Almost all starlets signed by Premier League clubs from academies have left top flight football within five years, according to new research.
And just one in 20 given a contract at 18 are still playing at the same level by the time they are 23.
It highlights the stress facing thousands of youngsters chasing the ‘impossible dream’ every year, say sociologists.
Dr Chris Platts, of Sheffield Hallam University, said: “Contemporary debate about professional footballers’ working lives is dominated by supposed high wages, excessive endorsements and the celebrity lifestyle.
“One consequence of this romanticised view of professional football is that the everyday realities of working in such a precarious career remain largely ignored.
“The research paints a picture of the complex, precarious, unequal and relatively short careers of the majority of footballers, particularly those signed to Premier League clubs.”
Previous studies have focused on the pressures that are faced by boys rejected by academies.
A recent report by Teesside university found more than half of players were suffering “clinical levels of psychological distress” three weeks afterwards.
In 2013 a former Spurs youth footballer took his own life after suffering years of mental health difficulties after he was released at the age of 16.
Now, in the first study of its kind, Dr Platts and lecturer Melissa Jacobi have traced the fortunes of 18 year olds fortunate enough to be actually taken on.
The 142 participants had all been at academies and centres of excellence run by 21 clubs in the four top divisions in 2013.
Of the 55 who signed to the five Premier League clubs studied, just three were playing in it in 2018 – around five per cent.
Of the others, ten were in the Championship, one was in League 1, three were in League 2, 26 were in lower leagues, one played overseas – and 11 had no team.
The researchers also found the Premier League recruits had been transferred or loaned to other clubs an average of 2.75 times during the five year period.
This had happened an average three times to those in the Championship and League 2, and 2.27 to those in League 1.
Players who signed to clubs in lower leagues had almost as a high chance of dropping into non league – or out of football altogether.
Of 50 who in 2010 signed to eight Championship clubs studied, only seven were still playing in 2018 at the same level, although three had moved up to the Premier League.
Of the 16 who signed to three League 1 clubs studied, only two were playing in the same league in 2018, with two in the Championship.
Of the 21 who signed to five League 2 clubs studied, only one was playing in the same league five years later – and four in higher leagues.
Dr Platts and Ms Jacobi began by following a total of 298 players in 2010, when they were 15.
Of these, 141 were not signed by any club at all, and 15 went to clubs in lower divisions than the one they were a scholar at.
This left an overall total of 157 – just 15 of whom were still with the club they started at by the age of 23.
Dr Platts, of the university’s Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, told the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow, that young players are facing an increasingly uncertain future.
He said: “This study highlights that, for those players who made it, their labour has been characterised by geographical relocations, short term contracts and, in the main, transfers down the leagues, highlighting the potential hazards associated with the pursuit of a career in professional football.”
It adds to growing concerns about whether enough is being done to protect young people seeking careers as professional footballers.
It is estimated about 12,000 boys are currently in intensive, four‑times‑a‑week training, with hundreds released each year.
First-team opportunities have diminished every year since 1997.
In each transfer window, most Premier League clubs overlook their young graduates and instead spend multimillions of pounds on fully formed overseas stars.