For The Boys Who Never Made It

Written by Kieran Kenlock

Chasing Shadows — a short film highlighting the truth behind the life of young footballers in academies, and what happens after they’re released. Presented by Certified Sports & Max Noble. Written & Voiced by Kieran Kenlock

For years I’ve found it difficult to open up and speak about my experience of being released from Crystal Palace FC. When I joined the club aged 12, the idea of playing at Selhurst Park was a pipe dream. I didn’t come from a family of footballers, I didn’t even know anyone who was a professional footballer. The only thing that I did know was that I loved to play and I loved the game.

From the moment I signed the schoolboy papers I knew my life was going to be different, I remember it like it was yesterday. I’d been on trial for a couple of weeks with the U13s impressing with my pace and power — I wasn’t the most gifted footballer back then but I had bags of potential. That’s what my coaches at the time, Colin Omogbehin, former professional for Fulham FC and Micky Hazard, former player at Tottenham Hotspur, had said to me after training one night. They let me know that Palace would be offering me a two-year contract but that the hard work started now — I was ready.

Nothing compares to slipping on your first official piece of training gear. Not only does It give you a sense of accomplishment but moreover, it gives you a sense of belonging. I hated coming to training in my own clothes for those weeks, everyone knew you were a trialist, an outcast but finally, I was part of the team. For years that was my identity, like so many others boys who shared a similar vision as I did. At that stage, we trained three times a week. Twice a week in the evenings after school, and once on the weekend before a game on Sunday. It was a huge commitment even then. Session after session we were put through our paces: technique, tactics, fitness. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Again and again and again. Season, after season, after season. Until it became second nature.

I remember a session we had one evening. Training had finished and we were huddled around Colin and Micky, they told us that only a few of the boys would make it to the next level of the academy system, and that it was very unlikely everyone stood in front of them would receive their Youth Training Scholarships or a YTS as it was called at the time. I was determined that I would get mine and made sure I did everything in my power to secure one. But they were right. By the time I was 16, having spent four seasons at the club, only three boys out of the eighteen that were there from my first session received a scholarship. I was one of them, and at this point my pipe dream didn’t seem too unattainable, I was getting closer.

U18s 2009–2010 Season

The difference between schoolboy football and Youth Team football is frightening. You go from training three times a week, to training almost every single day, sometimes twice a day. The intensity is higher and the margin for error is smaller. In your head you know you have two years to impress, so there’s this added pressure of not wanting to ever make a mistake, and for you to deliver at peak performance everyday, you have to make sacrifices. I didn’t grow up like your average 16 year old. I didn’t drink, I rarely went to parties, most nights I was in bed by ten and the majority of my friends were footballers. In that environment you’re forced to grow up quickly.

Each day is an exhilarating grind — blood, sweat, touch, set. Play, pass, touch, spin. Touch, set, thread, finish. I worked my ass off. As I said before, I wasn’t a naturally gifted footballer but the drive and determination in me made me take football very seriously. Looking back, maybe I was too hard on myself. I used to get frustrated if I ever misplaced a pass or gave the ball away and found it hard to bring myself back from being in my head. I had some real bad days but the good always outweighed the bad. Our team was amazing, most of the boys were from the local area and we developed a bond so strong that it was unfathomable to think any of us would ever leave that club. I was like a sponge, getting better and better, taking on board whatever the coaches said and by my second year I believed that I’d sign a professional contract. A lot of other people thought the same thing too.

FA Youth Cup, Selhurt Park vs Bristol U18s
FA Youth Cup, Selhurt Park vs. Bristol U18s

Then the day of my decision came. No matter how hard I’ve tried to shake it, that day will forever be etched in my memory. Our team had a good season, we’d got to the quarter finals of the FA Youth Cup, losing to Newcastle at St James Park and we were on course to finish in the top 3 of our league. Gary Issot, our academy manager, had called four of us into a room, which I thought was strange at the time but nonetheless I was pretty hopeful that we’d be receiving good news — why else would he pull us all in a room at the same time. The atmosphere was tense, like the final moments of a shootout, but as I looked around the room at my teammates I was confident that we would all be professionals by the end of the conversation. We quickly realised that wasn’t the case. We were told that because the club had gone into administration they were looking for players who could slot into the first team next season and we weren’t in the managers plans. It was the end of the road. And just like that, my dream was over. I cried, I cried so hard that night, I was inconsolable. There was a knot in my stomach that even to this day I can still remember.

Being the person I am, I wasn’t satisfied with the explanation. The next day I asked Gary for a moment to see if he could shed light on the decision and if there was anything I could do to have it overturned. The response I received was that I was a very good player, good at a lot of things, but there wasn’t one thing that set me apart from the other players in my position. He told me that I was more suited to play in League 1 or lower and that he would help me find some clubs to have a look at me. Disappointed but optimistic about the possibility of playing for another club, I took what he had to say and waited by the phone. True to his word, he pulled a favour through a friend of his at Stevenage and I went on trial. We played a strong Watford XI, I can’t remember the score but we got trashed. I didn’t have the best of games and didn’t return. You see the issue with these games is, coming in as a trialist, you only get a few moments to shine and it’s so easy to blame the new kid when things go wrong. I remember calling Gary to tell him how it went and asked if he knew anyone else that he could speak to, his answer was that he was going to phone around and see if anyone was looking for a right-back. Again I waited by the phone. This time, no call came. Weeks went by and still nothing. I called him again, however, this time he said that he couldn’t help me, and that was it.

By then preseason had started and for the first time in six years I had no club. I was lost and dejected but I refused to let the setback get to me. For the whole summer I called up every club I could, sent email after email to club secretaries, coaches, or to anyone that was remotely connected to a club. I went on a few other trials, some more successful than others but nothing compared to my time playing at Crystal Palace. When you’re playing a club at that level, you would think that finding another one at that standard would be a lot easier but it isn’t. Clubs had already filled their squads and didn’t have space for new players. So I bounced around, trial after trial being disappointed as each decision was ultimately the same.

I fell out of love with the game. I didn’t want to watch it, I didn’t want to play it, I didn’t want to speak about it. I was depressed. There were nights when I’d lie awake and think about ending my life, I didn’t think I had anything to live for. I’d given my all to football and with a swift decision it was done. Luckily for me, unlike many others, I had an university offer from Loughborough waiting for me. So instead of waiting to find another club or taking a few years out. I decided to go, reluctantly. When I look back, I made that decision because I didn’t want to be considered a failure. I didn’t want people to ask me where I was playing and for the answer to be nowhere, I was ashamed. So I distanced myself from the sport and from the feelings I had. I bottled them up and kept it moving.

From the outside looking in you would have thought I was unfazed by it all, but inside, when I was alone, I was a wreck. I started drinking, partying and not taking football seriously. I was the life of the party around people but when I returned to my room I’d cry myself to sleep thinking about what could have been. I slipped into a deep and dark depression. I went from training everyday, playing the sport I loved, to waking up for 9am lectures and to make matters worse, whilst I was doing this, my boys were back home playing in the Championship, or for their respective clubs living their best lives. The most interesting thing about that period is that I never spoke about it. I never brought it up, not to my family, not to my friends.

I’d lost my identity but I wasn’t the only one. Thousands of boys that year had gone through the same thing. I suppose I should count myself lucky. Some of the players I knew didn’t have the option of going to university, instead they continued to chase their dream of having a professional football career, others went the opposite direction, turning to coping mechanisms like; alcohol abuse, gambling or getting caught up in the streets and selling drugs.

It took years for me to get over it and even longer to redefine who I am. And to be honest, I believe deep down there’s still an 18 year old in me who wishes he made it to play just one game as a professional footballer. In fact I know. This year, in the height of the lockdown, I suffered a panic attack. I’d never had one before and couldn’t work out why it had happened. But as I started to dissect the root of it, everything became clear. It had been almost 10 years to the day that I had been released from Crystal Palace and all of those feelings finally found the surface after years of laying dormant. I had ignored my feeling of pain and suffered in silence for years. I’m sure many others did too, and are still suffering today.

A lot of us still live with the trauma of being released. When I was younger I never really considered what effect it would have on my life but I can attribute certain things in my character to that experience; not being able to trust people, finding it difficult to open up and be vulnerable, not allowing myself to get too close to anything in fear of being disappointed, or refusing to give something 100 percent just incase it doesn’t work out because then I could say — I wasn’t trying anyway. These are negative traits that I never had before I was let go and whilst I used to think these were only related to matters of competition it wasn’t until this year where I could fully admit that these were ruining my life experiences in every aspect.

The thing is, when I was coming up, football wasn’t a sport where you were encouraged to express how you really felt, you were ridiculed for showing any kind of emotion and considered soft if you raised any kind of concern. It was more of an environment where you put up and shut up, but silence is deadly. Judging by recent news, I’m not sure how much has changed. We don’t have to look too far back to know that’s true. Jeremy Wisten, a young footballer who was released from Manchester City, committed suicide after hearing he was surplus to requirements by the club, but he hasn’t been the only one and if nothing is done, he won’t be the last.

My deepest sympathy goes out to him and his family.

My heart also goes out to anyone who has experienced being rejected by a club and the sport that they loved, and whilst football has brought joy to millions around the world it’s also taken the joy from so many others.

For the boys who never made it. I feel you. Your stories are all valid and I encourage you to tell them. I know you may not think people want to hear them because in your mind you believe that it’s just another sob story, but they’re far more than that. I want you to know that being a footballer does not define you, your actions and character do. The fact that you even have a story to tell, says everything that you need to know. Because getting to a point where a coach has to consider releasing you takes discipline, commitment, hunger, desire, flair and creativity. Skills that no one can teach you, skills that are transferable anywhere. You just got to believe in yourself.

And to those who know anyone who’s has gone through, or is going through something like this, listen to them.

Creative Writer + Strategist, https://www.instagram.com/1lowki/