As the sound and fury of sport stills for the briefest moment, consider two people for whom this Christmas will offer no release from an unimaginable grief.
It’s been 60 days since Manila and Grace Wisten’s 18-year-old son Jeremy – devastated and utterly inconsolable having been released from Manchester City’s youth academy – took his own life.
His parents pleaded with him to see that he was young, talented, personable, loved – and could find a life beyond that club. But when he retreated to his room, they would literally hear him grieving. ‘He suffered while he was at City and after he left there,’ his father told the Sunday Times. ‘I want to highlight the issue that kids in football need to be taken care of mentally.’
Former Manchester City development squad defenderJeremy Wisten passed away at 18
That wish has not gained much traction. Perhaps it was the blind assumption that heartache comes with the territory when you chase the football dream that saw Mr Wisten’s words drowned out by interminable arguments over football’s Project Big Picture.
Consider this number, though. There are around 10,000 boys in football’s youth development system at any one time. Literally hundreds are disappearing into obscurity each year.
A former professional player, whose son is at a Premier League academy, worries. ‘From my experiences, and now because my son plays, there is no support for the young kids,’ he says. ‘I’ve felt and I’ve seen that there is nothing. The club, in a way, doesn’t know what the kid is going through at home. Whether they are in a bad way. Where one little decision could make them spiral.’
His father said more should be done to help players such as Wisten (above) mentally
The ‘Premier League Development Rules’ manual, governing the running of elite football academies, extends to 186 pages. Nowhere within this forest of words is there any mention of how these teenagers might be prepared for rejection.
Blink and you will miss the extraordinary detail on page 79, specifying how many children each club may register: 30 for each of the under-9s, 10s, 11s, 12s, 13s and 14s age groups. Then another 20 each for under-15 and 16s and 30 across the full-time apprentice year groups of under 16 and 17. That’s 250 in all.
‘This is like minesweeping,’ says Pete Lowe, a former Manchester City head of education and co-founder of the Players Net organisation which has advised dozens of concerned parents and mentored rejected players.
‘We are pleading with clubs to get the numbers down. These boys are locked in the system. They can’t even play for anyone else. At least ease a player into the idea that he’s not good enough, so it’s not a cataclysm when he hears the news.’
The rejected player finds his fundamental identity has gone, says Simon Andrews, released by Manchester United at 19 and now sports business development director at financial firm Tilneys. ‘He’s been sold the dream and handed the club kit. Everyone in the street knows he’s in the academy. You’ve also got lads now looking at £20,000-a-week for a first pro contract, so they can help their family if they make it. There’s that element of pressure, too.’
Cole Palmer paid tribute to his former team-mate Wisten during the FA Youth Cup Final
Alan Tonge, who briefly reached the Manchester United first team in the late 1980s, has canvassed more than 200 players for a University Campus of Football Business research project. He has found the level of care after such rejection to be ‘appalling.’
A child being on a club’s books aged eight is, of course, ridiculous, considering that you can’t always tell if a talented 15-year-old will make the grade – let alone one who is only midway through the primary school system. The Football Association should supervise training of boys until they are at least 12. Then let the clubs in.
Manchester City, who have always taken welfare very seriously, say they contact players who are dropped from the programme once a month for six months, conduct well-being sessions with released scholars within four to eight weeks and where necessary then provide a capped level of funding for counselling with a psychologist.
Nick Pope was released by Ipswich Town, but worked his way back into the football system
But it’s questionable whether clubs should be the ones taking on that role after a player like Wisten, who dropped out of the picture after a knee injury, has been released. ‘When a club lets you go, the last thing you want is to be talking to them, being reminded of the place,’ says Andrews. ‘It requires independent support.’
For many, there is a life beyond rejection. Nick Pope discovered simple pleasures after Ipswich dropped him. He drove a battered Citroen C2, studied, did holiday jobs and established new friendships before the second chance which has delivered him to Burnley and England.
Jeremy Wisten had applied for a job as a shop assistant at Selfridges in Manchester. That could have been the makings of a new career. But it was never to be.
Supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem football team like to sing about how they are ‘the most racist’ in Israel.
They scream the word ‘terrorist’ at the Arabs who play for opposing squads. But now Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Nahyan has purchased a 50 per cent stake in the club.
It could mean more success on the pitch and even Arab players appearing in the club’s colours for the first time.
Some fans have protested, spray-painting ‘the war has just begun’ on the stadium’s walls. But they are a minority. As someone put it this week: ‘God has a sense of irony.’
Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan poses with a Beitar Jerusalem shirt after his investment
Amid the gloom, sport has found a way to shine a light this year. Marcus Rashford, Kevin Sinfield and Speedo Mick are just three of the heroes.
But words cannot begin to describe the part played by the former rugby league player Rob Burrow, fighting to raise money and awareness for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, even while that disease was denying him something as fundamental as the power of speech.
Is any individual more worthy of a place on the New Year’s Honours List?
There are few more deserving on a place on the New Year’s Honours List than Rob Burrows