Throughout academy football, ‘careers in the game’ is perhaps the aspiration which most unites academy players and the clubs who develop them. It is the dream of the vast majority of young players, and it is the foundation for clubs to derive a sporting or financial return on the investment they have made. But what constitutes a ‘career’ in this context, and how many players go on to achieve that goal?
The graph below charts career progression of English and Welsh players born in the 1990s. It illustrates the number of players (per calendar year of birth) to be involved in at least one league match at each age.
Of boys born in a given year, on average around 150 play league football through their early twenties. From the age of 23, the number of players begins to decrease at a fairly consistent rate: within following five years it falls by approximately 25%.
It may initially appear counterintuitive that players are leaving the league as they approach their peak years. In fact, it is representative of the way that the academy system funnels players into the first team game (and to a lesser extent the recruitment of peak age players from other countries). The lower figures for teenage players mask the fact that 19 year olds would almost certainly account for the largest number of professional contracts, but they have not all finished their journeys towards senior competitive football.
The concept that the pool of UK talent is established by the early 20s and gradually falls away is further supported by the fact that only around 10% of English and Welsh players have their first involvement in league football aged 24 or older.
Based on the graph above, each year group contributes approximately 150 players who have careers that take them to 23 or beyond, and so would be professionals for five years or more. In light of Brexit, that number may rise to nearer 175 over coming seasons.
Analysis of these figures can provide a new angle for clubs as they seek to benchmark and evaluate the productivity of their academies. Based on the size of catchment and the competition within it, what proportion of those 175 players could they hope to contribute?
Left Field Football Consulting works with clubs and academies to develop strategies, improve performance plans and implement tools for evaluating the sporting and financial return of investments in youth development.