For every young footballer who has taken a step towards their professional dream this summer there will be several who have been left behind in heartbreak.
The harsh and cruel reality of academy football dictates that less than one per cent of the 12,000 who play within the youth development system will end up earning a full-time living from the game.
Even of those who are picked up by elite clubs and offered the very best in coaching and facilities to aid their development, just three per cent will ever play in the Premier League. The ratios are no different at Wanderers. In April, coaching staff had to deliver bad news to dozens of players at various stages of the system, from those on the cusp of a scholarship at 16 to B Team players like Adam Senior, who had played first team football for his hometown club in League One.
In recent years clubs have been scrutinised more carefully on how they manage footballers at an impressionable age, both during their education and after-care once they have left the fold.
Three years ago, the tragic case of Manchester City’s Jeremy Winston, who took his own life at the age of 17 after being released, provided a wake-up call to football on pastoral care.
Even closer to home, former Bolton keeper James Aspinall publicly stated he suffered with his mental health after being released by Wigan Athletic in 2019.
Wanderers looked to get ahead of potential issues by appointing a designated head of academy player care in September last year. Greg Gillard had worked with the club as a safeguarding officer and has a background in youth mentoring, and he believes attitudes in football have changed considerably.
“At Bolton we talk about developing people now, not just players,” he told The Bolton News. “Maybe five or 10 years ago it was more about churning out players and then someone else picked things up but we are trying to do everything now. We have a responsibility.
“It is tough because on one hand you want them to believe in themselves, to give everything. But knowing it is a very low rate that make it in the professional game you are also have to make sure you are up with your studies, you have the right life skills. I don’t want to call it a Plan B but you need a balance.”
Wanderers encourage Under-18s to apply to universities in advance of contracts being offered and hold periodical reviews to give them regular updates on their progress.
“You can’t just put a loads of lads in the room and then, boom!” Gillard said. “We give the lads information every six to 12 weeks and tell them ‘this has to improve’ or ‘it is looking like this will happen’ so you look at jobs or continuing your studies.
“We work on life skills like finance, we do references and safe driving courses, plus they are doing a BTEC as part of their education. Some are doing an A level too. We want to give them as much as we can whether it is football or education, so they are set up for life.”
Former Bolton School pupil Joel Burgess was one of the scholars told they would not be offered a new contract this season.
A lifelong Wanderers fan, the midfielder had been captain of the Under-18s and appeared three times for the B Team last season. His release came as a blow, but the groundwork had already been done to apply to Newcastle University, where he will study law in September alongside a part-time football contract with the University team.
“Going into meetings I felt I’d done enough but I knew it would be a split decision, there were some coaches for keeping me on and others that were not,” he explained.
“They could have sent me out on loan but in their words, it was best for my future to tell me now rather than waste another 12 months. They didn’t feel there was a pathway to the first team. They were honest with me, and I was disappointed, but I think the process was as good as it can be.
“I got my head around it pretty quickly but I know some lads struggle more because they don’t have a solid plan on what comes next. You get that added stress of wondering what comes next, what do I do with my life now?
“The club really try and help on that and I don’t have a bad word to say about them. For me, getting the place at university during my scholarship eased the pressure a little because I knew that football wasn’t the be-all and end-all. There are other ways.”
Burgess has been able to fall back on his education, reducing the pressure he felt when decision time came, but football attracts players with many different backgrounds, attitudes and abilities who may not be as lucky.
Keeping an eye on mental wellbeing has become a big part of the role for Gillard, who does drop-in sessions and has a WhatsApp group to keep a constant dialogue with the group.
“It isn’t one size fits all,” he said. “I sit down with every single player and look at their interests. I tell them ‘okay, after you finish playing at 40, what would you fancy doing?’ It gives you a little window into what they enjoy – and then you can build from there.
“It is making sure they realise there are things outside of football without taking away that dream.”
Once players have left the building, maintaining contact with players is also a priority. There is a minimum of three touchpoints in the first six months, and Gillard organises alumni events for former players. Everyone is tracked and supported for three years after they leave Bolton.
Wanderers present all their scholars with a framed shirt with their name and number and compile digital clip highlights and videos which can help their chances of signing at other clubs.
“We had two players this year who lived in digs and they were sadly released,” Gillard added. “Our host families are fantastic people but where the other lads would be going back to their parents and families, I said to the two lads ‘let’s go and grab some food.’ “We didn’t have to talk about the release, I just didn’t want them to go home, gutted.
“We talked a bit about football – one of them was an Arsenal fan and they were slipping up at the time – and I think it helped. I got some nice messages back saying thanks.
“I want to help and support them so they can be focussed on playing football but it doesn’t end there. They have represented Bolton Wanderers and player care is at the heart of what we do. The whole place is bought into it.”