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Football’s biggest issue: The mental pressures facing academy players

Eno Nto, an 18-year-old former Derby Academy player coming to the end year of school with the thrilling US Soccer Scholarship opportunity in the not so distant future, spoke to us about protecting his mental wellbeing.

What is your first memory of football?

My first memory of football is me playing in the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ in Dubai, which doubled as my back garden, our first summer living there over ten years ago. Myself, my young brother and three of our new friends playing bare foot on concrete, trying to recreate skills and goals we had watched.

Although, it was only five of us playing, the games were intensified by stubbed toes and the unforgiving temperatures, when the sun subsided, we continued playing even having broken all the backyard lights.

I feel in love with the game watching the under-17’s World Cup held in Dubai, seeing boys practically my age playing with confidence and flair, representing Nigeria and winning the tournament; I can say that was the moment a decision was made to make it my reality.

How did you get into the Derby Academy and what was your relationship with football like?

I was having the time of my life with football, my confidence in my abilities was second to none, so much so that I was scouted by Wolves after freestyling and challenging spectators to panna ‘nutmeg’ games at my cousin’s tournament (which I wasn’t even playing in). I had returned to England and moved to a boarding school in the Midlands, so I could complete my trial. However, while playing in a game for the boarding school, I was spotted by Derby who invited me to come for some sessions as they were closer than Wolves, two weeks later I was offered to sign my schoolboy forms.

“At that time, football had helped me settle in and make friends in a new school, and to some extent what felt like a new country. Outside of school, I was now seeing a professional academy for the first time, a distant dream from playing Saturday league in Dubai. The thrill of playing premier league academies on a weekly basis, I was allowed to express myself freely. I enjoyed football, there was no pressure on me, I had no academy experience before I was 14, so there wasn’t this expectation on me from myself or from my team.

How important has a strong support network in the UK been?

Coming back to the UK, to a boarding school at that and living thousands of miles away from your family are obstacles not every 12-year-old child goes through, but I had to. However, knowing that your classmates are experiencing this very challenge you begin to create bonds with each other. I believe you attract what energy you give out, in that sense. I’ve been blessed with friendships I easily term family and to this very day, we serve as support systems for each other. Speaking of family, thanks to technology thousands of miles diminished by facetime and WhatsApp and during these challenging months, I have also benefited from positive conversations with my mentor Emmanuel Nare.