Courted by professional clubs from the age of six, then given the boot at 16, the thousands of boys who fail to make the grade as footballers can end up adrift and unemployable. Michael Wale reports on the colleges offering apprentice players a shot at an academic goal
Football fame and fortune is the stuff of dreams for many young boys. And for the talented few, it can become a reality, signed up as young as six to be groomed for stardom by the professional clubs. But for most of those taken on at primary age, the dream will turn to dust; promised the earth, they will be cursorily dropped at 15 or 16, often with few academic qualifications.
Now, a scheme started on a whim 10 years ago is coming to the rescue of the hundreds of teenage boys who each year fail to make the grade as professional footballers. Dozens of further education colleges are offering specialist soccer courses combined with academic work. To qualify, boys have to take part in a trial to prove they're good enough at football and, once in, can study a range of vocational or academic options while continuing to play.
It's a measure of their success that the English Colleges' FA league boasts more than 80 teams - more than the football league itself - and is so successful that it's had to be divided into eight regional divisions. The first specialist courses kicked off at Cirencester in 1995, the Cotswolds town better known for its Royal Agricultural College, when the local club, non-league Cirencester Town, started a youth policy and hired a youth coach, David Hockaday, a former player with Swindon and other lower league professional clubs. Mr Hockaday and his chairman approached Nigel Robbins, the principal of Cirencester College, with a plan to combine education and soccer coaching, giving the club a ready-made youth team and a supply of players for its first team. He says 50 to 60 per cent of the boys take the national diploma in sports science or sports studies, with the rest choosing from the full range of A-levels, some combining these with certificates in, for instance, coaching, sports massage or refereeing.
"It seemed such a good idea," says Mr Robbins. "Mind you, I remember getting letters from headteachers saying that so and so was 'not academic.
His brains are in his feet'. A large number of kids are led on by the clubs and told they will earn pots of money from the age of eight. At 15 or 16 they are dropped, many with no qualifications, and unemployable."
He admits that many students find things difficult when they start the two-year course. "Some have just been turned down for something they were promised, so we have to make them feel good about themselves, gently break them in and teach them about getting qualifications." He makes it clear that the course is not about producing professional footballers. Its aim is to provide these young men with qualifications that, at the top end, can take them to university.
Cirencester has a link with its non-league club, but some colleges, such as Brockenhurst in Hampshire, Filton in Bristol and Yale in Wrexham, have become affiliated with their local professional football league sides.
Although the Professional Footballers Association represents only players who have signed full-time to a club, PFA education officer Pat Lally says the explosion in the number of college soccer courses is a good thing if they encourage boys to continue their education. "But some of them lead lads to believe they will break into the professional game, which they will not."
The annual "cull" is immense: Mr Lally says that of the thousands of boys attached to English and Welsh clubs, each year only about 500 to 600 get two-year apprenticeships. "When a boy is told at 16 that he is not wanted, after all those years of believing he would become a soccer star, it feels as if the world has come to an end. Even at the age of 32, when I was told I was no longer wanted by Doncaster Rovers, I felt destroyed."
And if a boy does become an apprentice, another cull at 18 removes a further 40 to 50 per cent of would-be stars. After the age of 21, only 15 per cent of the originally retained players survive.
Only Brockenhurst college in Hampshire is fully linked with its local club, Bournemouth. Three years ago the club decided to send its entire youth squad full-time to Brockenhurst. The 22 boys on the course play for the college on Wednesdays, for Bournemouth reserves on one evening a week, and for the Bournemouth youth side on Saturday mornings. Other colleges that are not tied in with professional clubs but which sometimes have a loose arrangement with a local non-league club take a more robust approach to the academic part of their courses. In Preston, Cardinal Newman produces one of the top college sides, which last year won its divisional league and Champions Cup - played off between the eight divisional winners.
The college is based in a row of tall, brick buildings at one end of Preston. Sean Haslegrave, an ex-professional who played for clubs including Preston, Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, runs its soccer-based course. He also coaches the reserve side at Lancaster City and encourages his best boys to play for them as well as the college.
He says the football league's financial troubles mean clubs are taking on fewer and fewer boys at 16. "After being promised the dream, they are dropped. We have to pick up the bits. The clubs lay it on thick that they will make it. Then they just say, 'sorry, son'. I tell them it's not the end of the world, because now they can get an education."
The colleges continue to provide a regular stream of players to non-league sides. When Chester-le-Street finally lost at West Ham in the third round of last year's FA Youth Cup, eight of the team were students at Gateshead college. Cirencester only lost on penalties in the same round of the competition to Crewe, fielding an all-college side.
And last summer a side representing all the English colleges was invited to take part in a UEFA international club competition in Italy. They reached the final but lost in a penalty shoot-out with the host team. All the players in the European teams came from clubs, not colleges, underlining the standard of football played in colleges here.
AIMING FOR A PLACE IN THE QUALIFIERS
MITCH NEWSOME (left) is at Cardinal Newman in Preston. He played high level junior football from the age of six, and, at 11, was picked to train at Blackburn Rovers. "I was at their academy until I was 14, training two evenings a week. In the end I left of my own accord. I wasn't really enjoying it. In the matches I was only getting 20 minutes a game, coming off the subs bench. I joined Lostock Hall junior football club, which is a really high-level local club, and in my first game with them I was scouted to join Liverpool. But I turned it down because I wanted to play with my friends. I just wanted something different after all that time with Blackburn."
ANDREW CARR (right) is in his third year at Cardinal Newman and is studying business studies, sports studies and English at A-level. He's from Preston and played centre-half for his school. He was spotted by a Burnley scout when he was 13 and playing in a Sunday morning league. "They asked me to join their school of excellence. This meant training two nights a week at Burnley and playing for them on a Sunday morning. My parents hoped I would turn pro when the time came: that was my aspiration as well.
"But when the time came for me to be signed as an apprentice, I was called in and told I wouldn't be taken on. I was gutted. It's out of the window in a minute. I shared a lift home with my friend, who also got turned down.
"I always thought I would succeed, because that's what you are told. You wouldn't do it otherwise. After that I went for two trials, with Tranmere Rovers and Oldham. It's like a fish bowl and it's difficult, because they just pick up a side from all the triallists, and you are playing alongside people you have never met before.
"Anyway, both clubs wrote to me saying 'sorry'. That was when I decided to come to college. I've always been all right on the academic side. Now I'm hoping to play non-league with Lancaster City reserves. And I hope to go to university."