Is it ethically okay for footballers in their mid-teens to be playing with adult men?
Friday, September 20, 2019, is a date that will live long in the memory for Evan Ferguson. That was the day the young footballer made his league bow for Bohemian’s senior team after coming on as a substitute for Luke Wade-Slater in the 89th minute of their goalless draw with Derry City.
This was no ordinary debut however, as Ferguson is just 14 years of age, almost certainly making him the youngest ever player to feature in a League of Ireland fixture. As a result social media was abuzz with debate over the rights and wrongs of someone in their mid-teens playing men’s football.
#Bohs-SKB 1️⃣4️⃣-year-old Evan Ferguson on for his league debut, replacing Luke Wade-Slater. 🔴⚫️🔶
— Bohemian FC 🔴⚫ (@bfcdublin) September 20, 2019
Battle lines were drawn; one side claiming “if you’re good enough you’re old enough”, the other saying “it’s no place for a child”. No consensus on this issue was met in the aftermath of the game, and as such the deliberations have continued, with the likes of Shelbourne’s Conan Byrne and former Ireland international Stephen Elliott expressing their unease about a young teenager being in a men’s dressing room.
Evan Ferguson playing for Bohs last night at 14 is indefensible. No kid should be pushed forward that early.
— Kieran Cunningham (@KCsixtyseven) September 21, 2019
I appreciate the concerns about 14 or 15-year-olds playing in senior games but I'd trust that their coaches at all levels have the players' welfare in hand. If they're considered physically and emotionally able, they can make the step up.
— Dave Donnelly (@YeSecondPost) September 20, 2019
But why is this issue only being strongly debated now? Ferguson had, after all, already played for the senior team in a friendly against Chelsea earlier this summer, while 15-year-old Andrew Moran made his debut for Bray Wanderers in their thrilling 3-3 draw against Cobh Ramblers in August.
The difference here is that a pre-season friendly, featuring other youngsters as well as some seasoned pros playing at half pace, lacks the cut and thrust of a competitive fixture, while Bray are a mid-table First Division team who garner a fraction of the attention one of the biggest clubs in the country do, so Moran’s contribution very much went under the radar.
Bohs fans could justifiably look to those examples and ask where was the outrage then? Or point to the example of Liverpool youngster Harvey Elliott, who made his senior debut for Fulham in the League Cup at the age of 15 last season, or the many other footballers who come through in their teens.
There is, however, something unnerving about seeing a 14-year-old being thrown into a senior game with adult men. At that point in their life they are closer to the day they made their Holy Confirmation than to when they can legally drink alcohol. They are, in every sense, just children, which this is why such strong feelings have been expressed about this topic.
Before we delve into the issue further, Ferguson’s cameo against the Candystripes should be put into perspective. He came on with just a minute to go in the game, featured for no more than five minutes, and he’s unlikely to be a regular feature in the first team just yet.
Ferguson is also a very unique case here. As one of the FAI’s regional development officer’s pointed out to me this week, the player is physically beyond his years, standing at 6 foot tall and well able to handle himself on a football pitch. “The lad is the most ‘normal’ and mature future starlet I’ve encountered,” I was told.
Part of that is down to his upbringing, as his father Barry, who returned to education following the end of his sporting career, is a former professional footballer himself. Having played in England and Ireland, as well as currently being employed by the FAI as a development officer, Evan’s father is as good a person as any to have as a sounding board as he embarks on his fledgling career, and he will also be au fait with child welfare concerns and the various potholes that future prospects encounter.
There is no One Size Fits All approach to youth development in football, or any sport for that matter, and Evan Ferguson’s case is a testament to that. But does it also set a dangerous precedent? Is it okay to send players so young out into senior football? We spoke to a number a figures involved in the game, from coaches to a parent of a young footballer to a former club chairman, to try and get a clear answer.
As alluded to above, much has been made of Ferguson’s physical stature, that he has the body of someone much older than himself. If that is a qualifier for playing at senior level, then what does that mean for slightly older teenagers with smaller frames? Having attended their recent home fixture with Waterford FC, I can attest to the fact that Bohs had some players fitting that description lining out in their first team that night.
They are not the only team, especially in the League of Ireland, doing so. It also happens in England, where we saw young players filling out lineups this past week in the League Cup. The aforementioned Harvey Elliott made his bow for Liverpool, while Luke Matheson stunned the Old Trafford crowd with his equalising for Rochdale against Manchester United. Both are aged 16, the same age Ryan Sessegnon broke into and became a regular feature of Fulham’s first team three years ago.
Are these players physically ready for the demands of senior football? John O’Sullivan, a former Chairman of Cork City FC who went on to work as CEO at both Athlone Town FC & Limerick FC and is now an LOI columnist at The42.ie, doesn’t think so.
Alright. I’ll be the dickhead.
It’s fucking ridiculous putting a 14 year old child into a senior LoI game. I don’t care how good he is. https://t.co/GvTvyNaM9T
— John O'Sullivan (@johngosullivan) September 20, 2019
“At that age a child’s skeletal and muscular development isn’t complete,” he tells The Football Faithful, “and so there’s a potential for increased risk of injury, even if the player looks physically as strong as others on the pitch.”
Dec Coleman, a first team coach at First Division side Cobh Ramblers and a contributor to The Football Faithful podcast, is a believer in the “good enough, old enough” adage, but he has similar concerns to John.
“It’s a tricky one,” he confides, “because generally I don’t think size should matter, but strength does. And the ability to use your body despite not having as much strength. To me though, all that comes in to the football intelligence and ability side of it. Which I don’t believe players have enough of at 14 or 15 to allow them compete in men’s football.”
“In fact, I believe if a player is a tiny little fucker, but is too good for his age, then he should be playing up (an older age grade) as well. So it’s not just about size and strength. But as I said, there’s a certain level of strength, or even just a level of cop on to be able to protect yourself, to be able to play senior. This lad probably has it in fairness, because I doubt his parents and the coaches would put him at risk either.”
Aside from the potential risk of injury in any given game, there is also the great unknown of long-term muscular damage to players. Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney are often used as examples of players whose bodies rapidly deteriorated later in their careers having started at such an early age. Whether that was some form of “burnout” or just a natural occurrence is a debate for another day.
Mental, emotional, psychological
Beyond the physical aspect of the game, there is also the equally important mental and emotional side. John points out that “from a mental wellbeing point of view, a fourteen-year-old will react very differently to setbacks, success and criticism than a mature man.”
That point is expanded upon by a researcher in talent development with a decade of experience in football coaching who says more consideration needs to be given to this side of the issue.
“You need to consider the maturity of the player,” The Researcher tells The Football Faithful. “I don’t know the player personally so can’t give any insight into this and am not stating that Evan is in any way immature as I do not know him. But, by putting him into this performance and results driven environment, it is placing great emotional and psychological pressure on an adolescent no matter how much you try to reinforce that there is no pressure on him.
“Therefore, is he mature enough to deal with these expectations? Player welfare does not just mean their physical welfare and you now have the added complexities for Evan where he is under a lot of spotlight and considerations need to be given as to how he deals with this personally and what support he is provided.”
Evan is in the capable hands of management duo Keith Long and Trevor Croly, but that level of pressure and expectation is something a younger player may not handle as ably as a more seasoned pro.
I spoke to the father of a Premier League player, however, who was more laid back about that side of it. The player in question debuted for an LOI team at 16 years of age, starting one match as backup for an injured player before eventually moving to England. “I see that there’s no pressure as there’s no expectation,” The Parent said. “That was our experience anyway.”
He did have one big concern, though. “I did worry for him with abuse from the crowd. Also (one of the opposition players) said some nasty things to him to put him off. So that was my biggest concern. Children shouldn’t have to hear that stuff so early.”
Youth development is a tricky business and ensuring young talents can transition into senior football is far from an exact science. Dozens of immensely talented academy products at Chelsea were touted for greatness, but never got their chance in the first team. The evidence is clear on this: first team minutes is the best way to bring prospects up to the next level. But how those minutes are distributed and when to give a player their chance varies from person to person.
In this regard players at the ages of Evan Ferguson and Andrew Moran gain invaluable experience just from being a part of the squad. “It’s a terrific learning opportunity and experience for the player to be involved and around a first team environment on a matchday,” The Researcher says. “By that I mean participating in warm-ups, seeing the preparation work, etc. It allows an insight into the complexities of first team football for someone striving to achieve this.”
Dec also sees the positives in gradual exposure to the first team: “If he’s breaking into the first team this young then he actually needs to be pushed so he can live up to the potential. I’d say he could turn into whatever is being said (about him) if he works hard enough. I’ve seen players older than him not live up to their potential due to a lack of extra work being put in.”
Players don’t even necessarily need to be jumped right up to senior level to make gains, as playing in an older age group can test them against better and more physically advanced footballers. Unfortunately, there is a barrier stopping this from happening in Irish football.
“The FAI do not allow 14-year-olds to play in the U19 league so even the national association has limits on how far above their age a player can play,” John points out. At schoolboy level players can only jump ahead one year, while in order to play in the League of Ireland’s U19 elite league you have to be at least 17-years-old. “It’s simply a loophole that Evan qualified for a Men’s game and one I think needs to be closed.”
There is a crude irony in this; Evan is good enough and big enough to play in an older age bracket, but the rules are stopping him from doing so, which is arguably no good for his own development or that of his teammates at U14 level. It should be noted, though, that he has lined out for Bohs’ U17’s.
For years we – this writer included – have seen youngsters sent out into men’s matches with little regard for their safety or well being. 15-year-olds making their debuts in Ireland are not as uncommon one might assume, and when you look at the list of players who broke through at a very young age, there isn’t exactly a massive success rate.
“For every Sergio Aguero who was feted at 15 there’s a Freddy Adu who’s career stalled due to overwhelming expectation at too young an age,” points out John.
“That the player himself can hold his own isn’t the point, (Evan) is clearly an exceptional player, but from a development and injury point of view, a 14-year-old playing men’s football doesn’t sit well with me. At what lower age limit does the line “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” become unacceptable?”