This week sees the climax of the university football season, at Loughborough. Here’s Paul Caulfield with a look at the hinterland at which football and education meet.

In January, the London Evening Standard published “Who Says Their Brains Are All in their Boots? The Rise of the Clever Clogs Footballer”, an article about graduates in football.  While the piece was reasoned enough, the sneering headline recalled the inverted snobbery of the ‘Ba-gette’ sketch in comedy show, ‘Absolutely’ and betrayed a similar attitude to footballers’ intelligence.

It is depressing  that these headlines still appear, despite the presence of footballing graduates like Iain Dowie (Aero Eng), Barry Horne (ex-Everton, Chemistry) and Martin O’Neill – who might have gone into the Law had football not intervened. This season, Loughborough graduate Bradley Pritchard has hardly missed a game  for Leyton Orient, while five goals from on-loan Fulham striker Matt Smith, former captain of Manchester University, took Bristol City to the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

‘Clever Clogs Footballers’, so-called, have always been there, and dominated the fledgling game in the late 1800s, when the country’s best players were drawn from Oxbridge. But in the professional era, only the annual Varsity match – held at Wembley from 1953 to 1988 – kept student football in the Public eye, and the university game went almost unnoticed until 2002.

At that point,  Team Bath, from the University of Bath sports department, reached the FA Cup 1st Round – part of the club’s six year ascent to Conference South. The club left senior football when told its constitution (the club was not a limited company) would not allow promotion to the Football League, and the FA has since restricted university sides to Level Five of the non-League pyramid, including Northern Counties East, Midland and similar leagues.

Team Bath’s successors, Bath University 1st’s, now play in the Premier South division of the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) setup, with playoff winners of Premier North and South – this year Stirling 1st’s and Hartpury 1st’s –  meeting in the championship final. The game  lacks the prestige of the Varsity fixture, and its low profile masks the potential of both players and coaches.

Stirling Albion boss Stuart McLaren was Loughborough’s coach in their BUCS cup final win over Nottingham in 2013. He believes the student game provides a better all-round experience. “University football offers an easier transition from the youth to the professional game and is part of a holistic learning process, creating responsible individuals as well as footballers.” McLaren moved to Forthbank last November after three years at Loughborough, and thinks highly of the student setup; “plenty of players in the student environment have the potential to play professional football.”

Among these are two McLaren proteges; Sports Science graduate George Williams (now with Barnsley) and alumnus Daniel Nti. The pair were team mates in Loughborough’s victorious BUCS side, skippered by Williams, while Nti’s 49 goals for Loughborough University in one Midland Alliance season (players appear in both BUCS and senior football) earned ‘Striking sensation’ headlines in the taboids.

Had they played in Scotland, both could have progressed within the university system.  As McLaren explains; “With a reduced playing pool, students in Scotland can reach a good level in non-League and part-time football. Professional clubs could also partner university sides, and benefit from the services like sports science and high performance coaching.”

The FA’s Hub Club scheme is one answer to this. In the 70s and 80s footballing graduates such as Steve Heighway, Brian Hall and Alan Smith combined their studies with local football (Smith played for Alvechurch, Heighway for Skelmersdale) before turning professional. Today, hub clubs offer student players a more direct route. In 2009, Gloucestershire side, Almondsbury Town (now UWE) of the Western League linked up with the Bristol-based University of Western England, giving the club access to University facilities, and students a place in the squad.

At Wrexham meanwhile, the current link with Glyndŵr University, which owns the Racecourse Ground, sees 15 players aged 22 and under (with 13 drawn from Football League clubs), studying for a degree while playing for Wrexham or a feeder club in the Welsh League,

The is where the university game can help, as  James Ellis, Deputy Director of Physical Education and Sport at Warwick University confirms; “They are football’s forgotten majority. They have everything done for them at the academies and have no support when they come out. It is a big drop for the ones who go into local football.”

The German model, where young players released by clubs go to regional football centres, was one worth copying; “Players may have been released young and then come to universities offering better programmes than the system they came out of,” says Ellis. “There are five or six institutions offering this and showing them what it takes to make it professionally.”

One beneficiary is Hemel Hempstead and ex-Milton Keynes defender Kieran Murphy, who studied at Loughborough. Murphy captained the silver medal-winning GB student squad, coached by Ellis, in the 2013 World University Games. Ellis’s squad of (mainly) non-League players, lost to Italy in the final, but beat a Russian side full of under-21 internationals on penalties in the semi-final: ”

Two players of the squad came from Hartpury College in  BUCS Premier South, while current Leyton Orient midfielder Bradley Pritchard was in Loughborough’s BUCS championship winning side of 2009. And though the BUCS setup has aided the progress of Pritchard, along with Cambridge United’s Robbie Simpson and Birmingham Sports Science graduate Tom Champion (who captained Cambridge at Old Trafford this season), coaching and support services top the agenda for Ellis.

“Using facilities is a great idea but it doesn’t get players in HE back into the professional game. There is no drive from the FA or BUCS to do this, and the FA has pulled funding from the GB University side. The chances of Loughborough students being full internationals is poor, but the opportunities are much better for coaches.” The presence of Loughborough graduates  Dan Micciche (head coach of England (u-15s/u-17s), Manchester City’s Dr Sam Erith (head of sports science) and Tony Strudwick, (head of fitness and conditioning at Man United), bears this out. For ambitious English players faced with switching clubs beyond Level Five, progress is less straightforward.

There are  no such restrictions on student clubs in Scotland; (“They can go all the way  to the Champions League if they so desire,” said the Scottish FA’s Darryl  Broadfoot.) And at Lowland League Stirling University, support from the institution includes up to £4,000 funding per year, up to 15 hours coaching a week and a flexible timetable. “We use a model akin to the college system in the US,” says Stirling’s Sports Communication Officer David Christie. “But it’s less cut-throat, with the support students receive during their academic programme being more of an incentive than the purely financial offers from professional clubs.”

The university side, whose players appear in both Lowland  League and BUCS competitions, is managed by former Arsenal Ladies coach Shelley Kerr, the
first woman manager in UK men’s football. Like Ellis, Kerr is keen on players’ all-round development, and believes more could be done to help footballers further their academic careers. A collegiate approach also helps; “I talk to coaches from other scholarship sports at Stirling as those shared experiences challenge you to think differently and learn even more.”

Most of the players are current students, with top scorer Chris Geddes – who works at Stirling – the main exception. “We could sign lots of players who are not students, but this would be counterproductive to our aim of developing talented student footballers.” The policy has paid off with the Kerr’s side in the top half of the Lowland League.

The patient, person-centred approach of Ellis and Kerr is a trademark of the university setup And with this philosophy more influential in the game, players and coaches may become recognised for their skill and their intelligence. Then, perhaps the headlines will change.

The BUCS Men’s Football Final between Stirling 1st and Hartpury 1st will be held on Wednesday 25th March at Loughborough University Stadium. Kick off is at 7pm.

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