You Never Understand Me: Football’s duty to teach its youngsters that the game should not be their lives

By Tom Simmonds

The recent termination of Ravel Morrison’s West Ham contract was the latest abrupt ending on the rutted road of his short career. Morrison has again fallen victim to what has been football clubs’ favourite way of dealing with deeply troubled players for misdemeanours. Make them another club’s problem.

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I cannot claim knowledge of the day-to-day details of what Morrison did to exasperate those in charge of him at West Ham and, before that, Manchester United. What chills you on examining the accusations levelled at Morrison and some of his life choices is the nihilism that underlies them. Whether it’s the offences with which he has been historically charged or his having seven rotten teeth he had not previously attended to removed in 2012, these are not behaviours which suggest a high degree of self-regard on his part.

In that respect, Morrison has many talented predecessors. Paul McGrath, a staple in most Aston Villa supporters’ all-time XIs, is an example of how a player from troubled beginnings living a chaotic life can still have a stellar career after reaching a fork in the road. Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1989 decision to dispatch him to Aston Villa, where he would be reunited with Ferguson’s predecessor, Ron Atkinson, in 1992, revived him on the pitch.

However, McGrath’s continuing struggle with alcoholism would make it wrong to hold his example up to Morrison and others in danger of falling by the wayside. In McGrath’s case, Ferguson’s tough stance alienated him, while Atkinson’s maxim that he didn’t mind what players did off the pitch provided they performed well on it helped enable McGrath’s alcoholism. It served only to push his more serious demons to the right – where they would lie in wait for him after he’d finished with football.

These precedents shine a light on a football club’s key responsibility to its scholars. While it is unrealistic to expect them to keep the likes of the McGraths and Morrisons in line, they must take greater care of them.

West Brom manager Tony Pulis spoke of this regarding Saido Berahino after Sunday’s game with Burnley, calling for more mentoring of young men at academies. Pulis’ statement that he did not believe that Berahino himself was bad, but that he was an at times misguided “good kid”, was a public display of empathy that is significantly removed from the old-school attitude of quickly branding wayward players “bad apples”.

It is easy to be cynical and cite Berahino’s sell-on value to West Brom as a motivating factor behind Pulis’ words. Regardless of that, it is encouraging to see that a more nuanced view of the complex emotions that a young man who started from nowhere will be feeling now he has been propelled into a sphere beyond his wildest dreams exists at the top level of football management.

However, we cannot just focus on the McGraths, Morrisons and Berahinos. It is an indisputable fact that the vast majority of players who go through academies will not make it as professional footballers. This truism has to be at the centre of all education programmes that academies operate, with less emphasis on what awaits you if you ‘make it’. Teaching young players at academies that their gift as footballers has more than one way of unlocking doors for them is key. Learning the risks of seeing football as a one-dimensional means to an end or their sole life skill will make them into individuals who can better cope with the problems they encounter in life.

Has your club had a wayward talent who you never saw the best of? Do you think that academies do enough to teach young players life skills?

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