One of a Number: Surviving football's ruthless system

Where is the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo going to come from?

That’s a question which serves as the driving force for the entire recruitment industry in football as clubs across the world invest time and money into discovering the ‘next big thing’.

Scouts are dispatched to games all over, at various different levels, in the hope that they will find a player who has what it takes to reach the very top.

When they find someone who shows potential, the next step is to usher the would-be star into a system where they can avail of elite-level coaching and, of course, the allure of being a professional footballer is one that most people snatch at.

But the business is a ruthless one right from the very beginning, as hopeful teenagers are brusquely told they are no longer wanted, through to the conclusion, when old, wizened pros reach the end of the line.

However, the filtering system is perhaps most severe at the early stages, where the brutal reality dictates that most individuals will simply not make it in the game - a fact that is impressed upon anyone embarking on the journey, but one which doesn’t necessarily sink in straight away.

During the 1990s, Sonny Pike was heralded as the ‘next big thing’ to emerge out of British football when his skills with the ball earned him a move to Ajax and, as a young teen he was thrust into the spotlight with established stars from the Dutch outfit’s Champions League-winning team.

He’d been likened to Diego Maradona and George Best, appeared on national television and in the pages of popular football magazines, but his promise was never realised. Pike ended up playing non-league football in England before tumbling quietly off the stage.

One of a number still Sonny Pike

There are all sorts of reasons why a player might not make it in the game, but one that has become increasingly apparent is the psychological burden that is placed upon people, particularly at such young ages.

Intense pressure to perform, fear of rejection and, ultimately in many cases, unfulfilled dreams can all contribute to the worsening of an individual’s mental health, including self-esteem issues or, in some cases, depression.

“I did feel big pressure,” Pike tells Goal in ‘One of a Number: Surviving football's ruthless system’. “And I think my pressure was a little bit more extreme, even compared to some of the kids now, because of the media attention.”

Queens Park Rangers consultant sport psychologist Misia Gervis believes that Pike’s experience is replicated across all sports and is a common outcome among players who don’t make it.

“His story is classic, inasmuch that of course he was going to get depression,” says Gervis. “I’m not surprised in the least, because his whole identity was poured into ‘you’re a player! You’re going to be a player!’ and people were exploiting that. Then when it didn’t happen he’s going, ‘oh, well who am I then? Everyone told me I’m going to be this. I’m not this person.’”

Pike’s rise and fall serves as a cautionary tale regarding the risks of exposing young footballers to too much media scrutiny at a young age, but there are thousands of examples of players who endure similar mental hardships without having to squint in the glare of the national spotlight.

Young players attempting to carve out a career further down the football pyramid will suffer the same sort of set-backs as those who are trying to make waves at the top end and the pressures are no different.

One of a number still Brennan Denness-BarrettGoal

Still just a teenager, Brennan Denness-Barrett has already had to face into a number of disappointments, first at Brentford and then at AFC Wimbledon, but he perseveres with the help of his family and has earned a number of trials. Despite his efforts, though, he has yet to be offered a contract.

“It’s frustrating,” he tells Goal. “It makes you second-guess a bit. You’re always trialling and trying to get where you want to get and [rejection] makes you think ‘am I going to get where I want to get?’ But when you think that you just have to carry on, because you are going to come against negatives and let downs, aren’t you?”

Brennan’s parents have been there for the pitfalls and they have witnessed their son’s sense of dejection at the difficulties he was experiencing, something that was a major source of concern for them.

“I even questioned if I was right to encourage him to carry on when he’s maybe playing and not being the happiest,” revealed Brennan’s father, Paul.

So, where does the responsibility lie when it comes to the mental welfare of young players who are travelling through the relentless world of football academies and trial circuits?

Parents complain about the physical demands that are placed on their children by clubs from ages as young as seven and bristle at the fact that news of an unsuccessful trial is often delivered coldly with the detached formality of a letter or email.

One of a number still Sonny Pike

However, parents too, can be part of the problem, according to Queens Park Rangers technical director Chris Ramsey. Screaming from the sideline or undermining a coach, for example, are now widely accepted as being potentially damaging interventions on the part of parents and most are aware of the expectations.

“We’ve put a lot of things into place to make sure the parents don’t get carried away with what’s going on,” Ramsey tells Goal. “And we try to ensure that it’s more of an experience for the child instead of something where they’re basically scared to play because of the pressure their parents put on them.”

There is something of a blame game, but Pike, who has gone through the mire, is unequivocal in his assessment.

“For me, it’s a simple answer,” says Pike. “And it’s that the responsibility lies with the adults, which is: the parents, the football clubs, everyone who is looking after the youth of today. I think they’ve all got a responsibility.”

It is unlikely that the recruitment process is going to change - clubs will continue to seek out the best players at all age levels - but attitudes are slowly altering when it comes to the vulnerability of individuals, particularly those who have not yet matured.

It is no longer acceptable for young players to be cast aside without a second’s thought and the various stakeholders in the game - clubs, parents, players, representative bodies and so on - are constantly working to minimise the detrimental impact not making it can have.

Plenty more work has to be done in an era where society’s focus has shifted generally towards managing mental health, but the good news is that it has already started.