Reimagining The Global Academy System
Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Growing up in High Wycombe, Tom Vernon fell in love with football watching England games featuring Paul Gascoigne at nearby Wembley.
After studying sports science at John Moore's University he left the UK to coach in Ghana. Since then, Ghana has been his home. Now roughly three decades after he saw Gaza's debut for England he's responsible for running both the Right to Dream academy in Ghana and FC Nordsjælland in Denmark.
In fact, Vernon's Right to Dream academy has been so successful that it bought FC Nordsjælland in January of 2016 to provide more opportunities for its graduates. As of the 2018/19 season it currently has 5 graduates on the team. I spoke with Tom about how academies around the world should be reformed. The following interview has been edited for your reading pleasure. If you want to hear the entire conversation and Tom's remarkable journey then listen here.
One of the first things that struck me when I was reading about Right to Dream was that once a kid is accepted they're not dropped for their footballing abilities. You know if they're sixteen and their form drops and all of a sudden they're not the footballer you and they thought they would be, you don't drop them. I haven't heard of any academy like that. When did that specific idea come about?
I think if you view an academy as the product as the production of players, either for transfers or for your first team; then it's a natural conclusion that you should drop players who can't realize one of those two values. Where I think football generally has lost its moral compass is that is a wrong thought.
If you're bringing somebody into your environment to educate and develop them and the US college system which most US guys give it a massive bashing because the NCAA is so corrupt and these guys should be pros or whatever. You don't know how good you got it in the States. That's what I think the football education process should be at every academy.
It’s like ‘hey you live in this community, we're a club in this community, you're a good footballer, we want to support your football education as you grow up and that could end up with you being a coach for us. It could end up with you winning a scholarship in America. It could end up with you playing for one of our rivals. It could end up with you playing in our first team. But we want to give you this football education to make you a better person, make a contribution to the community that we're in.’
In that thinking I believe that the guy who ends up in your first team ends up much more holistic and appreciative and not feeling like he's just one of many assets. Then you're damaging the culture that you're trying to create anyway.
I saw this crazy interview with someone the other day… where this coach talks about the best kid in his U-11s had a terrible session and he was always the best kid. He [the coach] kind of let it go and a week later he found out that in the dressing room before the session his teammates had told this kid that father Christmas wasn't real and he [the kid] didn't know. He was completely confused about the fact that father Christmas wasn't real.
The point is, in Ghana the kind of stuff that our kids go through, it could take two or three years. It could never get fixed. So if you're committed to this kid and your only objective is to monetize the kid according to his performance, FIFA needs to change the whole system. Because that's unethical.
I always say that Right to Dream's proudest ever graduate will probably be never be a professional footballer or be a pretty average footballer. But because of our philosophy [of giving back] they will do something else that can do what George Weah or Drogba were doing. Actually their sort of football achievements, that was just giving them the platform to do something else.
So if you were you know the head of FIFA, what would you do to change the Academy system environment?
I would write it from a child centered focus rather than from a club centered focus. That's what everybody seems to be so focused on, is how this benefits the club and how does this work for the club, whereas we should be asking how does this work for the kid who's coming through the process.
I want to talk about the trips that your players from Right to Dream in Ghana take to Denmark and then vice versa. What sort of reaction do you see from either players in either situation?
I think that the Premier League specifically has really lost focus on how you bring a kid up in football. I've actually got an answer for you on a previous question now. One thing I'd really to change just for the hell of it would be that the World Cup qualifiers would be ten groups, sorry 20 groups of ten with no continental divide. So that England could go and play away in the Central African Republic and Brazil could go play in Laos or whatever.
That would be brilliant yeah.
So that players could actually see the world.
But what the Premier League academies are doing is they're wrapping the kids up in cotton wool and they're not exposing them to the real world and then they're complaining that these kids live in a bubble and they don't get it.
So for us taking our Danish boys to Ghana is one of the most exciting parts of our project because it gives them a different perspective on a different part of the world. The different challenges that different footballers face compared to what they face. Obviously for our first team it builds strength, unity and bonding. But it puts a lot of things in perspective, which, especially in the west, we're getting slightly or very out of perspective.
Godsway Donyoh- a Right to Dream alumnus on FC Nordsjælland- said that he thinks that one of the major problems in African football is that people think too much for themselves. Do you think do you agree with that?
I think that African football can't really develop unless it does have more of a collective mindset and the football generally has been allowed to move in a direction where you are encouraged to think very selfishly. I think that that has more implication for developing world football than it does for European football.
So I'm opposed to the transfer system as it operates. But the transfer system dictates how you survive as an academy and so if Godsway doesn't resign a contract with FCN and he goes for free, then in the current system how is Right to Dream supposed to continue?
You know there is no other solution that football gives you. Maybe you can have some sponsors if you're lucky, but if you don't, you're forced to operate in the system and then you're told that you're going to get 1.5% solidarity of this guy's future transfers or whatever.
It's an unsustainable model. So in countries where- I get calls from all over the world saying we desperately need a Right to Dream in our country and first world countries as well. But if at the end of it you train a kid for eight years and then he goes and doesn't extend his contract and he goes to play for some huge club in Europe and you're basically given peanuts on the economic value of that player- if we should even be attributing that to somebody- so he's [Godsway] right. But clubs said to him don't re-sign, we'll pay you more money. But then how’s Right to Dream going to continue?
But in the developing world it's a different model and the system is designed in a way that allows predatory agents and predatory clubs to play the system for their own financial gain. But to the massive loss of so many programs around the world that are trying to develop young players.
So are you optimistic that this model can be replicated in other countries or when one of those other people call you? Is it an optimistic note that you give them or the opposite?
There's a lot of people trying to do it and there aren't many case studies. That’s how it worked and the regulatory framework doesn't support the chances of success. So realistically then, I can't tell you I'm optimistic. I can tell you that there's some really great people who really want to try but the way that FIFA money flows into the countries and the way that gets distributed isn't conducive with elite academy opportunities being developed and then for a sponsor it's a tough sell. You know we've got a couple of great sponsors. But I've got over two thousand that have said no and so it's really really hard. So yeah, I have to tell you that I'm not optimistic that this can be something that really picks up. But that's what I'm trying to do.