Gazing out upon the hallowed green rectangle of Burnley's Turf Moor, it is not hard to imagine the glories of days past. Although it may be half a century since the Clarets scaled the very pinnacle of the English game and last season's sojourn in the Premier League proved, sadly, all too short-lived, a passion for football still burns bright in the Lancashire mill town, where the game has forged a common bond for people during the long years of industrial decline.
But from next September, the club, one of the founder members of the Football League in 1888, will be home to Britain's newest university. A joint venture between Burnley FC and an unnamed university partner will create what is already being dubbed the country's first University of Football.
Strictly speaking, the official title will be the University College of Football Business (UCFB) and students, although they might be able to look out longingly over the hallowed playing surface, will be restricted to studying matters concerning the operational and business side of the industry rather than the unfathomable truths that govern the bouncy round thing in the middle of the park.
When lessons kick off next academic year, all lectures and seminars will take place within the existing Turf Moor facilities in adapted suites above the home supporters' stand. A planned multimillion-pound development of the ground will eventually see a major expansion, including bespoke student accommodation and a "university village" created behind where the existing away supporters sit.
Critics, of course, may accuse the "football degree" of being the latest film or media studies – not least because more than a dozen institutions already offer undergraduate qualifications incorporating some element of the beautiful game, including Southampton University with its three-year degree in football studies.
But Burnley believes that what it has to offer is unique, and not just in terms of its setting, proclaiming it is in the vanguard of answering Lord Browne's recent call to arms for private operators to work alongside the increasingly cash-strapped public-sector universities.
Philip Wilson, the newly appointed chief executive and himself a football industries MBA, said courses will be "business degrees wrapped around football" and graduates will be equipped with skills that it is hoped will make them equally employable in any number of related sporting or non-sporting endeavours. Yet although the skills learnt will all be fully transferable, the focus remains very much on football, where the UCFB's founders believe they have spotted a sizeable gap in the educational marketplace. "This is in response to a very clear emerging requirement for increased standards of professionalism, operations and governance within the football world," Mr Wilson said in the oak-panelled directors' dining suite at the Lancashire ground this week. "We will be establishing, for the very first time, a programme which is entirely geared towards this multibillion-pound industry and the surrounding business environment, delivering graduates with the skills to walk straight into positions at clubs, governing bodies and surrounding industries," he promised. The UCFB is now in the process of recruiting what he describes as a "World XI" of sporting academics. The first signing is Dr Roger Levermore from Liverpool University Management School, who will be a visiting professor.
There will initially be a clutch of three-year courses – a sports law LLB, as well as BScs in football business and finance, football marketing and media, and international football business. Undergraduate students will all be guaranteed an industry work placement, while there will also be two single-year access courses, one of which will include English as a foreign language and be tailored to the needs of overseas students, who are expected to make up 30 per cent of the initial intake of 150. So far, potential students from Japan, China, Australia and South America have all registered an interest.
Fees are due to be set at £9,600 for the three-year degree course, though this is expected to rise in line with the rest of the sector when the cap on what institutions can charge is lifted. In the longer term, degree courses are likely to convert to a two-year structure.
Learning alongside the undergraduates will be some of those reaching the end of their playing career yet looking to remain within the business side of the game. A think tank will also be established to carry out independent research and analysis for industry clients. Mr Wilson believes this will provide both fresh blood and ideas in an industry that is desperately seeking new off-field innovation. "Football was born here and it will be reborn here. UCFB will be the neurological centre of world football," he says.
Among the partners already signed up are the Premier League, the Professional Footballers' Association, the Football League and a certain Alastair Campbell, a lifelong Burnley fan, who has agreed to act as an ambassador for the institution. Of keen interest to potential students will be the average starting salary within the football industry, currently said to be around £25,000 a year, making the degree a potentially alluring prospect in an increasingly bleak graduate jobs market. Applications will be made through Ucas in the normal way and successful candidates will be expected to have 260 points at A-level – BCC – although those with relevant life experience that makes them stand out from the crowd will be considered favourably. "The potential student would be the guy or the girl who is physically active, who plays in the sports teams at school and is highly driven. We want people with get-up-and-go who don't spend too much time on the Xbox," Mr Wilson says.
The success of the college is also crucial to the town of Burnley's wider vision to turn itself into Pennine Lancashire's centre for education and skills training, and is seen as an important driving force in the area's long-term regeneration. UCFB recruits, expected to number 1,000 within five years, will be joining another 1,000 students already studying at the new local campus of the University of Central Lancashire, which, along with Burnley College, was part of an £84m educational investment completed just two years ago. As well as a vibrant nightlife of its own, by 2013, the town will have a new rail connection to neighbouring Manchester, halving journey times to the city. Burnley also has the added advantage of finding itself amid some of the most stunning natural scenery in England and with some of the cheapest private-sector accommodation in the North-west. For the football-obsessed, meanwhile, there is a wealth of opportunities to watch top-flight matches – should future generations of hard-up students be able to afford the price of Premier League tickets, that is. Within a 30-mile radius can be found the grounds of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers – as well as Burnley, of course, who are currently battling to reach contention for the Championship play-offs. The club's chief executive, Paul Fletcher, said the university would be run as a business. "Clearly we're not a rich club but we have always been a smart club, and this is a way of bringing in secondary-income streams to keep up with other clubs," he told the Burnley Citizen when news of the university first leaked out. "I think it's a first in this country for a football club to do this, but I think other clubs will follow suit, because football is still big business."