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Mental impact of being released: 'My lowest point was not knowing if I would play again'

For footballers up and down the U.K., the start of a new season is filled with hope. But for some, the big kick-off is just another reminder that their own dream is over.


There are usually more than 10,000 boys in football's youth development system at any one time, and between 3,000 and 4,000 associated with Premier League clubs. Of those who join academies at the earliest possible opportunity aged nine, less than one per cent go on to make a living out of the game. Many are released having known nothing else but football, and the summer months are spent desperately seeking another avenue back in or facing up to the realisation that they are not destined to be the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.


A year ago, Demetri Mitchell went through this when his lengthy association with Manchester United, whom he joined at the age of 10, came to an end. He was expecting the news, but it didn't do much to soften the blow.


"Coming towards the end of my contract at Man United, I knew that my time was up," Mitchell tells ESPN. "I knew it was coming, but when you get the news, it still hits you hard. I didn't think it was going to be [hard] because I already knew that my time was up, but when I was told, it was tough.


"My lowest point was not knowing if I would play again. I was probably overthinking and being a bit dramatic, but in my head I was thinking, 'Am I going to play again, am I going to be all right, what am I going to do if I can't play?'


"That period was a very mentally challenging time for me. I tried not to show it as much as possible, but the people around me who are close to me could pick up on it and luckily I had that support."


Mitchell, 24, is one of the lucky ones. After joining Sunderland to regain fitness following an 18-month battle with injury, he accepted a trial at League One side Blackpool. His performances in friendlies against Everton and Blackburn earned him a contract and 12 months later, he was walking out at Wembley and helping his new team to a 2-1 win over Lincoln City in the playoff final to earn a shot at the Championship this season.


Some of the players he grew up with have not been so fortunate.


"When you're coming up through the [age groups] you see dozens of players being let go and not making it," he says. "I'm still close to lots of former teammates, and they've told me how hard it can be. You hear stories in the news of things happening. It's a challenging time; it's not easy.


"When you're under-18s and you're being told if you're getting a contract, that's the toughest. If you're a pro at a top club you're in a position where you can go on to find other clubs, but leaving as a scholar, it can be tough to find somewhere else."


The desire to become a professional footballer can become all-consuming. For some, it's about realising a lifelong dream; others see the wealth on offer at top clubs as a way to help their entire family escape an underprivileged background.


Raheem Sterling, now at Manchester City, has admitted he felt pressure to succeed because his talent was a "ticket out" of St. Raphael's Estate in Neasden, north-west London. At just 13 years old he would take three buses to training with Queens Park Rangers, often accompanied by his sister while his mother was at work, leaving the house at 3 p.m. every day and not returning until after 11 at night.


The way academies are run has changed drastically in the past 10 years. Now, there is a greater focus on education to help players transition to lives away from football if they are released, and there's more being done to look after the players' mental as well as physical well-being -- but there occasionally still are tragic stories.