Former Sligo Rovers boss Dave Robertson has recently returned to the League of Ireland as director of football at Drogheda United, and he spent time talking to extratime.ie about the pioneering Peterborough United Academy where he worked for almost a decade.
In 2006, the Academy was one of the first models used in England to help develop scholars’ education alongside their footballing development. Academy players (from Under 14 to Under 18) were expected to complete a full time education alongside their regular training sessions and matches.
According to Robertson, “the days of footballers being regarded as academically challenged are over” and the system ensured “that they were getting an excellent education alongside their football development.”
He continued: “We couldn’t guarantee that they would all become professional footballers but we could guarantee they would achieve a minimum of 3 A Levels or equivalent which would give them a solid platform in life.”
The success of the pathway could be seen in the number of youth players who made their way into the Peterborough United first team as well as the fact that a number of other clubs looked at the model adopted by the Posh.
Now, all Category 1 Academy systems throughout England have adopted a similar focus on education for their scholars – including some through the use of private schools and tutors- thanks to guidelines laid down in the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).
Robertson is unwavering in his views that education has a major part to play in the development of younger players. He cites the examples of both the English and German FA who adopted a dual pathway (education and soccer) focus eight and 12 years ago respectively and their underage tournament success – especially England recently – has greatly improved with a greater focus on tactics and analytics making its way into the professional game.
Modern day players need to be able to absorb an ever increasing amount of information and, as such, are entitled to an education which reflects and supports this.
“As coaches and educators we need to give players the best chance of developing their career and it’s critically important that we embrace this fact,” says Robertson.
Making reference to the fact that he felt Brian Kerr was pioneering as an underage coach with his successful Ireland teams who went onto represent the men’s senior international squad with success.
He added: “The national league should be of real benefit to the national team and education will form a major part of this in the future.
“We need increased contact time with underage players along with an increase in the focus on education to support the player.
“We need to develop players today that will bring success to the National Team in the future. This does not happen by chance, it needs to happen by design.”
Robertson spoke highly about his former Sligo Rovers players Mick Leahy and Jimmy Keohane, both of whom continued to further their education alongside their footballing career.
Centre-half Leahy joined UCD on a scholarship in 2007, obtained a degree in economics and politics before completing a master's in common law, while utility player Keohane studied mathematics through the Open University.
In addition, a number of players continued their education as coaches with Tim Clancy now making the transition from player to manager after successfully completing his UEFA ‘A’ Licence with the Scottish FA whilst playing at Sligo.
In his present role at Drogheda United, Robertson explained how “part of the project will be to hopefully return to the Premier Division in the next couple of years.
“To do that and sustain it in a ten-team LOI Premier Division we’ll have to be full time and the education pathway has to form part of that.”
Almost 15 years ago, UEFA Pro Licence holder Robertson was part of the staff at Peterborough United who recognised the value of education.
These values are clearly still in effect at the club today as second year scholar Sam Cartwright was recognised by the English Football League in their 2017 ‘December 11’.
According to his academy manager Nick Sheppard, as cited on lfe.org.uk: “Sam is an excellent leader on and off the pitch and tries to do his best in everything he undertakes, not least his education.”
Incidentally, the League Football Education website is an excellent resource for reading about the importance of continuing with education when playing in the Football League in England.
Ryan Sessegnon is a teenage left back who has been courted by many prestigious Premier League clubs and, in an article on the website, discusses the importance he places on continuing his studies.
Academies at all League of Ireland clubs for all scholars may still be a long way off but Robertson’s views, based on experience, remain the same almost 15 years since he started at Peterborough United: education and football can and should go hand in hand and the duality should be encouraged to promote the footballer’s holistic development, improve performances on the pitch, to develop the League of Ireland and ultimately, the national team.