From College Football To A-League Glory
What have Chichester City, Swindon Supermarine, the Brisbane Roar and a rural agricultural college in the Gloucestershire countryside got in common?
It’s a fairly obscure bit of trivia, which helps chart the footballing career of defender Matt Smith, who went from the County League title with Chichester to winning the A-League Grand Final with the Brisbane Roar, via a state league title with Palm Beach, a league title with Swindon Supermarine, a BUSA title with Hartpury College and the 2007 World Uni Championships.
Not a bad career trajectory for a young man who just four years ago was at Cirencester Town, playing in front of crowds of around 150 as the Centurions battled to stay in the Southern Premier League (they stayed up by default thanks to Hayes & Yeading merging.) On Sunday he was part of the Roar side who fought back from 2-0 down with two goals in the final minutes of extra time, before beating Central Coast Mariners on penalties to lift the club’s first Grand Final victory, the crowd at the Suncorp Stadium was a 52,000 sell out.
But speak to the down-to-earth 28-year-old and he will credit much of his success to the years he spent studying in the UK and the influence of the staff at a little known college, which is quietly gaining a reputation for its football academy. Smith studied for his Masters degree in Sports Business Management at Hartpury College, about 6 miles from Gloucester. Set up as an agricultural college more than 50 years ago the college is now an outpost of the University of the West of England offering such diverse courses as Equine Dentistry and Land Management to Sports Science and short courses in Bee Keeping.
Smith said: “Playing in the context at Hartpury while gaining my Masters has definitely given me the experience and capabilities to be able to play and perform where I am today, the management, facilities, treatment and culture of Hartpury is one of the best you will see outside of the full time professional club.”
He is the first big success story (in terms of domestic league success) for the Football Academy at the college, which has been churning out professional rugby players for several years due to its close links with the local Premiership Rugby side. The Football Academy was founded in 2002 and since then has won the British University Champions in both 2007 and 2008, English Colleges Champions in 2008, and most recently England Schools U18 Champions in 2009. Hartpury’s facilities are well known locally, Gloucester Rugby, Forest Green Rovers and Gloucester City all train there and the Football Academy is now rivalling the likes of Loughborough and Bath in its dominance in the BUCS and BUSA competitions. Hartpury players populate most of the local non-league sides, the youth team play as Forest Green Rovers in the FA Youth Cup and the seniors regularly appear in the FGR reserves team, occasionally breaking through for a first team appearance (Hartpury student Steve Davies scored the 88th minute equaliser against Rushden & Diamonds earlier this week.) Their under 18s, Junior Academy came third in the World Youth Cup championship in the summer and one of their coaches, Tim Jenkins, was poached by non other than Manchester City. But Matty’s place in the Roar squad is the first major domestic league win that Tom Radcliffe, Director of Football at Hartpury, can claim a part in.
Smith is clear that the set-up at Hartpury, with its daily training and all round support, made the step from the Southern Prem to the A-League that little bit easier.
“I think the concept that Hartpury creates an amazing platform for players to not only gain a degree but also be playing football in a full time environment with brilliant coaching and support staff,” he said.
“For me, Hartpury formed the basis to give me an insight into the professional game; it is very similar and gave me confidence to be able to adjust to the higher level. In my opinion, as long as both club and university have the understanding (which is where it fell through with Ciren), the partnership can be rewarding for all parties involved, the club, the university and more importantly the player.”
His reference to a breakdown in understanding is a moot point, Cirencester lost all their Hartpury players in the 2006/7 season when they chose to play for the college (which funded their scholarships) ahead of their club. The current manager is now wary of using Hartpury boys in his squad, although most of the other local sides are happy to field what are effectively full-time footballers, who benefit from a full support structure at college – they know about nutrition and fitness and have access to physio and training and all the things which most full time pro clubs have. Several bright prospects from local football youth teams have been snapped up by Hartpury for scholarships in recent years, either at 16 for the Junior Academy or at 18 for the Seniors. It gives an alternative to the old YTS schemes in an area where the ‘big’ league clubs are few and the competition for a place is great.
The Team Bath debacle showed that college/ uni teams can only go so-far in the pyramid and although there were rumours of a Hartpury side entering the Hellenic (step 5/6) League a few years back it looks like there will not ever be a Hartpury FC side playing Saturday football. Not all the Academy players continue playing after their studying days are over either – although it is worth noting that Smith’s alumni from the 2006/7 BUSA winning year are all still involved in football, either playing at a semi-pro level, coaching or teaching, a few have seen their footballing careers curtailed by injury but are still working in the game thanks to their diplomas gained at the college alongside their training. With the new rules for the Academy system under scrutiny, perhaps it is time to look to the likes of Hartpury to see how they are doing things. The YTS systems are not for everyone – a couple of recent Hartpury graduates I know have done both, and after being released from pro clubs with little in the way of qualifications have been able to retrain and keep playing thanks to Hartpury – one is now working for a top sports brand as a boot developer, the other as a personal trainer and coach.
Smith’s unlikely journey from the Sussex County League to the A-League Grand Final is unlikely to make the headlines here or down under – but no doubt the coaches at Hartpury will be raising a glass to their first of many graduates to reach the highest levels of a domestic league.