Pitching for better results

When Manchester United travel to Germany for the European Cup semi-final against Borussia Dortmund next week, their squad will include three former students from Accrington and Rossendale College.

Each year about 100 young footballers from clubs in the North-west attend the Lancashire college one day a week to take mainly vocational courses.

Among past students are United and England full-backs Gary and Philip Neville, along with fellow United defender David May, who was a trainee at Blackburn Rovers before moving to Old Trafford three years ago.

Top clubs are increasingly aware that young players may need to fall back on academic or vocational qualifications if their sporting career fails to take off in the way they hoped as teenagers.

Arsenal recently announced that Highams Park School in east London will teach its trainees from the age of 13 in return for investment from the club.

A video made by Manchester United for the parents of potential recruits features Accrington and Rossendale College with manager Alex Ferguson stressing the value of training off the football field as well as on it.

Most of the players who study at the college take a GNVQ in leisure and tourism, which may provide a route into sports management. Yet they are not always the most enthusiastic learners.

"Some don't exactly come here with a song in their heart," admitted principal Michael Austin. "They would rather be out there on the pitch."

Aspiring young cricketers coached at the MCC's school of excellence are also benefiting from enlightened attitudes among sports administrators.

Three years ago the MCC approached City of Westminster College, a 10-minute walk away from Lords, and asked staff to recommend a course which trainees could combine with their coaching.

Ten trainees completed GNVQs in leisure and tourism last summer while a further eight expect to gain the qualification this year. Most combine it with coaching awards in other sports which will further increase their career options.

One trainee who is under contract to join Glamorgan has been offered a place at Cardiff University while another, who played youth team cricket for Durham, has a place at Durham University.

The cricketers attend college full-time during the autumn and spring terms but, owing to playing commitments, cannot study in the summer. Course co-ordinat or Monica Jennings said they were highly committed to gaining the GNVQ. "The MCC is amazingly aware of the problems these young players could face if they don't make it in county cricket," she said.

Although City of Westminster has limited sporting facilities on campus and uses satellite centres around London, it has links with a range of outside clubs.

Tony Garbolotto, coach with the London Towers basketball team, is among those who visit the college to work with GNVQ students.

Accrington and Rossendale is also hoping that its connections with clubs such as Manchester United may rub off on other students. Together with the local council, the college has bid for national lottery money so that it can build a sporting "centre of excellence", including facilities to offer qualifications in physiotherapy and sports management.

With permission already granted to turn six secondary schools into the country's first specialist sports colleges, FE colleges are under pressure to continue responding to the high levels of interest in sport by offering more sports-related qualifications.

A survey by Further Education Funding Council inspectors last year revealed that as many FE students enrol for sports-related A-levels as do for computer studies while the popularity of GNVQs in leisure and tourism reflects the growing number of employment opportunities in the sports and leisure industries.

Last September, New College in Wiltshire launched a football academy with local football team Swindon Town. Ten members of Swindon's youth team, which occupies a mid-table position in the South Western Counties League, are also full-time students at the college where they study A-levels and other qualifications as well as training four times a week.

Curriculum team leader John Hurst, who devised the scheme with Swindon's youth team manager Tommy Wheeldon, said the club was anxious not to miss the chance to sign youngsters at 16 because of parents' anxieties.

Simon Futcher, who was nearly rejected by Swindon Town last year because coaches were unsure about his potential, eventually joined the academy and has since played for the England School's under-19 team. "Parents view the academy as a very positive step," said Mr Hurst.

The college, which has also produced top class athletes and swimmers, runs a total of three football teams and sees sport as a major tool in attracting students. "Eventually we may start bringing in lads from further away who want to be able to combine football with full-time education," he added.

Dewi Cooke, of British Colleges Sport, which organises national and international competitions for students, said colleges were responding to the demands of sports clubs in the same entrepreneurial way as they looked at the needs of all local employers. "We are not just concerned with excellence in sport but looking at the curriculum in a wider sense so that students with potential have the chance to progress," he said.

Sheffield College uses facilities built in the city for the world student games to offer professional coaching in eight sports, including hockey, golf, basketball and swimming, as part of its Sportex programme.

Each year about 100 students who are taking mainly academic courses also gain awards in sports coaching through the Sportex scheme. Tuesdays and Thursdays are devoted to coaching for the awards.

College marketing manager Alan Biggin said students who are good at sport no longer had to get up at 5 am and train for two or three hours before coming to college for lectures. "In the past, young people had to decide at 16 whether to pursue academic qualifications or sporting excellence, " he said. "Now they can combine the two."

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