Footballers union and Learndirect team up in bid to tackle skills gap

Aspiring footballers who don’t make the big time are often left on the scrapheap with no qualifications, no work experience and few skills. But Learndirect and the Professional Footballers Association aim to change all that. 

With just four days until the big kick-off in the English Premiership, football players at the top clubs will be dreaming about scoring goals, lifting trophies and, cynics might suggest, their next fast car and designer suit purchase.

However, for many footballers, the reality is somewhat different, with even those who have been at the top of the profession facing an uncertain future.

According to the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), 499 players were released from their clubs at the end of last season, including former international stars such as Gus Poyet, Steve Guppy and Teddy Sheringham.

The number of players on the payroll at professional clubs in all leagues has fallen by 20 per cent in the past three years – since the closure of ITV Digital left a number of clubs outside the Premiership, who were the pay-TV operator’s creditors, in deep financial trouble.

Although some players – such as new West Ham United recruit Sheringham – have been lucky enough to find a new club, and others will go into management or the media, large numbers will be forced to look at jobs outside the game.

The trouble is, there are not many employers that are prepared to recruit staff who have no skills, qualification or previous experience.

Recognising this, the PFA and UK skills agency Learndirect recently launched a series of schemes to encourage players to study IT skills, attend business classes and even go to university.

Under the plans, players are to be offered a series of courses, equivalent to the first year of a university degree, which use quotes from the likes of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger to demonstrate different management styles.

In addition, boys embarking on a football apprenticeship scheme direct from school are pointed towards studying a college course of their choice, as well as getting lessons in CV-writing and interview skills.

However, the lure of footballing success means many players find it hard to look beyond the game as a career, according to Jimmy Nelson, manager of administration and education at Premiership club Newcastle United.

“It is difficult to persuade the lads that they are going to need another career option,” he told Personnel Today. “Most of them believe it [football] is going to work for them.”

Even after they are released by Newcastle, the majority of youngsters attempt to stay in football by going for trials at other clubs, Nelson said.

“By the time they realise they are not going to get a club they are out of my remit,” he said. “They often start their second career three of four years down the line.”

Conversely, it can often be better to take time over alternative career decisions, Nelson said, drawing on his own experience as a young footballer.

“When I left the game, I only lasted a couple of months in the first job I tried,” he said. “It was only when I sat back and thought about it that I went into teaching. It takes a long time to get over the disappointment of not making it as a footballer, which is a good time to do some thinking.”

To ensure released players have their options laid out, Newcastle has forged links with careers advice service Connexions.

The majority of those who don’t make it as players remain in sport as coaches or physiotherapists, but others have gone to university, joined the police force or even become plumbers and car mechanics, Nelson said.

In Scotland meanwhile, the problem of unemployed footballers is particularly acute. This summer, 320 Scottish players – almost 30 per cent of the footballing workforce – were released by their teams.

Learndirect’s Scotland arm has set up an initiative, dubbed Learning In Football, designed to give these players the opportunity to develop new skills.

Frank McAveety, minister for sport, culture and tourism in Scotland, admitted that learning and developing skills outside football was not a primary concern for top players during or after their football career.

“For the vast majority of professional footballers, the story is very different. They must move on after their playing careers end and find a new career path,” he said.

Case study: Sean McAuley

Being assistant manager and occasional full-back for Nationwide Conference team Halifax Town would be a full-time job for most people, but Sean McAuley realises there is a world outside football.

McAuley, who was an apprentice at Manchester United, recently graduated in sports science after studying via distance learning and has also achieved the highest coaching qualification in Europe – the Uefa A Badge.

The 32-year-old, who has also played for Rochdale, St Johnstone, Hartlepool and Scunthorpe during his time in football, said the achievements have come as a direct result of some early career planning.

“When you leave Manchester United, you realise everywhere else is a step down, so that is when I started thinking about a second career,” he told Personnel Today.

“I did a computer course and then my full coaching badge at the Football Association’s Lilleshall complex in Shropshire as a 22-year-old – alongside all the guys who were at the end of their career.”

Increasing numbers of players are realising the need to improve their CVs, but there is some way to go to get the message across, McAuley said.

“Footballers are scared to go back into the classroom,” he said. “There could be more of a push for clubs at the lower levels to highlight the issue, but at the end of the day it is an individual choice.”

Case study: Paul Gough

Ask about famous Manchester United Football Club’s golden generation of players and most fans will think of the likes of England captain and Real Madrid Galactico David Beckham, his international colleagues Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, and Welsh wing wizard Ryan Giggs.

Paul Gough is a name that trips less readily off the tongue, but in many ways the former Manchester United apprentice is doing a far more influential and important job within football.

After being forced to retire from the game as an 18-year-old in 1992 with a bad back injury, Gough decided to improve his academic qualifications, passing two A-Levels in one year, before graduating with honours in law.

He now works for Assa, a partly government funded training company that won the national contract from the Premiership to roll out Modern Apprenticeship to its aspiring footballers.

The NVQ programmes, which have a qualification equivalent to two A-Levels, involve players attending courses covering issues such as nutrition, diet and sports injuries three or four afternoons a week.

“It is often seen as a burden by the players but it is our responsibility to prepare them for the world outside football,” Gough told Personnel Today.

“Only around 10 per cent of young hopefuls get taken on by the big clubs, so this qualification gives them a good platform,” he said.

As well as working with players still employed by clubs, Assa takes released footballers through their options, Gough said.

“Some do college courses and, if they are bright enough, go on to university. But an alternative career is often the best route,” he said. “We have links with recruitment agencies to find ex-players the best jobs and we can also get them on to other Modern Apprenticeship programmes.”

The ITV Digital fiasco and subsequent crash in football finances in the lower leagues brought it home to players that the majority are not going to make millions, Gough said.

“It was a big shock. Three to four years ago we were in boom time and even average players could make their fortune in the game, but now it is hard to make money unless you are the best of the best,” said Gough.

“Even players in the old First Division (now ‘The Championship’) earn an average of around £50,000, which sounds a lot. But you have to remember that it is only until they are 35.”

According to Gough, many players in the lower reaches of league football decide to play part-time at a non-league club and do academic courses instead of playing for £250 a week at a professional club.

“It is a misconception that all footballers are ‘thick and minted’,” he said.

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