Oh the joys of August/September time. Holidays abroad, music festivals, the start of the football season, and for many young teenagers, the most important day of their life so far; GCSE results day. My brother opened his own GCSE results this summer with a mix of happiness, relief, and fatigue; Wayne Rooney, James Milner and James Vaughan were less than a year away from their first Premier League goals by the time they opened their dreaded envelopes. With that in mind, I couldn’t help but reflect on Alan Pardew’s comments before his Newcastle side faced his former Southampton last season.
“There is a big working class community, but there are a lot of middle-class kids who have good education” Pardew said about Southampton’s catchment area for its academy. “The players who come out of Southampton are quite intelligent and there might be something in that.”
So what is this “education” that Pardew underlines? The lessons and tutorials at a top public boarding school? If not least a little bit of intellect, going to a good school instils in you the attitude of working hard within an institution, exactly the approach footballers should bring to a training ground. Or does he mean a grounded social education from a well behaved family at home, where life skills of good behaviour and respect combined with a certain drive and ambition are learnt, skills in no way exclusive to the middle-class.
Pardew certainly has some reason in his argument. Education improves the makeup of individuals, giving them a better grounding and standard principals. As sportsmen, educated individuals are more likely to react better in adverse situations, make better rational decisions, and can control their emotion better when found in heated positions. Needless to say it’s not just performing on the field where an education is an advantage nowadays, with so many footballers amongst other sportsmen possessing more money than sense. Paul Gascoigne or ex Man City midfielder Michael Johnson would certainly find themselves in far healthier a position today if they had a grounded education behind them, even if it had no benefit to their ability with a ball at their feet.
Undeniably the middle-class are making a mark on the pitch even away from Southampton, Derby’s Will Hughes and Brighton’s Solly March are two of a growing number of up-and-coming privately educated footballers. On an even higher level, Sunderland’s Duncan Watmore combines his professional playing career with studying Economics at Newcastle University, and ex Man United and Bradford City’s Ollie Gill has just graduated from Durham University with a degree in Economics. Such a notion would have been quickly castaway twenty years ago.
Evidently the British middle-class continue to churn out many of our top cricketers and Rugby Union players (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, another privately-educated success story of Southampton’s academy, famously had to turn down trials at London Irish). So if our national cricket and rugby teams are dominated by the middle-class, why isn’t our football team? Well to answer I must let you into a secret - there is a certain flaw in Pardew’s argument, and for certain reasons he is very wrong.
I wonder if he’s ever thought why the majority of footballers aren’t from middle-class backgrounds, despite the fact that so many Brits from all social classes will have played competitive football in their youth. It is the unfortunate case of society that working-class youths have fewer other opportunities on the streets of England than playing football. With hours and hours of playing in the playground after lunch, kicking a ball on the street after school and playing for their local club at the park on the weekend, they accumulate so many more hours of practice that their skill level is superior.
How often is it that we hear footballers contemplate “I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t a footballer.” Too often, the cynical interview reviewer might add. However that is exactly the reason they are footballers, they’ve spent their whole life playing the beautiful game in any shape or form, developing their skills to a level superior to the rest of the country, that they genuinely have no idea of any other way of life. That can’t be the same for the majority of middle-class youths that Pardew seems to admire, precious football time giving way to their summer cricket club, after-school swimming, or their skiing holiday at Christmas.
In Matthew Syed’s book “Bounce” he claims a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice is required to maximise your potential on a certain skill, for example playing the piano or kicking a football. He analysed the example of the Music Academy in West Berlin, where the only difference between the most and least able violinists was the number of hours they had practiced, a theory transferable to sport. For the reasons I’ve suggested this is far easier to achieve without the middle-class distractions that would undoubtedly be accessible to those in the Southampton area Pardew is so fond of.
Considering the number of youngsters playing football in Newcastle, the city’s passion for the sport and their pride in its football club, Pardew’s club has no excuse to avoid creating top young players whether working-class or not. Do the club believe that their overwhelming number of French and North African players receive a better education than those on Tyneside and are thus superior footballers? For certain there’s one man who’d say no; Tony Blair. His Labour Party’s message “Education, Education, Education” set a tone for Britain and its future, and no doubt as he would have hoped, his own Newcastle United as well.