The £4.3million football career that never was

Ben Collett won record compensation for a bad tackle that ended his hopes, reports Mark Hughes

Among the thousands of students who take up places at Leeds University next month will be an ex-professional footballer with millions of pounds in the bank. But Ben Collett's classmates on his undergraduate English literature course can be forgiven for having never heard of him.

That is because even though he played for Manchester United and is wealthier than many of the players still plying their trade in the professional game, the 23-year-old never even played a single first-team game. In a High Court ruling yesterday, Mr Collett was awarded £4.3m based on what he could have earned had his career not been ended by a leg-breaking tackle in a reserve game at the age of 18.

It the biggest-ever pay-out received by a professional sportsman and legal experts say the case could have far-reaching implications for other young sports stars injured before they have established themselves at the highest level. At the time of his injury Mr Collett was on just £460 a week.

The damages were awarded by Mrs Justice Swift, who largely based her calculations on a groundbreaking study by The Independent which, two years ago, revealed that the average wage of a footballer playing in The Championship – the lowest level at which Mr Collett was expected to play – was £5,000 per week. At an earlier hearing, the court heard evidence from the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who said Mr Collett had an "outstanding chance" of becoming a full-time professional footballer had it not been for his injury.

As it is, Mr Collett will now pursue a career as either a journalist or lawyer after he finishes his university degree.

Outside court the shy former footballer refused to speak to the media following the award, instead preferring to have a statement read out by his solicitor, Jan Levinson, on his behalf. It said: "Ben Collett and his family are happy that this case has finally come to a close and that Ben is now able to move on to the next chapter in his life.

"The size of the award made by the Court today reflects his talent and potential prior to the tackle as one of the brightest young footballers in the country. Having said that, Ben would understandably have preferred to earn this sum through a full career as a professional footballer."

Ben Collett joined Manchester United's youth academy aged nine and signed two youth contracts before penning a professional deal at the age of 17.

In April 2003, he was part of United's FA Youth Cup-winning team, but in May of that year he suffered a double leg break after being tackled in his first reserve match by Middlesbrough's Gary Smith. Despite this he was awarded the prestigious Jimmy Murphy Award for young player of the year at the end of that season and was given a new two-year contract. However, despite making more than 20 appearances for United's reserves in the following two seasons, Mr Collett never returned to his pre-injury form and was released from the club in 2005. He subsequently played for the New Zealand Knights and lower league Dutch side Agovv Apeldoorn before retiring in July last year.

During his action for damages, both Middlesbrough football Club and Gary Smith accepted liability for the tackle that ended Mr Collett's fledgling career and it was up to Mrs Justice Swift to decide how much the former youth player should receive in damages.

She heard that he was a left-footed player, a rare commodity in the top-flight game, with a "phenomenal" work ethic. Sir Alex Ferguson described him as "A-class" and compared him to football legends such as Roy Keane and Bryan Robson.

He said: "They all had that extra thing that drove them to be the best. He had the desire to be a top player. He didn't lack technical ability or stamina. It is difficult to say where he was going, but I had absolutely no doubts about his commitment. He was an A-class player – magnificent. I thought the boy showed fantastic focus, a great attitude to work hard, and they are qualities to give any player an outstanding chance in the game."

Based on these comments – and the success of players Mr Collett had played with at United – Mrs Justice Swift yesterday decided that the probability was that Mr Collett would have spent one-third of his career in The Premiership and the rest in The Championship – English football's second tier.

In doing so she awarded him £4.3 million in damages, which included £3,854,328 for future loss of earnings - the highest award ever given to a professional sportsman or woman.

The youngster has previously said he is not bitter about his early exit from the game. Speaking about his plans to go to university he said that while soccer and reading were his only two passions in life, he would not be playing sport anymore.

"I'm focussed on other things in my life now," he said. "Football didn't work out and I'm now devoting myself to literature."

Judge turns to 'The Independent' when calculating damages

When Mrs Justice Swift wanted to know how much professional footballers are paid it was The Independent to which the learned judge turned. In calculating the £4.5m damages owed to Ben Collett, the court heavily relied on two authoritative surveys organised by The Independent journalist Nick Harris and published in 2002 and 2006. The judge described Mr Harris's work as a "secure basis" upon which she could found her conclusions about the weekly wage packets of footballers playing in all four divisions of the league. She said that the survey's results, revealing in 2006 the average basic annual pay of a Premiership player to be £676,000, were later confirmed by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), which had checked the findings against their own figures. Mr Harris, a staff sports reporter with The Independent since 1998, received about 400 replies from footballers in both years of the survey. The newspaper's investigation helped shine a light into a secretive area of football remuneration. The paper's research showed that the average pay for a Championship player was £195,000 for the 2005-06 season. But of even greater interest was the revelation that the average Premiership player's salary had risen by 65 per cent since 2000.

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