‘We’re careful we don’t sell dreams’: the football academy with a knack for spotting talent

South London’s Kinetic Academy has produced 33 professionals but its focus is on keeping young boys away from trouble and into an environment where they can thrive

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘We’re careful we don’t sell dreams’: the football academy with a knack for spotting talent” was written by Ed Aarons, for The Guardian on Sunday 6th January 2019 14.30 UTC

“When you’re 15 or 16 sometimes you’re not mature enough to make the right decisions – you just act without thinking,” says Joe Aribo. “Kinetic helps to teach you how to act in those circumstances and take responsibility for your actions on and off the pitch. A lot of kids are being forgotten about but this is something really positive.”

It’s now seven years since the Charlton midfielder became part of the Kinetic Academy’s first-ever intake following a trial at his school in Mitcham, south London. Set up in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots by former Crystal Palace coach Harry Hudson, the initiative has so far helped 33 young players from some of London’s most deprived areas earn professional contracts. But as well as rising stars like Aribo, Sunderland’s Josh Maja and Manchester City youngster Yeboah Amankwah, who signed a professional contract at the Premier League champions last year, Hudson is just as proud of the hundreds of other boys that don’t make the grade. “We’re very, very careful that we don’t sell dreams,” he explains. “We have been successful in producing professional footballers but we would never say to a boy: ‘Come here and you will definitely make it.’ You just don’t know. There’s so many factors involved but what is important is that their experiences broaden their horizons in general. You have to trust in the process.”

That is a lesson that Aribo can certainly relate to. Having progressed through Kinetic’s youth sides, he was signed by former Wimbledon striker Marcus Gayle for non-league side Staines Town at the age of 19 before finally being snapped up by Charlton a year later. He has since become a regular first-team player at the Valley and has even been compared to Patrick Vieira and Dele Alli by former manager Karl Robinson.

“Kinetic helped me a lot because I was really timid and shy when I first started coming here and they brought that out of me,” he says. “I’ve really developed as a player but as a person as well. I’m always telling younger players that at one stage I was going to stop playing altogether, so I’m really glad that I stuck at it. That and my family’s support has given me the hunger to succeed.”

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Kinetic now run teams from under-12s to under-19s and have more than 100 boys on their full-time programme for 16-18 year-olds, which sees them play football six days a week and complete 12 hours of education. Students are offered a full range of qualifications in partnership with nearby Woodcote School – from entry level BTec up to A-levels – while Hudson, 29, estimates that a series of community projects which also include a new netball scheme allows them to reach up to 700 young people a week in an area which has been blighted by knife crime in recent years.

“When the [2011] riots happened, we realised from working with some of the gangs how much impact you can have,” he says. “If you go to any estate in south London you will see people playing football. Our model takes a kind of carrot and stick approach: they want to play football and we can give the best chance possible to help them achieve that dream. In exchange, they have to complete their education and three hours of volunteering in their community if they are part of the programme. We try to have a relationship with young people where they trust us and we become positive role models for them. When they arrive, they want to be a pro. But we slowly start to open their eyes as to what else their talents can be used for to try and create positive change in their lives.”

Hudson estimates that more than 90% of his players come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with many having been released by professional clubs somewhere along the line. A partnership with local non-league side Croydon FC that allows young players the opportunity to prove themselves in senior football has also helped to attract prospective talent, as has Hudson’s role as manager of Isthmian League South East Division side Whyteleafe.

Josh Maja, now of League One Sunderland, playing for Kinetic Academy.
Josh Maja, now of League One Sunderland, playing for Kinetic Academy. Photograph: No credit

“For every success story, there are another 10 to 15 young people who never get back into the system,” he says. “But they all need additional support – they struggle quite a lot with their self-esteem because when a club releases them, there is no accountability for what happens next. I’ve worked at five professional clubs and there is no follow-up procedure. It’s simply: ‘You’re not right for us, good luck for the future.’ It’s organisations like ours that have to try and pick these players up.”

Hudson adds: “Until the age of 15, they build them up to believe they are going to be a professional player and surround them with all the materialistic elements which they unfortunately strive towards – the fast cars, nice clothes, jewellery – so they have that aspiration. The clubs often take them away from school at an early age to do day-release programmes, which really has a negative impact on the value a young person really applies to their education because they think: ‘Well, if they are taking me out of school now, I don’t need it.’ When they are released at 15 with the aspirations for the highest earnings possible, the only options open to them are earning £8 an hour stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s or the gang environment, which ends up being more appealing to someone with those materialistic values. They think: ‘Well I can earn 15 grand a year and never be able to drive a Mercedes or I can go and sell drugs and have all of that.’ They are very impressionable and that is a root cause of many social problems.”

But while delighted with the success of Aribo and that of Maja, who spent 18 months at Kinetic after he was released by Fulham at 15 and is now wanted by several Premier League clubs, Hudson admits Kinetic actually lose money when a player joins a professional club because they rely heavily on funding from educational grants.

“We’re trying to work out how we alter that,” he admits. “As a society as a whole, we often throw money at an issue to try and make things better but the fundamental thing is the relationship you have with these kids – you’ve got a far better chance of actually reaching them if they trust you. The problem isn’t knife crime – the problem is the social unrest and the outcome is the knife crime. We need to try to change that as a country as a whole.”

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