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In Focus: Football in crisis – how lockdown is sabotaging future stars

From the age of seven, Ty-Rhys Paul-Jones played in the same youth team as Jadon Sancho, the young England star set to represent the country in this year’s Euros.

When the pair went their separate ways after seven years, Ty-Rhys also had high hopes for his football career, with the former Chelsea and Watford academy player expecting to try out for Swedish teams AIK, Malmö or Djurgarden last year. 

However, his dream ended up being shelved after lockdown restrictions forced him to stay in the UK.

‘I haven’t been able to travel overseas because Sweden has banned visitors from England and the UK as we’ve had an increase in coronavirus outbreaks,’ explains the 21-year-old from Walthamstow, east London.

‘Even if I did manage to get across to their country, a lot of teams have stopped training and coming into the club as they don’t want any outbreaks.’

It’s a decision that has left Ty-Rhys feeling frustrated and annoyed, especially as although football clubs across the nation are set to spend millions of pounds on new players this summer, the Covid crisis has seen lower-level talent, such as himself, finding it even harder to get signed.

Since the pandemic began last year, many young players have been left without a team – or even the opportunity to find one – due to the impact of lockdown restrictions on football finances and player movement around Europe.

Along with Ty-Rhys, some of those unsigned footballers include ex-Tottenham youth midfielder Danny Edmead, 16, and former Ipswich academy forward Decosta Holness, 22.

Ty-Rhys Paul-Jones played in the same youth team as Jadon Sancho (Picture: supplied)

All three footballers share their story in the Unsigned Ballerz documentary, which is being exclusively aired on Metro.co.uk.

Danny, who had spells at Charlton, Watford, and Fulham, admits he is also finding it hard to get signed.

‘My mental health was up and down but what got me through was knowing after everything I would be ready to show these clubs what I’m about,’ he says.

‘I always say to myself “I haven’t come this far to give up now”, and hard work will always pay off. You just need to keep believing in yourself and trust the process.’

Danny Edmead during his spell at Watford with footballer Nathan Chalobah (Picture: Danny Edmead)

Danny sets himself a schedule every week so he stays focused, which includes going for a 10km run every Monday. He has also started a YouTube channel and Instagram page to chronicle his journey.

Decosta Holness, whose previous clubs include Felixstowe, Walton United and Bramford, agrees that it has been difficult getting an opportunity with a team.

He currently works as a security guard, completing around 300 hours a month, but has not given up on his dream of becoming a professional footballer after feeling he did not do himself justice at Ipswich Town.

‘It’s horrible, you feel like your moment has been missed,’ he admits. ‘It’s hard in football, you feel like you get one chance and for me, I felt like that was it.

‘Young people out there should realise when you’ve got that opportunity and it’s a big one. Give it your all.’

Decosta Holness, side view. You can see a tattoo on his neck with the word 'Faith'

Decosta Holness currently works as a security guard, but hasn’t given up on his dream (Picture: Decosta Holness)

After all English leagues were suspended in March 2020 due to rising coronavirus cases, the Premier League and Football League Championship eventually reconvened last June to finish the season.

However, League One and League Two decided to end their regular seasons early, with the usual number of teams still being promoted and relegated depending on where they were when games stopped.

According to Oshor Williams, Assistant Director of Education for the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), because Covid had a significant effect on football finances, those players under 25 have been hit the hardest.

Football clubs lost crucial matchday revenue and broadcast money due to the lack of games.

‘In the eventual conclusion of the 2019/20 season, Premier League clubs are estimated to have foregone a cumulative £150m in matchday revenue across all relevant competitions, with play resuming behind closed doors in the summer to complete the season at both domestic and European level,’ explains Christopher Winn, programme leader and football business consultant at the UCFB Global Institute of Sport.

‘With little to no subsequent access to stadia throughout the 2020/21 season, a further cumulative £750m of matchday revenue is estimated to have been lost by top-flight teams across the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA club competitions, bringing the total Premier League clubs’ matchday revenue loss to around the £900m mark since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.’

The PFA also found last season there was a slight increase in the number of players who were having difficulty securing contracts because of the impact of lockdown on football finances.

Unsigned Ballerz: The story of Ty-Rhys Paul-Jones

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As a result, this summer will be even more competitive as young players fight for places with other footballers released this year.

‘We recognise it has been difficult,’ admits Oshor. ‘As the country went into lockdown last March some of the academy football had to finish quite early. Now, we’re probably finding that many of those who were without a contract last season are coming into the end of another season.

‘They are going to be in a very competitive market because over the next four to five weeks we’re going to see another flood of players who were released from clubs.’

With only around 4,000 full-time players in the top four English leagues, professional football is already tough to get into. Now, Oshor says, it’s even harder to re-enter when players have been out for some time, adding ‘there are more jockeys than horses’. 

‘Football is actually a hard game to progress in and it’s even more difficult to get back into once you’ve come out of it,’ he explains. ‘You haven’t had games, the profile, you’re not building a reputation.

‘We see highly sought after players moving quite easily but those who have got less experience and fewer games under their belt and with no great record of achievement, find it difficult.

‘I can understand the frustration and the concerns many of the young players who will be entering the market over what they are going to face this year.’

Just like Ty-Rhys, 16-year-old Nathan Laleye had been hoping to move abroad and sign for a top Portuguese side when the pandemic hit.

Richard Laleye with his son Nathan, who is wearing a football kit. They are at an indoor football event and both holding trophies

Richard Laleye with his son Nathan, who has just become the became the youngest footballer to play for Guildford City FC

His dad Richard admits it was disappointing not to be able to leave the country but says his son has maintained a positive attitude.

‘Due to Nathan not being able to move to Portugal during lockdown, he felt frustrated, but it also made him hungrier for success and to achieve his ambitions,’ Richard insists.

‘We both handled the situation by staying positive and focused on what we set out to achieve, we were training and working on strengths and having the correct mindset.’

Then, in February this year, Nathan became the youngest footballer to play for Guildford City FC when he came on as a substitute aged just 16 years and two months.

With his manager Paul Barnes describing the lad as ‘mature, bright and hardworking’, Richard adds, ‘We felt such a sense of elation. As parents, it is a wonderful feeling seeing your son happy in stepping up to senior football at such a tender young age.’

Orshor Williams says that although opportunities abroad were not as plentiful as a lot of people might have imagined pre-pandemic, there was a significant amount of young players going to some of the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden.  

Oshor Williams, Assistant Director of Education for the PFA says players under 25 have been hit the hardest. (Picture: PFA)

‘However, that’s now another avenue that’s been closed off to them due to Covid,’ he admits.

There are currently 250 boys allowed in each Premier League football academy, which means up to 5,000 boys could be involved in the system at any time.

But Premier League statistics found of those entering football academies at the age of nine, fewer than 0.5% will ever play for the first team.

Orshor explains that by the time these players come out of the system, if they’re not offered a contract it’s hard to find another occupation because they’ve spent half their lives in football.

‘If they don’t get into a club, it’s going to affect their confidence, identity and sense of self-worth,’ he says. 

Since the pandemic began early last year, the PFA has seen an increase in current players trying to access support for issues surrounding anxiety and concerns about their future.

The organisation’s welfare department and counselling service, which supports people for well-being and mental health issues, has also been contacted more.

There’s also been a significant spike in current players trying to access support for benevolence, hardship, well-being, and education.

‘Players were taking a greater interest in education, training, wider development because I think we all got an explicit warning about the insecurities and uncertainty of life particularly in the world of work,’ says Orshor.

It was also revealed in an ITV news survey earlier this year, that 72% of players are not getting enough support from their old team after release. However, the PFA insists football clubs and leagues are trying to do a lot more work to help players.

‘The clubs and the leagues are trying to do a lot more work around areas of identity and resilience,’ adds Orshor.

‘They want them to identify football not as something that makes you special but just as your specialism.

‘What makes you special are those qualities you can apply outside of the game.’

Young footballers also need to prepare for life outside of the game so they have something to fall back on if they don’t get signed.

The PFA also provides grants and bursaries, many of them to players under 21 who have been through the academy system and completed their apprenticeship. If released, the money will allow them to go on to higher education.

When football was locked down in March 2020 they immediately put on a raft of online courses and short programmes at no cost to its members to try and keep them engaged.

However there has also been some unintended positives from the lockdown for some footballers,  says Orshor.

Imagine compilation of Ty-Rhys, Danny and Decosta

Ty-Rhys, Danny and Decosta have all taken part in the documentary Unsigned Ballerz

He explains that clubs looking to make savings have been forced to play some of their younger players as they could not make signings, citing Wigan Athletic as an example, which had restrictions on bringing in players after going into administration during the pandemic.

‘The clubs that are trying to cut their cloth accordingly and have to look at significant reductions in their budget, may create opportunities for some of their younger players to emerge,’ says Oshor.

‘Wigan had restrictions on bringing in players and some of their younger players benefited from an opportunity to play in the first team.’

According to Ty-Rhys, who now has a part-time job as a football scout looking for young talent, having a strong mindset is key to surviving in the world of football.

‘People will tell you, “what are you doing, that’s not good enough, there are people who are better than you…”,’ he says.‘But if you just keep working hard, being persistent and not minding what people are saying about you, I’m sure you can do it.’

Danny Edmead adds, ‘Make sure you always believe in yourself – that’s the most important thing. If you don’t then you won’t get anywhere.’

Meanwhile, Decosta Holness explains that it’s crucial to remain focused: ‘Stay committed. Work on bettering yourself every day and the hard work will pay off. 

Have belief, be patient and eventually trust will come,’ he adds. ‘Make sure you stand out and just take that chance when you get it.’

Do you have a story for In Focus? Get in touch by emailing claie.wilson@metro.co.uk

Share your views in the comments below.


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