By Matthew Johnson

What options do young football players have if they don’t make the grade after academy level? These young players need an academic grounding to fall back on in order to fulfil their potential in another way.

There are major failings in this country when it comes to providing players with the academic background necessary to pursue a career outside of the game. This is not only a fail-safe for players who do not make it in the professional game, but an investment in their future.

Young players are encouraged to dream big, but why should this be limited to sport? Duncan Watmore is the only University graduate currently playing in the Premier League, and the last before him was David Wetherall, who last played in the league in 2001. According to the CEIS Football Observatory, only 11.7% of top-flight players graduate from their club’s academies. So shouldn’t we be encouraging them to pursue an elite education as well as a football career? The riches of the Football League pale in comparison to those of the Premier League, so players who drop down can be significantly less comfortable when they retire.

In the United States they do things differently. The universities actually play the role of producing elite players for professional clubs while providing these players with the safety net of a degree. Although the value of the education American student athletes receive can be dubious due to their sporting commitments, the under-lying principal is sound – education must work hand-in-hand with sport. High-school athletes must meet the grade requirements to go to university in order to stand a chance of being drafted into the professional leagues. The NFL actually requires new players to finish three seasons in college, and the NBA has a minimum draft age of 19.

Since 2012, the Premier League has tried to implement an education programme to partner that of elite development through their Elite Player Performance Plan. However, many Football League clubs have expressed feelings of exploitation due to the bias towards so-called ‘elite academies’. What is worse, many clubs, including Wycombe Wanderers, have had to close their academies due to the increased running costs under the new system. The question of the need for education becomes moot when there is no academy to produce players.

For too long the FA and the Premier League have been at logger heads over footballing matters. But when it comes to the well-being and education of youth players, there should be no partisan policies. We need a country-wide initiative to provide young players with the skills they need to function off the pitch. Should we emulate the American system? Not in its entirety – exploitation of amateur athletes for university degrees in a $10.5bn market is scandalous. But education must play a more significant role in youth football if we want good young footballers to become good young men.

There are some independent enterprises such as Interactive Sports which offer higher education alongside high level, competitive football. Players have many options at such institutions. They are able to study a full-time two year BTEC Diploma Sports Course (equivalent to 3 A Levels) that can lead to university, or they are able to take on Apprenticeships and Traineeships to prepare them for the working world.

The Manchester Scholarship and Education Programme is based at Sportcity (next to Etihad stadium). This not only provides the players with 12 hours of professional coaching and the opportunity to play in National and Regional Leagues, but also great exposure and the chance to be scouted by professional clubs. The most successful Interactive Sports graduate is Will Buckley who went on to play for Rochdale, Watford, Brighton and Sunderland.
For most of their lives, young footballers have been focused on making it as a professional, but what do they have to fall back on? What if they are forced to retire at a young age through injury?

What if coaching is not for them? Should a dream of an elite playing career not be replaced by an equally successful non-playing career?