a could have, should have, would have. I want to make them realise now what it takes to get there."