Sign Here

As the gates clunk shut at grounds around the country to signal the end of May and another football season, players will head off for well-earned rests to every popular destination you’d find in a travel agent. Aside from participation in the FA Cup and European finals, teams are now left free to lick their wounds, breathe a sigh of relief or wonder at what might have been.

The close season is when a lot of club business gets done: reviews, resignations, planning, and changing personnel. Some squads will be re-shaped, others only slightly modified but, overall, there will be mass-movements of players, a migration in multiple directions. Loanees return to their clubs, free-transfers abound, some players will retire, others transferred. But the biggest shifts in staffing will concern those players about whom we know nothing: the aspiring academy youngsters.

Many clubs pride themselves on their academy structure and the ways in which they nurture promising talent to professional status. There’s nothing like a local hero. The likes of Viv Anderson, Michael Dawson and Des Walker, have all sealed their status in the memory-bank of Forest fans. Current players Brennan Johnson, Joe Worrall and Ryan Yates have come through the ranks – academy, on-loan experience to lower league clubs – and fledged into fine footballers. It’s a well-rehearsed process and Forest have an enviable tradition of producing household names who’ve graced the City Ground and famous stadiums beyond. ‘He was one of ours,’ we say.

But what of those who don’t make it, who are – in the parlance of the game – ‘released’ or ‘let go’? Liverpool star Trent (there’s always a Nottingham connection to be found!) Alexander-Arnold has recently addressed the issue of the huge numbers of boys – around 3,500 – currently signed-up by Premier league academies around the age of nine, only to find themselves surplus to requirements later. 99% of those children won’t have a footballing career. As he says, many of his contemporaries at the time were at least as talented as he was but didn’t make it. His concern is: what happened to them? What support and guidance – if any – did they receive in order to make the transition from would-be-professional to reject?

Reading of Alexander-Arnold’s early years of sacrifice gives some sense of how traumatic that moment would be. By the age of eight, he’d signed his first contract and was training three times a week. By twelve, he trained every night and played weekend fixtures and was excused half-days from school. The impact on his education, social and family life is sobering to read. That said, he regrets nothing, appreciates his success and wants to support those who were unable to fulfil their childhood dream. His ‘After Academy’ initiative is a programme that will focus on education and career prospects for those players who’ve found themselves culled by their club at age sixteen.

‘The past is a foreign country,’ said novelist LP Hartley. ‘They do things differently there.’ It certainly proved to be so in 1968 when my dad sought permission from the headmaster of Fairham Comprehensive for me to sign, aged 14, as a schoolboy for Forest. Chief scout, Tommy Graham, had been tracking our local team for some time and Dad respected him. He’d played his professional football at Forest and been their trainer before turning to scouting. ‘Tell the lad to come and get a taste of the place,’ he said when he visited our house to sign me. ‘Summer holidays. I’ll look out for him.’ And he did.

When I fetched up at the City Ground with my kit, he was there to greet me and introduced me to a couple of first team players, including goalkeeper Peter Grummitt. There were some sarcastic comments about snatching babies from prams and then we were out on the training pitches. I knew no-one, was the youngest there and got bullied off the ball with every touch. Come the end of the morning session, Graham pressed a half-crown piece into my palm. ‘You need to put on a bit of weight, son. Go and get yourself fish and chips at the top of the road on your way home. That’ll cover your bus fare as well.’

My playing days at Forest were the blink of an eye though memories live long. I remember Graham as a caring man but my toehold on the ladder to a career in football fizzled out within two years. There was more than a bit of weight missing from my game. Even those few who become professionals, though, know their time will be short. In playing terms, it’s akin to the life of the Mayfly in its brevity. Full on, then gone. Unless you’re Stanley Matthews (who played his last game in the top division aged fifty and put much of his fitness down to running on Blackpool sands!) playing careers are pretty much over by the mid-thirties. On average, that leaves at least half a life left and you can only have so many pundits, even with ever-expanding media coverage of the game.

As fans and followers of football, we know that so much of our enjoyment is ‘of the moment’ but we can also wallow in past glories whilst relishing the next fixture. Forest supporters have the privileged position (if they’re old enough!) to recall signings that raised the pulse of the city as well as the club. In 1979, the Reds paid £1m for Trevor Francis (the first British player to command such a fee) who quickly repaid faith and fee with his winning goal in the European Cup in May of the same year. With plenty to choose from, we can all pick our own ‘best ever’ transfer.

This past season has seen more Forest signings than ever before, either at the City Ground or anywhere else! Some have shone, others have yet to emerge from the shadows and may move on. Already, the rumour-machine is in full operation. Whatever the comings and goings during the summer, securing Premiership status has been a tremendous team achievement. Steve Cooper can – I hope – take a break and be well-satisfied that two of his biggest signings, Morgan Gibbs-White and Taiwo Awoniyi, have flourished. And there is surely more to come from other players, including the home-grown. On which note, I’ll sign off!

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC Boy Wonder Trevor Francis made it from youth prospect to million pound man.

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