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A cultural problem: The need for education in English football

When it comes to educating young talented footballers, the UK is woefully behind other European heavyweights. In Spain and Italy, there is a common understanding that education must go hand and hand with those pursuing a football career. In England, though, football seemingly takes priority.

But what happens to young players who don’t make it in the footballing world and have hardly any education to fall back on?

Over the last eight years, only 0.5% of academy players who join as young boys have made it into Premier League clubs without being released. The pressure put on clubs by the allure of big money doesn’t help matters, as clubs now increasingly source talent from overseas.

Tom Howard, 24, was a Chelsea academy player from the age of eight until he was unexpectedly released at 18, winning two FA youth cups with the club.

Encouraged by his parents, he voluntarily completed an A-level in History, and finished off a second in English after his release, but was the only one in his whole academy year group to complete any higher education apart from the BTEC.

Tom said: “I didn’t know what to do when I was told I wasn’t going to make it. From age seven, all I wanted to do was become a footballer. To then get told you’re not at the level required to earn a professional contract was tough.

“It took me six months to get my head around the thought of going to University, and a further two years to get to grips with the fact I needed to go down a different path to the one I always thought I would.’’

His A-levels enabled him to enrol at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham and study a degree in Physical and Sports Education, but others who neglected education weren’t as fortunate.

He added: “The others are still trying to chase the dream of becoming a professional footballer because they have no education to fall back on. At 23, 24 years old we need to be self-sufficient, but some of them are finding it extremely tough because of a lack of qualifications.’’

Chelsea assisted Tom in their aftercare programme — helping him through the last bit of his second A-level — and additionally gave him the opportunity to come back as a coach. But this level of aftercare is often found wanting for many others like Tom.

Tom continued: “A lot of boys become bitter about the release stage and try and make it as a professional footballer on their own, which also makes it hard for clubs to offer support.”

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However, if education was consistently implemented throughout development, the devastation of not making it would be lessened.

“You hear a lot of stories about boys released suffering anxiety and depression issues, but I didn’t experience that thankfully. I definitely felt more anxious after release, but my family support system and my qualifications helped me,” Tom explained.

“I can definitely see how boys who are unprepared to deal with the news of not making it can struggle mentally. At least if they have a more developed educational background, it will give them other opportunities so they don’t have to start from scratch. There needs to be something standardised where clubs have to put more in place in order for this not to happen.”

The need for education doesn’t just apply to young players trying to pursue football, it should be recognised by everyone involved in the game. Footballers careers last until their 30s, they then commonly feel lost as to what to do, and often need to sustain an income for their families after retirement.

Former player Danny Murphy, for example, said that the Professional Footballers Association need to provide footballers with more support on how to handle their money when they are still playing.

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Tom added: “If you’re a Premier League player or even Championship player, if you’re sensible with your finances it should set you up for life. However, a lot of the boys that I played with who now play in League One or League Two will be earning wages that people will be making until they’re 65-70, but if they’re lucky they’ll be going to their mid-30s.

“So many professionals struggle when that finishes because of what to do next, how they carry on earning money and supporting their family.”

If players prepare for retirement with developed educational backgrounds — for example through part-time apprenticeships — it opens up other paths to go down.

“There needs to be a culture change. There are signs of this starting to happen, one because of the recognition that there is a problem, but we need to really implement this change fully.”

Michael Ayres works at Chelsea. He coached Tom as an U9 until he was 12. Tom was in the same team as Watford’s Nathaniel Chalobah and Leeds’s Lewis Baker. “Tom would still view them as friends, but their career path has gone one way and his has gone the other,” he said.

Michael recognised the problem of a lack of education in the game, and five years ago, in partnership with The Chelsea Football Club Foundation, decided to develop a programme at St. Mary’s University in Football, Education and Development.

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His vision was not only to cater for an exit route for those young players who didn’t make the grade at their football club, but to try to align higher education with football, so that it can be valued in the UK in equal measure to other European countries.

He explained: “If you go to Spain or Italy, higher education in football is around. Real Madrid have their own department within one of the universities in Madrid. A lot of players there study for not only undergraduate degrees, but masters as well, and that is very rare in this country.”

Not only is education valued less highly in football in the UK than in Europe, but it is deemed less important than in other sports. Rugby players, for example, frequently take education alongside their development.

Michael added: “Rugby, because it’s only become a professional sport in the last 20 years, saw players training full time while being a university student in the amateur era. Because professional football took place 60 years ago, it’s almost taken away the need for higher education for those players.”

For various cultural and practical reasons educational support usually stops in football academies at 16. But why should this be the case? Ideally, all clubs should have someone in a posting to look after education after this.

“Academy players who are 18 or 19 and earning £20,00 find it difficult to see into the future when they are no longer playing football, and many have the intelligence but don’t have the will to undergo education.”

He added: “Football’s notorious for ‘football first, education second.’ In an ideal world I think it would be great if higher education could understand the institution of football clubs and vise versa. There should be the opportunity for those in football to do higher education if they want to.”

The issue is beginning to be recognised. Southampton have a link with Southampton Solent University, Tottenham began links with Middlesex University, and Manchester Metropolitan are now in partnership with Manchester City. However, there is still a long way to go.

Michael said: “Two or three players at the academy are now studying for degrees at Open university, but this could be much more.”

Fikayo Tomori, a 20 year old Chelsea player on loan at Derby, is doing a history degree after being advised to do so by his mother. Players are starting to see the importance of education, but it is going to take a while to be seen as a viable route.

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Michael added: “Programmes like this will begin to change/help the culture around higher education within the football environment.

“I think the need for education opportunities will also grow as one small part of the ability to support players once they retire, maybe go into another career.”

However, the preparation to finish a footballing career could be made easier if education was incorporated throughout.

“If you look at a professional footballers day, they have a lot of free time. In Europe you find two things: from a practical standpoint players are encouraged to take on education and the philosophy behind that is if they develop themselves intellectually and positively that’s only going to help them play football.

“Whereas in this country, the routes in football have become inherent within working class backgrounds and these values are maybe then placed upon education.

“It’s going to take a while for education to be valued, but hopefully one of the benefits of European players coming over here to play is at some point those principles towards education should begin to transcend into the English young players.”

The importance of education cannot be underestimated. Having qualifications should be part of all footballers’ developments, and this needs to be universally recognised in the game before the problem can be resolved. The philosophy is slowly shifting, but we are still a way off other European countries.

Featured photograph/Mark Harkin/Flickr

Tatiana Alderson
Tatiana is a 22 year old University of Exeter graduate from London. After finishing Uni in 2017 she spent the year freelancing at Sky News as an Interview Producer and travelling around South America, Japan and Australia. She still freelances at Sky, but needs an NCTJ and Sports Journalism qualification in order to get out of news and into the sports world for good, where her passion ultimately lies.
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