With the number of English players in the Premier League continuing to fall each year, the FA have set about reversing that pattern.
And two Mancunians are doing more than their fair share to help local youngsters live the dream of becoming a professional footballer.
Wayne Richardson, from Moss Side, worked with Greater Manchester Police as a youth support worker before choosing to focus on establishing himself as a strength and conditioning coach.
After working with various local non-league sides, the 42-year-old earned the opportunity to work with the likes of City, Leeds and Nottingham Forest.
And having built his reputation within the game, he set up his own business in 2010, Richardson Sport, helping Academy and professional players who want to do extra fitness training in their own time.
He works with Premier League footballers. As Mario Balotelli’s spell with City was drawing to a close, he called on Richardson’s services to help get him back in shape and make a flying start to his AC Milan career.
‘Pro’ players usually come to him when they’re out of contract or coming back from injury, but his passion is grassroots football and helping aspiring footballers succeed in the ultra-competitive world of Premier League and Football League Academies.
Such is the way Richardson looks after his clients he jokes he’s the Erin Brockovich of Academy football.
Some of them are as young as seven and they – and their families – live in constant fear of being released.
One minute a kid is touted as a future star, the next they’re being told they’re a month away from being let go. And each year new kids are signed, often from abroad, pushing others down the pecking order. All the while their bodies are constantly changing.
But becoming a pro is about much more than being fit and talented. For all the money clubs invest in facilities and coaching, they don’t have a support system in place to help Academy players overcome the emotional, psychological and social issues they inevitably face.
That’s where Richardson Sport comes in. As well as boosting players’ fitness they help parents deal with their son adjusting from grassroots football to becoming a potential pro.
Richardson therefore describes his company as a ‘Football Fitness Coaching and Player Mentoring service’.
“It’s like a Citizen’s Advice Bureau,” he said. “It’s a 24-hour job, I get calls in the middle of the night.
“Parents are crying, they’re saying ‘my son’s going to get released’, ‘he’s got problems at school’, ‘we’ve been approached by an agent’. Sometimes the kids call and they’re saying ‘please don’t tell my parents’.
“I used to think ‘I just do fitness’, but now it’s become a massive umbrella. My job role changes from being a fitness coach to a social worker.”
And Richardson can speak from experience. While he didn’t make it any further than semi-pro as a player, he was offered the job of lead sports scientist by Portsmouth in 2008 – when they were in the Premier League.
Before he’d even started the club went into adiminstration and that blow inspired him to go it alone.
He met with the PFA and the Premier League to pitch his idea of providing a “backroom staff for grassroots players” and although they passed up the opportunity to help, Richardson has established that service – without having a penny of funding.
“There’s been some difficult times where people don’t want to see you progress,” he said.
“I was told it’d never work, that I’d never been a professional so no-one would come to me.
“But one Premier League told me ‘we don’t have the time to do what you do’, so I knew then that I had a chance.
“There’s been some resistance from clubs as well. I don’t want to rival any club, I’ve offered to support what they do.
“But some have said ‘why do you want to pay somebody to do that’, and the parents have said that it’s about trust. They know they can come to us for impartial advice.
“One of our clients moved from one club to another for £25,000. We worked with him for six months after the club physio misdiagnosed an injury and his parents told the club ‘why should you take all the credit, you’re not responsible for my son’s development, he is’.”
From being a one-man band, Richardson Sport has grown to a five-man team which includes the other Mancunian – Laurence Fisher.
Although the 31-year-old from Longsight is a licensed agent, he sees himself more as a mentor as he too has first-hand experience of the industry. His younger brother was released by Bolton in his teens but then earned a pro contract with Rochdale and is now on the fringes of the first team.
“It was an eye-opener for me to discover the ins and outs of football,” he said.
“It was interesting to go through that journey with him, all the highs and lows and managing that emotional roller-coaster or my brother.
“I saw him mature at Rochdale and I thought I can help others progress too.”
Besides Richardson and Fisher – who both have a UEFA ‘B’ coaching licence – there’s also a sports scientist, a scout and a psychologist.
“Because of our previous roles and our background, it gives us an understanding of what they’re going through,” he said.
“We all bring something different to the table and have experience at grassroots level. We’ve got more of an holistic approach, we’re more hands-on, and we believe that’s what makes us unique.”
Based at Sportcity, Richardson Sport now has around 70 clients, some at Academies such as United, Liverpool and Burnley, and they even have to turn some down.
“We have to be realistic about what we can do for people,” said Fisher. “If we can’t help someone we’ll tell them.
“Our main goal is to give every player the best opportunity of becoming a professional footballer, no matter how many barriers they may face.
“There’s not enough English players playing first-team football. We’re not saying we’ve got the solutions but if we can play a small part in increasing that number then our job’s done.
“But even if they don’t make it as a professional footballer, we want to give them the tools to use in other walks of life. I think that’s what makes us different from everyone else.”