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In Bruges: A sideways glance at the world of football

Belgium-based player Jason Stokes starts a new column today, focusing on various issues affecting the beautiful game around the word. The 21-year-old Royal Racing Montegnee utility player kicks-off his new column with a look at the English football academy system.

Things are not always as they might seem...

When I was at Barnsley Football Club between the ages of 10 and 16 I thought being a footballer was about how good you were on the ball and how good you were technically, but this was not the case at Barnsley.

I was doing very well at academy level and was lucky enough to play against some great teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, and even Crewe who were a great team and had some great players in the academy. I was a very likeable player when I was younger because my attitude and behaviour was second to none, and I always wanted to learn all aspects of our great game.

At the end of the Under 15s season I had my final assessment of the year. This is when I would find out if I would be getting a new contract or not. So my dad and I stepped in to the room feeling confident, with all my fellow players and their parents saying it was just a formality for me that I would earn a new contract. But this was not the case.

My manager said these exact words to me, and I will always remember them: "I have not been placing you in my starting 11 because I don’t feel you have the physical attributes for the game I want.’ He then went on to say: "Jason you are a good footballer but the main things we are looking for now are athleticism, physical strength, and technical ability will be the last thing we look for." I had the choice either to finish my contract of or leave the club,

This was at the time of Barnsley's relegation from the Premier League, therefore money had to be saved. This was done by combining older age groups together and therefore I knew it would be tough. I chose to leave and look for a new club.

Badly treated

The whole way the clubs went about releasing young players at that time almost related to abuse, one 5 minute meeting in the dressing room to tell you that the past 5 years of hard work and travelling 60 miles 3-4 times a week, was all for nothing. No help was ever offered with what’s next, just walk out the door and say goodbye to friends that you have made over the years and their parents. Disgusting!

I now know as I develop that the level of the coaches at academies in England is poor in comparison to other countries. More support must be given to these vulnerable young lads with more interaction than from just the coach who may or may not like you, it can be as simple as that.

Whilst my team mates and other kids my age were growing up and becoming bigger and stronger, I wasn’t. I was a late developer growing up and was almost getting bullied when I played in matches by bigger and stronger lads.

So I tried other clubs such as Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday and they both said the same old thing - that I was a good footballer but I was just too lightweight. This was a sad and frustrating time for me and it felt like my dream of being a footballer was fading away. The academy system failed me and many promising young footballers. The powers that be seemed intent on knocking the skills and fun out of football, ask Michael Owen (pictured) and Lionel Messi if size matters!

Stronger

I am now 5' 8" - yes, I’m still a small player, but I have become a little stockier and much stronger for my size. With my low centre of gravity I have learned to use this to my advantage, and have felt comfortable playing against bigger and stronger players.

Before I moved out here to Belgium I completed two seasons of coaching my local u11s and u12s side. My main aim was for the kids to enjoy their football. I tried to get them to play football the right way by keeping the ball on the floor which they did and it was very nice to see.

There is nothing better than children enjoying their football and when I was a kid at Barnsley it was hard to enjoy because you’re away from your friends you love to play with and you feel that you’re under pressure to do well which made things even harder.

In my opinion kids from the age of 8-13 should think about enjoying their football first and then when you reach your teenage years, if you’re good enough you will be noticed. But when clubs approach these young vulnerable kids to come play for Leeds, Barnsley, or whoever it may be, it’s mostly the parents that push their children to go and play for these professional clubs, thinking their child is going to be the next superstar.

If a young footballer between the ages of 8-13 playing for his local side wants to learn and practice new things and has a decent coach, then who is to say he’s not going to move on to bigger and better things. These kids don’t need to be at an academy to be great players. I say let them have fun with their friends playing the best sport in the world!

For more information about Jason visit his website: www.jasonstokes.webs.com


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