The rise and rise of university football: Meet the students bridging the gap between professional sport and study

When Cardiff Met locked horns with Bangor City in 2017, they were one victory away from entering the history books. The university’s student team knew that a win would see them become the first higher-education football club to ever qualify for European competition.

It was remarkable that Cardiff Met were even on the verge of such an accomplishment. The Welsh Premier League may not be the strongest competition in the world, but it was still a phenomenal achievement for a university side to be pushing for a place in the Europa League and holding their own against the division’s grizzled campaigners. Cardiff Met ultimately lost that play-off against Bangor, but the fact that they now regularly finish in mid-table should be viewed as a triumph.

They are not the only example of a university team enjoying success in a senior league in Britain. There is a growing trend of such sides infiltrating the national game, with higher-education football programmes designed to help bridge the gap between study and the sport at senior level.

Rugby and athletics have long benefited from a healthy relationship with some of the country’s top universities, while the United States’ college system is seen as the go-to route into the sporting world for budding young stars. In Britain, however, there has often been a suspicion of the role formal education can play in the world of football, while players who have not been snapped up by a professional club by their late teenage years are routinely written off. As such, university teams are widely viewed as an outlet for hobbyists, rather than a serious endeavour which could lead to a professional career.

A season prior to Cardiff Met’s brush with the record books, Stirling University were pulling up trees in Scotland. Led by Shelley Kerr, who now manages the country’s women’s national team, Stirling finished third in the Highland Football League – just two positions away from a play-off for promotion to the Scottish Football League.

Several university clubs have popped up in England’s non-league too, with the likes of Loughborough University and Team Solent flying the student flag. But any significant success for these outfits is stymied by an FA-enforced glass ceiling which means university clubs are not currently permitted to play above the eighth tier.

The draconian rule introduced following Team Bath’s period of glory in the previous decade, which saw the city’s university team reach the Conference South in 2008 and the first round of the FA Cup on three occasions in seven campaigns. However, when the Football Conference informed the Crescents that they would ineligible for further promotions unless they became a limited company, the university withdrew the club from the competition.

Instead, university clubs in England choose to offer senior football as a carrot for player development rather than to progress themselves. That largely makes sense: term times often pose selection issues before the academic year kicks off in September and over the Christmas period, which tends to produce polarising results throughout the season.

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At a renowned sporting university such as Loughborough, which specialises in helping talented athletes excel on and off the field, their team has produced a string of players who have gone on to play professionally, including West Ham’s Dapo Afolayan and MK Dons duo Robbie Simpson and George Williams.

For all the developments in university football clubs over the past decade, the annals of history show that it is by no means a new phenomenon. Loughborough’s team, for example, has been playing a part in footballers’ progression for decades, and counts Arsenal legend Bob Wilson and 1988 FA Cup winner Lawrie Sanchez among its graduates.

Even further back, Oxford University’s student side achieved a feat that will almost certainly never be matched by another higher-education when they lifted the FA Cup thanks to a 2-0 triumph over Royal Engineers in 1874. It was far from a flash in the pan, with the Blues also reaching the final in 1873, 1877 and 1880 – although they lost on all three occasions.

Oxford’s superiority did not continue into the 20th century, though, and heralded the drop in perception of the university game that only now appears to be showing any signs of being shaken off. So, while it is improbable that England’s future squads will be packed with graduates, more players with degrees might soon emerge elsewhere in the country’s professional ranks.

The rise and rise of university football: Meet the students bridging the gap between professional sport and study
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