The University of East London, which is to announce a unique link with West Ham Football Club this week, says that a career as a professional footballer is a good substitute for the traditional entry qualifications.
If the scheme works, it could be extended to other clubs all over London. Its aim is to give players a chance to broaden their horizons and to plan for a life beyond the football pitch.
More than 20 West Ham employees have already benefitted from a pilot project for the scheme. Some have taken up courses at the University of East London, while others have been directed elsewhere. Some of the club's white-collar staff have attended management courses, the club groundsman has done part-time study to improve his skills, and one person has taken up French.
The scheme is now being extended to players, both new recruits and older hands. The club secretary, Tom Finn, explained: 'An educational adviser will sit down with parents and the boys and will give them individual attention, which I think has been lacking in the past as part of their first two years' training. They already undertake a day a week non- football training, and this is to try and make the best use of it.'
The university will recognise the players' work experience rather than demanding that they go back to school to take A-levels. Graham Minshaw, its head of external development projects, said it often gave such credit to the over-21s, who make up more than half its students.
'We are not saying any old Joe Soap can come in and be guaranteed a degree. The output is still at the same high standard as everywhere else, but the opportunities are being given to more people,' he said.
Mr Finn said that of the 16- year-old school-leavers the club took on each year, only one in four was still playing professional football at the age of 20. Parents often asked what would happen if their sons' careers failed to take off or if they were injured. In future the club would be able to offer them a wider range of educational courses.
'If the day comes when they can't pursue their career because of injury or they haven't reached the standard required, they will have something to fall back on. They do have the time to do something else as well, and we are trying to see that they make the best of it,' he said.
Even those players who did make it still needed to plan ahead, he added. Simon Webster, aged 30, joined the club last year from Charlton but broke his leg in training and has not been able to play since. He has just started an A-level course in human biology and hopes to take up part-time training in physiotherapy next year, possibly at the University of East London.
'The course takes four years so that will take me up to 35, and I will probably be at the stage where I am looking to come out of the game anyway, or winding down a little bit. Hopefully I can get my training behind me while I am still playing,' he said.
Trevor Brooking, television personality and a former West Ham player, also welcomed the scheme.
'It is a very important development,' he said. 'Further training puts the game into perspective. It is a benefit not only in terms of improving players as individuals but also as a safety net in case they do not pursue a career in professional football.'
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