Thursday, November 03, 2011

Three Degrees

'Intelligent footballer.' It's surely one of those modern oxymorons like 'non-iron shirt', 'pleasant flight' or 'underpaid banker'?

Or maybe not it seems in Charlton's case.

The current squad contains three players with degrees (Alonso, Hughes, Pritchard), as well as one more who certainly attended university (Taylor), although I cannot find firm evidence that he graduated.

However I should begin with a clear disclaimer. I don't for one moment think that the acqusition of a degree is a guarantee of intelligence.

I've met as many graduates who are remarkably stupid, as non-graduates who are anything but.

Outside of the few truly intense vocational degrees (medicine etc.), and the top universities, a degree in itself probably doesn't signal much more than some ability to organise and commit to a long-term challenge (a useful skill nonetheless).

However this 'signaling' effect is real and valuable to employers, who need to sift through thousands of potential recruits.

In short, we live in a complicated world and I too need simple rules with which to live by and save time, so on this basis I'm going to declare that Charlton almost certainly has the most intelligent squad in English football.

It would probably be decidedly unintelligent of me to suggest that the fact that we also have more points than the other 91 clubs, is a direct result of the above observation (not least because only Messrs Taylor and recently Hughes have played any meaningful part).

Realistically, is intelligence an asset on the football field, or is it an irrelevance or even a hindrance?

Much of football is impulsive which by definition renders intelligence irrelevant. Wayne Rooney is a terrific exponent of this trait.

Those aspects which are less impulsive (awareness of space, obeyance of tactical instructions, knowing how to 'play the percentages' etc.) can probably be improved simply by repetition.

Conversely, when there is a 50/50 tackle to be won, I don't want our player conducting a thorough cost-benefit analysis weighing up the risk and cost of injury versus the importance of winning a meaningless tackle.

Just get stuck in and we'll deal with the insurance company later.

There is probably a softer version however called 'football intelligence,' which successful but less naturally gifted players must possess.

The likes of Matt Holland, Clive Mendonca and even Chris Powell in recent Addick memory would fall into this category for me.

Frustratingly there are plenty of talented players who lack this footballing intelligence, leaving naïve fans convinced it is only a matter of time before they flourish (yet they never do for this very reason).

For all I know Therry Racon may have read the work of Jean-Paul Sartre on the team bus, but he was a gloriously stupid footballer. So too, Kyle Reid.

However the main point of this blog post is to observe that it is unfortunate that many more footballers must be capable of acquiring a fuller education (to degree level at least), yet very few do so.

I've no reason to think that footballing talent is disproportionately distributed amongst the less intelligent, whilst the large and growing percentage of the population that now attend university adds further support to my view.

Of course much of the explanation lies in the fact that an acute structural difficulty to both study and pursue professional sport concurrently, alongside the substantial rewards available in the latter, mean that it is both impractical and largely irrational to seek to pursue both (and thus few do).

Instead most footballers with degrees either acquire them part-time later in their career (eg Hughes), or make the leap to professional football much later only after completing their studies (eg Pritchard).

This situation is in direct contrast to the US system where the 'college draft' is integral to the structure of professional sport.

Many of these American qualifications are admittedly of dubious merit, but with professional sport being one of life's riskiest careers (not to say shortest), a 'fall back' option of some sort must have value.

This is not to say that a degree provides a useful grounding for all careers. No academic course worth its salt has ever taught a student how to sell for example, perhaps the most useful commercial skill of all.

The preferred 'fall back' option for footballers good enough to spend considerable time in the Premiership is simply 'loads of cash in the bank' (and it's a damned good option), but this is not true for those even with a 10-15 year career in the Championship, let alone League One or below.

If properly advised and financially astute, most will have had the earnings ability to end their careers mortgage-free, but with no obvious means with which to maintain the ongoing expenditure that their high quality of life (and wife) demands.

They might live for another sixty years after all.

For many players, the time value of money determines that this consideration is more than outweighed by the benefit of 'front-loading' their earnings, the exact opposite of more traditional professions which become more lucrative over time, and for much longer.

One also ought to put value on the fabulous memories and never ending source of anecdotes, which a football career brings.

Thus whilst a small percentage will move straight into a (likely poorly-paid) junior coaching or teaching role, most will enter the non-footballing workforce at a level which their peers (graduates or otherwise) will have left behind half a generation earlier.

For those not intellectually gifted but with a football talent, the pursuit of a career therein is a pure free option, and should be pursued without question.

The potential rewards available are so great (relatively), and if a rejection ensues instead, they haven't lost an awful lot from trying.

Things are less clear-cut for those who might have the potential to attend university and be a professional footballer.

Importantly only the most prodiguous talents can be certain they are good enough for the top level at 18 years old, because they are already playing there.

Indeed if clubs were more accommodating, it should be realistic to complete a degree at the same age as most fellow students, whilst playing professional football concurrently.

The time demands of either are famously unprohibitive after all.

Perhaps clubs should be encouraged to enter formal partnerships with local universities/colleges, probably also offering to sponsor the player by paying his tuition fees.

Alternatively clever use of the loans system could be used to find a suitable club (possibly non-League) close to a university of choice.

But what would be in it for the clubs to be supportive in this way?

Firstly they at least claim to have a social conscience, and encouraging education is a good way to prove it.

Second, there is scope for some type of ongoing commercial partnership with the institution, via student ticket promotions etc.

Third, the club would be a more attractive proposition for promising (and bright) young players, particularly those whose parents are aware of the need for balance. This consideration probably trumps the others.

Fourth, the experience of studying alongside fellow students from diverse backgrounds should help develop a more 'rounded' individual, probably making them better players too in subtle ways.

Surely so much of the depressingly regular trouble that footballers get into is a function of moving from immature teenager to (relatively) rich adult, without the natural break or pause between the two that other successful people get.

Admittedly it's hard to picture Titus Bramble at Oxford University (maybe Oxford United), but less mutual suspicion between academia and football would be a positive thing all round.


At 9:04 AM, Blogger Hungry Ted said...

Interesting read as always, NYA.

I've played football with, and managed plenty of players who had all the ability but were as thick as shit!

One in particular chap that springs to mind was on the books of Colchester United, but I swear he would struggle to spell his own name and I genuinely think it held him back.

The biggest problem that I faced was trying to get simple messages across to vacant faces! I'll never forget trying to explain to a chap why he needed to take on water at half time during a balmy hot summers day (he was concerned the water would weigh him down!!!).

But for me (a player of limited ability but a sizable heart) I found it much easier to wind up a player of limited intelligence and distract him from the game, which was to my advantage if he was technically better than me. Not exactly gentlemanly tactics I know, but it rarely failed, and it bought me an extra few years of playing!

At 10:46 AM, Anonymous noel said...

I've always wondered why clubs don't make more of an effort to ensure their young kids don't spend their free daytime in the bookies and wine bars - and I totally agree with your point about attracting the attention of the parents of a hot young local talent. It doesn't have to be a degree in Phsycology about plumbing or sparky courses? And I think you may have found the reason why good old Captain Cleanshorts played so many games for us as our midfield enforcer without making a meaningful tackle...

At 11:40 AM, Blogger Richard said...

"...Therry Racon may have read the work of Jean-Paul Sartre on the team bus, but he was a gloriously stupid footballer." Made me laugh out loud - brilliant.

At 2:20 PM, Anonymous @daveydanger said...

Really well written and interesting article. Totally agree that it would be sensible to offer educational courses to youngsters. After all, a pretty slim percentage of academy players actually go on to prosperous professional careers. It would be a really commendable step for a community-driven club like ours to secure their futures.

At 6:34 AM, Anonymous Wyn Grant said...

Many years ago I was teaching at an Open University summer school and there was a Burnley player there, but his club was very unhappy about him taking a degree. The OU is, however, an option for players. Steve Heighway (Economics/Politics Warwick, Liverpool) was unusual in taking a degree in the 1970s. he also shone in our departmental team.

At 12:42 PM, Anonymous Chris said...

What is it about Economics? I can can think of very few graduates who have played football at the highest level, all of them in the 70's, but Economics is a common theme. In addition to Heighway, there's Steve Coppell and Alan Gowling who both did Economics. I was at University with the only other player I can recall and that's Tony Galvin. I did Economics, but he did Russian!!

At 8:11 AM, Blogger Wyn Grant said...

Arsene Wenger is an Economics graduate. Perhaps it is something about being rational and calculating risks. Experimental work has shown that economics students have different mindsets.


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