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Football's last-chance saloon

Paul Fletcher | 18:38 UK time, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Mums and dads, looking ever so slightly lost, line up with their sons in a queue that snakes all the way out of the door. There is more casual wear on display than a high-street sports shop, while the odd diamond stud catches the light and sets of headphones sit on heads gently nodding to the music.

But none of this can mask the over-riding emotion. You can feel it; you can see it on people's faces. There are so many tense and nervous expressions that it resembles a hastily convened crisis meeting at the Bank of England.

It is the sort of atmosphere that makes me think of lining up to receive exam results, an unwanted trip to the doctors or possibly a visit from the law - but it none of these.

No, this is something akin to the last-chance saloon for more than 100 boys who are determined to realise their dreams of playing professional football.

It is the Football League exit trials.

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The young footballers lining up to reach the registration desk are all different shapes and sizes, some are still waiting for a growth spurt, others have clearly been through that stage. The range of sculpted hairstyles amazes me and the youngsters certainly look the part. But these players are all united by at least one unwanted reality - they are being released by their clubs at the end of the season.

Not for them the two-year scholarship that would take them through to the age of 18 and, potentially at least, to the cusp of the professional ranks. Instead they are at Bisham Abbey on an early spring morning looking to resurrect their dream. The exit trials offer them the opportunity to show what they can do in a series of games watched by more scouts than attend a jamboree.

The trials are held every year in the February half-term and according to the Football League's head of youth development, former Wolves manager Graham Hawkins, they are becoming bigger and bigger every year.

Once upon a time the trials, which are almost a decade old, were only open to players attached to officially recognised academies but for the last three years those belonging to a club's centre of excellence have been eligible as well.

They take place over three days at Bisham Abbey, Lilleshall and, finally, Leeds, with about 100 boys attending each day. Every venue hosts four trial games, with the intention that all players have at least an hour to impress in his chosen position.

As I watched from the sidelines at Bisham Abbey the thought crossed my mind that it must be difficult to play in a team of complete strangers while trying to catch the eye of someone who might put you back on the path to your football dream.

There is no doubt that the trials are far from perfect. After registering at Bisham Abbey, the players were separated from their parents as they waited for the games to start. There simply wasn't enough space so the mums and dads wandered around the grounds or waited in the nearby café for the action to start.

The boys sat in the Warwick Room - double oak paneled with portraits of long-dead people looking down from the walls. It is often used for weddings so the sight of tracksuited boys sat around the edge and, after the seats ran out, on the floor, seemed incongruous with the surroundings. When I walked in the room virtually every face turned towards the door as they awaited news. Some had been there more than an hour. I felt like an intruder. I tried to chat with a couple of the players but it was awkward and difficult. I could not imagine many circumstances when a room full of teenage boys would be so quiet.

Next door the scouts had started to arrive. They came from all levels of the Football League but also from universities and private academies. Every scout I talked to thought the trials were a good idea. And each scout had different objectives and agendas.The Football League exit trials at Bisham Abbey

David Regis, brother of Cyril and the head of education at Charlton, had brought down five of his youngsters that had been released. He wanted to make their sure they got there OK and to provide support and encouragement. For Regis, who himself did not enter the professional ranks until his mid-20s, telling young players that they will not be retained is the hardest part of his job and he wanted to do the best he could for those he had let go.

A youth coach from another Championship club said he attended every year but rarely picked up players. He went down the list of participants and looked at the clubs that had released them. Some but not many were leaving Premier League sides.

He thought they might be of interest but suggested that young boys at many Premier League clubs are snapped up by Football League sides are soon as word spreads around the grapevine that they have been released.

A few players at the exit trials were from Blue Square Premier or League Two outfits. He went down the list pointing them out and asking whether they would really improve what he had at a decent Championship side. I could see his point but nonetheless he was there once again on the off chance of discovering a rough diamond.

Yeovil chief scout Josh Stonell pointed out that football is all about opinions. "We are hearing all the time about players released from , say, Championship clubs who then get signed by Premier League sides."

Stonell was looking at players of the requisite ability rather than specific positions and was confident that even though Yeovil is a little out of the way it is an attractive proposition. Indeed, none of the players I spoke with had any reservations about travelling far and wide if they right offer came their way even though it would mean leaving home and living in digs.

As the games took place the scouts assembled along the touchlines, clipboards in hand. They seemed to congregate together, exchanging information, while the parents stood apart, looking on anxiously (though not all of them - I spotted one woman reading Horse & Hound).

Parents are often accused of being pushy and unrealistically ambitious for their children, screaming at referees from the touchline. I didn't see any of that at Bisham Abbey. Most of those I spoke to seemed more nervous than anything else, motivated by a desire related to their children's happiness rather than their own ambitions for them.

A representative of Crystal Palace, meanwhile, was looking at two or three positions. Northampton Town's head of youth Geoff Harrop was looking for a central defender. Had he seen any? "I have seen one or two but I'm not telling you who they are," was his reply. Harrop had picked players up from the exit trials before, such as current Cobblers youth team player Ben Judd. Theo Robinson, pictured playing for Hereford, was spotted at an exit trial

Perhaps the most famous example of a player spotted at the exit trials is Watford's Theo Robinson. He had been released by Stoke but Watford took a chance. Robinson spent last season on loan at Hereford honing his skills and scored 16 goals as the Bulls won promotion from League Two.

Unfortunately there are no official stats available about how many players have been signed by a club after being spotted at an exit trial. However, Hawkins and the Football League's hardworking youth development business manager Jim Briden estimate that 55% of the players at last year's trials had contact with another club.
Some of the boys might attend all three days of the trials, which finish on Wednesday, while many scouts will attend at all the venues as well.

The trials cost around £15,000 to stage but I imagine that Hawkins, Briden and their team would try to put them on even if they cost a lot more. You can argue about the merits of youth systems and academy football, suggest that it is under-funded and not producing enough players, but the intention behind the exit trials must be applauded.

I got a real sense that, for the Football League's youth development team, the boys were not products or a commodity but young people who had to be cared and looked after. In an era when football is a wealthy global business, people can be reduced to statistics, but the exit trials are an example of football's human face. As Hawkins said to me with great sincerity: "The care and welfare of the players is paramount."

I imagine that for many boys the exit trials will be another step as they slip further away from their dream of playing professionally. But if just a handful of those at Bisham Abbey or Lilleshall or Leeds are picked up then it will all have been worth it.

For Jimmy Becque (Coventry), Grant Brown (West Ham) and Dawayne Campbell (Crystal Palace) - all of whom I spoke to on Monday - I hope you did enough to earn a scholarship.

And if it didn't work out, at least you had a go.


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  • Comment number 9.

    Although this is not an idea, mass trials to find a gem, that is unheard of it is what the FA, PFA and any other football related body should be organising. Allowing young players a chance in the game is vital.

    I actually think this should be taken a step further with trials to allow England to begin to export players. Although this may not win England the next World Cup, it would go a long way to increasing the player base that any coach has to pick from while increasing the number of young English players remaining in the game.

    Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and others are stable countries that could provide a footballing home for these players to continue to learn and develop. This in turn increases the chances of 'making it' or even a move to an English league club. England's problem is that we can't export at any level so English players are limited to 92 clubs.

    This is not the case with other nations. Take the French, who do export to almost every league and level, and consider how well equipped their young players are in moving abroad.

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  • Comment number 11.

    I attended one of these days a couple of years ago Fletch with a freelance scout that I've known for some time. The quality of the play was utterly awful with lads too frightened to make a mistake or trying so hard to impress that they forget it's a team game.

    My scout friend who will remain nameless picked up one boy. He fixed the boy up with a (at the time) League Two club, who promptly released him 6 months later.

    I then signed him for the step 4 non league club where I was reserve team manager at the time. He played 4 games for the reserves, broke into the first team and at the end of the season a different League Two club signed him. He's just spent this season on loan in the Conference.

    The club he'd been released from before the exit trials was a Championship club.

  • Comment number 12.

    nice blog fletch. This had me thinking back to my own situation at about the same age. I played for Bristol city schoolboy side upto the age of 16 and then had the trial to see if I would get one of the remaining yts places (most of them were already allocated to the better/favoured players). I played in the same trial as now city captain louis Carey. Intact me and him were centreback partners in that game. Funny how things work out, of the 3 scouts there 2 said take Carey the other said me. I then went to rovers to play in their u19 side and after 1 year was released and went to play dr martens football. From there I got fat and for the last 5+ years have played for my mates dads team. Carey is absolutely flying and still playing really well.
    The trial was a really nervous day for myself and also my parents. I remember my dad, who isn't really into football saying "just do your best". I wasn't nervous because I thought I ever had a real chance but just nervous because of the whole energy of the day.
    I don't know Carey at all but fair play to him, in some way it shows how thin margins make such a huge difference. But also that not all scouts know what they are talking about as if the guy who wanted me got his way bristol got would have missed out on a really good player.

  • Comment number 13.


    Yeh it is good that the kids get that one last chnce to impress BUT surely if the numbers of players attending the exit trials is incresing then surely the quality of coaching that the kids are getting at the academy or centre of excellence must not be up to scratch.

    How can they have a kid for two years who they obviously thought had something they could work with and then not make them good enough for a team a couple of leagues lower.....

  • Comment number 14.

    sorry- no real point to my posting above other than a bit of reminiscing and agreeing that it's a pretty nervous time for 16 year olde to go through.

  • Comment number 15.

    boomshakalak - don't worry, enjoyed reading about your experiences.

    t0mmy99 - I guess a lot can change in the two years before 14 and 16 (the age when these kids have been released). Someone with great early promise might not mature as expected, they might lose focus or others might flourish and knock them down the pecking order.

    Plus, at 16 a young player from a lower league club might not have fully developed but really come on as they mature and overtake some of the lads from top-flight clubs who looked good as young teenagers.

  • Comment number 16.

    Which scouts from which universities as it's intresting to see the number of kids that go off to American collage system which gives them more training and gets them a good education from such great schools like Stanford, ucla and even harvad and prinston.

    In which getting degree from these is worth a very good amount of money, with athletic scholarship and some have got into MLS it's not going to produce next rooney, but the kids will not have troublle with finding a job or club in the US and they will finish at 21 and if they are later bloomers they can show themsleves then.

  • Comment number 17.

    hi paul, a good article.years ago the two local league clubs held open nights where the cream of the minor leagues could go along for extra training and playing time and the clubs would invite for trials anyone who showed promise.why don't the clubs carry on the practise so that the late maturers could get a second chance. any ideas on why this was stopped, it always seemed a good idea to me. any gems picked up could save the clubs a fortune especially those who are struggling financially.

  • Comment number 18.

    The trials are good we did them last year. Lot of effort on behalf of the parents required to take them to the clubs for further trials if 'spotted'. Some clubs register an interest with the league representatives then may not follow it up later. If this happens to you, complain! It is unfair to the kids at this difficult time (I know). Don't wait for the leagues' letter after the trials, contact clubs now. Speak to the Head of Youth, tell them a bit about your boy. Don't exagerate as they will contact the previous club who tell why they released him. Size matters but If they need a player in your best position then you have a better chance getting a contract directly as they are not looking at 100+ players, just how your boy may fit into their team. Be positive and patient but realistic. Having been trained professionally it will hold you in good stead. Education is most important and continues as a scholar!

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi Fletch, Top Top article mate. I Remember going to something similar but for cricket; i tagged along with a mate for Essex trials and the tension was unbearable as the lads sat there completely silent waiting for someone to come in and tell them what to do, so i can relate to the akwardness, so kudos on the dedication to get your story.

    Anyway, i dont often write comments on your blog but what really struck me was how you mentioned that players often get released if they havent developed physically in the way they should have. This is pretty pathetic; its not the lads fault. anyway, this seems to be how most English clubs operate, focusing on big physical players who can handle playing in the most 'superior' league in the world. Thats all fine and everything but surely it doesnt do anyone any good if they cant handle the small, technically superior Spanish/Argentinian or Brazilian players. Imagine if someone like Iniesta had been released at the age of 16 because they thought he wouldnt be able to handle it, it would have definitely happened in the English leagues. When Barca signed Leonel Messi he was tiny but look at what hes become now. Capello and the FA would surely give all the money which they can splash around to have a Leo Messi in our national team. I know many readers will think 'who needs Iniesta or Messi when we have Gerrard or Joe Cole, but honestly have you seen either of them trying to do a step over? Not a pretty sight! Just goes to show how the way our young players are developed is in no way in the interest of the national team, and doesnt help our chances of winning a world cup or Euro comp. until the clubs, the FA and the entire Football League pull their fingers out and develop players technique rather then focusing on physique.

  • Comment number 20.

    I have to say this is a great idea to give youngsters a chance to find a new club and the chance of a career. Shaun Wright-Phillips for example got released by Nottm Forest at 15, was picked up by Man City now look at him. If players that talented can be overlooked then i'm sure some of the boys at the trials may be good enough to make a mark in pro football
    I just wish more could be done than giving them just a few games, if that, to prove themselves. I imagine there must be the odd player that gets missed due to his nerves.
    I must agree with the earlier post suggesting more could be done to find footballers a home abroad, where there are many good leagues where these young players could ply their trade. Maybe some of the clubs who've released these players could do something to help. The trials cost £15000, a figure which several clubs could match to try and help these young lads find a new club, here or elsewhere.

  • Comment number 21.

    The youth system in the UK sucks. Its mainly about if your face fits and too much about who knows who. Ben Hutchinson was a player all the midlands clubs rejected as a teenager, but after a number of appearances in Arnold Town (Northern Counties Football League) and a great run in the FA youth cup he was picked up streight into Midlesborough FC (Premiership) and subsequently sold on to Celtic listed in their first team squad. That same youth side two years earlier had taken Grimsby Towns school of excellance appart in a friendly and was an embarresment to their youth set up. Its not necessarily how good players are but who says that they are good.

  • Comment number 22.

    Great blog Fletch, really refreshing read. I know a couple of lads who have left school to pursue their dreams, a risk made greater by the ever-growing influx of foreign players. I hope it works out for them but you can´t help but feel sceptical, no matter how promising thy are as young talents. But it´s good to know that there are systems such as this in place to try and ensure that not everyobdy slips through the net. I´ve had some experiences of trials and find the whole system very unfair, and only encourages boys to play selfishly to try and prove what they can do, which makes it harder for many to prove what they can do in a normal situation. But I can´t think of anything better....

  • Comment number 23.

    Get these trials televised! or at least more youth football on regular TV. I currently live in Japan and the High School (which is 15 to 18 year olds here) "All of Japan" Tournament is televised.

    Nearly every game is shown, its enjoyable to watch, they show some behind the scenes info and stories to build intrest....

    But importantly gives the players an opportunity to showcase they're skills to a wide audience. And also show pride for they're school (or club in Britian).

    Many unattatched players get picked up my J-League clubs. Just think of the talent we HAVE and don't exploit in England!

    Really interesting article.

  • Comment number 24.

    this really touched a nerve with me fletch, its hard for youngsters today to achieve their goals and i know a few lads who had trials with millwall a few years ago who would have given their right arm to attend one of those scouting events with a view to furthering their careers. i completely agree that if even one of these young men get a chance to play at a professional level then the 15,000 is money well spent. fantastic blog and hoefully more to come!

  • Comment number 25.

    this is possibly the best article i've read on this website.

    i think the trials are a brilliant idea, and, whilst rough around the edges i think its a great opportunity for young players to get themselves recognised lower down the pyramid.

    great blog

  • Comment number 26.

    My 13 yr old son was first asked for trials aged 7, after his first competitive club match for his local team. For the next three years, with either his mother or I in tow, he attended academies, development outreach centres and centres of excellence only to get more and more disillusioned.

    He possesses amazing pace with good general athleticism and ball skills but found himself unable to shine in games as his team mates were all reluctant to pass the ball to him and he was too shy to demand it!

    When he reached 10 and despite yet another offer from a Premiership scout, I decided to pull him out of what I saw as a process with empathy levels similar to a cattle market.

    After a further two years and with a growing reputation in local football, I asked him if he wanted to have another crack at it with the academy of his local (city) team.

    I approached the club and explained his difficulty with shyness and the problems of 'cliches' at previous clubs and they agreed to take a look at him over a three month period.

    Now, 10 months later he has settled in and delivering on his potential.

    The moral for me is that young players develop mentally as well as physically at different times and both are equally important.

    Possibly, the 'last chance saloon' aspect of these trials is just the kind of nudge that some of these boys need.

  • Comment number 27.

    Very interesting read Fletch, and something that gets strongly overlooked.

    We all know that the youth system in England completely blows, which is rediculous considering the love our kids have for the sport. It seems to have gone downhill in recent years though. I remember not so long ago, maybe 10 years, you couldnt walk down the street without a football flying over a fence, with some kid shoutin 'ere mate can you chuck our ball over' or the sight of kids playing one bounce or 5 a side. Nowadays you have 'No Ball Games' signs everywhere and people complaining to the council about kids playing football in their streets.

    As someone mentioned in a previous post, televising these trial events could help to raise awareness, though that does increase the cost of the even quite substantualy.

    I honestly cannot see it improving, and now that our old hardcore dedicated pros are ageing and leaving the game (Your Giggs', Beckhams etc) there are no real role models for these kids any more. Its a nasty downhill slope

  • Comment number 28.

    Good blog fletch, tis a real shame we arent able to expand this idea into other countries, i think we would all feel the benefits if our youngsters were offered the chance to develope abroad.
    And to those who decided the moderate the first comments, grow a pair. If u dont like it say it.

    mongos, lol

  • Comment number 29.

    Poster 19 is spot on - Maradona may have not got through in England because of his size, can you imagine that??

  • Comment number 30.

    having watched lots of games at the lower levels of the Swedish league system - i feel sure there might be room there for some of these lads over here.

    how about a days trials at the end of it - just for foreign/eu scouts?

  • Comment number 31.

    I remember attending the first day of training with our new coach (who was one of nine FA Pro licence holders - alongside Howard Wilkonson - at the time and Bristol Rovers Youth team coach) and he told us we were playing a game in whatever position we were put (except keeper!). Anyway he told us "not to worry about our position, if you can play I will be able to tell". As an example he said if Shearer played right back you would still now he was a great player!"

    Point is - when scouting for good young players, the most important thing is touch, vision, passing and speed. The game is so simple and the trials sound great. If only I was ten years younger .....

  • Comment number 32.

    Good blog!

    But what a depressing day out that sounds like...

  • Comment number 33.

    Great blog Paul. You've inspired me to register and comment.

    Where do I start?! I have such a beef with the coaching/scouting setup of English football that I could go on for days, but I wont, I'll keep it reasonably brief.

    I am 26 years old and play at a poor level of Sunday football. We are a successful team but the standard is poor and I am a very frustrated player as my comments will prove.
    I was a very average player at school and there were lots of players better than me, I didn't have a football brain and wasn't naturally gifted, however, I was physically advanced to all players my age and that showed in games. Local professional clubs would ask local schools to send kids their way for trials and the teacher (not a coach or a recognised footballing person), the teacher, would speak to all of the other teachers at the school and decide which kids deserved the chance, based on how good a pupil they were and there schoolwork. These kids understandably never got anywhere and just came back with the latest training apparel from various clubs, much to the jealousy of the other kids.

    Fast forward to my late teens where I had improved immensely and developed a footballing brain due to my love and obsession of the game. I knew of a few lads who were on YTS's at clubs who I was convinced I was better than so proceeded to write to all 92 football league clubs.
    What I got back was 8 letters, all rejections bar one, from Southampton, who told me to let them have a fixture list of mine and they will send a scout along.
    The trouble was, at the age of 17/18, there was no organised league of any credit in my area and the next level up was semi-professional. I was playing at a Sunday level on a pitch resembling a bog.

    So onto semi-professional clubs, I went around all of the local ones and I don't know whether I am just unfortunate or not but they all seem to be ran by budding Harry Redknapp type characters who insist that if you can't reel off a history of rejections from a star studded list of club names and YTS levels then they are not interested. This still happens today, you have to know the right person and have a 'good' CV of previous clubs, even to just get a look in - and this is not even at a professional level.

    I have since paid for an played in organised trials matches with scouts there, where this seems a good idea, it really isn't as it is full of people in denial (maybe like myself I hear some say) that they can't play football.
    Those games are the worse standard as they have Ronaldo wannabe's who embarrassingly try to do things such as kick ups during the match, and the lads with all the gear and no idea.
    Anyway, I truly believe that the better players you play with, the better you are, as David Beckham is finding out.
    My main conclusions are that:

    1. Trials should be held at professional clubs often for players of all ages.
    2. The scouting system and coaching of kids from such a young age is ridiculous. They just need to enjoy their football and progress naturally.

    I believe I am good enough to play professionally, I can't do keepie uppies on my head and showboating skills, I do not have electric pace, what I do have is a footballing brain, the passion to play football and the drive and determination to succeed. These attributes get overlooked far too often for the showboating usain bolts of football.
    I could go on and on, I have missed things out but.. rant over.

  • Comment number 34.

    More meat to go through the sausage factory and be churned out the other end ruined.
    The major problem with the game now is that the professional clubs now don't look at the youngsters ability, they look at the physique and belive they can graft the skill on, hence why so many of these young kids are receive years and years of coaching at the academies but when it comes down to making a decision about them at 16, they realise that they will never, ever be good enough.
    The amount of one-footed 'wonders' playing the game professionally in this day and age frankly astounds me.
    I was totally two footed from a very early age (I was four when my father made me practice almost non-stop with my weaker foot) to hone my skills.
    I then had two year's at a then First Division club up to 16 when they taught me how to look after myself and make me stronger but little in the way of real coaching, only to be told that I wasn't big enough.
    What should be happening is to have the best coaches working nationwide in honing all would be players skills. Leave the professional club's out of it until they are 16 and then allow them to select those players for further training.
    It would lead to a lot fewer disappointed kids, having to go through this humiliating process in trying to resurrect their broken dreams. Reminds me a bit of the punch-drunk boxer who says 'I could have been a contender'.
    Let them enjoy the game for what it is, the Beautiful game.

  • Comment number 35.

    Why not take these kids to other countries and see if they can make it in leagues such as Norway, Sweden, Iceland, France, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, or MLS.

    Why limit them to other English clubs.

  • Comment number 36.

    Great article Paul - really enjoyed it.

  • Comment number 37.

    Very interesting stuff

    Players though can always rise to the top if they are good enough. There are lots of ways to become a proffessional.

    I have every sympathy for those who claim to never have been spotted and could have made it etc etc but do these people want it enough? To them is it just a top club or nothing? You can work your way up from the bottom back to where you supposidly belong but it takes dedication to keep your fitness levels up and to travel to away games regularly for not much money. I've seen players do it before. I support Bognor Regis Town FC in Blue Square South and we had a player called Ben Watson. He was released by Brighton and came to play for us. He WAS dedicated and WAS good enough and is now playing professionally for Exeter City.

    My feeling is that some people simply do not have this dedication once they fail at the first hurdle.

  • Comment number 38.

    but if you think about it, without the communication factor the whole thing doesnt work, and six hundred into eleven just doesn't go. fact into doubt, just won't go.

  • Comment number 39.

    I grew up in a rural part of a remote Scottish island, so we didn't have many scouts come our way!! I reckon I was a decent young player, and often excelled much more at 7 aside than I ever managed at 11, think it was due to not playing 11 aside enough. Could read the game very well and was good at certain things (vision, passing, shooting), rubbish at others (heading for example and I'm over 6 foot!!)
    Anyway, I didn't play that much between 16 and 18 as I never believed I would have a "career" as a footballer, and had school, work at home (on farm) and a job to earn money for uni which was a more realistic future.
    When I went to Uni I went to the trials (having not played 11 aside for 2 years!) and they had a Hibs scout/coach in attendance. I recall one of the trial games where I played a 40 yard cross field pass into the path of the opposite winger who was running through who effortlessly picked up the pass and scored. All the players said it was a excellent pass (and vision to see it), but the coach berated me for "not keeping it simple" - My response "But he scored", saw me as a trouble maker who wouldn't do what the coach wanted... I dont think that was true, but I just couldn't understand why you would criticise someone for creating a goal!!
    The uni team was very "clique" and I didn't go back, ended up playing in 7 aside tournaments for years, thoroughly enjoyed it, but part of me always wonders what might have been if I had of been coached earlier (cure my inability to head for example!) and kept playing, i.e. developing, regularly between 16 and 18...

    No real point to the post apart from its a another story to add to the many excellent posts above.

  • Comment number 40.

    I really do sympathise with the youngsters at these trials, its a nervous time. I don't think its fair they only get guranteed an hour in their position.
    They need to expand the event so everyones getting more time. Even if it is a last chance saloon, players should be getting at least 2 games in their position to show what they can do.

    Personally i always felt the scouts where narrow minded, too easily pleased by strength and pace rather than footballing ability!

  • Comment number 41.

    The problem with football is that it's a game based entirely on opinion. As a poster has already stated, 3 scouts can look at the same player, 2 will like him, one will think he's no good.

    At such a young age, rejection can be devastating, particularly when it spells the end of a dream that's been nurtured for years.

    My son at 11 years old, lives for football, he began by drop kicking a football at 11 months old. The example we hold up for him is that of Peter Beardsley. Rejected by Man U, he was picked up from Vancouver Whitecaps by Newcastle United and went on to become one of the best players in the league. England colleague Gary Lineker apparently said that Beardsley was the player he most enjoyed playing alongside.

    If these trials can give these lads one last chance to live their dream then it can only be a good thing. Who knows, if another Beardsley could be found.......

  • Comment number 42.

    Cracking article Fletch; I'm always interested in the workings of youth football. Mind you, the whole thing, while undoubtedly a good idea, seems to create a sort of surreal atmosphere. It must be a difficult situation to be in - after all, for us mortals we've never had a shot at playing football full-time, but for these guys the dream must feel like it's slipping away.

  • Comment number 43.


    "Personally i always felt the scouts where narrow minded, too easily pleased by strength and pace rather than footballing ability!"

    Not true - I was a 6ft4" strong fast defender and didn't get anything (not from this exit trial or anything), because I had no footballing ability! haha :)

  • Comment number 44.

    Paul - good blog and great read however i feel i must disagree with the follwoing comment

    "Perhaps the most famous example of a player spotted at the exit trials is Watford's Theo Robinson. He had been released by Stoke but Watford took a chance. Robinson spent last season on loan at Hereford honing his skills and scored 16 goals as the Bulls won promotion from League Two."

    In my oppinion surely the most famous player picked up at exit trials is England under 21 striker Leroy Lita ?

    After being released by Chelsea leroy was picked up at the exit trials by Bristol City, who after breaking in to the first team and scoring 30+ goals in a season was sold to Reading for £1m + add ons.

  • Comment number 45.

    To #33.

    Whereabouts in the country do you live?

    I'm pretty well connected in semi professional football in 2 or 3 areas of the country. You are of course correct - that there are a lot of dodgy chancers who want to hear about all the clubs you've been at.

    But in my experience, especially in the greater London area there is no difference between those that have and those that have not.

    I signed a boy earlier this season who'd never played semi-pro before in his life was playing in a local amateur Saturday League, 27 years old, thought he'd missed the boat. He's been outstanding for us, and a couple of semi-pro clubs higher up have showed an interest and he'll probably move on somewhere in the summer where he'll pick up decent money as a top semi-pro next season.

    Equally last year I had a right back released from Dagenham and Redbridge YTS scheme who wasn't fit, had a high opinion of himself and didn't want to learn. I released him and I've kept an eye on him since drifting around 3 or 4 clubs getting 4 or 5 games and then being released.

    Your CV is irrelevant in all honesty. What matters more than anything is your attitude. I often find boys that have been at pro clubs as kids struggle in this respect.

    But I'd be very interested to know whereabouts you're based. Most semi-pro clubs are constantly on the look out.

  • Comment number 46.

    RetiredNo6 - Thanks for that.
    I forgot to mention where my mates ended up... nowhere! And they are now plying their trade semi-professionally moving from club to club every few months because they are being played 'out of position'. I think that's the fashionable thing at the moment. They are prima donnas and I knew from an early age they wouldn't make it, they wanted lip service from coaches and it was never going to happen, their attitudes were awful but they always seem to get taken on.

    I am from the North Yorkshire region, would love to go along to anywhere offering a good level of football in a competitive league, semi-professionally.

    Thanks in advance.

  • Comment number 47.

    well! this blog has fallen flat on its face! such a shame cause i thought it would reach a lot of people. i myself played for a now league 2 team when my dreams of pro football were shattered by a torn MCL. took 18 months to recover, got into smoking and drinking, let my fitness go and now i find playing football so frustrating as i can remember how good i was. i would like to point out i'm not blowing my own trumpet as i'm hugely grateful to those coaches as they DID work on my technique and it was my own fault my natural talent got wasted by not taking care of myself and possibly as people have mentioned in this blog "i didn't want it enough" having said that trying to knuckle down for a demanding career in your early mid teens can be a problem for somepeople who dont mature until their late teens of early 20's by that time many scount/clubs consider them "past it" which is another shame

  • Comment number 48.

    Post 19- absolutely spot on mate

    in new zealand it is very much like this... if you are a smaller player you get written off from the start... a lot of the coaches here are old school english i.e hoof ball down pitch, strong tackling, big players

    it immediately puts smaller players like me at a disadvantage...

    and like you said... some of the greatest players are small! Messi is a brilliant example

    i have always been small for my size and now although at 178cm i only weigh in at a light 62kg
    most coaches overlook me straight away for the exact reasons you stated, apparently i cant tackle or cant hold the ball against big opponents... but ill tell you, when you move the ball fast enough and smart enough no big physical player will ever win it off you....
    it just depends on the style of play the coach likes... iv came to brasil and it was brilliant.. everyone plays the ball to feet, on the ground..

    also... id like to see any of these big players play futsal!!

  • Comment number 49.

    also i forgot to mention.. i play right wing back here in brasil and won player of the season at right back for my club in new zealand and id never played in defence before that!!!!
    id love to play a higher league as my state league isnt quite hard enough... i love a challenge and having a lot to prove.. i feel i wont get given a chance in a higher league because of my size

  • Comment number 50.

    it's been really interesting reading about everyone's experiences. i quit football at 15 mainly because i was too shy and didn't have enough desire to continue playing. as i've read alot of players quit around that age and can be one of the key times in your career as to whether or not you'll have a future in football. i don't think there was anything wrong with my play technically, but not being very big physically immediately seemed to put me at a disadvantage. im now 17 and starting to regret stopping playing. i feel it would be tough to get back into it now as i haven't played a competitive game in over a year and a half

  • Comment number 51.

    you need to sack your proof reader

  • Comment number 52.

    havanatopia: you need to sack your proof reader

    I'm not sure what you meant by your comment but it should read:

    You need to sack your proofreader.

    Capital letters, punctuation and spelling, dear me.

    Great article by the way, fascinating and affecting. I see some people think it might be a good idea to take the trials to other countries. Good idea, as long as you mean to market it to scouts in other countries and encourage them to come over for a look.
    As for the idea of televising it like in Japan, please no. These are footballers trying to resurrect their dream, they don't need Simon Cowell style judging panels (you know it would be like that).

  • Comment number 53.

    The moral for me is that young players develop mentally as well as physically at different times and both are equally important.


    Your child was SEVEN. Of course he was going to be shy, immature and get dissillusioned. You should have let him just get one with playing for a local youth team instead until he became more confident.

    VERY few players get anywhere near a professional club at 7 or 10 years old, those who do tend to have parents with contacts or liv near the ground and 95% of those at the big clubs at that age never make it past YTS anyway.

  • Comment number 54.

    Great blog Fletch,

    Reading this made me wonder how many of them boys are there due to lack of ability to those there due to mental strength???

    Surely the players that do stand out in this enviroment are the ones that have more mental strength, therefore the ones that you want playing for your team!

    It also reminded me of a guy boy who at 7 was signed by Ajax and was tipped as the next Marradona. He is currently studing at Dundee university.

    Although I am a good 5+ years older than the person in subject I remember watching him play in a 5-a-side tournament and being mesmorized by his ability on and off the ball.

    The young man sights, pressure from sponsors and expectaion in general as his downfall.

    Surely these clubs should do more to protect these kids and help build there character as well as there footballing ability and maybe then we would see less people at the exit trials and a lot less potential Marradona's studying at uni.

  • Comment number 55.

    # 54

    Sonny Pike? He was always listed on 'london tonight' as the next big thing. and the pressure led to him becoming disillusioned with the game. Am i right?

  • Comment number 56.

    The system is not perfect but never has been. A lot of ex-players (like me) on these boards who never made it. I played for my county at schoolboy level-England schoolboy trialist and was pretty decent. I just froze in trials-I was too quiet and the ones that impressed were not. I have watched my nephew at the Fulham acadamy and the change from my time is amazing but still the same in many ways. The demanders and shouters get noticed.

    At the end of the day you need a large amount of luck. Remember "you only get one chance to make a good first impression". More so with this game. Good luck to all the lads in finding something in this great game.

  • Comment number 57.


    Yes you are right,

    did you ever get the chance to see him play/

    he was the highlight of all 5-a-side competitions. Even though another player now plying his trade in the championship was also there.

  • Comment number 58.

    # 54

    i remember him, he was on as a guest on fantasy football league or whatever it was called (the one by badiel and skinner) apparently his dad put loads of pressure on him as well and in the end he just turned his back on football!!

    Talking about fantasy football league my mate was on it once, they said it was the 'worst buy of the season' and it showed him at a nufc match with 'Champions' 96 on the back on his top... he got it done when we were 12 points clear of Man Utd yest still didnt win the league!!

    he still gets grief for it to this day!!

  • Comment number 59.


    I think that's the case with most perents who's kids are that good. Dads who want thier dreams lived out through thier children.
    Young Mr Pike isn't the only person I know of who has reached the heights of europes elite only to make thier living elsewhere.

    on this note what prospects does the young 6 year old french kid have?

    seen video footage of him on a certain website, makes Ronaldo look average.

    Talking of Fantasy Football League.
    I think it's due a return.

    anyone agree???

  • Comment number 60.

    Phippstar - good point. I have to be honest, in all the conversations that I have had about the exit trials his name did not crop up. If he was spotted at one then he would qualify as the best known player.

    By the way, please do check out the video of the exit trials at Bisham Abbey. Sorry for the slight delay in publishing it, but the interviews with a few scouts and players are pretty interesting.

  • Comment number 61.


    Do you think this is because he was the most naturally talented play to attend exit trials or because he had the right attitude and mental strength?

  • Comment number 62.

    Hi Paul,

    I usually scour sports blog for articles related to my team (Manchester United), and usually end up reading a lot of punditry that resembles improv more than serious journalism. Hence, I am delighted to read an article that dares to cover a different topic, that might be less glamorous for getting hits, but was very enjoyable and informative to read.

    Keep it up.

  • Comment number 63.


    I don't have any specific contacts in Yorkshire I have to say. Wrong side of the pennines for me!!

    However, my advice if you are serious about at least wanting to test yourself at semi-pro level and see where you go, is to focus on getting yourself involved next season.

    Most non-league clubs will start pre-season training in mid to late July and it would be highly unusual for a club to not allow "trialists" to at least attend training for the first couple of weeks, so long as they can see you are not entirely useless and you're not ruining the session with your uselessness!!!

    So my action plan for you would be:

    1. Get yourself fit. You might think you're fit now playing Sunday morning football, but I promise you that you'll be amazed, even at a low semi-pro level how fit the players actually are.

    I took the pre-season for my club last year - I did all the running with the players, led most of the drills and attend a gym a couple of times a week besides. 6 weeks into the season we had an injury crisis and I had to play the last half hour of a game (I'm only in my late 20s, but don't generally play because of a knee problem) and I was off the pace. Even though I felt fit and had done a whole pre-season programme I just couldn't keep up.

    If as you say you don't have immediately eye catching assets such as searing pace, then you need to impress through your fitness and stamina.

    2. Don't aim too high. Don't try and get yourself in at a Conference North club. Set your sights low first of all and just see what happens. If you're good enough you will get picked up by clubs higher up and moved on, don't worry about that. I'd target step 5 and 6 clubs. Thats to say leagues 5 and 6 steps below the football league. Some of these clubs pay expenses, some don't, but again I'd say don't let that worry you. If you're doing it for the right reasons then getting paid is only the bonus.

    The leagues in your area are:
    (If you're more Yorkshire than North East) then the Northern Counties Eastern League

    (If you're more north east than Yorkshire)
    then the Northern League

    Most, if not all, clubs in these leagues will have contact details on their websites. I'd wait until the start of July and then start contacting ones that are within reasonable travelling distance from where you live and asking if you can attend pre-season training.
    (Ideally find a couple that will let you and train on different nights and attned the first week or so training at a couple of clubs) But once you've started going to one and they've said they are happy for you to carry on coming, don't miss sessions. Show you are serious and determined.

    3. Don't get disheartend if come closer to the start of the season they ask you to train with reserves or play in reserve team friendlies. Managers often have an idea in their head when they start in July of the team that will kick off in August and it generally takes something extra special to change those ideas. Keep working hard and again, if you are good enough it will show and you will get your chance. I've been there I played in a reserve team for 2/3rds of a season 4 or 5 years back, but kept believing I'd get my chance and by the end of the season I was a first team regular.

    4. Enjoy it. The main reason you've got to want to do this is because you are frustrated playing poor standard Sunday football and you want to test yourself. If you're doing it for money or to be a big shot then don't bother. Do it because you have a genuine passion and want to play at the highest level that you possibly can. As I say - give step 5 or 6 a crack work hard in pre-season show that you're committed, don't jack it in if it doesn't immediately go fantastically well and see where that leads.

    I hope you find some of that helpful. I know what it's like to be in a school team with big shots. In my school team I was the only starter who wasn't at a pro club. But I eneded up playing first team football at a higher level than all but one of them. I wish you the best of luck.

    PS. Non League football's far better than the pro game these days anyway.... It's where football still resembles what it used to be....

  • Comment number 64.

    I hope there is a follow up on this blog. I for one would be interested to know, if the boys interviewed were successful and if any of the scouts we heard did indeed take anyone on this year.

    Was anyone from Ebbsfleet there? LOL

  • Comment number 65.

    actually paul the most famous player to be picked up is actually steve finnan who got released by wimbeldon and then joined welling united and went onto greater things.

    unless you think leroy lita and theo robinson are better of course

  • Comment number 66.

    As I said right at the start that the exit trials are a great idea I decided to take a little look at those playing abroad to see if it was happening.

    Leon Knight went from Chelsea youngster to low league goal getter to then non-league. This shouldn't be happening but squads can only carry so many players. However he has now moved to the Greek top flight.

    Mark Howard is a defender who was released by Man utd and moved to Denmark. He was Brondby player of the year before moving to another top flight Danish club. Also former Man Utd youngster, Adam Eckersley is also in the Danish top flight.

    James Keene has just been part of the Elfsborg team that finished runners-up in Sweden.

    These players are all under 26 and may, if they have that breakthrough season, find themselves at a bigger club, here or in Europe. The facts are that top french, german, etc scouts don't look at the English lower leagues, let alone non-league. Any player in a top flight league has the chance to claim a title or showcase their talents.

    Kenny Pavey and David Preece are another examples of English players finding a home over seas. Although maybe too old to 'make it' they have managed to make a living out of football.

    This is not only restricted to Players as few coaches move aboard. An increase in this would also aid the English game, allowing players to move abroad easier. That said those who do seem to do well in promoting the English game. Even McClaren.

  • Comment number 67.

    RetiredNo6, thank you very much for that. It is much appreciated and thanks for all the info.

    I shall do that indeed and look forward to it. I still think it will be hard as I know the clubs around my area and what they're like but I might go further afield, it will hopefully be worth it and I'll make sure it is.

    Thanks again.

  • Comment number 68.

    I heard from a number of parents at Crystal Palace Academy were the director Davis Moss refused to let some of his academy boys go to the release trials, saying he hadnt made up his mind yet, then released the boys a couple of weeks later,leaving them with no club or second chance!Do the FA actually have any power to enforce there own rules?


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