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Young players have been left “devastated” by Arsenal’s decision to close down their Women’s Player Development Programme (PDP) for girls aged seven to 15, Telegraph Sport has been told.
Up to 300 girls are understood to be affected by the closure, which was communicated to parents in a brief email on Wednesday. Run at five satellite sites across Hertfordshire and Middlesex, the programme previously involved one session per week, 24 times a year, as well as mini tournaments. However, no sessions have taken place since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in England in March 2020.
The PDP was separate to the club’s main academy for elite youngsters, which remains in place and is being expanded to include younger age groups, but the players in the PDP still wore the Arsenal kit and many had aspirations for a career in football.
A statement from Arsenal on Thursday said: “As we have previously shared, there is a thorough ongoing strategic review of all areas of Arsenal Women. This includes all areas from elite football to commercial and football development.
“The review confirmed that Player Development Programmes provide a grassroots football provision which is now better suited to our award-winning Arsenal in the Community department. The details of the programmes that will be suitable for PDP participants will be shared once confirmed.
“The new structure of the women’s pre-Academy (U8, U9, U10, U11) and Academy (U12, U13, U14 & U16) doubles the number of female players in our elite pathway.”
Yet, for the players too old to apply to join the new 'pre-academy', there are fears their Arsenal journey ends here. Anne-Marie Mill, whose daughter had been in one of the PDP’s Under-14 groups, said “At an age when girls often just drop out of football, this is so crucial, and I worry a lot of them will drop out. They’ve just cut them adrift, that’s how it feels.
“It’s really devastating for them all. The kids are sold a dream - now this just doesn’t smell right. Something stinks here.”
One dad, who wished to remain anonymous to protect his daughter’s identity, added: “She was very proud of the fact she was putting an Arsenal shirt on, the coaching was first class, and she was absolutely loving it. It’s really disappointing for the kids and the parents. It kind of leaves the girls in a limbo state now.
“I understand there are no guarantees in football, but the way it has been managed is poor. It hasn’t taken into account the feelings of these young girls. My daughter wanted to carry on playing for Arsenal so she didn’t sign up for any trials elsewhere.”
'We didn't get our money's worth'
Several other parents have also told Telegraph Sport they have been disappointed with the level of communication from Arsenal since the pandemic, and surprised the sessions had not returned once grassroots sport in England was permitted to resume - nor were virtual video sessions arranged during any periods of lockdown.
Joining the PDP - for those successful at trials - is said to have cost around £270 per season, which also included an Arsenal shirt and Arsenal women junior membership. A parent added: “It all really started to go downhill when Covid hit, there was very little communication for many months. We certainly didn’t get our money’s worth. I feel their response to Covid has been so lethargic.”
In response, Arsenal’s statement continued: “We have been supporting the parents and carers of our PDP individually. All participants were invited to apply for an academy trial and we are now working with local grassroots teams to signpost players which will simultaneously help grassroots teams build their talent pools. This is one of the many community programmes designed for both males & females and community programmes designed for females only.
“All parents/carers were contacted in March to inform them that our PDP would not return for the 20-21 season and that a productive review was underway, which stated an update in June and invited all players to register for an academy trial.”
However, parents have said those trial invitations came with less than a week’s notice of the trials date, which was during the half-term break when many girls were not available, and claim the news of the PDP’s closure emerged after most other local teams’ summer trials hadeither concluded or applications had closed.