What support is provided to Academy footballers? That is a question asked by many on the outside looking in, and the truth of the matter may come as a surprise to some.
The EFL’s education partner, League Football Education, was established in 2004 to deliver the Apprenticeship Programme to 16 to 18-year-old players at EFL Clubs.
While around 45% of EFL scholars earn a professional contract at the age of 18, over 95% complete their apprenticeship with a range of qualifications, as well as experiencing several Personal Development and Life Skills workshops, all of which contribute to preparing them for life after football.
Academy scholars study a Level 3 BTEC Sporting Excellence and Professional, with the more academically able students taking on the Extended Diploma, which is equivalent to three A-Levels.
In addition, each player completes a UEFA C Certificate in Coaching and the Sporting Excellence Professional (SEP) Apprenticeship Standard, which is specifically designed for young athletes to develop attributes that directly transfer onto the pitch.
The options don’t end there, with a select few signing up for an additional A-Level alongside the rest of their studies, while those that did not achieve Grade 4 or above in GCSE English or maths are required to undertake Level 2 Functional Skills.
LFE’s Regional Officers keep track of their progress and offer advice and guidance throughout the two-year apprenticeship, conducting one-to-one progress reviews at regular intervals.
Paul Bartlett has worked with several Clubs in the North and North East region for nearly 18 years, having previously experienced a brief playing career in the 1970s at Derby County before moving into teaching and educational management.
He clarifies: “In simple terms, the Regional Officer role is to make sure that the apprentices get the best possible experience and maximise all the opportunities that the programme offers.
“From the days when I was an apprentice, there was no education programme. You simply cleaned boots, painted steps, swept changing rooms and cleaned bathrooms, alongside training and playing matches. Although it created good discipline and a good sense of teamwork and purpose, it never equipped you for a career outside of the game.
“The goal now is to not just develop football players, but to develop very well-rounded young men who can go out into the world and succeed through the inevitable life transitions that happen for all of us.
“The programme is always viewed as a work in progress and we’re constantly looking to make improvements, but I do believe we are delivering a programme that enables these young men to develop inquisitive minds, resilience, confidence and general life skills that will help them move forward in the real world.”
Bartlett, who is also a Designated Safeguarding Officer, has assisted hundreds of youngsters through the apprenticeship over the years, and while he has seen several go on to become established professionals in the game, the programme has also helped many progress into a range of different careers.
“It’s very rewarding to see the apprentices that we’ve worked with successfully take up roles within Academies, whether it’s being a coach, analyst, physiotherapist and so on,” he says.
“But we pride ourselves on equipping the boys with the tools to go into the wider world, not just the football environment. We’ve had lads become pilots, doctors, investment bankers, accountants, electricians. I’ve stayed in touch with one of my former apprentices who runs his own plumbing company, and it gives me absolute delight to see his company growing and him going from strength to strength as a businessman in one of the trades.
“I still speak to guys who finished the programme 15 years ago. I’m currently talking to an ex-apprentice who is the head coach of a university out in the States and is looking to recruit some recently released apprentices over to play and study in that setting.
“It’s very rewarding when the boys stay in touch and it’s fantastic to see them doing so well and thriving in their own careers.”
LFE’s responsibilities extend to the delivery of Life Skills to U9 to U23 players, staff, parents and carers.
Life Skills Manager Simon Williams is one of four ex-LFE apprentices working for the organisation, having experienced the Academy journey as a Liverpool schoolboy and scholar at Rochdale.
Now 32, he has built a vast programme that covers criminal law, emotional wellbeing, discrimination, faith, finance, mental skills, sexual health and consent, social media, transferable skills, radicalisation, road safety and lifestyle education on key subjects such as gaming, gambling, alcohol and drugs.
“We’re trying to move people forward, upskill them and help them learn more about who they are as individuals and become the best versions of themselves,” explains Williams.
“It requires a lot of time and it’s hugely embedded into the day-to-day programme of Academy players, particularly at U18 level. That education is happening on a weekly basis and there is time specifically allocated for it to take place.
“The younger the player is, the more responsibility there is on the parent or carer, so we also make sure that certain aspects of the education are directed at them, while U9s to U16s are now being educated by Clubs about things such as safeguarding and social media. Players come and go at different ages, so it’s important that there is something on offer at all age groups.”
The development of Life Skills has now evolved into an additional Personal Development programme, with Mentors delivering a set of workshops that hone in on the identity, personal skills, values and morals of an Academy player, as well as their motivations and interests as a person, inside and outside of football.
“While Life Skills is about the world around you, Personal Development focuses on who you are – your characteristics, interests and journey,” Williams continues. “There was a time when it was the minority saying, ‘person before player’. Now, it’s the majority.
“We’ve got a Player Care Working Group with over 60 members on it, sharing best practice, ideas and resources. This isn’t an inconvenience for Clubs; it’s a fundamental part of the process. Clubs are believing now that holistic development will improve performance on the pitch.
“I believe that society views footballers in a totally different way to what it did 10 years ago. That’s credit to the players themselves, but also to the work that is put into developing well-rounded young people.
“We’re seeing footballers challenge and impact political decision-making. We have footballers with passions outside of the game, with hobbies, interests or business ventures. They’re dedicating time to causes that they care about, while some are furthering their studies.
“Footballers are doing great things and it inspires the next set of players coming through, where we can show them that this is what their role models are doing away from the game.”
Williams is keen to stress that despite the progress that has been made, his mindset remains firmly focused on continuing to make improvements to the Player Care offering.
“Feedback is the most important part of the process for us, because that’s where the impact is,” he adds. “It’s generally very positive and probably the most inspiring aspect of the role for myself.
“There are good and bad experiences for everybody and it’s important that there are spaces for people to share those experiences, and for them to be listened to without judgement, whether it was 10 years ago or one year ago.
“LFE has now launched the Alumni Player Voice, which is gathering the experiences of former Academy players to advise us on what they valued and what they could’ve benefited from.
“Ultimately, we want everybody to look back on their time in the Academy system and view it as a positive experience, irrespective of whether they remain in the game to a professional level or not.”
For the aspiring footballers who aren’t fortunate enough to receive a professional contract offer, and even those who do, support is provided after the completion of the apprenticeship, including three cycles of tracking and monitoring calls to all past EFL scholars over the course of two years.
Chances to extend their playing career are available via LFE’s Assessment Trials and the Erasmus+ Player Placement programme, with opportunities to play at Clubs in Spain and Sweden.
Elsewhere, former apprentices can use their academic qualifications to apply for university, while a partnership with FirstPoint USA enables them a free-of-charge pathway to gaining an American soccer scholarship.
Meanwhile, strong partnerships have been built with a range of employers, to offer a variety of career opportunities for those in search of employment.
This extensive support is facilitated by Transition Officer Anthony Cato, who was himself released by Blackpool in 2016, before furthering his education with a degree in Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moores University.
The 24-year-old landed the position at LFE thanks to a recommendation from Williams – his former Regional Officer – and has strengthened the transition offering available to Academy players ever since.
He says: “Although it didn’t work out for me in terms of becoming a professional footballer, the transferable skills that I picked up from being an apprentice have definitely carried me through to where I am today.
“It helped to open doors for me, with the BTEC qualification helping me go to university. How I applied myself at Blackpool obviously made Simon think fondly of me, so the apprenticeship directly led me to this opportunity.
“It's funny to be in the situation where the roles have reversed. I was in the same shoes as these lads and that gives me a good insight into what they’re going through and how they’re feeling, particularly the ones who are released and going on to do other things. I’m passionate about providing support to these lads and it’s great to see how the areas of Player Care and Transition continue to evolve.”
Cato reaches out to full cohorts via the tracking and monitoring programme, calling those that become professional footballers as well as those seeking a new pathway, and encourages them all to lean on him for advice and guidance.
“It’s my role to support all the apprentices through times of transition,” he states. “Not just for those who don’t get professional contracts, but also those who do, because they’re transitioning from the youth team to U23s or the first team. They could get an injury and transition into a period of rehab.
“It doesn’t simply mean being released and going into a new career away from football. There are so many examples of transition, so it’s important that players are open to the support that is made available to them.
“We also want to reinforce to the lads that they can do more things alongside playing football. They’ve often got a lot of spare time after training, which can be used to develop new hobbies, to have a ‘side-hustle’ or to explore other interests.
“For those who have been released, you get a whole range of industry sectors that lads go into, which is testament to the skills that they’ve picked up while being an apprentice. The experiences you have in football and the qualifications that you leave with open up a whole range of opportunities and it’s fantastic to see that first-hand.”