Ex-footballer released by dream club at 17 opens up about 'loss of identity' after rejection
An ex-academy footballer has taken part in a powerful documentary to raise awareness of the mental health challenges faced by deselected players.
Richard ‘Rich’ Wilkinson, from Whitchurch, was released from his dream football club – Stoke City – at 17 years old, having played throughout his childhood and adolescence. More than 20 years on and Rich is using his past experiences for good, working in private practice and in secondary schools, counselling young people aged 11 to 16.
Rich recently featured in Sidelined, a documentary which showcases the effect that being released from football academies and sustaining injuries can have on young athletes.
Produced by Ben&Jack Studio, it explores themes around suicide, addiction and trauma.
It is hoped that the documentary will act as a manifesto for change in the mental health support for young players.
It was the summer just after his GCSEs when Rich was sent a letter to his family home to inform him that he’d been deselected and would not progress to become a first-team player.
This life-changing news hit hard; Rich had always wanted to become a professional player and dedicated all of his time and effort to Stoke City Football Club.
To him, being at Stoke City felt like being part of a family.
“They didn’t explain why, they just said that I wouldn’t be needed for the next season and all the best for your future. It isn’t easy to describe how I felt,” Rich said.
“As mentioned in the documentary, it is an extreme emotion of sadness and loss that arrives at such a young age that you cannot process it. I felt a loss of reality and loss of identity. I never really dealt with not making it as a football player. The way I coped at the time was to remove football from my life altogether, to not play or even watch it any more.
“Only in 2019, when I took a degree course to become a person-centred counsellor, I realised I hadn’t completely dealt with my loss.
“Through the course and personal therapy, I could go back to the trauma and process it safely through counselling.”
As part of his degree, Rich underwent research into the topic and said he was shocked to see only six pieces had been published.
Since then, Rich has published his own report and has become part of the Sporting Chance Network who specialise in supporting players with counselling.
Commenting on the documentary, Rich added: “It was an excellent opportunity to be part of something more visual than an article or research, giving me the chance to speak about my experience and study. Also, to raise awareness of academy players and families who are a big part of the academy.
“When focused on becoming a football player, listening to anyone offering you advice or support isn’t easy. You are in fight mode and want that contract with the football club more than anything else.
“You devote yourself to being the best footballer you can, which tends to create this identity that surrounds you, an identity that friends, parents and the football coaches create.
“So when you lose that, it’s very difficult to cope with the new reality and to adapt to the real world with the identity that has been created.
“While we now see after-care in academies for the scholarship players being deselected after their contracts, we still see no support for the under-16s when they get deselected.”
He added: “The research shows that 99 per cent of academy footballers and 85 per cent of players who make the scholarship will be released afterwards. While things have improved over the years, there is still more that needs to be done.
“It’s challenging to support deselected players as they can be heartbroken, upset, angry and feel rejected. They may not want to reach out for support at that age. They are still so young. Let’s remember they are still only children and need protection.
“That’s why I want to raise awareness for not only players but carers, football coaches and parents so they know that after deselection, their child/player may need professional support in the form of counselling.
“Research shows that 21 days after deselection, 51 per cent of deselected players will experience psychological distress. It’s in this timescale that intervention is needed.”
For more information about Rich's private counselling service, visit timetotalkchester.com.