This instalment of the Goal Post is being written just a few hours before the fifth-round FA Cup match between Arsenal and Sutton United at Gander Green Lane in Sutton. This is a match of endless, and striking, contrasts. The Borough Sports Stadium, as Sutton’s ground is officially called, has a total capacity of 5,000, with less than 800 seats, and an artificial pitch. In comparison, just the premium, members-only Club Level, at the 60,000 seater Emirates Stadium where Arsenal play, has over 7,000 seats.
The contrasts go on and on, culminating in perhaps the most pressing difference between the two teams in the lead-up to the match: confidence. Sutton United, despite their recent indifferent form, are buoyant. It is not often that a club in the fifth tier of English football gets to host one of the richest clubs in the world. The National League side have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Arsenal, on the other hand, are wretched in every way. Arsène Wenger’s future at the club seems uncertain, their confidence is shattered after the humiliation in Munich, and there are rumours of discord in the dressing room. Arsenal fans know that there is a very real chance that the North Londoners might falter on the synthetic surface in Sutton (as it happens Arsenal were 2-0 winners in a match that will be better remembered for the Sutton United reserve goalkeeper’s pie-eating antics).
But this is also a story of contrasts at the human level. In the last couple of weeks, the British media has made a beeline for Sutton’s midfielder, Craig Eastmond. In 2009, Eastmond was a member of the Arsenal academy squad that won the FA Youth Cup and Premier Academy League double. Shortly afterwards, Eastmond was offered a professional contract at the club. Ten appearances at the senior level followed; in the last of these, Eastmond came on as a substitute for Robin van Persie in a League Cup match against Wigan Athletic. Several loan spells at lower league clubs followed before Eastmond was released by Arsenal.
The midfielder, who once seemed on the verge of glory in North London alongside fellow youth players such as Jack Wilshere and Francis Coquelin, now finds himself playing in the fifth tier and gearing up to face his old team. The media appeal in Eastmond is a no-brainer.
Eastmond’s story is, however, by no means unique. Plying their trade all over the lower leagues in England are players who once wore some of the most prestigious jerseys in English football at the youth level. Only to struggle to fulfil their early promise later on as any of a combination of factors curtailed their top-level careers. Often, the factors have as much to do with talent as with luck or discipline. In a comprehensive review of the English academy system published in The Telegraph in 2009, Sally Williams picked out two youth footballers who were, at the time, amongst the highest paid academy players in the country: Danny Welbeck at Manchester United and Jacob Mellis at Chelsea. Welbeck went on to win several honours with Manchester United, has scored over a dozen international goals for England, and now plays at Arsenal.
Things did not go quite that way for Mellis. In 2012, Chelsea dismissed the player after he set off a smoke bomb at the club’s training ground. In the last five years, Mellis has played for two teams in the second tier and then two in the third. He currently plays for Bury in League One. He has never played for England.
Sometimes, young players find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. David Bentley is still remembered at Arsenal’s training facilities in London Colney as one of the great missed opportunities. Emerging into the limelight in the early 2000s, Bentley found it impossible to consistently break into a senior side packed with stars. He left Arsenal in 2006 and enjoyed a career, including stints at Blackburn and Tottenham, that never lived up to his potential. He retired in 2014, a man sceptical about football.
Young players who join the major club-run football academies in England, often when they are just eight years old, are throwing themselves into what is essentially a lottery with unimaginable highs and crushing lows. Players such as Marcus Rashford at Manchester United, Ryan Mason at Hull and Harry Kane at Tottenham, spent long spells at the academy level before cashing in as professionals. But as The Daily Mirror reported in January, a full 56% of all game time in the Premier League this season has been notched up by players nurtured in academies overseas. Combine this with the fact that English academies hire mostly local talent—overseas youth account for no more than 5-10%—and the picture is a bleak one. Very, very few English youth-level players, even those who spend their entire careers in a single club’s academy, will ever get to play Premier League football. Also take into consideration how few English players play abroad and the prospects for top-level football are even grimmer.
Clubs, meanwhile, continue to hire young players in large numbers. Knowing full well that many of them will be dropped in due course. This might seem ruthless, but makes perfect business sense. It is cheaper to hire and fire dozens of academy players than to pay exorbitant transfer fees for the finished product.
When Arsenal took on Sutton, many players in the fifth-tier home side may have wondered: If only things could have been different. Bradley Hudson-Odoi (Fulham academy), Jack Jebb, Jeffrey Monakana and the man of the match Roarie Deacon (all Arsenal academy) all took to the artificial pitch at Gander Green Lane with new dreams and the lingering remnants of old ones