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Exclusive: Aston Villa academy product Tom Strain talks pitfalls of Premier League academies

Let's cast a sober eye on Premier League academies. These hubs of talent where kids are swept into the swirling hurricane of professional football and challenged to spend their entire adolescent years devoted to the goal of one day representing their club at the highest level. Unfortunately this lofty goal to which these teenagers devote blood, sweat and tears, is almost unattainable. According to former head of FA talent Identification Richard Allen, "only 0.5% of those signed by a professional club aged under 9 will go all the way through to play in the club's first-team."

While we always hear of the glowing success stories, the warm and inspiring tales of local lads who one day represent the shirt of their boyhood heroes, we rarely hear the other side of the narrative. The reality is that these success stories are the rare minority of cases, with the majority of young boys spat out of the system unheralded and unrecorded.

To take us inside the competitive madness of these cut-throat academies, TribalFootballspoke with former Aston-Villa Academy player Tom Strain who shared his insights and experiences from his time at Bodymoor Heath.

"I'm 24 now looking at stats, but back then you don't look at stats, you're fearless," Strain said.

"When you go over there at fifteen or sixteen, the sky's the limit, you think you are going to make a professional career but the reality of it (is different.)"

Tom Strain joined the Aston Villa Academy alongside his brother Ryan during a family holiday in Coventry. After his initial trial he was then thrown into the crucible of Premier League Academies, pitted against the brightest talents in the country.

Speaking of his experience, Strain posited: "We didn't realise how tough and cut-throat it all was until we were over there.

"At Aston Villa, there were 30-40 lads between the youth team and the reserves that weren't even playing first team...and the only player in my whole time at Aston Villa who's still at Aston Villa is Jack Grealish the captain. He is the only one who is still there and that just shows what it takes to make it because he is world class.

"But with all the other lads I played with who are all very good players as well, some of them are playing in the Championship, a few are in League One, some of them made careers and some are probably playing semi-professional. It just shows how hard they have to work to get to that level and it takes a real special player to come through."

Despite a strong start to his time at Villa, scoring goals at youth team and reserve level for the Villains, extreme competition for spots alongside a torrid injury run saw Strain released in 2015.

Five years on and pensive about the nature of the academies, Strain reflected: "It's a business at the end of the day.

"You're so emotionally invested in it at the time...and then it's just over in a heartbeat. Some players struggle to cope with the realisation that they're not going to make it as a professional."

The problem then is what comes next? The fallout for released players who have only been in the academy becomes an encumbrance that the footballing world makes near impossible to overcome.

"It's not easy if you haven't got that experience in the leagues, (as) some managers will just go for experience, older players who can come in for a year or six month contracts, you call them journeymen, rather than an 18-19 year old boy who's just fresh out of the academy."

Furthermore, the global nature of these academies means that it isn't just kids from the local area trying their hand at football, but rather boys from around the world who leave their families behind at a young age and risk it all.

"There were a lot of foreign lads coming into the country, a lot of them got home sick. It just happens so quickly and it's heartbreaking as well.

"Me and Ryan were both released on the same day, so we both had to make that phone call together to our parents. Things like that you don't forget about. No one prepares you for that. You think that you're going to conquer the world, you're gonna play at the highest level, you leave everyone in Australia at the time, they think you're going on to bigger and better things.

"I was gutted, I was almost angry, because you want it so bad. You want to make your parents proud even though they are proud of you.

"There's always stories that some blokes suffer after these academies and probably more interviews like this are needed cause it's probably the first time I've ever spoken deeply about these issues or situations that present themselves. At the end of the day these are just kids going over there, they're just kids...and they haven't got any life experience."

One of the issues Strain spoke to Tribalfootball about was the 'all or nothing' approach of academies.

"A lot of 15/16 year-olds who normally...might do part time work…(have) real life experience. Whereas in that academy lifestyle, excuse my language but they almost wipe your bum for you.

"Everything: your food's given to you, your clothes, you don't have to think you just play.

"So coming out of that environment into the real world is definitely tough. Luckily for me I've kept up my football and ...I've got a good job working hard but some blokes struggle to come to terms with that.

"That's what they don't prepare you for when you go over there, they don't prepare you for if it doesn't go well.

"The amount of kids that come out of the system with nothing behind their backs is quite scary."

Surprisingly, the Premier League season just concluded featured many academy products, largely assisted by Chelsea's transfer ban which saw opportunity given to many of their brightest academy prospects.

Even in this season of youth however, the Premier League average of academy players now making it in the big time stands at only approximately 4 players (3.9) per Premier League club in season 2019/20.

This includes club stalwarts like Sheffield United's two academy players, Phil Jagielka and Billy Sharp, both well into their 30s, as well as regular Premier League stars Trent Alexander-Arnold, Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and of course Jack Grealish.

However even with the success of Chelsea this season, who finished in 4th position, securing Champions league qualification, as well as making the FA Cup final, Roman Abramovich seems to be moving away from the promise of youth.

As soon as the transfer ban was lifted, Chelsea signed centre-forward Timo Werner for 53 million, winger Hakim Ziyech for 40 million, full-back Ben Chilwell for 50 million and centre-backs Malang Sarr and Thiago Silva on free transfers. They are also threatening to sign attacking-midfielder Kai Havertz for almost 100 million.

While all of them are highly talented, what impact will this have on Chelsea's most impressive young players who seemed to be making the next step last season? Centre-forward Tammy Abraham, winger Callum Hudson-Odoi, full-back Reece James, attacking-midfielder Mason Mount and centre-back Fikayo Tomori, all had fantastic seasons but with these incoming players they will struggle to maintain their place in the first team.

Chelsea recent transfer dealings certainly point in the opposite direction to youth academy graduates, leaving a lot of these young stars in a difficult position.

On this approach to youth academies, prevalent across the Premier League, Strain commented: "At the Premier League especially it's such a business. When clubs have got 20 odd million (to spend) on a player with experience (why should) they take a risk on a player who potentially could live up to (his ability). They just don't seem to do it anymore do they? They don't really give youth a chance. Some clubs do, don't get me wrong, but it's very rare.

"Your Mason Mount's, Your Abraham's, (I) played against Tammy Abraham as well when he was at Chelsea...Reece James...you just don't know quite how they're going to develop.

"Fortunately because of the transfer ban they've all been given (opportunity). You just hope they stick with (them). (These signings are) what's holding them back from being that star player like Harry Kane.

"It's very sad but I can understand why Premier League teams don't give youth a chance...They've got millions (and) millions of dollars on the line and that's just how it is and I think that's how it's going to be for a long time."

Despite the paucity of opportunity for youth at the top level of English football, this won't stop Premier League clubs from snapping up young talent across the world and it certainly won't stop young boys from chasing their dreams. Maybe in this time of financial cuts and global reconstruction, more youth will be given a chance.

"I take my hat off to anyone who's willing to give that a go because It's definitely not easy and it's definitely cut-throat."


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Eli Rubenstein Sturgess

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