Updated: Mar 31
Football is often described as the beautiful game, and there’s no doubt that we tend to romanticise grassroots football and the stellar academies of top-flight sides such as Manchester United.
For every young player who makes the grade and becomes a global superstar, however, thousands are unable to fulfill their promise or build a viable career with their boyhood club.
This is just one way in which the reality of grassroots football differs from how it’s perceived, and it’s important that players manage their expectations as youngsters. We’ll explore this further in the article below.
The Evolution of Grassroots Football in the UK
Certainly, the infrastructure that underpins national and global grassroots football has evolved considerably during the last 20 years, branching into huge tournaments at variable age levels and propelling players as young as 16 into national spotlights.
Take the England U-17 side of 2017, for example, which drew attention to precocious youngsters such as Manchester City’s Phil Foden, England star Jadon Sancho, and former Manchester United starlet Angel Gomes.
Of course, Foden and Sancho in particular have gone on to become top-flight stars and full internationals, but others including Curtis Anderson, Timothy Eyoma, and Nya Kirby have faded back into relative obscurity.
Others like Emile Smith-Rowe are only just breaking into the first-team at Arsenal, after several years and various loan spells scattered across different teams and countries.
Clearly, grassroots football is more closely watched than ever before, both by international scouts and club fans, who can now access the action through a myriad of different media options. This definitely creates increased opportunities for some, but it also intensifies the pressure on younger players and the expectation levels that they’re likely to face from a tender age.
The issue is that there’s a natural tendency for people to view obviously talented young players as being better and more precocious than they are, and there’s a danger that youth footballers buy into this perception and fail to appreciate the hard work required to achieve success as a professional.
The Role of Parents and Family
In instances where players simply aren’t prepared for the harsh reality that their professional careers may falter, young footballers can face a swathe of potential issues that impact them long into the future.
This is why it’s important to recognise the huge challenges associated with progressing from a talented young player into a reliable professional and understand the role that hard work and dedication play in facilitating this type of transition.
Parents, guardians, and loved ones are central in this respect, as they must take steps to keep young players grounded no matter which team’s scouts flock to see them or how many England youth appearances they make.
Guardians should also shield the best young players from the media glare, which as we’ve already said, is now focused on youth stars from an increasingly young age.
On a similar note, loved ones and coaches alike must strive to alleviate the pressure on young stars, both during and after games.
A constant barrage of in-game instructions can interrupt a player’s focus and raise issues such as performance anxiety, for example, whereas an obsession with winning and losing can stop youngsters from developing a diverse range of technical skills.
This is why the UK coaching system has moved away from overly competitive tournaments and youth leagues, and instead copied the European template of overseeing smaller (and shorter) matches that emphasise the teaching of technical attributes such as passing, dribbling, and shooting.
This, combined with coaching and leadership that fosters enthusiasm while enabling youngsters to manage their expectations, is increasingly important if the grassroots game is to continually produce the stars of tomorrow!