THE ASPIRATION TO become a professional footballer enraptures the majority of children on a playing field at school.
Ex-Cambridge United footballer and current York PhD student Graham Rush’s childhood was no different; he is quick to reflect on the ease with which he has always found playing sport and his boyhood dream to become a footballer.
For many, however, the dream does not become a reality. While eight is the minimum age for formal association with a club, children get scouted from as early as the age of three; attend training and matches every week, usually involving long commutes, and are led to believe that they will make it as a footballer.
In the UK it is often painted as a choice between football and further education, while American football players study for a college degree at the same time as preparing for the fiercely-competitive NFL draft. Indeed, Rush tells me of how he was “brainwashed” into thinking that he would make it as a footballer and that education should be subordinated.
When Sunderland midfielder Duncan Watmore graduated with a first-class degree in 2015, he was only the second Premier League player in history to do so, suggesting that higher education and professional football are diverging paths.
Rush admitted that at school he perceived further education and football as opposing, mutually exclusive options. This belief had been ingrained into him from a young age by successive football coaches.
“They brainwash you a little bit into believing that this is the only thing in life, that you have to be a footballer and there’s nothing else. We were told that we should not spend too much time on college as it was a distraction, which was ridiculous really,” Rush admitted.
The danger of neglecting education to focus on football is highlighted by the alarming PFA statement that 50 per cent of those entering football at the age of 16 are without a club within two years and just 0.5 per cent of those aged nine in academies go on to make a living from professional or semi-professional football.
With such a small chance of realising their childhood dream, and with the short expiration date on football careers in any case, it seems short-sighted to side-line education. The boundless optimism of youthful prospects is blinding to such realities, but Rush believes that coaches, aware of such high-stakes, have a responsibility to promote back-up options.
They brainwash you a little bit into believing that this is the only thing in life, that you have to be a footballer and there’s nothing else.
At the age of 16 and just one week after finishing his GCSE exams, Rush began his first official contract playing as a centre-back for local team Cambridge United, then a League One side.
Whilst on the books of Cambridge United, Rush was enrolled onto a BTEC Sports Science course, but confesses that players were “lumped” onto such a programme to “tick a few boxes and keep people happy that they were educating us,” when really their education consisted simply of copying sheets of notes for about 10 hours per week.
“We were led to believe, and our parents were led to believe that we would be looked after, that we would be well-educated. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but it was pretty bad what went on, really,” he said, before dramatically revealing that one of his tutors ended up in prison following a fraud conviction involving the company which supplied tutors to the club.
Rush spent three years with Cambridge United’s youth team before joining the first-team. However, he was limited to a few appearances on the bench and was released a year later with no first team appearances under his belt.
It was at this time that Rush started to re-evaluate his options and consider university. Previous to this, he admitted that it had “always” been football at the expense of everything else. He remembers his parents being called into school and told that their son was not achieving his academic potential.
Nevertheless, Rush did not completely terminate the football route until a potential trip to impress scouts at a trial in the US was cancelled in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
At the age of 29 and not having done an exam since 16, Rush then decided to do a fast-track degree and studied Geography at the University of Gloucestershire with financial help from the PFA. He admitted that his acceptance into university was based on the decent grades achieved in his GCSEs and “very little” to do with the education he received whilst at Cambridge United.
Hence, Rush is quick to call for more crossover between football and education, similar to the US model. He not only wants to see more educational opportunities for aspiring footballers in the UK, but also more support for players dropped by clubs and forced to take another career path.
“Once football was finished it was like we were just forgotten about. There was no kind of advice on how to approach university. There was no real route from football into university,” he said.
If he could go back and give the fresh-faced 16-year-old boy about to sign his first football contract any advice, he would still emphasise a focus on football but also insist that he “put [his] foot down and made sure that they educated us properly and be more aware that the dream probably wasn’t going to happen.”
Nowadays Rush studies towards a PhD at York, admitting that he has surprised himself with how much he has enjoyed research since starting university. In his spare time, he is an elite runner, running twice a day, and such efforts have earned him the honour of representing Great Britain a couple of times. He even joked that he may take up football again, this time at full-back where he can run all day long.