Six-year-old Lewis Towns is in training with Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton and cannot yet tie his shoelaces. He was born in October, making him old for both his school year and sporting-age group. When it comes to footballers, early birth translates into advantage.
Lewis has a full head of height on most of his contemporaries. People who don’t know his name, when they watch him from the sidelines, simply refer to him as “the big lad.”
He is professional football’s new prey, but the chances of him actually becoming a professional footballer are vanishingly small. You could call Lewis a victim, but then you’d have to work out who is to blame.
It’s a Saturday morning in July. His father, Adrian, a bricklayer, is driving his blue Mercedes through Ashton-under-Lyne on Tameside in Greater Manchester. He played football on a semi-professional level before injuries and other commitments brought that to an end. Lewis’ mother is not here on this day; she and Adrian separated when Lewis was four years old.
It’s hot, at least for a region often swept by rain. Adrian wears shorts, a white polo shirt, Bolle sunglasses and flip-flops patterned to look like mud cracking in the sun. His Breitling watch is counterfeit, but he still paid £4,000 ($4,696) for it.
Adrian wants Lewis to be the real thing.
Some believe a tendency to rely on physicality lies behind contemporary England’s failure to develop world-beating players. Yet Lewis’ body is still soft. There is a good half-decade ahead, before he hits puberty.
Adrian drives through the town with Lewis in the back seat. And the town of Ashton-under-Lyne worships football. Adrian turns left, off the main road. The entrance to Tameside Stadium breaks left. It is a multipurpose athletics setup. There is a running track, floodlit Astroturf and basic seating for the semi-professional football team.
Outside stands a statue of the three most prominent footballers to hail from Tameside. Each of the metal men depicted in dynamic, running poses is a World Cup winner. Geoff Hurst and Jimmy Armfield, members of England’s 1966 winning squad (Armfield did not play), and midfielder Simone Perrotta, who was born in Ashton to Italian parents and played in that country’s World Cup side 40 years later. That was four years before Lewis was born. “This statue stands as a testament to Tameside’s place in football history,” reads a plaque below.
The prospect of Lewis playing at the level of any of these men is so small it verges on the infinitesimal. For starters, he’s in the wrong country. Of the big five European leagues, the English Premier League has the lowest representation of club-trained players. According to a report from the CIES Football Observatory published this year, at present, they account for 6.1 percent of Premier League minutes played. That compares to 21.6 percent in the Spanish Liga and 20.6 percent in French Ligue 1.
“It’s very difficult for young players to become first-team squad members, directly from the youth academy, especially at the top level of English football,” says Dr. Raffaele Poli, the head of the observatory.
According to research by the sports writer Michael Calvin, of the 1.5 million boys playing organised youth football in England at any one time, only 180 will make appearances in the Premier League. Even the chances of more modest success are slight.
“It’s around about half of 1 percent of kids who go into an academy at nine that will make a living from football,” Calvin says. “That is down to semi-pro level.”
But statistics are no match for the cheerful optimism of a child.
“Sad,” Lewis says when asked how he’d feel if he doesn’t make it as a footballer. “But I could still play on my Xbox.”
“Play what?” Adrian asks.
“FIFA,” Lewis replies.
Yet clubs, fearful of missing the next big prospect and conscious of their competitors’ activities, are increasingly scouting younger and younger players. They are venturing well below the U9 category, which is the first year they can formally sign boys up to an academy.
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“There is pressure because Man United are doing it, therefore Man City need to do it,” says Nick Levett, talent identification manager at the Football Association. “And because Liverpool are doing it, therefore Everton need to do it.”
Lewis started playing football when he was 18 months old at an outfit in Ashton-under-Lyne then called Socatots—now called Little Strikers. He was three when he was first scouted, at a school called Elite Soccer in Stalybridge, another Tameside town. The initial invitation came from Manchester City.
“When they did, they put him in with the older kids till they actually had an age group,” his father says. He was three, going on four. At Elite Soccer, Lewis also soon began competitive games. “Really, you’re not supposed to start till you’re five, going on six," Adrian says. "But he was down there from four years old, playing two years up.”
A spokesman for Manchester City denied that their interactions with very young players constitute formal scouting and drew a distinction between the club’s network of development centres and its formal academy, which begins at U9.
Liverpool confirmed they had a “pre-academy” side starting at U5s but would not give further details. Manchester United declined to comment “due to the nature and confidentiality around player and academy recruitment,” but likewise emphasized U9 is the first age they can sign players.
According to Adrian, Manchester United scouted Lewis when he had just turned five. Liverpool and Everton followed within the next year.
Evidence suggests that scouting such young children, when so much can change during adolescence, is a fool’s errand.
“None of us can predict the future,” says Mark O’Sullivan, a coach and coach educator at AIK Solna in Sweden who runs Footblogball.
Adrian is aware of the pitfalls, but is also acutely conscious of opportunities.
“I just want him to enjoy football,” he says. “But obviously you can’t say no, because it might not happen again.”
Like many football parents, Adrian is also judiciously playing these clubs against each other until Lewis is nine and able to sign a contract.
“You can’t put all your eggs in one basket,” he says. “You’ve got to treat them like they treat you.”
Everton’s press office declined to comment, but Mark Curran, their academy’s greater Manchester Recruitment Officer, said:
“We all try to get kids at a young age, pre-academy. Pre-academy means, obviously, under-sixes and under-fives. The earlier you can get them, the most loyalty you get from the parents, so the more chance they’re not going to go to another club. … If you get a kid at five and he’s any good, he’ll just stay with you.”
Lewis’ life is an endless succession of journeys in the blue Mercedes. His father moves his shifts around to be able to chauffeur his son. You ask Lewis what his top subject at school is, and he says football. He has secreted 12 balls into the garden of his grandparents’ house alone.
For children of Lewis’ age, the clubs often maintain different streams sometimes termed Development, Select and Elite. Lewis is generally in the middle level, but he has moved around. Adrian thinks Everton dropped Lewis from a higher level because he wasn’t attending enough, and they knew he was going elsewhere. Even at Lewis’ age, the sessions are serious.
“We went down to Man City where they’re doing the training,” explains Lewis’ grandfather, Willie, who is 66. “The training is—you’re talking probably about an hour-and-a-half, two hours there, and you’re talking about a six-year-old. Doing that, it’s a lot. So they must see something that other people obviously don’t see.”
The big clubs are closed environments, opaque to outsiders. But today, Lewis also plays for his grassroots team, Waterloo. And here, at Tameside Stadium on a summer morning in July, you can see what he can do.
The pitches are laid out on a divided AstroTurf, with additional goals set up in the middle of the full-sized pitch. The matches are five per side, 15 minutes each way. Lewis plays first for a team two years above his own U7 age category. He is equal in size to these older boys, though they are fully a third older than him. “Lewis never passes,” one complains.
On the sidelines, the crowd is mostly men, though there are a few women. Adrian gives some encouragement; his preferred term of address for his son is Lew, but he appears not to be a shouter. Here at the grassroots side where the coaches take care afterward to tell everyone how well they did, Adrian sees no reason to disclose his elaborate machinations with the big clubs. “I keep it close to my chest; best way, because it looks like you’re bragging,” he says.
But Adrian does keep Lewis busy. When the first game on the AstroTurf is over, they drive out through a neighbourhood of residential houses to a grass pitch. The atmosphere is different here. It’s still a summer morning, but there are fathers here cracking open beers. For some, this is casual, but not for Lewis.
Back with his own age group, he is much bigger, scything through the opposition.
“Looks like he’s running the show at the moment; it’s a one-man team,” Adrian says on the sideline.
By the end of the day. Lewis will have scored around 18 goals—no one keeps a certain count, but that kind of haul is typical for his weekends. An opposition manager becomes irate and suggests he’s too old for the age category. He’s not, but the manager still takes him off to assuage the situation. Questioning as to whether Lewis is really six is routine. He turns seven on Oct. 2.
You’ve seen already that Adrian is not a shouter. But still, here, Lewis is a vessel for his hopes, even though Adrian still tucks in his son’s shirt and ties the laces on the orange Adidas boots he paid £65 ($76) for. Next year’s will cost £80 ($94).
Adrian gets Lewis some McDonald’s to eat after the game. Lewis is tired and sleepy. They drive to Royton, where Adrian lives in a bungalow. Lewis has taken his shirt off, and in the car, the seat belt runs over his bare chest. The radio plays “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division.
In Adrian’s house, there are bedrooms for Lewis and his sister when they stay there. Their visits are brief, Lewis’ structured around football. In Lewis’ bedroom, the wallpaper is blue with white and black footballs.
The next morning, Lewis is back at his mother’s house. Adrian dropped him there in the afternoon. Without Lewis, Adrian goes to work, his son’s man-of-the-match trophy wedged in by the gear stick in his white work van. It’s not Adrian’s regular job. For several years, he has worked for a local building contractor, which provides the flexibility to meet his chauffeuring requirements for Lewis. His work has also exposed him to the chattels of the professional game.
He has laid bricks for Crosby Homes, the firm that builds mansions for the football princes of the northwest in adjacent Cheshire. He has seen the places they can live, where Lewis could live if he makes it. This is what he does when he is not with Lewis, and little else, given how demanding Lewis’ coaching requirements are.
“With all the work with his football, I don’t get weekends,” Adrian says.
But really, the activities with and without Lewis are the same. Adrian builds walls, just as he is trying to build Lewis, his own flesh and blood and progeny, into a professional footballer.
The owners of the house where Adrian is working are Keith and Glynis Aspin, 61 and 58, with grown-up children. Glynis comes out and provides Adrian with drinks for hot work on a hot day. She talks football, confiding that she too once had a football-loving son.
“I actively didn’t push it because I thought he had a lot more chance of earning a lot of money and a good income,” she says. “I didn’t want him blowing his education.”
Her son went on to university. He now works as an air traffic controller. Inside his parents’ house, there are photographs of graduation ceremonies.
The unspoken tension here in Manchester on a sunny Sunday morning is, as with so much else in England, about social class. Adrian, and Lewis by extension, are distinctly working class. The Aspins are transplants. Keith was born in poverty but worked his way up in the car-spraying business. Glynis got a degree as a mature student. Now they are arguably part of the middle class, on the other side of the fence from Lewis’ father. When it comes to football, that divide is gigantic.
This is not America, where sporting aptitude is a free pass toward subsidised higher education and alternative career prospects if things do not work out. This is England, where chasing the professional dream requires full-time engagement from the age of 16, only spiced lightly with education in an academy programme. And even before that, there is the endless compromise of school by football’s ever greater appetite for time.
The social divide between Lewis’ father repairing this wall and those who own it is nuanced, but it is significant.
“I don’t agree with the academies taking players this young—but if you refuse it now?” muses Adrian.
“You’ve got more chance of being struck by lightning twice than making it as a professional footballer,” adds Keith Aspin.
It’s six weeks later now, on the second weekend of August, a Saturday morning that marks the first weekend of play in a competition that Lewis will almost certainly never participate in: the English Premier League. Chelsea will go down 3-2 to Burnley, a team promoted back to the league in 2016, but that will not happen until the afternoon. In the morning, dreams are still fresh.
Lewis is in the car park opposite McDonald’s in Ashton-under-Lyne with Adrian and other members of the Waterloo side. He’s wearing gray tracksuit trousers under his shirt, and Adrian today is head-to-toe in gray tracksuit too, as though they are one and the same being. Lewis has been on holiday with his sister and mother in the Lake District north of Manchester. He’s back just for this tournament. Adrian drove for two hours to pick him up.
They drive in convoy to Wythenshawe Park, where the destination is a pre-season football festival. Lewis sits on the back lip of the Mercedes’ trunk as Adrian ties his bootlaces. It starts to rain and it is cold for August; wind inverts umbrellas.
Again, Lewis plays a series of short matches. Again, it is a goal fest. He scores three in one game alone. The pitches are bigger here than in July, and Lewis’ greater positional sense compared to his peers is apparent. The others form a gaggle, a scrum, chasing the ball itself. He’s different. On the ball, he’ll separate from the crowd, spot the space on the other side of the pitch, and run toward it. Off the ball, rather than running in a straight line chasing the player with it, he loops around, separating himself from the pack, turning to the right or left and coming back round to intercept.
Lewis is playing an altogether wiser game than his peers.
There is something different here, too, compared to the previous tournament: There is a new species on the touchlines, and they are not parents.
They mostly wear tracksuits, emblazoned with Manchester City or Everton or other crests, and someone says that here out among the grassy smorgasbord of pitches, Stockport County are at large, too. They carry another type of identification, this one mandated though usually tucked in under their quilted coats. The laminated identity card proves that their interest in watching six-year-old boys is professional.
They are the scouts. They are adamant that it is possible to identify talent in such young players, despite the weight of evidence against that hypothesis.
“Of course you can,” says James Marsden, scouting for Manchester City. “You can see if a player’s got potential, you can see if a player’s got ability at such a young age. If it comes natural, you can look at some games and think straight away, ‘That boy’s got something.’”
The scouts watch Lewis play. Like others before, one refers to him as “the big lad.” This scout thinks Lewis is carrying too much weight. He says that will count against him.
Lewis is six years old.
When the tournament is over, Ben Welch, the 29-year-old truck driver who coaches Lewis’ team, calls the team over.
“Right, Waterloo come in,” Welch says, squatting down to child’s level. “Not on your bum, sit like me on your feet. Lewis, come on mate.”
“Every one of you played brilliant,” Welch says. “Every single one of you played really well. Lewis, you did some good goals. Every one of you’s playing well. Even when you’re coming off, you’re all being really good. I’m really impressed with all of you.”
This isn’t true, obviously, but it is kind. An appropriate way to talk to six-year-olds, perhaps. There are two cultures in collision here: a friction between this grassroots coach and the hovering scouts.
“Don’t sit on your bum, Ralphie, you’ll get wet,” Welch reminds one of Lewis’ teammates.
Adrian drives Lewis to his house. Later, as Lewis goes to play with one of the footballs he has secreted around the bungalow, Adrian leafs through a set of old photographs. They are physical prints from a pre-digital era. They show Adrian on a visit to Manchester United in, he thinks, 2003, when he was in his early 20s.
One shows Adrian standing next to a youthful Tim Howard, the American goalkeeper who spent several seasons at Old Trafford. In another, Adrian is overshadowed, literally, by Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Dutch striker sports a distinctive early-aughts haircut. In these images, taken seven years before Lewis’ birth, Adrian looks like an acolyte.
Adrian drives to his own parents’ house. Lewis’ grandfather is here, standing in a doorway, neat and hairless. He spent 12 years in the Royal Navy in the 1960s and ‘70s as Britain shrugged off the last of its empire, working on Blackburn Buccaneer strike aircraft on the carrier Ark Royal. He played football for his ship, and also for the navy. Though back then, footballers would drink in the same pubs as their fans, perhaps run one after they retired. They were not millionaires.
Adrian drives back to his hotel. Silk 106.9 is giving the halftime Premier League scores from the afternoon, the first weekend of the season. Chelsea 0, Burnley 3. Crystal Palace 0, Huddersfield 2. The radio changes to music. The Beach Boys come on as Adrian steers. Lewis sits in the back with his Star Wars First Order Battle Pack Lego.
“God only knows what I’d be without you,” the Beach Boys sing.
Simon Akam is a British writer. His work has appeared in a broad range of British and American publications, including the New York Times, the Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek and GQ. William Heinemann/Penguin Random House will next year publish his first book, The Changing of the Guard.