Ashling O’Connor: The middle classes don’t make better footballers, but every player could benefit from the advantages of a good education

You cannot expect a player to flourish on talent without the life skills to manage it

Traditionalists might have listened to Alan Pardew with trepidation ahead of the Southampton game last weekend as he talked about wanting to recruit more footballers from the middle classes.

The Newcastle manager spoke jealously of how his opponents’ academy had been blessed with bright players such as Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Adam Lallana, who hailed from a “different type of catchment area… there are a lot of middle-class kids who have a good education”.

You could almost hear them spluttering into their pies oop North, where there obviously must be fewer clever people to choose from to mould into good footballers. It would be one explanation for Newcastle’s 4-0 kicking on the South Coast, anyway.

The response in the blogosphere was predictable. First the terraces were overrun by the middle classes and their urge to sit down and eat a meal in the middle of the afternoon, now the pitch too? Is nothing in football any longer reserved for the working classes?!

But such a reaction is missing the point. Despite a clumsy choice of terminology, Pardew was referring to an intelligence born of pastoral care, not of the privilege of birth. At least I hope he knows that a high IQ is not the preserve of the upper classes – the opposite is often the case.

Walcott, Bale and Lallana all attended comprehensive secondary schools. Luke Shaw, the other player Pardew mentioned, also went to a state school that became a business and enterprise college.

The emergence of the “intelligent” footballer is less about the gentrification of the game (society itself has become proportionately less working-class) and more to do with certain clubs recognising a duty to develop the minds as well as the bodies of boys they sign as young as eight.

In the absence of a trade, as was the norm for club apprentices in the early days of professional football, there has to be an alternative structure to prepare young players not only for the off-field distractions that can crush their careers but the reality of life as a mere mortal if they don’t cut the mustard or suffer serious injury.

There was no more timely a reminder of this than the release this week of the first mental health study of footballers by FIFpro, the world players’ association. Its survey of 300 current and former international footballers from six nations found a higher prevalence of mental illness than in the wider population; 26 per cent of current players and 39 per cent of former players admitted to depression or anxiety-related illnesses; 19 per cent of active players said they abused alcohol.

Chris Jackson, who was capped 60 times for New Zealand, spiralled into depression after completing a footballing scholarship with Wimbledon when they were still in the top English division and returning to “mundane small-town reality”.

He said: “I always pictured myself playing at the highest level in Europe. Touching it and then not having the guidance to follow through was where I took a different path… I began getting into alcohol and drugs with old school friends. And then the up-and-down roller-coaster ride began.”

Southampton was one of the first top English clubs really to understand that you cannot expect a player to flourish on talent alone if you have failed to equip him with the life skills to manage it.

The educational structure is as much for those who don’t make it as a professional footballer as for those who do, which is just as well as the proportion of the latter is much higher. We only hear about the successful ones, of course, not those like Jackson, who is still a semi-pro in Australia but is also a cleaner at a university.

“I feel I could have reached higher goals if I had been given advice and guidance,” he said. “That has been the catalyst for depression and anxiety, knowing I missed the boat and particularly having to work in a mundane, depressive, robotic minimum wage job which daily reveals to me the purpose of living.”

Incidentally, he attended one of the oldest state schools in New Zealand, whose alumni include judges and politicians. A good education didn’t guarantee him footballing success.

It is ludicrous to suggest that middle-class kids make better footballers. It might be harder to work with a player who has had a bad start in life but if a club has had him from the age of eight, it should be able to cancel that out. Besides, intelligence has many definitions. Wayne Rooney, from one of the toughest estates on Merseyside, is an intelligent footballer yet he left school with no GCSEs.

But the fringe benefits of a good education – confidence, self-esteem, articulacy, self-motivation – will help most people make the best of their natural talent. If clubs want better footballers, they should develop more well-rounded individuals. It’s about culture, not class.

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