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Earning their spurs

Stephen Kelly's future looks bright. A third-year youth academy trainee at Tottenham Hotspur, Stephen (above) is already an international with Ireland's under-19 side and has his sights set on a first-team place in Spurs' defence.

Last year, he passed A-level biology and this year he'll take business studies through the College of North East London as well as the LCP press and media course, which he's clearly enjoying. He knows that in the precarious world of professional football anything can happen; if it all goes wrong he would think about university. But he's not thinking about that at the moment.

This time last year, Terry Adams probably felt the same way. Another Spurs trainee, he was dropped at the end of the season. But instead of moving to a lower division club he enrolled at the University of Wales in Cardiff. As well as studying for a degree, he is playing football at a high standard with a university team that includes 15 other former trainees and ex-professionals.

UWIC is one of a handful of universities offering an alternative to former and nearly professional players, attracting them with tailor-made courses that allow time to train and play at a standard high enough to maintain the interest of top clubs.

College football has always been seen as a bit of a backwater. But universities with strong sports departments, such as Loughborough and Bath, are pioneering a fresh approach. Indeed Team Bath FC recently became the first university side for more than 120 years to enter the FA Cup, progressing through the qualifying rounds to the first round proper.

Ged Roddy is the university's sports director, in charge of the Team Bath set-up, a centre for elite athletes and coaches from 13 sports. "We are trying to give young footballers a decent education without them having to give up their desire to play full-time top quality football," he explains.

Spurs' education officer, Gwyn Walters, who believes half of his current crop of trainees could do degrees, sees Team Bath as a template for the future. "In time, I think we'll move towards the US system," he says. "We might even get formal relationships between clubs and universities. As you can see, it's already part of our responsibility to educate players."

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