Simon Hart: Wrexham's lesson in how to give players a degree of stability

Life Beyond the Premier League
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The Independent Football

"I had to make a decision, it was education or football." Barry Horne, the former Everton and Wales midfielder, is remembering the stark choice that faced him as a 16-year-old. He opted for education and it was not until he had earned a first in chemistry at Liverpool University that he abandoned his PhD studies to focus on a career in football, signing for Wrexham in 1984.

His graduate status earned "sideways looks" from team-mates, and things got even worse when he moved to Portsmouth and into "a dressing-room which prided itself on its [poor] disciplinary record and string of criminal convictions. It was a really hard dressing-room so I took a bit of stick".

Happily, times are changing and, three decades on, a university-educated footballer will soon be the norm at Horne's alma mater, the Racecourse Ground.

From July, young players will be able to earn a degree while continuing their playing development at the Glyndwr Wrexham Football Academy – a ground-breaking partnership between the fan-owned Conference side Wrexham and Glyndwr University.

Given the high drop-out rate among football's dream-chasers – more than three-quarters leave the professional game between the ages of 18 and 21 – this is a notable initiative according to Horne, the Professonal Footballers' Association chairman from 1997-2002 and now a Wrexham director.

"This gives lads an opportunity to continue their football development while starting down an academic route so they are not wasting time," he says.

Wrexham's relationship with the local university began in 2011 when, in a move that helped guarantee the club's future, the university bought the Racecourse Stadium, which is next door to their halls of residence, and Colliers Park training ground for an estimated £1.8 million.

For the academy's first intake there will be a range of sports-related degree programmes such as sports rehabilitation, along with business, management and media courses. A bursary from Wrexham will be available for the football side of the course, with PFA grants and student loans for the academic side.

The man tasked with managing the academy is Lee Jones – who played for Wrexham, Liverpool, Barnsley and Tranmere, and now coaches at Prestatyn Town. His League of Wales connections could prove important for those who fail to break into Kevin Wilkin's Wrexham first team or Joey Jones' reserves.

Horne says: "In an ideal world these lads will continue to develop as footballers. Some will play at a level just below Wrexham, some will go on to a level above Wrexham, and some will play for Wrexham."

Recruitment has already begun. One 18-year-old from a Premier League club is in the process of signing and another from a League One side was the first to receive an unconditional offer from the university. "We've had 20 lads seriously interested. We're close to getting six or seven enrolled," says Horne.

Most students will be between 18 and 22 but Anna-Marie Brown, the university's sports manager, expects the course will also appeal to the odd Football League veteran who, rather than sign a one-year contract elsewhere, could prolong his playing days with Wrexham while studying for a new career.

"A lot of players at the higher level haven't been released yet," she says. "I am really keen to see the first mature player who has come to end of their career sign up." Whoever that is can be sure of one thing: there will be none of the funny looks that greeted Horne all those years ago.

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