This week’s interview with The Secret Coach comes in a week that has affected all football coaches deeply. Former Manchester City academy player Jeremy Wisten took his own life at the age of 17 in what is a shocking story that has rocked the football world.
In an interview with the Manchester Evening News, Wisten’s mother Manila said: “We are very saddened and shocked by our son’s death. We love him and always will love him. He was a very happy boy who was taken away too soon. He was very friendly and always smiling. He loved football and was aiming for a career in the game. He was very popular at Manchester City, at school and with his friends, not just here but also in his homeland in Malawi. It is still so difficult to understand how we came to be in this situation.”
So why did Jeremy Wisten take his own life?
Each week we speak to The Secret Coach, who you’ll know by now is a working professional football coach at one of England’s league clubs. Their identity is a secret, but this week above all, their honesty is always stark. We began by asking TSC their reaction to the awful news that we all read at the start of this week.
“I was very shocked,” says The Secret Coach. “Having been through it as a player and coach, [being released] is devastating, but I can’t imagine how low it made him feel that he took his own life.”
“At 16, you’re crushing their dreams.”
The Secret Coach has delivered the news that the academy graduate will be released by the club they dream of playing for. It’s a heartbreaking notice to give and it can be painful for coach and player.
“It’s horrible. Having sat in with others and seen their reactions, it’s tough. At 16, you’re crushing their dreams. Some of them have been there for years, and it is never easy to say that they’re being released. It’s better to give it to them straight, not beat around the bush. However, it has got better in the last few years in terms of support and guidance.”
The Secret Coach experienced being released as a young player and says the process has markedly improved.
“In my day, it was a quick ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Now there is more emphasis on exit routes they have the exit trials to attend if they wish, with signposting to further education with a lot of very good college and non-league clubs running football programmes. I’m a big believer in sending the player home with something positive to hold onto and also being there for advice and support afterwards.”
“The boys are under huge pressure.”
One of the most difficult things for The Secret Coach to grasp is the timing of traditional periods where players are released.
“It’s often done during their GCSE year in December.” TSC Says. “Whilst some will recover and focus, to do so before Christmas and only five months before their exams… the boys are under huge pressure.”
“Get the players able to deal with failure and disappointment.”
That pressure is part of the reason those in and around football are looking at the Jeremy Wisten case as clear evidence that not enough is being done for the players who don’t make the grade. On any match day, 92 professional clubs will send out a squad of 16 players only. That means only 1472 players get the opportunity to potentially play.
“It’s such a small number. It’s difficult because the football season has exit trials for pro clubs players that have been released in February. By then, though, recruitment plans are needing to be done. There is lots of time for clubs to fulfil their quota, so there is no time limit on when or if players can get signed.”
The Secret Coach thinks that more should be done until players really are working professionals, including when that player is released.
“It’s so important to support them until they have signed something. Most go away with a player profile, with clips from their play at the club to help showcase themselves. The biggest thing clubs can do to support them is throughout their years at the club, work in the psychological corner and get the players able to deal with failure and disappointment. This will give them tools that will help them to cope better with these emotions, not just in football but in life.”
Poignant words given the week we’re in, a week where Mason Greenwood’s opening goal for Manchester United in the Champions League against RB Leipzig was celebrated with a point to the heavens in tribute to Wisten, a player Greenwood was up against in his youth. Greenwood later paid tribute to Wisten on social media.
“So many players prove their clubs wrong.”
How often does it happen that released players then go on to make it somewhere else or is it almost unheard of? I have to be honest; I have no idea about this, but perhaps The Secret Coach does.
“Quite a lot of the time, the exit trials are attended by lots of players who have been released – from the Premier League to League Two clubs. All the clubs send scouts and senior academy staff to look at players that they need for certain positions or that might have a chance at their club. It’s less so with Premier League clubs as they carry larger squads, but for lower league sides it’s great to pick up players who have been trained at a higher level. I’ve worked with players who have come in on trial and earned scholarships and have made first team appearances.”
Who makes the decision is another area I – like many football fans – have been in the dark about for many years, hardly caring about those who didn’t ‘make it’ in the conventional sense. I admit to regretting this a lot this week personally. It turns out that it’s a ‘round table’ decision, so no single coach ever has a grudge against a player.
“The Academy Manager will have the final say, but U18s coaches and U16s coaches will have input as well as other senior officials watching game footage. No stone is left unturned when decisions are made – at the end of the day, it’s an opinion and so many players prove their clubs wrong which is awesome. Ultimately, it’s a personal opinion. It is tough and I always look out for players after they’ve been released. There have been a few that make it and you think ‘Nice one, well done’, but not just about the football side of it. I’m a big believer that you develop a person first and the player second.”
“These are not football skills these are life skills.”
For a game that reaches so many people, that such marginal decisions can affect a player’s future is fairly tough to comprehend. Could a marginal decision have cost Jeremy Wisten his place in the academy or even his life? It’s an uncomfortable question, but we have to ask – what more could have been done to save Jeremy Wisten and what processes could be improved regarding mental health?
“I think in the academy they should be open about mental health. Talk is important as well as training players to deal with their emotions both on and off the pitch. These are not football skills these are life skills that people need to have and those lucky enough to be in a professional academy should be given access and skills to become mentally stronger and able to deal with what life throws at them.”
Each club has a different operating plan, The Secret Coach revels, and that is dependent on many factors, such as squad size, club size, budgets and targets. Then there are the football player’s parents. They present their own challenges to any football coach.
“You have to manage parents’ expectations. Too many are excited to say their child is ‘signed’ but they are playing Under-10s. They’ve not signed anything except a registration form! If parents understand more, they can help manage their child’s expectations. Lifeskills and education through the medium of football is how it should be, producing better people who are equipped for life… and better players also regardless of getting a professional contract or not.”
At the end of any career in football, whether that’s aged 40 after winning 10 titles or aged 17 at the end of a promising academy career, it should never be all or end all and should never end player’s life.
“That’s the thing really, it’s so sad what happened with Jeremy Wisten. I hope City are reviewing their post release support policy; this is a wake up call for all clubs.”
The Secret Coach still thinks about the players they had to release from academy football. One keeps coming back to them.
“For me personally, the worst was a player who cried. Others have also cried, but this one, while he was crying, asked me questions that got me thinking, ‘Did I do enough for this player? Did I play them in the right position and give them enough opportunities?’ This helped me shape my future coaching, ensuring the dialogue I had with the player was honest and a two-way process, so that there would be no unpleasant surprises and that we could both look each other in the eye and say we both did everything we possibly could.”
There will never be anything anyone can do for Jeremy Wisten, a modern football tragedy and one that must be avoided in the future.
Every coach, parent and fan have changes they can make to contribute to a future that is different from a life that felt unbearable to Jeremy Wisten.