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Trent Alexander-Arnold wants to help solve 'one of the biggest issues in football that isn't being spoken about enough'

Trent Alexander-Arnold wants to help solve 'one of the biggest issues in football that isn't being spoken about enough'

In an exclusive interview with SPORTbible, Liverpool and England defender Trent Alexander-Arnold opens up about The After Academy.

At the age of 15, on a playing field near Brunton Park, I was told, without much explanation or reasoning, that I was going to be released by a League Two side after more than three years in their academy set-up.

In the coming days, weeks and months, there was little-to-no communication from the club and no fallback options were put in place to soften what was a devastating blow to my self-confidence and career prospects.

Almost 14 years later, on a warm April morning in Manchester, I’m telling my story to a sympathetic Trent Alexander-Arnold at a studio in Salford. "I'm doing this because of stories like yours," he says.

“Players get released and always will. That's football. But I think for too long, there's not been enough support. And I'm not just talking about the big teams. This is the Premier League down to League Two. There should be something in place for every single player."

The England international believes it’s time for change. After being scouted by Liverpool at the age of six while playing for Croxteth youth side Country Park, the talented Alexander-Arnold progressed through their academy before earning a professional contract on his 17th birthday.

It was an unforgettable day for the West Derby-born teenager, who would go on to make his first-team debut a year later. But elsewhere, some of his teammates failed in their attempts to get a deal.

Liam Robinson, for example, played alongside Trent in the Liverpool academy but was left heartbroken after being released at 16. "He didn't know where to go or what to do," Alexander-Arnold remembers.

Robinson, who now works as a drainage operative at United Utilities, went on to play for Blackpool for two years but suffered from injuries. "He didn't have the right qualifications to then get a job," Trent says. "He was begging for someone to take a chance on him and fortunately, United Utilities did.”

Over 99% of those who sign for an academy aged nine fail to make it as a professional footballer. In fact, out of an estimated 1.5 million boys who play organised youth football at any given time in England, only 180 will be signed professionally by a Premier League club, which is a success rate of just 0.012 per cent.

Research shows that, even of those who make it into the elite scholarship programme at 16, five out of six are not playing professional football at 21. These players, who have spent their formative years with football as their main ambition, have often made sacrifices that have heavily impacted their education and other career pathways.

Last year, after a lot of self-reflection, a curious Alexander-Arnold posted a video on Instagram asking former academy players about their experience and how it had affected them.

"I've been asking myself a lot of questions about what I've done to help these lads, my friends and whether I've done enough," he said. "I think there's a lot more that I could be doing so I want to take more of a part in this and help these lads.

"I want to make sure they have the right tools and the right life experience because not everyone is going to make it, so it's important we have a plan B. That's a vital thing; something to fall back on.

"It's something that's close to my heart and something I'm passionate about so I want to get involved as much as I can and let these lads know that they're not alone and I'm here to talk to them."

Many of those who shared their experiences with the defender felt their time in a football academy had negatively affected their education, career prospects and/or mental health. And these were issues that he had witnessed first-hand through his peers growing up.

Speaking about whether there was a certain trigger point to posting that video, Alexander Arnold says: "I remember asking myself, 'How would I have felt if I wasn't the lucky one? How would I have felt if I wasn't the one that made it? Where would you have gone? Who would you have turned to?' Those questions stuck with me."

Image credit: Instagram/trentarnold66
Image credit: Instagram/trentarnold66

A year later and with the help of other organisations, including The PFA, who will oversee the activation of the platform, Alexander-Arnold has launched The After Academy – a new initiative which will provide career opportunities for those who didn’t make it as professional players.

“A lot of stories came from that video," Trent says. "It was emotional reading through them all for different reasons. Every time I read one, I was putting myself in their shoes. I was imagining what it would have felt like. It took real bravery for people to come out and talk about how it made them feel.

"That's something I'll always be grateful for. It's taught me lots. Hopefully we can help these players going forward and give them the support that previous generations didn't have.”

Trent affirms that there is some good work happening behind the scenes when it comes to this situation. Liverpool are leading the push for continued improvements in the academy system, with their alumni project ensuring ongoing support for former players.

The PFA, a body that regularly works to support former academy players, will also join The After Academy as a supporting partner. They will ensure that opportunities will be presented to the right people, including education, career and wellbeing counselling.

In terms of supporting those who didn’t make it as professional players, Trent has outlined the plan.

“I think it depends on the person and the situation," he says. "Some people might need a lot of help, some might just need a little push in the right direction. It really does depend but it's important for the players to know that there is help and support out there, and this is just shining a light on where they could potentially go.

“The PFA are doing some really good work but I don't think players are told about it enough or told they can go there and find the help and support that they need for anything. There is people you can call. You're not alone when you're going through these situations.”

Is it the biggest issue in football? “It's certainly up there," Trent says. "I think it's probably the biggest one that isn't spoken about enough. I'd say it's the dark side of Academy football. You've got hundreds of kids that don’t make it. That's all you've ever known. It's who you are. It's your identity really and that's just stripped away.

"And it's not so much people getting released because at the end of the day, that's football. It's more the support with their mental health as well as the opportunities they get after that.”

Alexander-Arnold, who has a large social media following, will continue to speak on the issue whenever possible. Ultimately, he wants to raise awareness and help guide clubs in the right direction with a "winning format."

"I want to tie everyone in together to make it worth as a collective," he adds. "It's not about saying, 'One club are doing this and it's unbelievable and one club isn't doing anywhere near enough'. Every team should be pulling in the same direction to make sure that this problem doesn't retreat in its progress. I hope it is just a first step towards a brighter future for these young players.”

The platform will go live later this year, with further information available via Trent and the PFA’s channels closer to launch.

Featured Image Credit: Instagram/trentarnold66 - Liverpool FC

Topics: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool, England, Spotlight