Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Private schools compete with Premier League clubs for Britain’s best young footballers

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Luke Webb founded the Hudl Independent Schools National League with the aim of providing football and education opportunities for youth who have been let go from top-flight clubs

And that feeling stayed with him. It was there when, at the age of 15, he sustained injuries to his lower back and hips and felt the pressure of playing in pain. It was there six years and two clubs later when pain forced him to resign. And it would manifest itself in an urge to explore how to fix a system that chews up and spits out hundreds of young footballers every year.

Luke Webb was 10 years old when he first realized something was wrong with the academy system. He was a trainee at Arsenal, an academically and sportingly gifted lad who sometimes felt guilty for taking the place of another young footballer whose intelligence might not carry them to university and beyond.

Why should young players be forced to choose between education and football? Why did they have to sacrifice a “normal” youth for the slim chance of making it? Who created these compromises?

Football had destroyed Webb’s love of science, but leaving the game would see him through the next phase of his life. Webb felt he had two choices: become a coach at a club and push education from within, or create an elite football program at an established school.

The son of former England midfielder Neil, he had followed his father across the country, in long stints at Nottingham Forest and Manchester United, and when the family settled in Reading towards the end of his father’s career, Luke spent some time at Bradfield College, a £40,000-a-year private school in rural Berkshire.

“I realized that going to school was faster,” says Webb. “A football club would have to build a school. It would have been so much more expensive. Building a school like Bradfield would cost millions.

“Bradfield is 170 years old, it won’t happen overnight. But you can bring an amazing holistic football education program within a decade with the right people, understanding and knowledge, which is what I’ve done.

Webb, 35, still wants to build a school with a football club. He has laid out a blueprint for revolutionizing the development of elite sport in Britain and believes that when one elite team does it, others will follow. He has borrowed his ideas from Premier League academies, psychology, the American scholarship system, Taoism, private schools and more.

In Bradfield, students used to only play football from September to December. After starting out as a teacher, it took five years of lobbying before his bosses signed off on a probationary year that was so successful it stuck.

Not only have Webb’s footballers received football scholarships from American universities (where two play pros), some have completed further education in the UK, one is a Hong Kong international and three have signed professional contracts. Ed Cook went to Burnley, Jacob Roddy signed for Charlton Athletic. A boy is currently on the verge of completing terms at a Premier League club.

But first, Webb had to design an elite league for his teams to play in. “There’s no point in your team being great and not being able to play great teams,” he says. “I founded the Hudl Independent Schools National League.

“You have to be willing to travel across the country, you have to film every game and upload every game so we can study each other. Everyone can see everyone. We learn from everyone. Boys can edit their clips and learn.”

Even before the Hudl League was founded, some talented footballers emerged from the private school system. Repton School was attended by Crystal Palace midfielder Will Hughes. Aston Villa captain and England defender Tyrone Mings went to Millfield on a scholarship after leaving Southampton.

But in the five years since the league was founded, about “two to three boys a year” from the nine schools have signed professional terms with clubs. “If you look at the Hudl league stats, other people went to great colleges and got great jobs,” says Webb.

“The word I hate is ‘released.’ The word we used is “graduate”. I don’t know why clubs don’t use this. Even if you leave the club, the club experience should have enriched your life, not destroyed it. Because they used the word “released,” they pretend it was them.”

Schools are now taking in a handful of footballers who, by the age of 16, are not earning deals at professional academies but do meet the academic requirements. The Premier League and EFL are spreading Webb’s details and clubs are now reaching out to him directly. You can earn scholarships through scholarships. Last year they welcomed boys from Swansea and Sheffield United.

And through it all, Webb met Ged Roddy – the man who created the Elite Player Performance Plan in 2009, the modern academy system that has produced amazingly talented footballers but had negative unintended consequences for many others. Ged’s son is the footballer who went to Charlton, who visited Bradfield after being sacked by Southampton.

“I used to say we were category one standard but Ged always told me not to say that. He helped me see that what we offer is different and in many cases better. They have excellent academic training and pastoral care. Everything together is much more. But the kids just want to know about football.

“I would say that if you apply the EPPP standard, we are Category 2 football in terms of skills. We’d beat a few, lose to a few. We have two or three Category 1 players but no 16s. Every now and then, like this year, it comes together. We sort of transcended school football this year. And that’s the first year that the guys have gone through the system from the beginning.”

There were hurdles and stumbling blocks. Webb has hit a ceiling of elite football that he has been unable to break. He attempted to gain entry into the FA Youth Cup but was turned down by the FA, who insist they must be from a professional club and not a school.

“If you get through in the FA Youth Cup, beat Arsenal, Chelsea and these teams, people will say, ‘What’s going on?’ It would only take one, one Manchester City, to build a school. If Manchester City could do it with the talent they already have, they would win everything forever. And then the other clubs would do it.

“That’s how football has always worked. You built this facility, we copy it. Then maybe someday the government will invest in government schools to be those places. Perhaps the FA or Premier League will finally say the academy system won’t start until 14, which should happen.

The obvious argument against it is that it is out of reach for most teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds. That even if the most talented boys wanted to choose a private school before Manchester City, they could only do so through a paid scholarship, and the pool is limited.

While Webb accepts this, he believes the next step is for football clubs to build schools. “These must be normal schools. Your under 14-18 year olds are the A teams in these schools. If a player gets fired, he stays at school and becomes a B team player or C,D,E,F and he still has his friends. If you are late, you can join. But once they are “dismissed,” they stay in school. You will never be released. It’s always a conclusion of that.”

It sounds far-fetched, but so did the idea a decade ago of private schools competing with Premier League academies to produce the next generation of footballers.

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