Why is UK Anti-Doping so active in testing youth footballers?

Slow speed exposure of players warming up
Testing figures in the FA Youth Cup were obtained through a Freedom of Informational request

It is a competition for teenagers that has been scrutinised by drugs testers more than some of England's top leagues.

The FA Youth Cup, which features Liverpool and Manchester City in Thursday's final, had 375 samples collected from players - aged between 15 and 18 - by UK Anti-Doping (Ukad) last season.

That is more than in each of the top divisions in English rugby union, rugby league and county cricket - and more than all major women's team sports combined.

A further 313 samples were collected from Division One of the Premier League 2 Under-23 competition.

BBC Sport takes a look at why football's youth competitions come under such focus.

'Vulnerable' emerging talent

In the UK, footballers are the most heavily tested athletes in team sports.

Teaching emerging talent of the pitfalls and dangers of doping is at the forefront of the agency's strategy, says Ukad's head of education and athlete support Amanda Hudson.

And exposure to drugs tests is very much a learning experience.

"Athletes start sport clean, and our job is to keep them that way. That's got to be the first line of defence," Hudson told BBC Sport.

"The challenge we have is athletes become increasingly more vulnerable as they enter in to a performance environment.

"Whether that's the 16-year-old joining an academy or people going for trials or working with sports scientists for the first time, that's the moment when, potentially, athletes could be vulnerable.

"What we've got to do is make sure, when athletes' morals are intact, when they're not under pressure, when they're not feeling vulnerable, to try to top up as best we can that sporting character.

"So if they're faced with the wrong coach or environment, we have a stronger place that we're starting from. Athletes are more able to cope if they have a strong starting DNA."

'We're not just the sport police'

Hudson, who is also part of the World Anti-Doping Agency's education committee, says "navigating the anti-doping system" makes the life of any aspiring athlete "even more challenging".

"What we've been doing at Ukad is trying to build an education system where an athlete - from 10, all the way up to the Olympics or Paralympics - has the opportunity to meet up, be educated and build a positive relationship with us, not see us as just the sport police," she said.

"I've been an athlete and - many, many years ago - the perception was that Ukad were the sport police and their job was to catch the cheats.

"But we're just trying to help them navigate some of the challenges, particularly around inadvertent doping.

"It's far cheaper to educate a lot of athletes, because the majority of athletes have no intention of cheating. It's easy to forget that."

How are Premier League clubs educating youngsters?

Athletes need to be raised to think critically about what what they put in their body, says Crystal Palace academy director Gary Issott.

"It's the duty of care that you have to the players," he said. "Part of their induction is around the doping rules and regulations. We've got full-time medics and doctors in the academy who are checking and challenging the players on a weekly basis.

"I think it's a cultural thing where you instil it into the players so, before they take anything, you want them to be in a position where they're asking the question: 'Is it OK to take this?'

"Whatever they get prescribed by a GP or anybody else, it's the first question, as an athlete, to think: 'Can I take it?'

"That's the culture you have got to develop and the mindset you have to instil in the club, just so no one makes a genuine mistake."

The fact that errors can cost careers is not something that is understated - but the clubs' educational work also goes well beyond anti-doping.

"For the large majority of players that enter the programme, they won't get a career in football," said Issott.

"So you're trying to educate for life skills away from football, but also, the lads that do survive in the game, you're trying to give them the best chance of having as long a career as possible.

"We're aware of certain players that have lost their careers through match fixing or taking substances they shouldn't have taken, and you've got to remember these are young men, so they will make mistakes.

"You're trying to minimise the mistakes they make through the education programme.

"We educate the boys on a number of issues, from leaving football, to addictions, to finance, to betting and the use of social media.

"We try to educate the players continuously, along with their parents."

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