The Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) has welcomed the Government’s recommendation of new measures to better support those in football’s academy systems.
The recommendation forms part of the Government’s new White Paper on football reform, which follows independent Fan Led Review.
The PFA, the trade union for professional footballers, have lobbied throughout the process for access to independent and confidential support to be formalised in order to ensure improved support and guidance for children, and the families of children, in the academy system.
Players are eligible for PFA membership at 16 if they become professional scholars, a stage recognised as the first step on the professional ladder. However, the PFA also currently provides a wide range of support to ‘pre-scholar’ players in academies through club visits, consultations with players and their families, and the creation of online support platforms.
Every year the PFA deal with hundreds of enquiries from academy children and their families on issues ranging from wellbeing support through to contractual responsibilities and compensation arrangements.
However, there is currently a lack of consistency and formalisation around independent support for those in academy systems.
The Fan Led Review Panel, following representations by the PFA, highlighted a range of issues around the game’s responsibility to player wellbeing. The Government, in its initial response to the Fan Led Review, acknowledged concerns about support for those in academies and noted that this should preferably be provided independently of clubs and leagues.
Maheta Molango, Chief Executive of the PFA, said:
“Better access to independent and confidential support for those in academies is something that the PFA has pushed hard for throughout the Fan Led Review process.
“We have positive relationships with clubs and leagues and so, as Government have set out, we already undertake significant work in academies to offer advice and guidance to players, and their families, before the point where they might turn professional.
“However, we believe it’s important that access to properly funded and structured independent support is guaranteed for those in the system.
“The White Paper acknowledges that there is an unintentional but unavoidable conflict of interest in having those who are perceived as being responsible for the footballing future of the child also being responsible for their wider welfare.
“We know that potentially creates obstacles for anyone who, in what is a competitive, performance environment, might not want to show anything they worry will be seen as a ‘weakness’.
“Our experience working with academy players, and the work we do with PFA members throughout their career when they turn professional, means we are uniquely placed to advise children, and the families of children in academies, on the issues they may face.
“This is an excellent step forward to ensuring that those in academies have better access to independent support going forward.”
Commenting on other recommendations in the White Paper, the players’ union has also said that it welcomes the efforts to ensure greater financial sustainability within the game.
On future financial regulation of the game, Molango said:
"The Fan Led Review and the resulting White Paper rightly focus on ensuring our game moves forward with well-run clubs operating on a more sustainable financial footing. That’s something we should all want to see.
“We’ve welcomed the opportunity to engage with Government and the Fan Led Review panel throughout this process, and we will continue to do so.
“As part of that, we’ll work to ensure that the important mechanisms and structures that exist to protect players rights and conditions are properly understood and maintained as part of any future financial reforms in the game.
“That’s something that we believe is compatible with efforts to ensure greater financial stability in the game – an approach that ultimately benefits everyone.”
The full recommendation from the Government’s White Paper on football reform reads:
15: Player welfare
- Support mechanisms for players, particularly in academies, have come a long way since the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan.
- A gap remains in the availability of independent support and advice for players in academies who don’t yet qualify for PFA membership.
- The football leagues and the FA should work together to develop a standardised and agreed programme of support for all academy players.
15.1. As an urgent matter, the welfare of players exiting the game needs to be better protected - particularly at a young age.
15.2. As the number of players being recruited into professional academies continues to expand, a cultural issue remains where the dreams of young footballers are made to seem achievable when, in reality, very few will go on to secure professional football contracts.
15.3. The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) is a youth development system with the ultimate aim of increasing the number of home grown players progressing through football academies. The EPPP is delivered through 4 key functions: Games Programme, Education, Coaching, and Elite Performance. Since its introduction in 2012, player care resources and services have significantly improved. The progress and modernisation of service offerings in areas such as education and welfare are welcomed.
15.4. However, there remains a fundamental issue in that there is a clear conflict of interest where player and family support services are led by those whose ultimate objective is the footballing success of each academy player.
15.5. Children playing in football academies do not qualify for PFA membership, and the package of independent support that this includes, until they become scholars at their clubs at the age of 16. This means that in many cases, children will have progressed through football academies with no form of independent representation or support. This ultimately means that as many key decisions are taken by players and their families, these will be taken without a full understanding of the contractual obligations involved.
15.6. The PFA is able to provide an element of independent support and advice to academy players, through its ongoing collaboration with individual clubs. However, as this offer of support is not mandated in any way, clubs will ultimately remain in control of the degree to which their players are aware of the independent support that organisations such as the PFA can offer. The independent support offered by the PFA is therefore applied inconsistently and is dependent on individual employer/club engagement.
15.7. We are therefore recommending that the football leagues and the FA seek to address this issue, and work together to develop a consistent programme of support which allows all academy players to access an offering of independent support and advice as and when required.
15.8.This programme should formalise the delivery of these independent support mechanisms, and should be delivered in a standardised manner across the football pyramid as agreed by the football leagues, the FA, and clubs.
15.9. There is evidence to suggest that demand for independently led support channels has increased in recent years. It is therefore essential that, as the number of children entering academies continues to grow, a consistent programme of independent support exists, so that all academy players and their families have a clear understanding of the services available to them and can access this without the involvement of clubs.
Rationale behind this solution
15.10. The Review noted that the wellbeing and advisory support for players in academies should be led independently of clubs and leagues, and the government agrees with this recommendation.
15.11. The PFA already delivers a significant amount of support to academy players and their families. However, as mentioned above, access to these offerings is ultimately at the discretion of clubs. The introduction of an established programme of independent support for younger players should ensure that all children progressing through academies are aware of the independent support available to them, and that this support is delivered on a consistent basis across all clubs and leagues.
15.12. The government will look to convene the football leagues, the FA, and the PFA in early 2023 to understand progress in this space.