When Wayne Rooney's world proves beyond reach

Are young footballers missing out on decent schooling? Liz Lightfoot reports
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The Independent Online

The nation may be gripped by football fever, but for hundreds of young players the World Cup is a cruel reminder of what might have been had they made the grade as professional footballers such as Wayne Rooney. They are the other side of the World Cup dream, the boys who put their hearts into football and were the envy of their friends when they were signed up at 16, but are forced now to look for alternative careers.

About 60 per cent of the youngsters taken on by football clubs two years ago will not have had their contracts renewed this summer. When the boys who signed up in 2008 at 16 reach the age of 21, the fallout rate will rise to around 85 per cent. "The hardest bit of being let go is telling your parents and friends and all the people who had massive expectations that you were going to be the next multimillion-pound player," says Martyn Heather, the education manager at the Premier League.

Things have changed since the days when young footballers missed out on their education and came out with a certificate in travel and tourism, he says. Since 2004, young people aged 16 to 18 taken on by most Premier League and Football League clubs have been enrolled on an advanced apprenticeship in sporting excellence, although not all their parents believe this is academic enough for the very brightest.

Boys study for one and a half days a week, either at their club or at a local college for qualifications within the apprenticeship programme. Most often they work towards the BTEC national certificate in sport, which is equal to two A-levels. The more academic apprentices can take on a further six modules for the BTEC national diploma, equivalent to three A-levels.

This course includes fitness testing, the psychology of performance, nutrition, analysing performance, anatomy and physiology. The teenagers also take an NVQ Level 3 in achieving excellence in sports performance as well as a Football Association Level 2 certificate in coaching football. In addition, they take driving, finance, and health and lifestyle programmes.

Though the BTEC alone is unlikely to get players into the poshest universities, other stellar institutions, such as Loughborough University, University of Bath and Cardiff University, welcome their talents. Some offer scholarships to attract players to their sports teams.

Ricky Byrne,19, who trained from the age of 10 with Ipswich Town's youth team, is in his first year of a law and criminology degree at the University of Stirling, and plans a career as a sports or criminal lawyer. He joined Southend United at 16, but an injury forced him to rethink his career, at which point Stirling – which had scouted him at a trial – picked him out for a football scholarship. "I would definitely advise young footballers to consider alternative options," he says. "Anything can happen in football to affect your dream."

The downside of the BTEC, which the clubs say has been a success, is the catch-all nature of the qualification. Owing to the wide range of academic ability among footballers – some come in with no GCSEs, some with 10 or 11 A grades – it does not suit everyone.

"The clubs pay lip service to the chance to do A-levels, but in practice very little is done to provide for the very bright players," says the father of a 17-year-old player, who asked not to be named for fear of damaging his son's chance of being signed next year. "They have to find courses at local colleges or schools which don't usually fit in with their training and they are still expected to do the sports BTEC."

Alan Sykes, the chief executive of League Football Education, the body that manages the educational programme for apprentices at Football League clubs, disputes this parent's view, arguing that boys can do A-levels and that the BTEC works well. "We do provide opportunities for boys to do A- levels, but there are restraining factors, which include academic ability and timetabling. We have had, and will continue to have, a number of players that choose to do A-levels, and the results have been excellent," he says. Apprentices without passes in GCSE maths and English take key skills qualifications in communication and maths.

"The BTEC works well for the vast majority and is a good motivator, because it is relevant to the life of a professional sportsman," he says. "It is far better than what used to happen, which was players diving in and out of different courses, such as bricklaying, for a day and then not being able to pick up a trowel for another week. Attainment levels were very low, because they did not have the chance to put what they learned into practice.

"Not everyone with potential at 16 turns out to be a Wayne Rooney, and we have a duty of care to these boys to look after them and make sure they have a cushion to fall back on." From September, the apprentices will take the new diplomas and extended diplomas, which will be similar to their present courses.

Recent university successes include Ciaron Barton, 19, whose triple distinction in the BTEC national diploma got him a place to study physiotherapy at Manchester Metropolitan University. "I can still pursue my dream of being involved in the game, but in a different role," says Barton, who is playing football for the university.

By careful time management Richard Woolley managed to combine training at Wolverhampton Wanderers with going back to school part-time to take A-levels in economics and politics. He also studied in his own time for the BTEC national certificate, giving him the equivalent of another two A-levels. Now he is studying economics at the University of Sheffield and playing for the university. "I was very disappointed to leave Wolverhampton last year, but I had a great few years training, played at the highest level and had the chance to study as well. I have no regrets at all," he says.

What he does miss is the plentiful equipment of the Premier League side. "The university team is always having to fundraise," he says. "We have just a few footballs, whereas at Wolves we had bags and bags of them."