Learning's never offside at soccer school
Talk of footballers and education usually brings wry smiles from fans and scoffs from those who don't follow the game. Quite simply, the two don't mix - never have, never will.
There is often more surprise than admiration when a footballer shows a propensity for something other than just being able to kick or catch a ball. West Ham United's goalkeeper, Robert Green, for instance, is seen as a rare exception to the rule: England's sometimes number one boasts GCSEs and A-levels.
But to show you have an education is all too often viewed with suspicion in the world of football.
Over the past 10 years, however, the Premier League has recognised that it needs to do more to support its young players, with fewer than 2 per cent of those in the academies of top clubs actually fulfilling their dream of playing professional football in what is often dubbed "the most exciting league in the world".
It has been a slow process, but it is beginning to pay dividends, and one club that has excelled in providing an education for its young stars is Sunderland AFC.
The football club is currently enjoying one of its most successful periods, including a 3-0 away win against Premier League champions Chelsea. Behind the scenes, the club's academy - where it trains its stars of the future - is also enjoying good times. In a recent Ofsted inspection, Sunderland's Academy of Light was rated as "outstanding" for its education provision. The schools watchdog inspects the provision for schoolboys at all Premier League clubs.
Sunderland's success is largely due to its day-release programme, on which promising young players aged nine to 16 are allowed out of school for one day a week to train at the club's state-of-the-art facility.
Although it sounds like a project for young offenders, the day-release programme allows football clubs far greater access to their young players than they would normally have.
Brian Buddle, the club's education and welfare manager and a former headteacher, says the programme allows the academy's football coaching staff more time to hone their skills but is also improving the boys' academic side.
"Each Premier League club can only pick boys who live an hour away when they are aged between nine and 11, and an hour-and-a-half away for those aged 12 to 16," he says.
"If you think that, without the day-release programme our training would all take place in the evening after school, that means we would have some lads who would have been up at 7am, had a full day of school, then back home to pick up their kit and then drive as much as an hour-and-a-half to get here, train for two to three hours and then drive another hour-and-a- half to go home. By the time we get them, they are knackered, man."
Instead, day release allows the young players a full day at the training ground, where they get to swap their school blazers for the uniform of Sunderland AFC.
The day begins at 8am, which Mr Buddle admits is still a "massive sacrifice" for many of the parents, particularly those travelling from up to 50 miles away.
The boys, all dressed in their training gear, have a healthy breakfast until 8.30am, when the academic lessons begin.
During a visit by The TES, the 15 and 16-year-old boys start with one hour of English or maths, depending on their year group, and then swapped for another hour in class.
The lessons are as quiet as a library. The lads are respectful towards their tutors and fellow players. There is no sniggering if one struggles with a question and many of the youngsters enjoy an almost one-to-one tuition. Indeed, the class sizes would be the envy of almost any private school.
Bill Daniell, a former secondary head of year at a local school who teaches the boys maths, says they cover a wide ability range, but the size of the classes allows him to focus on those who need it most.
"We have lads who struggle and we have those who are very able," he says. "So I teach two levels - the foundation level and the higher level. It means when I need to concentrate on the lower level, the higher lads have the motivation and maturity to get on with their work.
"There is no question the smaller class sizes help. It's marvellous. It's the ideal teaching situation - every boy feels supported."
Even the young players don't seem to mind the work. George Honeyman, a hopeful at the academy who has an hour-and-a- quarter commute every morning, says he has seen his Year 11 school work improve since coming on day release.
"It's much better than school," he says. "My mates at school are all proper jealous. They think it's a skive, but it's not - although the best part of the day has to be the football."
Academy manager Ged McNamee makes no bones about the fact that the club's approach is very "carrot and stick". He is a no-nonsense football man who recognises the importance of providing an education, but is in little doubt about his primary concern: finding and nurturing Sunderland's future football stars.
"The lads know if they mess about at school, or if they mess about here, then this privilege will be taken away from them," he says.
After two hours of lessons, the young players then have a two-hour "technical and tactical" training session. As soon as they are out on the training pitches, it is clear that this is what they are all here for.
They are at the age when there are laughably odd differences in height. Some have had their growth spurt and are trying to get used to their new size; others could sprout by six inches to a foot in the next year. And then there are those who could have the worst of all outcomes - no growth spurt at all.
Their ability is obvious and their speed of footwork often dizzying. But not all will progress and be offered a scholarship, whereby they study as an apprentice with the club.
The winter months could prove a very difficult time for the young players. All are about to sit or have taken their mock GCSEs and, in the coming weeks the players will be told whether they are good enough to become a "scholar" at the club.
But even those lucky enough to be offered a two-year scholarship have no guarantee that they will be offered a professional contract. Such is the competitive nature of top-flight football. But it has become clear to clubs that they must provide for those who are not quite good enough.
It is a message Mr Buddle tirelessly drums into his youngsters, and one that came sharply into focus for two young players at the beginning of the season. No sooner had they been offered a scholarship at the club than both suffered cruciate knee ligament injuries, meaning they would be unable to play for between nine months and a year.
"That pressed home the stark reality to them, the importance of getting an education just in case anything goes wrong, they get injured or they don't get a pro contract," Mr Buddle says.
It is a far cry from 20 or 30 years ago, when an apprentice on the Youth Training Scheme would sweep the terraces before match day and learn little else.
A perfect world nowadays would see Sunderland producing players of the calibre of Jordan Henderson, a product of the day-release programme who won his first cap for England against France in November; or, for those not quite good enough to make it, to emulate Richard Smith, an Academy of Light alumnus who is currently studying on a scholarship at Harvard.
"Every boy thinks they are going to make it," Mr Buddle says. "And they have to deal with an awful lot - school, training, eating well - all on top of being a teenager and dealing with all those hormones. It's very difficult for them."
Not all the boys will make it, and the rejection they will suffer if they don't will perhaps be more keenly felt having had a taster of what the big leagues can offer its players - for example, seeing the sparkling array of sports cars in the car park owned by the first team players, which probably cost as much as each boy's house.
Although some of the lads will be picked up by clubs in the lower leagues, others will fall out of football altogether. In some clubs, they will have little to fall back on, but at Sunderland Mr Buddle is always willing to offer his support.
"We had one lad who was offered a one-year pro contract with us, and a three-year contract with Hartlepool," he says. "He accepted the Hartlepool offer, but came to me to see if I could help him become an accountant.
"He realised football wouldn't last forever and in five years he will be a part-time accountant. It's life-long learning and something we are seeing more and more of. Not all boys want it, of course, but if they do, our door is always open."
One can only hope, for football's sake, that there are more like Brian Buddle and his colleagues in the Premier League. It is unlikely to happen overnight, and there will always be bad apples, but with more clubs approaching football along Sunderland's lines, footballers will remain on the back pages of the tabloid newspapers rather than the front.
Daily routine: Time for tactics
Programme: under-15s and 16s at Sunderland AFC
Arrival and breakfast
English (U15), maths (U16)
English (U16), maths (U15)
Change for outdoor session
12.45-1pm Shower and change
Lunch and prepare
for gym session
- Original headline: Football academy hones skills on and off the pitch