LESS than 24 hours after a Premier League debut that encompassed a brace and an assist against Arsenal, 18 year-old Marcus Rashford was back in the classroom, head not in the clouds, but in his BTEC Sport textbook. The Manchester United starlet attends the Ashton-on-Mersey school, housed a stone’s throw from the environs of Old Trafford, in Sale. Since 1998, it has worked closely with United to ensure its trainees are ensconced in a world outside a sport off clouded with blurred priorities. Rashford has attended since he was 12, and mixed with the regular students throughout his time there. Yet notable alumni include Gerard Pique, Danny Welbeck, Paul Pogba and Ryan Shawcross.
United’s approach makes for refreshing reading, albeit reading shadowed by the question of whether it will be enough in the long-term. The plaudits heaped on the Ashton-on-Mersey school this week, in the wake of Rashford’s inauguration to the top flight, at least indicates a long overdue recognition of the importance of pastoral care in football’s sterilised and clinical industry. Football is littered with harrowing cautionary tales of starry-eyed teenagers sold down the river by agents, coaches and parents hungry for success. Clubs scout children as young as five now, and The Secret Footballer writes of kit vans luring in academy prospects after training sessions with offers of free boots and clothing. Clubs tempt teenagers with princely sums, with promises of fame and reverence. The reality, however, tells a different story: less than 1% will go on to play professionally.
This destructive depersonalisation of young footballers repeatedly brushes close to culminating in the worst possible outcome. Aged 16, ex-Everton prospect George Green was handed a £45,000 signing-on fee from the Toffees. Now 20, he reflects on the process as too much, too young: an injury forced him into crippling depression, and it took a £75 a week contract with Ossett Town to restore his sense of self. Sonny Pike, the curly-haired protégé plucked from obscurity at seven by Ajax in the 90s and touted as the next Maradona, admitted last month he became suicidal at 17 because of the pressure of an industry rife with people with ulterior motives.
For now, Rashford at least has something to provide calm amidst the crescendo. But while the football world extols the merits of his set-up, many more are evidently not as lucky. Young footballers enter a realm where the stakes are perilously high, and where inevitable teenage fallibility is neither acknowledged, anticipated or surmounted in any sustainable way. Instead, there is a conveyer belt of others waiting to usurp the latest next big thing.
Manchester United’s approach is commendable, but needs to be mirrored by wholesale changes to football’s attitude towards the mental health of its athletes of both future and yesteryear. Retirement can open an even larger Pandora’s Box, players struggling to adapt to life away from all they have ever known. As a sport, football needs to do more to prepare its players for the end of a career that, invariably, is fleeting – and, for that remaining 99%, never even begins.
Featured image: The Sun