Football Dreams: The Academy, review: a well-tackled focus on the kids who refuse to lose

·2 min read
Crystal Palace FC's youth academy - Chloe Knott
Crystal Palace FC's youth academy - Chloe Knott

Didn’t TV hear the Lionesses roar? Disappointingly, there was no room for girls in Football Dreams: The Academy (Channel 4). This docuseries about young soccer talent was filmed before England’s women brought it home, but its male-only focus felt old-fashioned.

The grassroots girls’ game is struggling and deserves more of the spotlight.Still, this engrossing six-parter, following different age groups at Crystal Palace’s prestigious academy, offered a fascinating insight into the harsh reality behind boyhood dreams. The opening episode tracked the Under-12s, where Kairo, Kayden and Bola – a “band of brothers” – hoped to work their way into new contracts.

The series excelled in its casting. Not only were the three boys bright and engaging but their coaches, led by the impressive Phil Hingston, were equally camera-friendly. They nurtured the boys’ emotional development as much as their ball skills, reminding their charges to “stay humble”. We’re often told that professional football can be toxic – 
see the current Ryan Giggs court case – but the mentoring here offered hope.

The weight of expectation on these young shoulders was palpable. In elite sport nowadays, data is king. Everything was measured, monitored, analysed. The fact that the boys all spoke proudly about providing for their families, although admirable, only cranked up the pressure.

Were the high stakes, sacrifices and £160 boots worth it? Heartbreak was far more likely than a lucrative career. Even Palace chairman Steve Parish admitted: “Academies are pretty Darwinian.” Poignantly, defender Bola hid a knee injury for fear of losing his place in the team. As parents helped with training, ferried them around and attended meetings, it was a rounded portrayal of how success demands an entire family’s commitment.

Compellingly structured in countdown style as decision day loomed, the film had the irresistible rhythm of a football season. It didn’t have the raw emotional heft of recent cricketing series Freddie Flintoff’s Field of Dreams, but we heard stories of dead fathers, single mothers and south London estates. Narrated by comedian Ben Bailey Smith, soundtracked by Stormzy and full of fistbumps, it was “yoof” friendly but not exclusively so.

We’ve had a flurry of series about the beautiful game − Amazon’s All or Nothing, the BBC’s Fever Pitch and Class of ’92 − but they tend to cover the top level. Looking further down the ladder paid dividends. But next time, get the girls involved.