Becoming a professional footballer is a dream most children have but one which very rarely turns into a reality. However, even if you are one of the select few to make it into a Premier League academy, then the chances of making it pro are very slim.
Thousands of players go through the system every year, some making it but the majority having their career shattered in one brief conversation. Only 0.5 percent of under-nines at top clubs are likely to make it into the first team according to a BBC report.
Another report, done by The Independent, states that ‘11.7 percent of top-flight players graduated from their club’s academy and 59.9 percent of Premier League footballers are from overseas.’
Recent success stories such as Jamie Vardy and Andre Gray, who had to drop down to Non-League before becoming Premier League stars, have questioned Academy football stating that first team experience at a young age is much more beneficial.
One name to have experienced a Premier League academy setup as well as Non-League football is former Arsenal midfielder, Josh Rees.
The 24-year-old now plays in the National League for Bromley following spells with Chelmsford City and Nottingham Forest.
Before becoming a first team figure with Bromley, Rees was teammates with players such as Benik Afobe, Héctor Bellerín and Serge Gnabry during his time at The Emirates.
“I was in the academy system for 11 years so I have many different memories,” said Rees.
“When I first stepped into the academy at Arsenal I was very nervous because all the kids there had amazing ability but I managed to get up to speed. The coaching was very technically based. We did a lot of skills training but it was always competitive.
“The message at an early age was to enjoy your football but as you got older I think it became more based on results and whether you could make the next step up.
“The environment was first class at the time. I went from playing at local parks where there was hardly a blade of grass, to playing on immaculate carpets. Obviously, you had all the kit provided and it was a real privilege.
“It just felt professional in every way and this was from a really early age let alone when I was in the youth team at 16, where once I was full time it went up a level with more facilities. It was an ideal environment for a footballer if you applied yourself.”
Having experienced the top level of the footballing system, the young midfielder had the world at his feet. His next goal was to try and break into the first team, which at the time and still to this day is largely filled with, “foreign talent.”
When asked about what he would change in academies, Rees said: “It’s hard to say because I think my upbringing through the academy at Arsenal was good.
“I’d say that academies probably need to help players more when it comes to getting first team football and also preparing them for it.
“Elite teams are now stockpiling talent and I think the responsibility is very much on the player to find a loan club or another alternative.
“A lot of kids lack guidance and I think the clubs have a duty of care to help young players get games at an early age instead of using them for their U23 teams where the football is nowhere near as competitive.”
With Rees making a good point of elite teams stockpiling players, this can be seen with Chelsea currently loaning out 36 players including youth academy graduates, Jamal Blackman, Todd Kane and Jordan Houghton.
These three Chelsea players are yet to make a first team league appearance for their parent club, however, they all have over 50 league appearances to their name during loan spells away from the club.
Matej Delač is a name most Premier League fans won’t think of when discussing Chelsea’s goalkeeping options, but the 25-year-old is actually Chelsea’s current, longest-serving player following John Terry’s departure.
The former Croatia Under 21 is yet to make an appearance for the London-based after signing for Chelsea in 2010 as a teenager.
When looking at Premier League clubs being the best environment for young pros, Rees said: “It depends on the club. As I mentioned before the environment many of the Premier League clubs can offer is a footballing utopia and if you try and squeeze every ounce of it you can develop as a player.
“However, at the end of it are you going to get into the first team? There are examples such as Southampton where this is the case however, there are others such as Chelsea where it’s very difficult. So, it’s a tough question.
“I am of the thinking that perhaps sometimes the academies aren’t tough enough and maybe make it too easy for the kids coming through. There is coaching now for everything and sometimes I think it’s better for young kids to solve their own problems instead of seeking the easy option and asking a coach for an answer.”
So, when the reality comes to an end and players are told they will no longer be a player in the academy, what happens? How do you find a new club and do you question your footballing ability?
“I pretty much knew I’d be departing four or five months before the end of the season,” said Rees, who left the Arsenal academy in 2013.
“I’d had a rotten time with injuries and I knew my contract wouldn’t be renewed. I think football as an industry is very fast moving. Therefore, there never really is many long goodbyes.
“Players come and go and it’s the nature of the job really. I’d been at Arsenal for a long time but once you are gone everyone has to move on, it’s just how it is. It’s the same everywhere else I’ve been.
“I think once I went into non-league I was able to play a significant amount of games as a first team player. I was in an around the first team at Nottingham Forest but I never really felt I was an established pro.
“I think the sooner players get a full season of senior football under their belt the quicker they can establish themselves at a level and progress upwards.”
Looking at his teammates from Arsenal, the midfielder also discussed what his fellow Academy players went on to do following their release: “The majority of players have really [not become professionals] but it’s to be expected.
“The statistic of footballers coming out of academies and having a long career is extremely small. That’s why it’s such an achievement if you do have a career whatever the level.
‘Those that I speak to who are not playing do a variety of things. Some have gone on to educate themselves because they couldn’t go to university due to football and others have gone into everyday jobs and may still play football part-time.”
On the other hand, Rees played with a number of high-quality players throughout his career who were lucky enough to make it at the highest grade and even play in the Champions League.
When speaking about these he said: “I think the obvious one through the academy is Jack Wilshere but to be honest he was a special, special player and I always knew he would play at the top level.
“He was technically way ahead of his peers but he also had a great tenacity and will to win and he was a role model for us younger lads.
“Hector Bellerin was in my youth team and so was Alex Iwobi. It’s great to see them playing now as it shows that there is a pathway at Arsenal if you work hard and take your opportunities.
“I would have never had Alex Iwobi in the category of someone destined for the first team but fair play to him he’s got something Arsene Wenger appreciates and he’s still young and improving his game.
“The biggest one for me was probably Harry Kane. I was with him at Under 9 level and he was playing down a year.
“He left Arsenal and went to Spurs and I played against him a few times and although he was a good player I would have never predicted him to become one of the world’s best strikers.
“Again, though it’s a massive credit to him that he had an inner belief and despite setbacks has become a top player.”
With a number of players who don’t make it in football going on to different careers within Sport, Rees finished by discussing how he feels clubs can help young players who may not go onto a professional career.
“To be fair I think clubs try to offer support options such as BTEC’s, coaching badges and other qualifications,” said the former Brentford loanee.
“However, I would say that as an individual you should be proactive and look deeper into these options and see what’s best for you. I am finishing a degree in sports science that I found through the PFA.
“I applied for it myself without the club helping me so like I said it’s a two-way thing. The club can offer you something but don’t rely solely on those options. Seek out your own help and advice if you can.
“I think the Physio care at the clubs I’ve been at has on a whole been very good. The physios I’ve worked with have always been good and if I’ve had problems they have tried their best to resolve them.
“I had to have a hernia operation at Nottingham Forest and the Physio there made sure I saw one of the world’s foremost surgeons in that area.
“They didn’t have to but I think in general medical teams want to help players because it looks good on them as professionals. I haven’t really experienced any negative stories in my time.
“My only issue with the academy system is that I’m not sure it prepares players fully for first team football in general.
“I understand academies want to adopt the identity of their first team but in some cases like Man City, their first team play a brand of football that no one else really plays.
“Therefore, when some of these young lads go on loan in the league they have a massive culture shock and they are already playing catch up.
“I learnt a lot of core technical values at Arsenal, however, I don’t think I learned the game properly until I got to Nottingham Forest because I saw a different side to the game.
“It’s a very hard balance for academies but I think it’s key for producing good footballers regardless if they make it into their first team or not.”
Following Rees’ departure from Arsenal and then Nottingham Forest he signed for National League South club, Chelmsford City before moving to National League club, Bromley in June 2017.
Bromley currently sit eighth in the league just one point of the play-off places with a game in hands as well as reaching the FA Trophy quarter-final on 24th February following a 7-1 win against Workington.
Rees spoke about his career in Non-League saying: “Non-League football has been great for me because it’s given me a platform to play week in, week out and give me the confidence to showcase my ability I always knew I had.
“Something as simple as playing at 3pm on a Saturday is something I feel young players should experience because it feels so much different to playing academy games on a Tuesday night etc.
“People may turn their nose up at the non-league pyramid but there is so much talent there and the gap between it and the football league is probably at its closest now.
“I think the lower leagues are becoming much more professional. Even in the National League I am full time. I have very good facilities with access to a gym and pool.
“We eat together and even have performance analysis tools available. It isn’t to the scale that I had it at an academy but it’s still very good and the tools are there for me to use and improve my game.
“In a way, I prefer it because despite being very good it’s not outstanding and this gives me an incentive to do better so I can experience the top-level facilities that Premier League teams are accustomed to on a daily basis.”
Despite now experiencing first team football in the National League, Rees experienced a number of loan spells throughout his career with clubs such as Nuneaton Town and Torquay United.
With most youth academy graduates experiencing loan spells in the early stages of their career, players such as Kane, who made his professional debut at Leyton Orient in 2011, have gone onto great success.
“On a whole, my loan moves gave me the opportunity to play football regularly in a first team environment,” Rees told Reporter, Charlie Russell.
“That is the aim of a loan move at the end of the day. I think as an individual you need to buy into the loan move otherwise it won’t work.
“Players should almost believe it’s not a ‘loan’ and more of a short-term transfer.
“I’ve played with lots of loan players who came in quite despondent and didn’t really integrate quickly and in the end, it didn’t work out for them.
“Saying that an unsuccessful loan can turn out to be successful because it’s a massive learning curve for a young player and the experience will benefit them in the future.”