Deese Kasinga: What happens when the Premier League academy dream dies?

- in World News
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Deese Kasinga was 17 years old and doing a gym session with some of the academy players at Newcastle United when he was called in to a meeting about his future.

As he came back out of the room, there were cheers and questions from his older team-mates who knew what the meeting was for – and were desperate to know the details of his exciting new professional contract.

But Kasinga had just been told he was being released from Newcastle’s academy. His Premier League dream began to slip away.

“You think you’re mentally prepared for it until you go into the office and it actually comes out their mouth and they’re like, ‘we’re not going to extend your contract’ and reality hits you,” says Kasinga.

In 2017, Kasinga made the Guardian’s Next Generation listexternal-link – alongside players such as Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi – which featured ’20 of the best talents/first-year scholars at Premier League clubs’.

It said Kasinga was “a pacey, technically gifted left-sider, comfortable on the wing or in a more central attacking midfield role”.

“It was the first bit of recognition that I’ve ever had. It gave me the confidence boost to keep going.

“Every kid growing up wants to be a football player, but you don’t actually think it’s realistic,” he tells BBC Sport.

Deese Kasinga kicking a football
Kasinga joined Newcastle’s academy in 2017

Kasinga grew up in the Custom House area of Newham, east London – which he describes as “a living warzone”.

He says his memories of growing up there are “just stabbings”. Football was his motivation to get away from that environment.

“Custom is as rough as you can get,” he says. “Crime rate is crazy. I think most kids – especially boys – coming from the hood think that football is the only legal way out.”

When he was 16, he was offered a two-year scholar contract plus one-year professional contract at Huddersfield Town and a two-year scholar contract at Newcastle United. He picked Newcastle because they were a category one academy – the highest status an academy can be. It was a risk, but he wanted to get a professional contract at Newcastle.

“I was buzzing. It was a surreal experience,” he says.

Despite being a first-year scholar and competing with second-year players, Kasinga started playing full games soon after moving to Newcastle.

But two bad injuries in quick succession hampered his progress. The second, caused by a bad tackle in training, resulted in a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) and a fractured bone. It meant he was out for five months.

“I just remember being proper depressed. I didn’t want to talk to my friends. I didn’t even want to go into the training ground. It was just horrible. I felt so alone,” he says.

He says his physiotherapists helped him physically, but he felt he didn’t get mental health support through the club.

“I wouldn’t say it’s their fault, because [I did] so well to mask it. You have to get on with things,” he says.

A Newcastle United spokesperson told BBC Sport the club “takes the welfare of its players and staff very seriously” and has a range of support measures in place, including full-time safeguarding and welfare officers in the academy, and an external specialist agency.

Newcastle said: “We work closely with our young players through player care workshops and life skills training to educate them on subjects including mental health and suicide prevention.

“Mental health issues are so often hidden and we would encourage anyone who is suffering to seek support by talking to someone they trust. The club deals with such matters sensitively and confidentially.”

After five months out with his injury, Kasinga started playing again. It was only a few weeks after returning to action that he was told he was being released.

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In 2017, journalist Michael Calvin wrote in his book No Hunger in Paradise that only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League professional.

And more than three-quarters of academy players are dropped between the ages of 13 and 16.

Sports consultant Nyall Simms specialises in race, identity and mental wellbeing and is researching the support networks of young black athletes as they transition into professional sports.

He says once a young black male has been recognised as talented at sport, they can be “pigeon-holed into physical education” and “adopt a sporting-heavy identity”.

Their education can suffer in a “system that highlights the ‘rags to riches’ stories of sporting icons who are typically black,” Simms tells BBC Sport. “Ultimately this limits their career pathways greatly.”

Simms says this “sporting identity” is then used as a blueprint for many young black athletes to achieve success. And that is something Kasinga says he experienced.

Simms adds: “In a society where some people of colour believe they have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to be equal, having minimal qualifications when leaving an academy can leave the player disillusioned.”

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After he was dropped by Newcastle, Kasinga got a trial at Norwich City.

“I thought I bounced back quite quickly. [But] I didn’t know the mental state I was in,” he says.

“My head just wasn’t in the game. I couldn’t explain it – I just didn’t even want to play. The injury I had started hurting again and training wasn’t fun. I couldn’t show my best side, with the injuries and with my mind not being where it needed to be.”

Kasinga spent just over a week at Norwich before they told him they were letting him go. He went to Ipswich then Brentford, but his injury kept resurfacing. Eventually he was out for another five months.

“They were dark times. I didn’t enjoy it any more; I was thinking ‘what’s the point of me doing this if I’m going to get hurt every time I play?’ So I definitely considered giving up football.”

Now 19, he is currently playing non-league for Tower Hamlets.

“I know I’ve got the talent. It’s just about keeping healthy. Get my body right, get my mind right. So the goal is to get back into the system and just try to sign a professional contract and kick on from there,” says Kasinga.

“My advice for football players that have been released from clubs is you’ve just got to know how good you are. You were there for a reason. There’s so many clubs in the world you can go to. You’ve just got to have faith and keep working.”

Players’ union the Professional Footballers’ Association offers mental health support support including access to counselling and residential rehab services.

“We provide members with advice and guidance to encourage personal development and career prospects beyond football. Our message to young players is it’s never too early to start thinking about life after football,” they told BBC Sport.

If you’ve been affected by issues raised in this article, help and support is available via the BBC Action Line.

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