Players from the English club Focus Football at a youth tournament in France in September. The club and others like it include children released from Premier League academies as young as age 8. Premier League Castoffs, Starting Over at Age 11 England’s soccer machine discards preteen players, and their dreams, with ease and efficiency every year. But not every player, or every family, is willing to give up. BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France — The road how Premier League Players Invest to professional soccer begins in the dark.
Two hours before dawn on the first Sunday in September, a group of 11- and 12-year-old boys have piled into a van outside their coach’s house in London to start their 17-hour workday. Some of the boys have been up since 2 a. 4, and most don’t leave the van until it pulls to a stop in a parking lot in France five hours later. Only then do the boys emerge bleary eyed at the Complexe de la Waroquerie, a sports facility in this coastal city. Several of the boys donning the sky blue shirts of this club, Focus Football, have already suffered massive disappointment in the game.
Cut loose by England’s biggest clubs before they reached their teenage years, they now toil with a developmental program based in a high school sports hall that is a world away from the manicured academies of the Premier League. Focus Football is run by Sean Daly, a gruff but well-connected former employee at Chelsea and Tottenham. 8, who have been told they are not good enough to play elite-level soccer. Nisar Bhatti is one of them, leaning against a rail on the side of a field where his son Iyad is about to take the field for the Focus under-11s. Before the match, the teams line up under a marquee designed to look like a players’ tunnel before emerging to the unmistakable sound of the Champions League anthem. Nisar Bhatti said about the prospect of his son playing in the real Champions League one day.
Michael Calvin, who has written a book about the youth academy economy. The Focus Football player Harley Taggart sleeping on the bus during a trip to France in early September. Harley and some of his under-11 teammates were up at 2 a. Still, Iyad Bhatti clings to that dream. A diminutive right-sided attacker, he was at Tottenham for several years before being released in 2016. Nisar Bhatti said the club based its decision on a database that compared Iyad’s physical and athletic attributes to previous players’, but also on physical data it sought from him and his wife. You learn that your kid is like a Kleenex: They can just throw it away and pick up another one. Daly, who once helped clubs make such decisions, knows this better than most. That is why he reminds his charges, with a mix of realism and motivational psychology, of the fight they have on their hands.
And I can tell you, you definitely won’t make it if you don’t work hard, if you don’t put a shift in every time you train, every time you play. Still, whatever the message, a child’s dreams are a powerful motivator. On the surface, the rules governing young players in English soccer are strict. Teams can sign players to their academies as early as age 9, but cannot formalize that arrangement, through a professional contract, until they are 16.
Coach Sean Daly of Football Focus in a changing room at the Waroquerie sports complex. Parents trust Daly, a former employee at Chelsea and Tottenham, because of his experience and his contacts. Yet using inducements to forge connections, and loyalty, is not uncommon. Some clubs offer to pay for private school educations for academy players, and even for the players’ siblings. The problems for the boys begin when, suddenly, it’s all over. Clubs usually warn parents that their children are about to be released, to give them time to lay the groundwork for what is often the biggest disappointment of a young child’s life. Focus parent said of her son’s dismissal by a Premier League academy.
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They need you until they don’t. Focus players, in blue, with their opponents before a match at the Chti’s Cup. The teams walked onto the field to the Champions League anthem. The Focus Football player Adrian Blake, left, held off an opponent. A group of Focus Football parents followed the team to its tournament in Boulogne. Some of their children had been released by Premier League academies, and told by age 10 or 11 that they were not good enough.
At a training session inside the gymnasium of a North London school, Seth Johnson and Maria Sheehan sit together on a long wooden bench. They are reminiscing, and also commiserating. Their boys, Joe and Henry, played soccer together as 4-year-olds before losing touch. Henry had loved his time at Spurs, training with top coaches and sharing space in the gym with first-team stars like Dele Alli. Signing a youth contract with a professional club comes with risks. For every year a child spends at an academy, the team can request compensation from a rival should a parent wish to switch clubs.
That amount grows quietly year by year, and it can reach six figures by the time the child turns 16 — effectively handcuffing a boy to a club just when he is free to make his own decisions about his career. Daly and Focus Football, as well as a few similar setups, offer another path. The Focus players are a mix: boys whose parents declined to sign youth contracts, thus keeping their options open but giving clubs little reason to invest in them, and those who did but later were released after a year or two, or more. Daly, far left, can be abrasive, which can seem jarring given that his players are so young. The parents’ faith in Daly, who says he does not make any money when Focus players are signed by professional teams, stems from his coaching ability but also from his contacts. Alex Quarcoo, a hairdressing salon owner whose son Malachi joined Focus after he was released by Tottenham after three years.
He’ll only take them when they are ready. They come, Quarcoo said, because they — players and parents — are not ready to give up their dreams. To be clear, Focus is not a charity. 100 a month for a child to attend two training sessions and play a game once a week. The very best players are invited to attend a so-called elite group session.
And Daly can be abrasive, which can seem jarring given that his charges are so young. I don’t care if he says he’s going to be sick. They have to learn to be mentally tough. Later, after the under-11 team’s goalkeeper committed a blunder in an early game at the tournament in France, Daly dropped the boy for a subsequent game.
Damian Kelly, who drives his prodigiously gifted 12-year-old son, Kyle, 40 miles to play for Focus. What he’s always said is that he’ll always have the child’s best interests at heart, and he’s proved that over the last four or five years. At the Chti’s Cup, both Focus teams progress to the latter stages of the tournament. And one, a team featuring boys born in 2005, is involved in a remarkable passage of play that belies their age. Leading by 2-0 with the clock ticking down, Daly instructs his players to slow the tempo, to conserve energy for the greater challenges that lie ahead.
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The 2005 team’s tournament ends with a semifinal loss, though, and as the 2006 age group plays its quarterfinal game, Harley Taggart, a midfielder who is among the smallest players at the tournament, nurses a knee injury on the bench. The day has taken its toll. Focus Football players huddled before a match against a team representing the French club Olympique Marcquois. Many of the players are eager to find a way back into the Premier League academy system.
Malachi Quarcoo, center, with family members after a match. Quarcoo spent three years in Tottenham’s academy before he was released. Harley is hoping to sign with Norwich City, a second division team that played in the Premier League as recently as 2016, but even at 11 he is wise to the system. When his team’s opponent, a bigger and more physical squad from Racing Club Lens, defeats Focus with a shot from outside the penalty area on the last kick of the game, Harley, alone on the bench in a shirt several sizes too big for him, puts his hands over his face and bursts into tears. A few weeks later, before a Focus training session back in London, one of his teammates, Claude Smith-Kabanda, reflected on the trip.
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Claude, 11, was about to complete his first month of high school, but his larger aspirations remain unchanged. Premier League Castoffs,Starting Over at Age 11. We’re interested in your feedback on this page. Looking for England’s Next Soccer Phenom? We would love to hear from you.
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