Higher calling for refugee of promised land

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The Independent Football

A life on football's expressway had not prepared Chris Woodcock for a tour of the League's B roads. Rejection by his beloved Newcastle United he could take, just, but Bristol Rovers? Surely not for a boy who had once spent his afternoons training with Michael Owen and Wes Brown and his evenings doing their homework.

"I trained with Rovers for two days, played one game for the reserves and they said they didn't want me," Woodcock recalls. "That knocked me sideways. I came back home and said, 'That's it, I'm not playing any more'." And, bar the odd run-out with Woking Reserves, he has been true to his word.

The parable of lost footballing youth is familiar enough, only the ending has been significantly revised. Tomorrow, the graduate of the class of '96, Lilleshall School of Excellence, will become a student of Mathematics and Computer Sciences at Magdalen College, the first Oxford undergraduate to number cleaning Alan Shearer's boots and mastering Fermat's Theorem among their list of lifetime accomplishments.

Unwittingly, Woodcock has become Exhibit A in the Professional Footballers' Association's increasingly bitter struggle with the game's powerbrokers. The education department of the PFA have funded Woodcock for books, equipment and exam fees through his A level studies, but a £1,000-a-year grant for his tuition and maintenance at Oxford would come directly from a benevolent fund generated by the television revenues.

If demands for a revised share of revenue fail, Woodcock will not get his grant. But the principle of clubs' responsibility to their rejects lies at the heart of the strike action threatened for November by the players' union. "What we aim to do is prepare young players for their lives, whether they become professionals or not," says Micky Burns, head of the PFA's educational programme. But the fact that Michael Owen could keep his former classmate in ermine and champagne from the small change of his new wage of around £70,000 a week complicates the economics of the issue. Owen's subscription to the PFA is £75 a year.

Woodcock does not begrudge Owen his weekly paypacket, nor would he necessarily swap his ivory tower for the gilded cage of the football multi-millionaire. Yet Owen, Brown, Jon Harley and Michael Ball, the other successful recruits from a highly talented intake at Lilleshall, can claim more than a walk-on part in the fairytale. When a combination of injury, loss of confidence and change of manager at Newcastle pitched him into the massed ranks of football's unemployed two years ago, at the age of 19, Woodcock did not relish being typecast by his peers as just another refugee from the promised land.

"I didn't want to be ashamed in front of people like Michael Owen or Wes Brown," he says. "I wanted to be able to hold my head up and say, 'Yea, I didn't make it at football, but this is why'." It was the fear of failure that prompted Woodcock to pursue his English studies at night class when the other apprentices at Newcastle were settling down to watch the football on television, to push his mind as well as his body on the professional treadmill.

Though born and brought up initially in Halifax, the family moved to Morpeth when Woodcock was 11. He signed schoolboy forms for Newcastle at 14, became an apprentice at 16 and moved smoothly into the professional ranks a year later, taking with him into one of life's more precarious professions a sweet left foot, telling pace and a startling batch of grades at GCSE (6 A stars, two As and a B) besides a GNVQ in Tourism and Leisure Management.

"The club tried to con us into believing that the GNVQ was worth three A levels, but I knew that was rubbish," he says. "At the time, the club were pretty reluctant to release us for just one day a week and they weren't very interested in our results." Newcastle, jealous of their own like most clubs, were equally unimpressed when Woodcock went away to Lilleshall for two years. "A couple of their lads had bad experiences of Lilleshall in the past and, boy, did I hear about it. It was hard because you were bored and a long way from home, but looking back, Lilleshall was a fantastic experience not just for your football but for your whole life. You learnt how to behave, how to talk properly to people, how to look good. Michael Owen was a terror when he arrived at Lilleshall. He had a real temper. I can remember one time he talked back at the ref quite early on in a game and he was taken off straight away. I think Michael's immaculate image now is largely due to his time at Lilleshall."

Woodcock's own professional career was effectively cut short by a block tackle in a youth match. Three comebacks ended in failure and by the time he had recovered from an operation on his ankle ligaments, his contract was running out and Ruud Gullit was in charge. "I was unlucky, I suppose. Kenny Dalglish [the previous manager] knew who I was and had watched me play, so he might have given me another chance. Gullit didn't even know I existed. I asked for another year, the club said 'No'. So I suppose I was prepared for the inevitable when they called us to say we would have to find another club.

"I was still willing to give football a good go and see where I came out. I've still got friends in the game who've gone around 10 or 11 clubs and keep getting knocked back and I've got so much respect for them, but that wasn't for me."

Instead, Woodcock completed a two-year maths A- level course in a year, defying the predictions of his tutors by getting an A grade. The dreaming spires, though, were still a distant prospect. "I sent an email to a few admissions tutors at University College, London, to Oxford and Cambridge and Magdalen phoned up inviting me for an interview. I went up there, my first-ever visit to Oxford, and it was like going to Lilleshall for the first time. You were made to feel special. I never expected to get to Lilleshall, but I thought I may as well give it a go. It was the same with Oxford."

After five interviews and a two-and-a-half-hour exam, he was offered a place for this year, conditional on him gaining another A in further maths. An extra summer of study and frustration will be fully rewarded tomorrow.

"I would have liked to have stayed in football," he reflects. "But only if I could have been a top player. I'd rather be at Oxford than in the Second or Third Division. I was spoilt at Newcastle."

It will be a deceptively short stroll through the gates of Magdalen College, another exclusive academy, tomorrow. Only Woodcock knows the true length of the journey from Toon to gown.