Released Players a Scouts Perspective
I had the great pleasure to speak with Simon O’Neill, a scout who has worked for AFC Fylde but more recently working with Wealdstone in the National League. So, his experience here would definitely come in handy. He started his journey in the football industry working in Manchester in different standard leagues (Sunday/Saturday league football) and eventually worked his way up to conference standard football just by his sheer passion and love of watching the beautiful game being played. His passion and interest for the game was apparent on the phone call, which coupled with his experience (BSc in Business Management and Football, FA Talent ID) made for a very interesting discussion on mental health, wellbeing and player care, which seems to be a hot topic these days.
So, I started with ‘’what do you understand about player-care?’’ Simon responded with ‘’player care is an ongoing issue in the UK and I get a lot of players contacting me on LinkedIn when they are released from professional teams’’. This captivated me as on the surface level this seems quite innocuous but actually it may go to show the lengths to which young players will go when released. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not in the least suggesting they should not do this, but more show the levels at which they could be affected psychologically. This may have obvious implications with their personal wellbeing. Simon continued with ‘’players that are released sometimes need to consider, when released, what club is the best fit for them. Is it a step 6 or step 4 club. They also need to consider if they are mentally and physically tough enough to play men’s football, as it tends to be a lot more physical’’.
This seems to be a great piece of advice that scouts, coaches, managers and all involved tend to keep giving young players. Ultimately if they really want to make it, they need to learn how to play against a grown man, who is trying to earn a wage from his game, a truly competitive and hard game. Maybe not what players are always used to in academies. As you may have guessed while reading, this was not the first time I have heard this, but it does make me wonder why some players listen to it and others don’t. I would speculate that it may be more to do with culture, more specifically football culture. By this I mean the story we tell each other about football players and indeed the stories we tell ourselves. For instance, it’s very common for a player to have a mind-set that they are the next Ronaldo or Messi, and we incorporate a star model of understanding the game. When actually a team culture model may be better suited as Damian Hughes discusses in his excellent book ‘The Barcelona Way’, where a player may be better suited to thinking about themselves as some lesser known players. But this is a tangent that is probably suited for a different blog.
Back to Simon. He went on to explain ‘’players really need to consider this (playing against men, in a lower league when released from an academy) in pursuing a pro contract when released’’. He went on to explain ‘’the bottom line is clubs do a great job of helping released players, certainly at younger age groups, but at 18-23 players can be just released or they can have a different significant player care package depending on the club they are at when released and indeed the club ethos’’. This I could not argue with--- coaches, scouts, managers and staff at football clubs do a great job, and in some clubs, you can see the staff really care. But ultimately myself and Simon agreed on one point, that more could certainly be done.
This lead me to the next question to ask Simon ‘What do you think to mental health in football with released players?’ Simon answered with ‘’a lot of players could be impacted by this, it’s the same for other professions like the police force. A lot of these individuals have come from the military and have a regimented life style, so when they leave the forces one day they need to find a suitable option for them like the police force’’. This answer resonated with me given my past in the military as a Royal Marine, and made me think about the truth in this comment, in that, a lot of my friends left the marines to become police officers or go in some form of other force, like close protection for example. This made me think also of my own personal journey and how hard I actually found it adjusting back to civilian life, something I hadn’t anticipated at all. But I guess the take home message from Simon was that players may have a similar journey when being released, and they may need to think about what is the next most suitable step for them. Does it represent what they used to do or is it something completely different? If it’s the latter, then they may need to consider the vast change they will likely go through.
Simon did continue to say ‘’mental health is a serious issue in football and when you consider the impact of being released for some it must be heart breaking. For example, the famous Manchester United class of 92 had so many young talented players, but do we always think of the players that didn’t make it. George Switzer was one such player. He made it all the way through the academy system only to be released by Ferguson for being too small. Imagine what that must be like for him--- one day he is a professional football player and the next day he suddenly isn’t. Factor in also he had to endure seeing all his friends get contracts (Beckham, Scholes, Giggs etc.) and go on to be millionaires’’. The sheer reality of Simon’s words really hit home for me. I left again thinking of the thousands of young men going through such a release, then couple that with seeing some of your best friends achieve what you apparently could not. How heart-breaking must that be? It seems to me, we all have a part to play in this process, as for some it can be the making of them, but for others it could be the breaking of them.
My final question for Simon was very much linked with the previous one, as I wanted to find out his opinion on what could be done, what is currently done and what could clubs do better in this regard. Simon responded with ‘’all clubs have different strategies and approaches. Some clubs have tried to instil different structures that help to keep staff involved in the whole process of talent ID and retention, but often when a manager joins a new club they bring their own staff. There are all sorts of player care packages certainly at ages below 18, the bigger clubs can afford to run 18-23 academies, but the smaller clubs may need to give players different options of playing further down the steps to gain some physical and mental resiliency to be able to potentially come back up and play professional football’’. I thought this was a very astute answer, and thought provoking, as these stories of mental health, wellbeing and player-care somewhat resonate with my own personal journey. This lead me to where I am today, interviewing highly skilled and knowledgeable scouts like Simon to find out what is going on in the industry, and if the system I have developed, Pitch, has a place to help. I think it does, hence why I am doing it, but the message needs to get out there and when I can speak to people like Simon it’s not only a pleasure, but I also learn a lot about the talent ID process, how clubs work and I get to network with fascinating individuals like Simon.
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