Weston’s partnership with high-flying school: ‘It’s not just about football. It has a much bigger scope than that’
- Credit: Archant
As the Seagulls toast the success of academy product Bradley Ash, who secured a professional contract this month, Dominic Booth finds a club connecting with its community.
In July last year, Weston-super-Mare AFC and Churchill Academy and Sixth Form announced a new partnership.
Its aim? To offer ‘educational pathways’ for young footballers between the age of 16 and 19, allowing them to pursue academic goals as well as footballing ones.
Because while the club’s manager Ryan Northmore can bask in the glory of one of Weston’s great success stories, very few will follow Ash’s footsteps into the professional game.
Northmore’s priority is now to provide a bright future for those young players who might be unable to bridge the gap between the National League South and a fully-fledged career in professional football.
The club already has the Sports Active Seagulls Community Trust, a registered charity set up in 2012 to deliver sport and learning in the community.
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By creating links with North Somerset Council and schools the trust aims to reach out to as many people as possible – and the club is now doing the same.
“In the last three to four years we’ve had a major restructure to the club,” says Northmore.
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“We’ve started to work with the community trust and be more active in the community to develop our academy.”
Developing the academy means developing the players as individuals; perfecting their skills on and off the pitch.
The vast majority selected for a place in Weston’s academy will, unfortunately, not secure a career as a professional footballer.
And without the club’s support, many players are left stranded in the footballing wilderness, unemployed at 18 and lacking academic qualifications.
Northmore adds: “At 16, after they’ve done their GCSEs, we work closely with Churchill to develop them academically, but so they can still train with us three times a week.
“But the intensity of the training can come at a cost to the education (of the players).”
The partnership with Churchill has spawned a new course, proffered by the club, a BTEC in sport that blends academic and vocational teaching, with ample opportunity for players (and students) to hone their football skills. Students gain the equivalent of three A-levels on a course they can enjoy.
Coaching is also encouraged – another potential career destination for those players who fall by the wayside.
“Realistically, how many players will be able to forge a career in professional football?” asks Northmore.
“It is a very small percentage. We’ve got to make sure we are offering the right kind of support.
“The problem is the gap from the level that the (Weston) first team is playing at – it’s only two tiers below the football league and one level below full-time professional footballers, where the average salary is £28,000 per year.
“Players are going to come to the club with aspirations to reach that level. But there is an awfully big gap to bridge.”
The club chose to pair up with Churchill because of the school’s excellent results at A-level and it appears the partnership is benefitting both parties. The school’s sports department continues to flourish, as does the burgeoning sixth form.
Head of sixth form Rob Morgan said: “I’m delighted that we are able to work with Weston AFC, we are always looking for opportunities to strengthen our links with those that make a strong contribution to the local community.
“Weston have an excellent reputation for nurturing young talent and we see that as a natural extension of our aims here. We are pleased to be able to strengthen Weston’s BTEC Sports programme by sharing our sixth form and A-level programme with them and their students.”
But the club’s desire to educate its players does not stop with this partnership.
Ash, the biggest success story of the club’s academy – who has just penned a professional contract with League One club Barnsley – was also employed by the club as a coach in the community trust, a role he combined with his first team duties. Northmore also revealed current first-team midfielder Dayle Grubb is employed in the same way.
Inevitably, it will be Ash who is held in the highest regard. Northmore believes the 19-year-old can be an example to others.
He says: “He’s paved the way really, to reach full-time professional football at a football league club.
“But we have got to make sure that paves the way (for others), not just in football, maybe to go onto to become a coach or going onto university.”
Comparisons between Ash and Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy have been made. The former Stourbridge striker has been a big hit in the Premier League this season, proving there is considerable talent in the lower leagues.
Northmore knows football will always come first and wants his players to be primed and ready if the phone call comes.
“Football league clubs are taking the non-league seriously as a pool to take players from, but we have got to be proactive so when the clubs come calling, we have players who are good enough, as well as putting out a first-team of ‘locally-sourced players’.”
Northmore wants the Seagulls to be unique in that half of their current first-team squad are from Weston, whereas clubs further up the leagues are increasingly ‘internationally-based’.
“We’ve got to be careful that we represent the community. How much does Manchester United represent Manchester? I’m proud that, when we put out a team, it represents Weston.”
Representing Weston means a whole lot more than doing the town’s supporters justice on the pitch. For Northmore, it’s about doing the town justice by producing talented, well-rounded individuals in all facets of life.He concluded: “Some players who we have brought through in the past have done well with their coaching and gone on to take up grassroots coaching roles in the area.
“It has a bigger scope than just the first-team, it’s more far-reaching