Marcus Rashford remains one of few current Premier League footballers to have broken through the academy traps, earning himself a place as a Manchester United regular and building on the fast start to his career that his potential suggested he could achieve.
But if he remains at Old Trafford for another 18 months, at which point he’ll turn 23, the England striker will belong to an exceptionally rare breed.
Indeed, while Rashford remains an inspiration for all, it’s becoming harder and harder for young footballers to break through and have a career as a footballer, especially at Premier League clubs.
The nature of society is so that possessing the talent isn’t enough. Social media, agents, contracts, sponsors and a greater public-watch than ever before are all factors that negatively impact the opportunities available to young footballers to grow their career.
Even those who deal with all these factors immaculately, such as Harry Kane, may have to deal with life on loan and the prospect of foreign talent arriving to take your place. Having a career as footballer is one of the hardest journeys you could possibly pursue.
You need a manager who’s brave enough to trust youngsters like Rashford and give them the opportunity to shine, rather than field an out-of-position option just because they have more first-team experience. A good example of this now is Chelsea starting Eden Hazard up front when Tammy Abraham is on loan at Aston Villa and scoring goal after goal.
To highlight this issue and quite the severity of it, two Sheffield Hallam University researchers found that only around 5% of players signed to Premier League sides at the age of 18 were still with their club by 23.
Dr Chris Platts and Melissa Jacobi, of the university’s Academy of Sport and Physical Activity department, followed the progression 142 18-year-olds in 21 different academies and centres of excellence in the four top divisions. 55 of these players were signed to Premier League clubs. By the end of the study, only three of them remained in the top flight, with ten of them in the Championship.
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The statistics from this research is damning on football clubs, especially those in the Premier League. At the age of 18, a footballer is beginning to truly blossom and all the talent and attributes that one needs to scout a player should be fairly easy to evaluate. The idea that players arrive at the age of 18, and by 23 have slumped down the pyramid is a great problem for scouts of these mega-rich clubs who should be able to determine more crucially and ruthlessly whether a player is cut-out for the top level or not.
Whether young footballers always make the right societal decisions come the age of 19 and 20 is a debate in itself. Dr Platts said: “Contemporary debate about professional footballers’ working lives is dominated by supposed high wages, excessive endorsements and the celebrity lifestyle.
“One consequence of this romanticised view of professional football is that the everyday realities of working in such a precarious career remain largely ignored. The research paints a picture of the complex, precarious, unequal and relatively short careers of the majority of footballers, particularly those signed to Premier League clubs.”
The responsibility is on football clubs to encourage the promotion of young footballing talent and to ensure their scouting teams are far more efficient with signing young players. Along with that, managers must be hired who are willing to trust young players and blend them into a squad of experienced professionals who can pave the way for the youth to break through.
This is all easier said than done, as the financial reward for football clubs’ success these days is so vast that short-term results will always take precedence over long-term gain. Ultimately, the road for youngsters is getting harder, and we’ll see fewer and fewer Marcus Rashfords in England despite the undoubted potential for so many more.