This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
No matter our dexterity with a ball at our feet, most of us have indulged the dream of one day becoming a professional footballer. For the vast majority of us, that dream is punctured at some point in our mid twenties, when we realise that our athletic potential has been ravaged by hedonism and that there are lads making their Premier League debuts who make us look old. Nonetheless, we allow the daydream to play itself out now and then, picturing ourselves, still fresh-faced teenagers, somehow imbued with otherworldly footballing abilities. On a Sunday League pitch, in the middle of summer, we are spotted by a grizzled, chain-smoking scout with a neck tattoo, who recommends us to a prestigious local academy. The narrative then becomes something akin to 'The Journey' on FIFA 17, though preferably further saturated with cliche and even less limited to the confines of real life.
While we might be nebulously aware that the reality is more complex than this, it is through the prism of effortless daydreams that our view of youth football becomes distorted. The path to making it as a professional footballer is often oversimplified, largely because from an outside perspective we miss much of the day-to-day detail involved. Some seem to think the entire process can be boiled down to abstract concepts like commitment and hunger, others that a youngster's prospects are numerically quantifiable, a bit like attributes on Football Manager. Personal traits and hard statistics doubtlessly come into it somewhere, but so too do a whirlwind of other factors. According to Dave Parnaby, head of Middlesbrough's academy, perhaps the most important is opportunity.
"We always tell people to enjoy the journey, for however long it lasts," Dave says, sitting in his uncluttered office amidst the mazy halls of the Rockliffe Park training ground. "It may be a year, it may be five years. Some are only here for a very short period of time." He stresses that, while it is vitally important that youngsters apply themselves, there is not so much a pathway to the first team as a finite series of openings, with the onus ultimately on the players to grasp one of them with both hands. An opportunity may arise through a good run of form, an injury to a first-team player, or for one of any number of reasons. The chance to graduate to the senior squad comes at a different juncture for everyone, and it is down to the individual to identify when it has arrived.
Having taken charge of the Boro academy when it was founded in 1998, Dave is one of the longest-serving academy managers in the game. He has presided over hundreds of players in his time on Teesside, including the likes of Stewart Downing, Chris Brunt, Adam Johnson, James Morrison and Lee Cattermole. While those players have made a name for themselves in the Premier League, there are a whole host of former Boro youngsters who have gone on to have successful careers at various levels of the English football pyramid. As profitable as it is when a prospect is snapped up by a Premier League suitor, any one transfer fee is a drop in the ocean compared to the cumulative return on Boro's academy. Though Dave's job, first and foremost, is to supply footballers to play for Middlesbrough, his youth set-up also serves as the economic lifeblood of the club.
When asked about the financial significance of a successful academy to a club like Boro, Dave stresses that he and his staff look to do the best by the lads they coach, even if he also estimates that the academy has generated tens of millions of pounds so far. "Our number one goal is to produce first-team players, but if they fall short of that, or their opportunities dry up, then we have to say that we have produced players for the sake of the game," he says. "That comes in two forms: one, where they become a financial asset to the club, and two, where we find a career path for them at a club without any financial attachment. That's as long as the player wants to stay involved with football, of course.
"In terms of the financial element, I think we've gone beyond £60m now," Dave adds. "We do have to sell players to help the club in their quest to move forwards and develop. Our latest one was in the summer, when Adam Reach left us for Sheffield Wednesday. Adam's was an interesting journey, as he had a stuttered start to his academy life and was a late developer. He broke through here, though we didn't sign him until he was around 18. He developed very quickly after that, and we managed to get five million for him in the summer from Wednesday, rising to around seven million as he makes appearances. That's a real success story for us, and I think if we go back historically the sales of Stewart Downing, Adam Johnson, James Morrison and Lee Cattermole were all essential."
With the academy earning decent fees even for transfers to the Championship, Steve Gibson's decision to invest in Boro's youth set-up looks to have been a shrewd one. "The academy is a support mechanism for the first-team… and we feel very proud that we've played our part in the club's survival, and helped it to develop to where it is now," Dave says. There is change coming at the training ground, however, with Dave recently announcing his intention to retire. While he will no longer head up the academy, Boro will doubtlessly still be able to call on his vast experience and knowledge of the game in the future. After almost two decades in the job, he knows a fair bit about what it takes for a player to make it to the top.
"I think players are experiencing different things these days," Dave says, when asked about how the job has changed during his time at the helm. "Our information from the education authorities and head teachers is that the demands on their educational achievements are becoming greater. We have to consider that as a club. We've always put education first, ahead of the football even… and I think that puts the players in good stead in terms of understanding that there's a realism about the journey. It's not a pot of gold every time – it's a tough, tough game.
"It is the hardest part of the job, telling a player that he is no longer required by Middlesbrough Football Club," Dave adds. "We try to manage it sympathetically, we have empathy with the parents and the boys. I think we've got better at it and that we're better prepared for it, but you never know about the person who is receiving that message, and the person receiving that message is the prime concern." It's clear that, as well as helping youngsters to develop their game, there is a huge burden of pastoral care with academy coaches, especially when it comes to bracing players for potential disappointment and helping them to manage their mental health. Unfortunately, not every youth prospect can succeed with Middlesbrough, and Dave and co. need to prepare them for the possibility that they might end up elsewhere.
Nonetheless, when a player is moved on by Boro, Dave and his coaches still keep a close eye on their progress. "For all the staff here, it's a regular visit to the Sunday papers to find out where they all are. Monday morning and Monday lunchtime are occasions where we constantly talk about our ex-players, whether they've scored goals for their new clubs, gone through a transfer, done particularly well, or been sent off. Through our network, the staff keep in touch with them in some form or other. Hopefully they respect what we've done for them in their early years."
With social media making criticism and pressure all the more immediate for young footballers, there are ever-changing pressures on their collective mental state. While Dave says that those pressures are different to when he first started, as opposed to inherently more difficult, they certainly represent another variable on the way to success. In a sense, the job of being an academy manager is about constantly adapting to the demands of the modern world, with education, training and technology almost always in a state of flux. It will be up to Dave's successor to continue the good work on that front, and to show similar ability to acclimatise and adjust.
When it comes to Rockliffe Park itself, the facilities give a glimpse into the daily routine of an academy player. Posted on the notice boards outside the enormous indoor training pitch, there are charts with detailed statistics on player performances, as well as pointers on skills, attributes and aspects of attitude which need to be improved. It's easy to imagine players finishing a session in the gym, trotting down past the coaches' offices and checking the details of their latest assessment, jostling each other in front of the message boards like jocks in a U.S. high-school drama. That's probably not how it goes down, of course, but in terms of cultural relatives it's as close as a training ground just outside Darlington and the American midwest are ever going to get.
Underneath the stats and match reports, there is a chart for the lads' benefit showing how many calories are in various fast foods and how many minutes it takes to work them off. While McDonald's and Nando's rate pretty poorly, the worst of all foodstuffs appears to be a large parmo and chips, with Teeside's favourite chicken-and-cheese delicacy clearly the scourge of Rockliffe Park's fitness coaches. This, combined with the motivational quotes emblazoned on the walls ("Tough situations don't last, but tough people do"), is clearly meant to encourage professionalism even when the players leave the training ground. While the path to the first team is different for everyone, the current consensus is clearly that massive portions of greasy chicken parmesan are an obstacle along the way.
To find out more about overcoming the serious obstacles on the path to the senior squad from an academy graduate's perspective, we spoke to Ben Gibson about his own journey through Middlesbrough's youth system. Having made well over 100 appearances for his hometown club in the Championship and now the Premier League, Ben is one of those select few youngsters who not only break into the Boro first team, but also nail down a starting position. The nephew of chairman Steve Gibson, he has proved his place in the team has been won on merit with a succession of confident performances at the back. Boro have conceded only 25 goals this season, down in no small part to Ben's influence in the centre of defence.
Before he broke into the side, with his path to first team not immediately obvious to him, Ben went out on loan several times to blood himself in the lower leagues. First he went to Plymouth Argyle, then to York City and Tranmere Rovers, racking up 60 senior appearances in the process. Looking back now, he sees that experience as a vital part of his development. "While the academy helped me develop the technical aspect and my knowledge of the game, and helped me to become a good player as a boy, ultimately you have to come to the point where you're ready to play at a man's level. For me, I knew that, as a defender, I needed to experience men's football. That was the advice I got, and I would reiterate that and tell any young defender the same thing. I had to go out on loan and play games – it's harsh, it's hard, but it's real football.
"Going down into the lower leagues, there are players relying on their win bonus to pay the bills," Ben goes on. "It's not as rosy as what it seems up here, it's not even as rosy as being a youth team or reserve player with Middlesbrough. That's why I had to get out of my comfort zone really, and just go and play. I knew that was what I wanted to do – to go away, learn my trade and come back a man, and I think I did that really. It opened my eyes to some of the harsh realities of the lower leagues, and what a career in football is actually like. There's only a small percentage of players who get to play in the top leagues, with nice training grounds, good money and a nice car, but that's not real – lower-league football certainly isn't about that, anyway."
In the life of an academy footballer, then, a senior loan is another potential variable in the maturation process. Reminiscing about his time in the lower leagues, Ben paints a picture of players washing their own kit, arduous coach journeys across the country and a generally implacable environment in which youth players are left to sink or swim. "It was perfect for me, because I'd been mollycoddled here really," Ben adds. "The facilities are fantastic, there are amazing coaches, lovely pitches and so on. It can feel a little bit too easy at times, so I wanted to test myself and prepare for the first team."
Having taken a very different path to a senior career with the club, we also spoke to Boro midfielder Adam Clayton about his experiences of youth football. Almost exactly four years older than Ben – their respective birthdays fall one day apart – Adam came through the ranks at Manchester City at a time when the club was spending lavish sums on imported talent at the general expense of the academy side. While he failed to break through at the Etihad, Adam dropped down a division with Leeds and worked his way back up to the top via Huddersfield. He is an example of how routes to a senior side can differ, and how initial knockbacks can serve to prepare a player for the rest of their life in the game.
"Obviously it was a big chunk of my life, and I couldn't really see myself playing anywhere else but there," Adam says of his time in the City academy. "The way it was going then, it was just starting to change – the money was coming in and the flow of youngsters stopped really, both the season I left and the season before. There's many who have had to go down a different path who were probably good enough to get in the team, Kieran Trippier and people like that. Still, you've got to go your own path, and I honestly wouldn't change anything now."
There are few players who would take their professional status for granted, especially considering how many youngsters drop out of the game entirely. Both Adam and Ben know players who have moved on with their lives, and have kept in contact with former youth teammates who are now making a life outside of the game. It must be sobering to think that they are amongst a select group who made the grade, and that's perhaps why the Premier League has sought to show them a little extra appreciation. Together, they have just been presented with their Premier League Debut Ball, an award given out to players who have spent at least three years with an English or Welsh academy. It's a nice touch from the league, and an official recognition of just how much effort it takes to walk the path to a senior career.
As well as the complex factors involved in succeeding as a young prospect, one of the things that is most striking about talking to academy graduates is how interconnected the world of football actually is. Players who are currently in the Middlesbrough academy will find their youth teams broken up in the next few years, with some of them going on to play for Boro and others being dispersed to all corners of the Football League and beyond. Hard as it is for the players when those teams break up, many of them will stay in contact and form bonds of friendship that will last a lifetime.
So, when Adam Clayton is married in just over a year, his best man will be Fleetwood Town striker and former academy teammate David Ball. Off the top of his head, Ben Gibson can trace his fellow Boro graduates as far afield as Carlisle United, Scunthorpe, Sheffield Wednesday and Yeovil Town. Whether or not a young footballer breaks into the first team with his club, his feats at academy level will be remembered by teammates long after he has departed. On Sunday mornings, over breakfast, his old coaches will peruse the papers in hope of seeing him amongst the goals, and so the academy remains with him however his life in football turns out.