Why more footballers should be studying for degrees
The only certainty in the life of a professional footballer is that one day they will become an ex-professional footballer.
Some have long careers at the elite end of the sport and invest wisely for their retirement.
Others find themselves released by clubs and unable to find a new one in their early 20s or even younger. More still never get offered pro deals in the first place.
According to the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), of those entering the game aged 16, two years down the line, 50% will be outside professional football. At 21, the attrition rate is 75% or above.
The question is: are young footballers getting the education they need to prepare them for life outside the game?
Many aspiring pros leave school at 16 with a handful of GCSEs, go into full-time football and spend one day a week at college.
Most are pinning their hopes on ‘making it’ but, as the statistics show, the vast majority of them won’t.
So perhaps more should follow the example of Sunderland and England U21 striker Duncan Watmore (pictured above).
In 2015, Watmore graduated from Newcastle University in BA Economics & Business Management, becoming only the second Premier League player gain first-class honours.
Watmore started his degree whilst playing semi-professionally with Altrincham. After joining the Black Cats, he managed to complete his degree, achieving the highest grade possible.
According to a report by Xpro.org, an organisation established to assist former professional footballers of all ages, two out of five players are made bankrupt within five years of ending their playing careers, often because they have little education or training to fall back on.
Among those backing its work in this area is Bradley Pritchard, who featured in Sky’s ‘Out of Contract’ documentary about players left in limbo after being cut by their clubs.
Like Watmore, the midfielder began his career in the semi-professional game before going on to play for Charlton, Leyton Orient and Stevenage.
At 31, he is now back in non-league with Greenwich Borough but, with the PFA’s help, has added a law qualification to his first degree and is aiming to become a solicitor.
Another testimony on the PFA’s website comes from Carlisle defender Michael Raynes, who graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016 with a degree in Sports Science.
“I’ve always wanted to do something, my career has always been that of a lower-league footballer, so you always know that you’ll have to get a job when you finish there’s no two ways about it,” he says.
“It’s not like the Premier League players who are financially set. We know that we’ll need a job after, so I’ve always had in my mind that I wanted to have the best opportunity to do something that I enjoy and that’s how I looked at it.
“It was an opportunity for me to determine where my path after football goes instead of clutching at things and trying to find a job.”
So why, with testimonies like these available to inspire footballers, are so many players finishing their careers with little education to fall back on?
For many, football is a way out of having to rely on qualifications to get a job. It’s their route to wealth, fame and acclaim, and it sidelines thoughts of college or university.
“Maybe it’s better to take the route of Pritchard and Watmore, who didn’t go through the professional academy system and completed their education first?”
In the higher leagues, young players are offered huge amounts of money and have agents taking care of everything for them. They are thrust into the limelight and think it will be on them forever.
Former professional Stephen O’Halloran was forced to think about life after football when two cruciate ligament injuries during his time at Aston Villa forced him to quit the pro ranks and go semi-professional.
He qualified as a physiotherapist, graduating from University of Salford in 2016 whilst playing for Salford City part-time, and now had a full-time job in the NHS thanks to his degree.
O’Halloran told the PFA website: “I made the decision about four years ago [aged 24] that I didn’t want to be going from club to club without anything to back me up.
“I was about to sign for Nuneaton in the National League when I got onto the course with the help of [assistant director of education] Oshor Williams at the PFA.”
Better off in education than academies
Watmore and Pritchard’s stories are different to those of O’Halloran and Raynes. The latter were young professionals who went back into education once they realised that football wasn’t a lifelong career.
Watmore and Pritchard completed their education and degrees before becoming pro footballers, and that fact begs the question if the fault lies with the academies of professional clubs.
The fact that older players are having to go back into education once the penny drops about brevity of their careers is surely down to a lack of guidance given to them as young pros.
Academies need to do more to encourage young professionals to go university, or study things other than sports science and exercise at college, to give them the best chance at finding what’s best for them after football.
So maybe it’s better to take the route of Pritchard and Watmore, who didn’t go through the professional academy system and completed their education first?