Nick Cox: This is my truth

Tuesday 21 November 2023 14:30

I was recently invited to present at a conference with the specific task of reflecting on more than 20 years of working in youth development and academy football.

My general conclusion? It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to work with so many young people in such an exciting and vibrant field. 
I have been lucky enough to work in some academy environments that I believe to be some of the best learning environments for young people that there are, and I know that my experiences are generally replicated at clubs up and down the country. In particular, the programme we deliver at United is one that we should be extremely proud of. 
Of course, I acknowledge that, sadly, there have been some isolated historical incidents in youth football where young people have unfortunately had negative experiences.
I am also a believer that, given the enormous responsibility that comes with caring for young people, we should never stop looking to improve and refine the work that we do and the experiences we create. 
Over the last 20 years, an enormous amount of work has gone into modernising the approach that is taken in youth football, both in grassroots and professional football clubs. As a result, I believe, football academies are amongst some of the most sophisticated learning environments there are. Football as a sport has more robust systems than other sports (we are blessed that we have significant resource available by comparison) and, most importantly, these environments are more inspirational than many other education providers and I include schools, colleges and universities in this.

Academy Weekly: Alumni programme begins


Graduates returned to Carrington for the start of an innovative scheme, while another project continued elsewhere.

A recent OFSTED inspection confirmed this belief by awarding an ‘outstanding’ grade for the teaching and learning that takes place in a practical football-based environment at Premier League clubs across the country. We were delighted to welcome OFSTED inspectors to observe the work at United as part of the inspection. 
So why am I sharing these thoughts?
I am starting to grow tired of listening to certain elements of the media focusing on a sensational narrative that academies are responsible for broken dreams and heartbreak. The perception that any child not making a debut is a failure couldn't be further from the reality. Stories of 0.01 per cent of players making a debut only add to this incorrect narrative. I actually think the statistic is made up by the way and it is certainly not the case at Manchester United.

It's time that someone stood up for the incredible work that is being delivered across the football pyramid. This is my attempt at doing so.

The opportunities on offer for young people at football clubs are greater than many understand. These false narratives are often spread by people who have failed to recognise the true power of sport and football.
This is my truth.
Over the last two decades I have witnessed this:
Sometimes, only very occasionally, young people (inadvertently) have a tough experience. In these instances there is always some additional expertise available to help youngsters get back on track.
Sometimes young people make debuts and have successful football careers.
However, the vast majority of participants enjoy a life-changing, life-enriching experience that changes their lives forever and for the better, regardless of what is achieved on the pitch. Given the chance, most kids would do it all over again if they could.  

Through the pursuit of excellence, young people are experiencing personal growth, building friendships, dedicating time to purposeful and healthy activity, creating memories, exploring the world and so much more.

Many of the behaviours that are shaped are done so informally through the process of committing to a football development programme. But, at times clubs will dedicate time to share valuable messages in a more formal way through their dedicated education teams. Conversations and workshops about mental health, driving safely, drug abuse, alcohol dependency, equality and the responsibility of being a role model, for example. 
Young people in football academies are amongst the most talented, purposeful, resourceful, creative, resilient and disciplined I have ever met. They are what really make academies so fantastic. Many of the young players excel in other walks of life too and, at United, we encourage and promote this.

We go to great lengths to ensure the programme isn’t too professional at a young age. So while our Under-18s might have support from performance analysts, nutritionists, psychologists and sports scientists, the experience in the early age groups is authentically childlike. The foundations of the programme are fun, ball mastery, creativity and being kids; having a laugh. It's this approach which ensures the programme remains aspirational.

Furthermore, football academies are one of the most inclusive learning environments you will find with children from all walks of life coming together and collaborating with each other.
Life in Britain is not easy for many.
In Manchester alone, there are 250,000 children living below the poverty line. Many of these children live in a 10-minute universe; travelling between home, school, the shop and the park.
For many, football academies open doors to a new world. 
Now, I make no excuse that football academies' main focus is on talent development and supporting young people to reach their sporting potential. Nor am I ignoring that, for our older players, the focus is very much on refining skills that will prepare them to make a debut in our first team. And, at United, we have an excellent track record of supporting players to achieve their dreams.  
Manchester United have had a graduate from their youth system in every first-team matchday squad for more than 4,200 games. An unrivalled statistic that spans over 86 years of our club's history.
Manchester United Academy has been recognised as the most productive academy in England in each of the 12 seasons since the inception of the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan. This indicates that our Academy has more graduates playing professional football across the leagues than any other club. 
However, football academies are about so much more than first-team debuts.  
On a day-to-day basis, the interactions with our youngest participants are never defined by the pursuit of a debut. The experience is about a wonderful introduction to the sport and falling in love with the game. We are honest with players and parents about the experience that is on offer. An education through football that promotes an opportunity to learn about yourself and your sport. 
Each and every member of our Academy staff recognises that at any given moment they are there to serve both the club and young people. There is a recognition that the needs of the young person should always be the priority.

Under-12s compete in Christmas Truce challenge


Our Academy players were educated on a historic moment that occurred during the War.

To define the success of a young person's engagement in a football club by debuts alone is crazy! And not something football clubs really do.
Ironically, I actually believe that debuts are a welcome byproduct of purposeful young people taking ownership and maximising the opportunity of a wonderful learning environment.
So, while I am privileged to have seen our Academy graduates play in World Cups and Champions League games, I feel even more proud to have witnessed some major events in young people's lives:
- Children getting on a plane for the first time
- Children seeing the sea for the first time (yes, you read that correctly)
- Children (and staff) travelling to countries they could only have dreamed of
- Children who know that a football pitch is the place where they feel valued and can be an authentic version of themselves
- Young people who, when faced with family tragedy, opt to come to play football; a safe space to escape
- Children who see football as an escape from the pressure of violence 
- Children creating lifelong friendships
So I finish with a call to action to all youth developers…

Be responsible with the power you hold and strive to be better in order to serve young people to the best of your ability. However, whenever you have the chance, celebrate the amazing work you are all doing.

Shout about it.

Tell anyone that will listen, especially those that would prefer not to.

Sport has the power to change lives... and football academies are leading the way.

Actually, I will finish with this...

Last month, I had a call from a player I worked with at a former club more than 10 years ago (it’s always a sign that you didn’t mess things up when young people get back in touch). He was working in the Manchester area (in a very successful role outside of football) and wondered if I would meet him to catch up for the first time since he had been released (by me).

I asked him about the disappointment of being released and how he reflects on it as a 30-year-old. His response sums up my thoughts about the Academy experience more eloquently than I ever could. He said...

"When you realise that it’s coming to an end, you feel like you have lost it all, but soon you realise that actually you have gained everything."

Nick Cox is Director of Academy at Manchester United.