Team Bath made headlines with their FA Cup run in 2002 and now the university side are racing up the non-League pyramid. Matthew Brown explains how they do it
Last season a football club called Team Bath FC generated a vast swathe of media coverage when they became the first university side for 122 years to play in the latter stages of the FA Cup. As they progressed through five qualifying rounds to the first round proper, the Bath students spawned a rash of nostalgic features about the long-ago, pre-professional days when footballers were educated gentlemen and universities were at the hub of the national game.
Team Bath lost that first-round game 4-2 to Second Division Mansfield Town, a match watched by more than 5,000 people and televised live by Sky. Less widely reported, but probably more significant, were the exploits of the student players once the glory of the Cup run had passed into history.
At the end of last season, after a run of 19 consecutive league wins, Team Bath were crowned champions of the Screwfix Direct Western League Premier Division, so this season they have been playing in the Dr Martens League Western Division, the highest point on the Football Association’s pyramid that any university-based football club has ever reached.
Unlike some other sports – rugby union, athletics, cricket, swimming – football at university has long been seen as a backwater of the national game, played by those not good enough, or too clever, to be snapped up by pro clubs in their teenage years. At the FA, for instance, university football is classed with the Sunday morning park leagues and pub teams.
But Team Bath are pioneering a new approach that is starting to bring the university game renewed respect. The idea is similar to the system in the United States, where college sport is a standard route into the professional realm. Here, traditionally, there has only been a handful of sports at university level that have played that role, generally those that held on to their amateur image (if not reality) far longer than football.
The brainchild of Bath University’s sports director Ged Roddy, Team Bath brand themselves the country’s first semi-professional university football club. They recruit players from the reject lists and youth academies of professional and top non-League clubs, then give them two-year contracts, full-time training, and semi-pro standard competition. They also provide a university education through tailor-made sports and coach education courses that can lead to a degree.
“What we are trying to do is give young footballers a decent education without them having to give up their desire to play full-time top-quality football,” explains Roddy. “We can’t guarantee to turn them into professional players, but we can create an environment that gives them the opportunity to be as good as they can be and hopefully that will open doors back into the pro game.”
Bath’s success last season helped at least one of their players to win a professional contract from a German club. Paul Tisdale, a former Southampton and Bristol City player, is Team Bath’s head coach. “Players develop at different rates and in different kinds of environments, but the football world isn’t very good at recognising that,” he says. “If you want to be a pro you have to train full-time, but that doesn’t have to be as part of a professional club. We offer an alternative route.”
The aim for Team Bath is to reach the Vauxhall Conference and become established as a leading non-League club and a recognised source of talent. They are not the only one, for a handful of other universities, such as Loughborough and the University of Wales in Cardiff, have similar set-ups and ambitions.
Gwyn Walters, the education officer at Tottenham Hotspur, believes these universities are part of the future of football. He points out that some 70 per cent of trainees at pro clubs drop out of the game by the age of 21 and even those who “make it” beyond the academy and get a full-time professional contract may not last more than a few years. But two-thirds of all academy trainees in the country now take A levels and more and more young players head to university when they get released.
“Everyone sees the top stars earning thousands a week, but they don’t see how many of the boys go out of the game,” says Walters. “Years ago only a couple of footballers ever did degrees, not because they weren’t bright but there wasn’t the opportunity. Now they can get back into education if they want to and still play at a high level.
“In time I think we’ll move towards the US system, and eventually we might even get formal relationships between clubs and universities.”
From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month