Academy football has earned the reputation of becoming increasingly ruthless in recent years.

Players who do reach the latter stages of their development, after years with their respective clubs, are often released at the very last second – a detrimental process that has left young, aspiring professionals with broken dreams and subsequent mental health issues.

Gone are the days where talent outshines all, as academy football is seemingly in a position where these youth players need to show resilience and a level of maturity well beyond their age.

Some clubs do have support mechanisms in place for those who are deemed surplus to requirements at their academies and this issue is certainly improving with young people’s mental health becoming an integral part of their development.

Steve McNulty: A story of regrouping and going again

Former Liverpool academy captain, Steve McNulty, is just one example out of thousands of academy prospects who fell out of love with the game when he was released at the age of 19.

The centre-back spent 12 years with The Reds and admitted that he struggled to reignite his love for the game after departing and said: “I got released then I didn’t want to play anymore and I just fell out of love with the game to be honest with you.

“So I just went and got a job a couple months after and started driving a furniture van.”

The 37-year-old spent a few months away from the football pitch and started to adjust to the working life before getting a helping hand back into the game, albeit it was in the depths of the non-league.

“I got a phone call one day off a mate of mine, Owen Brown, and his mate was the manager at Burscough and asked me if I would go and play for them,” he said.

“I didn’t even have a pair of boots at the time, so I said you’re going to have to buy me a pair of football boots.

“So, I went to Burscough and worked my way up the divisions from there and started enjoying playing again.”

The centre-back spent two seasons with the seventh-tier Lancashire club before following his good friend Brown to Vauxhall Motors in the division above.

Whilst his seemingly revitalised career was moving in the right direction, enjoying his football remained number one priority: “I didn’t really have any ambitions if I’m honest with you. I thought I would just go up and see if I started enjoying it again.

“And from that point, I started enjoying it again. Owen Brown signed me for Vauxhall Motors and then signed for Barrow from there.”

Breaking back into the Football League with Fleetwood Town

Navigating his way through the non-league, the former Liverpool defender signed for Fleetwood Town – an ambitious sixth-tier club at the time.

He led The Cod Army to the Conference Premier in his first full season with the club and then won promotion to the football league two years later.

Despite the jubilation of leading the club to League Two, McNulty faced a difficult decision in regard to signing a full-time contract with the club, he said: “To be honest with you they were going full-time but I wasn’t sure about it, because I had a job and the money they were offering weren’t great.

“At the time, I was thinking that I could earn more money driving a van but we ended up coming to an agreement and I turned professional, which turned out to be a good decision and the right decision.”

Emerging as a master of the non-league, Steve McNulty has certainly surpassed any ambitions he set for himself in the depths of the non league and has now led three different sides back to the football league, with Luton Town and Tranmere Rovers also calling for McNulty’s services during their short tenures in England’s fifth division.

The former Liverpool captain now plies his trade at Witton Albion in the seventh tier of English football and he will be hopeful that there will be one final promotion before hanging up his boots.

(Main image obtained through McNulty himself)