Another side to beautiful game

20th February 2009 at 00:00
Not everyone can be a professional footballer. Edinburgh University wants to open boys' eyes to alternatives

When Colin McLelland broke his leg in three places playing rugby, he was warned by doctors that they might have to amputate. Shocking news for anyone, but perhaps more so for a 16-year-old on his way to becoming a professional player.

He didn't lose the leg and managed a couple of years as a semi-professional playing for the Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints in his university years. Eventually, he was forced to retire after suffering "one injury too many". He is still involved in sport, however, as head physiotherapist at Hibernian Football Club.

Mr McLelland was addressing the Golden Goal conference in Edinburgh, alongside former footballer and journalist Pat Nevin, and Stewart Hillis, professor of cardiovascular and exercise medicine at Glasgow University and doctor for Scotland's national side.

The conference marked the culmination of 18 months of classes and events with boys' football clubs in Edinburgh and the Lothians. The aim was to try and introduce the 150 young players taking part in the Educated Pass initiative to the idea they might not make it as professional footballers, but education could be an alternative for them.

All the speakers had one thing in common. They were involved in the beautiful game - but off the pitch. Neil Speirs, a widening participation officer at Edinburgh University and architect of the scheme, explains: "The underachievement of boys aged between 13 and 16 is well documented. They are turned off school, the classroom gets no respect and neither does the teacher. They find solace in football; that's where they are comfortable. We wanted to deliver messages about participation - not in the classroom but in the clubs, steeped in metaphors, to give them more credibility."

According to Mr Speirs, there are 3,000 professional footballers in Scotland, but only around 20 will survive on the money they earn from the sport. It is vital that boys hoping to make it have other skills to fall back on, he says. "We go to the clubs and deliver the sessions with the coaches to stamp their authority on the meetings. It is a strong culture we are working against that believes things like footballers' brains are in their feet."

Nine sessions of one to two hours are delivered, some of which include coaches and parents, but the main target audience is the boys. "We become a point of contact for parents if they want advice for their son or any other member of their family," says Mr Speirs.

Each session has specific learning outcomes, but in general they take the youngsters through their chances of making it as professionals and look at the alternatives. "Lots of people go to the stadium to work - lawyers, accountants, directors, owners. We look at what skills they have."

The Edinburgh University football team gets involved. They act as positive role models, telling the boys about their own experiences in football, but also about what they are studying and why there is no shame in being academics and athletes.

Stephen Maxwell is in his fourth year at Edinburgh University, studying law, and is captain of the football team. "The boys are interested in the facilities here, which are amazing, and I tell them about my timetable," says Mr Maxwell, who played for Elgin City and briefly for Dundee United. "I have four hours of classes a week, which they are always delighted to hear."

Dougie Gunn, 15, and captain of Broxburn Athletic Colts, has taken part in Educated Pass. He realises that being a professional footballer is a "bit out of reach".

He says: "I still don't know what I want to do, but I want to try hard and get decent grades. Sports science looks like it can lead to quite a good way of life. It seems a good way of being involved in sport, even if you can't make it as a professional."

The scheme seems to have given Dougie some food for thought, but Conall Boyle, who is 15 and has also been taking part, is not convinced that the studying required to assist sportsmen off the field is for him. "I couldn't be bothered doing anything like that," admits the captain of Salvesen Reds, going on to explain life just now is about "sex, drugs and sausage rolls".

His coach Ritchie Haldane describes the scheme as "fantastic". What the boys have learnt about their options will be useful, he feels, even if they don't realise it yet.

The Educated Pass project, a widening participation initiative led by Edinburgh University, is partnered by Stevenson, West Lothian, Telford, Jewel and Esk colleges, and the Scottish Youth Football Association.

The initiative is funded by the Sutton Trust.

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