A sporting chance that can pay dividends

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Wednesday is a very busy day for Andy Perlejewski, director of sport at Yeovil College, Somerset.

Throughout the morning his telephone hardly stops ringing and a seemingly endless procession of students find their way to his office. Next door in the sports hall, a group of first-year PE diploma students are doing soccer training.

His afternoon is given over to matches home and away, including badminton,football, hockey, netball, volleyball and rugby.

Andy, a regional representative for British Colleges Sport, says: "We are finding that in most colleges now, there's definitely a decline in sport. People seem to think it's only about the five to 16-year-olds, but it's not. The 16 to 18-year-olds are so important.

"In football there's a slow realisation that this age group is important and that we want to be using colleges. If we don't look after FE colleges and sporting provision, I think sport is on a sticky wicket."

There's no sign of a decline at Yeovil College. Its athletes took part in two of the last three Olympics, and last year the college had three players in the British colleges soccer team, one woman in its hockey team, another in the young England cricket team and a rider in the British equestrian team.

On the campus, a third of the college's students are involved in sport of some kind on a Wednesday afternoon. And now, when many colleges are struggling to keep the ball in the air financially, Yeovil is expanding its sporting horizons.

Building on a partnership with local side Yeovil Town FC, the college has set up the Wessex Soccer Academy to give young would-be professional players the chance to get the coaching they need, as well as being able to follow the full-time course of their choice.

Teamwork between soccer clubs and FE colleges is on the increase with many premier league clubs setting up academies and building links with colleges.

And with its new Charter For Football, approved by the Football Association's ruling body earlier this month, the FA has set the criteria for these clubs, including meeting young players' educational needs.

Non-league Yeovil Town may not seem the pinnacle of a young player's hopes, but Andy Perlejewski believes the Wessex Soccer Academy is helping to keep Yeovil college ahead of the game.

"We have had a relationship with the football club going back several years. When they did have apprentice footballers, they were coming here for day release.

"The soccer academy idea emerged out of a problem. The club had a successful youth team, but these lads were playing for the college, playing for Yeovil, for the county side - they were probably playing too much. We found there was a conflict of interests, so we said let's get this academy going."

The academy is now in its first full season, with 15 full-time students taking everything from GCSE re-sits to engineering. These lads were selected in trials held jointly by the college and Yeovil Town last May.

There is a coach, paid for jointly by college and club, and the college uses the club's Astroturf in exchange for the club's use of the college sports hall in the evenings.

Throughout the year, students' fitness and performance on the pitch are monitored and kept on computer records.

Andy Perlejewski is proud that the scheme is attracting young hopefuls from other areas. One, James Steer from Tavistock, Devon, turned down an apprenticeship offer with Plymouth Argyle to come to Yeovil.

Fellow student Chris Colby was on an apprenticeship with Queen's Park Rangers but didn't quite make the grade. After a brief and, he says, unhappy time with Bristol City, he is now doing his A-levels at Yeovil.

"Here we get the chance to train and play every day near enough," he says."I'd like to go on to university. If I wasn't here I would probably do my A-levels and play football on the side.

"It's made things a lot easier - I get to do a lot more football than I would have done. And you know that if you don't make it, there is always something to fall back on."

Andy Perlejewsk i estimates that next year's intake will be 30, and he's looking toward possible sponsorship deals to provide bursaries.

He is trying to extend the academy idea to rugby and golf. "We have 12 golf clubs within a 20-mile radius. Most clubs have one lad who's going to be their aspiring professional. If each club provided one we would have a dozen kids."

He estimates the cost of the soccer academy at between #163;2,000 and #163;3,000 a year, and acknowledges that he is lucky. Although budgets are being cut, the college recognises the marketing value of investing in its sporting stars.

But he also believes harder-hit colleges could find the money, by adding certain courses. "It's about getting the right person involved. If you can get the right person you can deliver junior team management - that's worth more units. And emergency first aid - that's worth more.

"It is possible to make it self-financing. If you run a football course on a Wednesday afternoon you get no funding. If you expand it a little bit,you can get funding."

Provision of sport varies college by college. New College in Swindon is also running a soccer academy with league side Swindon Town.

Chris Laws, head of physical education at Chichester Institute of Higher Education, is president of the Physical Education Association and a member of the Football Association's standing committee on football education.

He says examples like Yeovil's are in line with the FA's new charter for quality, which calls for regional centres of excellence and sets certain criteria for football clubs to meet the educational needs of their youngsters.

"The proposals from the FA are really to look at the quality experiences that young players are getting. Many of the premier league clubs wish to set up and are setting up academies.

"But what the FA is intending to do is to establish the criteria all the premier league clubs should meet. These criteria include having in place an educational welfare officer, and having direct links with places like Yeovil FE college.

"We don't want young 17 to 18-year-olds on about #163;5,000 to #163;6,000 a week - as some of them are at Liverpool for instance - to see that as their only future with no other outlets. If they break their leg next week they've got a problem.

"The education welfare officers within the clubs, who may be teachers, can channel youngsters in the right direction so they know some may go on to take A-levels, or some may go on to take a vocational course, but they and the club will have to ensure that that happens.

"I doubt whether Yeovil Town FC will be one of the academies as recognised by the FA - it will be more Liverpool and Newcastle, Arsenal and Manchester United. Many of them are setting those up already."

But he believes FE college-sports club link-ups do help provide a possible exit route, should the hoped-for professional footballing career not take off.

"I think there's got to be some exit route, some development links for youngsters - they can't just play. There's got to be some connection between their lifestyles and actually playing their sport - otherwise education will be failing the youngsters."

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