Play smarter, use your head

February 1, 2002

Football is waking up to the fact that players need to pursue goals off as well as on the pitch. Matthew Baker reports.

The path to higher education is not one that has been traditionally trodden by footballers. Whereas the likes of Sebastian Coe, Audley Harrison and Michael Atherton have all achieved academic excellence outside their sporting careers, the footballing fraternity has generally shied away from academic honours. Caricatures of footballers tend to portray them as barely able to string two words together, and much has been made about Chelsea's Graeme Le Saux being pilloried just for reading The Guardian .

So why then the recent government roadshow campaign, featuring Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard, that aims to encourage young footballers into higher education? (The campaign poster states: "There is only one Steven Gerrard. There are loads of sports careers.") Is this a sign that the game is ready to shed its non-academic image and encourage young people, particularly young footballers, to covet not just an England cap but an academic cap and gown as well?

Mick Burns, education chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, says the game is at last starting to welcome the idea of higher education. But he adds that a major cultural shift is still needed for clubs to fully realise the importance of education for young players. "The footballing world operates in a cocoon," he says.

It is four years since the introduction of the Football Scholarship Programme, which replaced the outdated Youth Training Scheme. Burns cites the first scholarship report as a sign that change is on the way, but says that "it could take another generation before we achieve our aims".

The report covers the first three-year programme, which started in 1998 and allows footballers to play and learn at the same time. It shows that of the 541 young players who signed scholarship agreements at 64 clubs, 55 per cent had five GCSEs at grade C or above and 11 per cent went on to university. Only 192 were offered professional contracts at the end of the three-year agreement. That is a lot of people who, without the education opportunities offered by the agreements, could be facing the scrapheap.

The scholarship programme is based on research conducted in the early 1990s that showed a need to provide greater educational support to young players who were vulnerable to a sudden change in fortune, whether due to injury, not being offered a permanent contract or for other reasons. The Football Association's technical director, Howard Wilkinson, consequently introduced the Charter for Quality, which paved the way for the Football Scholarship Programme.

Burns says the first intake showed good academic ability. This convinces him that the programme will help footballers safeguard their future. "Fifteen per cent of young footballers on the programme had achieved A or A* grades in at least five GCSEs," he says.

The PFA has recently announced an increase in funding for the programme from £2.25 million a year to £4 million from 2003, which, Burns says, will help provide greater support and encouragement to motivate footballers to achieve their full potential.

"It can be daunting for them competing at college and university," he admits. "Academia and football are worlds apart. It's up to us to bridge that gap."

If this can be achieved, footballers will suffer a lot less when, as many young hopefuls find out, they are released from their contract. "Few people can really understand how a youngster feels when a club tells them they're no longer wanted," he says. "It kills their dream." The tragedy of 19-year-old Jonathan Macari, who hanged himself in 1999 after being released from Nottingham Forest, is something that Burns hopes education might help to avoid. "It can soften the blow," he says.

The PFA also offers an exit programme to encourage players to seek further training or studies. One player who seized this opportunity is 21-year-old Chris Woodcock from Halifax, who two years ago was released by Premier League high-flyers Newcastle United.

Now at Oxford University studying maths and computer science, he admits he was devastated by Newcastle's decision to release him. "I'd been injured for 18 months and was bracing myself for the rejection because my contract was coming up for renewal," he says. "But it still hit my confidence very hard."

After going on the PFA exit course and taking time out to think about his future, he decided to study extra A levels and go to university. Despite his initial feelings when his contract was terminated, he now says: "It was a relief to give up the dream. Once I began my studies I felt like a weight had been taken off my shoulders."

He had already studied two A levels at night school while playing for Newcastle, something his education officer thought would prove to be too difficult. On completing further A levels in maths and higher maths, and achieving an A in both, he was offered a place at Oxford.

Bringing the importance of education to the attention of young players is, he says, a tall order for the PFA. "The clubs don't really want to put money into anything other than football, and the players don't want to think about anything other than football."

Yet many are convinced such attitudes can be changed and that it is possible for clubs to successfully run twin-track development programmes.

Brian Buddell, education officer at Sunderland Football Club, says that it is in the club's interest to offer educational support to players. "A club is not just measured on the silverware in its trophy cabinet these days, but on how they treat players.

"Parents want to know if their sons can attain qualifications and play football. Also I believe that if a player is educated they're more likely to behave themselves and handle the pressures of top-level football better."

And he adds: "Players never know when their playing career will end. An injury could finish it tomorrow. Football alone doesn't really prepare you for the real world."

Buddell firmly believes that an education revolution is under way. "The dinosaur attitude that football is the only important thing is thankfully on the way out," he says. "We're now attracting boys who are academically qualified, and many are considering going to university as an alternative to playing football.

"Even first-team players are studying part-time degrees. Darius Kubicki, a former Sunderland player and Polish international, did a business studies masters degree while he was here."

The education revolution within football will come, he explains, because there are a lot more education-based people working in clubs nowadays, and not just for the players. Many clubs are developing more community ties and using football to win children, mainly boys, over to the joys of learning - yet another sign of how football is taking on the new Labour education, education, education mantra.

Buddell adds that the growth of sport science programmes at university has also had an influence. "The game has become more sophisticated. Sport scientists, biomechanists and nutritionists are all helping to create a more academic atmosphere, which makes a better environment for the players to learn in.

"Thirty years ago, ex-footballers either became car salesmen or ran pubs. Now they're carving out alternative careers as scientists, lawyers, businessmen, leisure managers, accountants and many other professions besides."

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