Playing the long game

Football is not a matter of life and death, said Bill Shankly – it's much more important than that. And for young players whose careers are cut short, the education now provided by football clubs is vital, writes Simon Creasey
2nd January 2015, 12:00am


Playing the long game

Since he was a child, all Michael Hazeldine wanted to do was become a professional footballer. So when, aged 16, the promising young striker was offered a three-year trainee scholarship at Wigan Athletic, it was the realisation of a lifelong dream. However, at the end of three years of full-time training and playing, he was released by the club.

This is not unusual. As Pat Lally, director of education at the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) confirms, there is an extremely high attrition rate in the sport. "We all know that for every 10 lads that come into the game, if two of those are left at the end of two years a club will have done exceptionally well," he says. "Statistics show that at the age of 18, once they've done a two-year programme, approximately 50 per cent of footballers remain in the game. But by the time they get to 21, probably 85-90 per cent of those lads have left."

That's a lot of dreams crushed and a lot of futures hastily reimagined. But adjustment to "real life" can be just as difficult when a player retires after a long and successful career. Some take up media or coaching roles, but many find themselves at a loss over what to do next - several top professionals have talked openly about suffering from depression after they stopped playing.

A broader education than one focused solely on sport could offer ex-footballers options. However, whether the footballer is a young teen signed to a professional club or a first-team regular in their twenties, education is rarely their first priority. The common perception is that football clubs do little to tackle that disengagement or, worse, encourage it to ensure that their players spend more time training. But the clubs argue that this view is outdated and inaccurate, and that the "usual" negligence regarding education has become "unusual".

Football got its education act together as long ago as the 1980s, they claim, and today there are numerous success stories to pitch against more worrying tales such as the ongoing front-page saga of Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne's post-football life. For example, when Hazeldine was released by Wigan he had straight As in A-level maths, biology and chemistry to fall back on - and a place at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. He will soon finish his training to become a GP.

It's true that, behind the headlines, football has a compelling education story to tell; whether it is as rosy as it may first appear is another matter.

Until the early 1980s, young men who failed to make the grade as professional footballers in England were forced to fend for themselves: there was no academic provision for the approximately 200 apprentices a year across the 92 football league clubs.

Thankfully, that all changed in 1983 with the birth of the government-endorsed Youth Training Scheme for footballers. The aim was to give these young men the chance of another career after leaving the game and to ensure that they didn't go off the rails, particularly in the six-month "mourning period" when they could be particularly vulnerable.

Eye on the ball.and the book

Over the past three decades, Lally says, that education provision for young footballers has made tremendous advances. "The game has a moral obligation to ensure that, if players are leaving football, they're leaving with good academic qualifications that can assist them in moving on to further and higher education or into other appropriate courses," he argues.

"Today, all the lads that come in as 16-year-olds have to undertake a day and a half of education [a week], which consists of either a BTEC National Diploma or Extended Diploma in sport, an NVQ in sporting excellence (a work-based component that comprises building a portfolio of evidence), an FA level 2 coaching qualification, and appropriate functional skills in maths and English should they have not achieved GCSE maths and English to grade C."

Some of the learning is done off-site, at schools or colleges that clubs have partnered with, and some of the lessons are delivered on-site at the clubs' academies, many of which have fully equipped, modern classrooms that would be the envy of secondary schools across the country (see panel, below).

Many of the more recent improvements in education provision for young footballers have been driven by the PFA and the Premier League, with the latter masterminding the creation of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), which was approved by the 72 members of the Football League in 2011. The aim of the EPPP is to improve the quality and quantity of home-grown players produced by top English clubs, and learning is at the very heart of the new approach, according to Martyn Heather, head of education at the Premier League.

"There has been a massive culture shift towards education in football," Heather says. "When I took over this job, I think education in football was something you did just in case you didn't become a footballer. What we've tried to do is change that whole perception to one where education is what you do every single minute of every day at a football club. From the minute players walk through the door they're learning.

"It's about how you capture that learning environment and develop players as people. But also, if football doesn't work out or when they retire, [it's important] that they've got some sort of academic qualifications that can help them on to the next step."

The approach is working incredibly well, according to Lally, who says that the pass rate for the NVQ has exceeded 90 per cent for the past five years. It also received the thumbs-up in recent external audits. "The programme is open to Ofsted inspections the same as any other academic institution," he says. "Both League Football Education and Premier League Education, which administer the programmes on behalf of the two leagues, came out as outstanding in their recent Ofsted inspections." (See bit.lyPremierOfsted.)

The academic grounding appears to be working, with many young players released by their clubs going on to have successful careers in other industries. "We've got lads who are commercial pilots, surgeons, physiotherapists, lawyers - and we've even got a young lad who left his club last year who has got a two-year scholarship with the Russian ballet in London," says Lally. "Name an industry and there's probably a former professional footballer working in that industry."

And the approach is benefiting not only young players who are just starting out but also footballers coming to the end of their playing careers. For example, the PFA recently helped Ben Burgess to forge a new career as a teacher when he retired from the game. After rising through the youth ranks at Blackburn Rovers around the turn of the millennium, Burgess went on to play for the likes of Hull City, Blackpool and Notts County before retiring at the age of 30.

Whereas most of the other players who came through the Blackburn academy with him studied sport and leisure or sports tourism, Burgess opted to study law and English. Thanks to the support of the PFA, a month after retiring he started a teacher training course. And today he works as a primary school teacher.

A relegated priority?

However, although Burgess acknowledges that major inroads have been made in terms of education provision for footballers, he still has some reservations. The major hurdle that needs to be overcome, he believes, is the mindset of young players who realise that they have only one shot at a professional career. As a result, their education becomes a secondary consideration, Burgess says.

"I was the same when I was younger," he recalls. "People would come in to talk to you about education, but you didn't really listen to them because you've got all these dreams and you think you're going to be a superstar. When I was 17 I was going to college, then one day I got a call from the first team saying `you're training with the first team today so you're not going to college'. Then that starts to become a regular thing and you just end up not going [to college] any more."

It's a scenario supported by recent research undertaken by Dr Chris Platts, of the Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University. As part of what is believed to be the most comprehensive study into the academic provision provided by professional football academies, Platts interviewed 303 players from 21 football clubs ranging from Premier League through to League Two. He also interviewed education and welfare officers and coaches to get views from all sides. What he found tallies with Burgess' recollection.

"In the main, the scholars don't really want to do the education - they want to be footballers," Platts says. "The education welfare officers know that and they also know that the coaches would rather the players were training than undertaking their education - they'd rather have them on the pitch. Everybody knows the script, they just don't necessarily talk about it in the open - it's behind closed doors."

Despite the high success rate of apprentices undertaking these education programmes, cited by the likes of the PFA and the Premier League, Platts is sceptical as to whether players actually learn anything.

"At the 21 clubs I visited, every club had a 100 per cent pass rate [in the NVQ in sporting excellence], so that tells you how easy it can be," he says. "The findings of the study confirm that a lot of what happens is copy-and-paste and a lot of it is what we call `learn helplessness', where education welfare officers finish off work to get certain people through. It's a catch-22. Players don't want to be there, the teachers know they don't want to be there, so it's `what's the path of least resistance to make sure they pass?' When you dig deep into the qualitative research, they might pass but they don't learn a lot."

Platts' findings also tally with the experience of Hazeldine, who went through the system more recently than Burgess. "There were a select few other footballers in my cohort who were also studying A-levels, one of whom was offered a scholarship in the US, but on the whole the other players were not as committed to studying as I was," he says.

Game plan

Another worrying trend identified by Platts' research is clubs encouraging talented younger players aged 14-16 to drop their studies so that they can focus on football. "In the past five years or so, clubs have started to partner with schools and they're increasingly looking at day release or early finishes for those under the age of 16 who show promise, so that they can increase their coaching hours," he says. "Clubs want more access to players at a younger and younger age."

The Premier League's Heather confirms that a number of Premier League clubs are working with players who are under the age of 16, but he claims this isn't to the detriment of their education. "We've got what we call a hybrid system. Some come out of school one or two days a week; some are on full-time programmes where clubs work with local schools and the players go to school for part of the day and train for part of the day," he says. "Anecdotally, it looks as though players on these programmes are achieving on or well above their learning trajectory."

Heather adds that, despite these strong results and the outstanding rating from Ofsted, the Premier League is currently carrying out a "thorough strategic review" of education provision for players. And he is fully aware that more work needs to be done to continue to deliver improvements.

"Football gets a lot of criticism about what it does with players and we're trying hard to address these issues," he says. "Are we where we want to be? No, of course not. But football has come a long way in the past few years in terms of what we do with young players and how we've raised the profile of education. We've still got some challenges ahead. I'm not going to sit here and say we've cracked it. We're on a good road, but there's still some way to go."

Simon Creasey is a freelance writer. He has contributed to football magazines When Saturday Comes, FourFourTwo and Champions, and US soccer magazine Howler

`If you don't take part in education, you can't be part of the academy'

John McDermott, head of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club Academy, answers questions on the academic provision offered by the Premier League club to young players.

When did the club introduce its current education programme?

There has always been a strong education programme at the Tottenham Hotspur academy that continues to evolve year after year. There are fundamental qualifications we deliver for 17- and 18-year-old players, such as BTECs and NVQs, along with myriad formal and informal courses.

What does the education programme consist of?

Before players turn 16 and become full-time scholars at the academy, we run a day-release programme with schools. It's voluntary and involves consultation with the schools, so any child who falls behind in their education will be stopped from taking part until they catch up. Once they are on the day-release programme, part of the time will be spent doing the work they have missed at school, under the supervision of qualified teachers.

We try to help children to avoid specialising in football too early, in order to ensure that they get the best possible allround education. It's important that players experience a normal school education and do not join the world of football too early. Given the competitiveness of professional football, it's important that young players are grounded, should their careers ultimately lie away from the game.

Players will typically sit their GCSEs before starting a full-time football apprenticeship at the club. The programme is run within the excellent educational facilities available at the club's world-class training centre in Enfield, North London, which includes classrooms, seminar rooms and smaller spaces for one-on-one tuition.

All scholars are encouraged to pursue the level 3 BTEC in sport and a level 3 NVQ in achieving excellence in sports performance, plus an FA level 2 coaching badge. These qualifications add up to the advanced-level apprenticeship in sporting excellence. The BTEC level 3 passed with a double distinction is equivalent in university applications to two A-grade A-levels.

In addition, some players study an extra A-level of their choice, which is delivered by private tutors. Players who have failed GCSE maths or English have to retake or pass the equivalent functional skills in that area. We also run an extensive life skills programme, involving reading and cookery courses, work within the community, finance and media training. Many of the players take language classes as well, whether that is English players studying a foreign language or overseas players learning English.

How easy is it to get the message across to players that education is important?

It's very simple - if you do not take part in an education programme, you cannot be part of the Tottenham Hotspur academy. We have had examples where young players have been pulled out of overseas tournaments, matches and even stopped from representing their countries if they are behind in their education.

Our belief is that how a player behaves in the classroom reflects how they end up behaving in the workplace, when they are a full-time scholar or professional player. If a player has the potential to get four GCSEs and achieves four GCSEs, that represents success. However, if they have the potential to get 11, we try to ensure that they do so.

On target

Try these football-related resources, available on the TES website, in your classroom


Use this football plan to improve dribbling and passing skills. bit.lyFootballPlan

Set up football skills stations and allow pupils to set their own level of challenge. bit.lySkillsStations


Boost students' football know-how with this comprehensive scheme of work. bit.lyFootballSoW

These football task cards will encourage independent learning. bit.lyFootballTasks

This detailed poster explains ideal positions and football strategy. bit.lyFootballPoster

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