It felt like slow motion, watching my 15 year-old lad arrive at the edge of the penalty area to meet a perfect cutback from the right wing.

He struck the ball first time, crisp and confident into the bottom corner to give his side a 2-0 lead over Aston Villa in the final of the U16 Heston International Cup.

Hosted by QPR, this prestigious tournament was spread over two days. On day one, my son’s U16 Academy team had already beaten Aston Villa, Fulham and Norwegian club Lillestrom in the group stages.

Parents were invited to watch the tournament, so it was a trip up the A303 from our South-West home and a weekend away in London for the family.

“We had a brief moment with our son before he returned to the team hotel after the first day.

Things had gone well, his team had won all three games, although, as a left-winger, he did say the Aston Villa right-back was probably the toughest opponent he had ever faced. “Dad, he is so quick, so strong.”

It was a tough format, games spread over just 40 minutes and at U16 level in Academy football, it meant a fast start was imperative.

The next day, in the semi-final, Aston Villa defeated the Crossfire club from Seattle in America, a team that had looked seriously impressive in beating West Ham and QPR on day one.

My son’s team stepped into the semi-final against Danish club Helsingor and, after conceding an early goal, they fought back for a 2-1 victory to book a rematch with Villa in the final.

It was already a superb performance from a SW Academy comprising around ten U16 players, four of the strongest U15s and a couple of trialists (there are always trialists in Academy football).

Now, my son prepared to meet his ‘toughest opponent’ once again, and it just happened to be his special day, his best day in five years as an Academy footballer. As well as playing fixtures against teams from all over the Westcountry, he had played Manchester United, earned a draw at Liverpool, beaten Swansea and Cardiff, beaten Fulham and a whole load more in five years.

But this was his big moment.

Before scoring that goal from 20 yards out to make it 2-0, he had already executed a sublime dummy and neatly-weighted pass to create the opening goal. He completed the set with a lung-bursting run and cross for the third goal.

We had beaten Aston Villa 3-1 in the final and my lad had two assists and a goal to take on the long journey back down the A303.

The coaches said players could travel home with their families and once he settled in the car, beaming smile locked on his teenage chops, we all said: “well played mate, great performance.”

The immediate response from this young man who, like millions of other young boys and girls, had always dreamed of being a professional footballer, was:

“Thanks, but I’m still getting released in a couple of months.”

And he was!

Academy football is an incredible journey, talented young boys get to enjoy wonderful footballing and life experiences, but they all have that nagging reality in the back of their minds that it can come to an end.

Each age group, up to U14, will find out at the end of the season if they are taken on for another year. Players then reach the U15/U16 age group and this is where it gets really tough.

The two groups are merged together and the U16s get their final decision around late November / early December. The sensible logic is that this will be the second biggest decision in the life of an Academy footballer: you are either taken on as a full-time apprentice, or not. The big one comes at U16 and whether they turn professional, or not.

For those who are released, they have to get their heads around this life-changing moment before sitting GCSE exams in May.

And for my young man, it was a life-changing moment, but also one he expected.

After returning for pre-season at the beginning of July, he had played well, scored a few goals, bagged a few assists, but also had some indifferent performances.

Most importantly, unlike others in the U16 team, he was not getting game-time with the U18s and those trialists that are always around suddenly all seemed to be wingers, specifically left wingers.

As a parent, it is also a traumatic experience because you are so invested in your son’s game, you know what it means to them and, ask any Academy parent for their absolute honesty, how much it means to you.

A few weeks before the decision day, players and parents are given loads of support and guidance on what to expect, as well as insights on the other opportunities available if the decision doesn’t go as hoped.

We also had the option for just me to attend or they could even text us the decision, if we preferred. A few days before the decision, the day after his birthday, I asked my lad what he wanted to do.

“I don’t want to go because I know the answer but it’s my review, I have to be there.”

We stepped into the room on decision day and you sit down opposite coaches that have become friends over the years. Every single one of them cares for your kid, you know they have done everything to help them succeed and you also know the journey has come to an end.

“It is with a heavy heart that we will not be offering you an apprenticeship.”

Once I heard those expected words, you go into parental protection mode, we thanked them all for an amazing five years and got out as fast as possible. My lad had shown the courage to attend his final review, even though he was certain of the negative outcome, now it was time to get him home.

It was cruel, brutal and ruthless, but this is elite football and not everybody can make it to the next stage.

To make one thing clear, in the entire history of Academy football and as sure as night follows day, as certain as a wet winter in the Westcountry, no Academy parent ever thinks their kid should be released, ever.

But, hundreds of young lads are released from professional Academies every year.

We only have 92 pro clubs in England and, while there are many brilliant youth set-ups all over the country, Academy football is the pinnacle of youth football. It is the environment for the best coaches, the best facilities and the best players.

The reason it is the best is because it is such a tough environment. How else are clubs supposed to survive and thrive? Choices have to be made and hearts have to broken in order for the very best to reach the professional arena.

At U16 level, a few are released but the majority progress to U18s. At U18 level, hardly any turn professional. The numbers are staggering: studies report that less than 1% of Academy footballers make it all the way to become pro players.

The guys we watch on the telly are the elite and, while I know the salaries at the very top of the game are mind-boggling, they deserve our admiration. They have survived where over 99% of their peers have fallen short.

And even then, from the select group that do turn professional at 18, most of them will drop into the semi-pro or amateur game within a couple of years.

Professional football is the dream job for millions of young people but it is also the hardest to attain.

For my lad, and I hope it was the same for all those released from an Academy, the post-Academy support and guidance has been superb. If he wanted, he could have stayed training with the team, they put him forward for exit trials, college programmes, USA scholarships and a whole lot more.

The welfare officer called every few days in those first couple of months. They understood what he was feeling and they wanted to help. No parent can ask for anymore than that.

In his case, however, my lad just wanted a clean break. Initially, he didn’t really want to play football, all confidence and belief had gone but, over time, he has rediscovered his love for the game, the reason he started playing in the first place.

He has started training with an adult team ahead of that transition and enjoyed being the big fish in the school football pond. Football has become enjoyable again, and far less pressurised, which is so important with GCSE exams next on the list.

For those lads heading into the U18 age groups, enjoy every moment, play with freedom, train with dedication, and what will be, will be. And please remember, so many new doors of opportunity will open after Academy football comes to an end.

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