Football is a game for gentlemen played by ruffians, and rugby is just the opposite. That’s what I was taught at grammar school, and for 40 years I believed it. Soccer is for oiks, our teachers told us. Posh boys are no good at football. And so football-playing oiks like me were forced to play rugby, in an attempt to turn us into proper gentlemen.
Of course this was utter nonsense — a lot of Britain’s top public schools play football, and always have done. Yet this inverted snobbery prevails, which is ironic, because football in independent schools has never been in better shape. Having long been seen as the poor relations, many independent schools are now a match for the best football schools in the state sector. What has happened? How did this polite revolution come about?
Two years ago, I still hadn’t shaken off that old grammar school prejudice. My son Ed went to a local comprehensive, the Harefield Academy, where the football was excellent. He also played for Watford FC, from eight through to 16. A bout of meningitis knocked him back and Watford released him a year later, but they kindly put us on to Bradfield College, which was offering sixth-form scholarships to boys from professional clubs who’d been let go.
Ed passed the academic test and did well in the interview. He had some interest from other clubs, but decided on Bradfield. I was pleased for him, but I assumed his chances of playing professional football were over. How could he compete with all the 16-year-olds who’d left school to become full-time apprentices at professional clubs? However this summer he left Bradfield, after sitting three A-levels, to begin a pro contract at Burnley. How did he manage it? Partly because the coaching at Bradfield was so good, but also because the standard of the schools he was playing against was so high. What makes Bradfield such a special football school is largely down to its director of football, Luke Webb. The son of Neil Webb, who played for Manchester United and England, Luke was at Arsenal from 11 to 18 and went on to play professionally for Coventry City and Hereford United. Luke’s coaching is superb, but he also broadened Ed’s horizons, introducing him to a wide range of activities, from boxing to yoga, which enhanced his football and enriched his life. Luke teaches his football scholars that there’s more to life than football. For boys who’ve spent most of their free time since the age of eight at professional clubs, that’s no mean feat.
I could see that Luke was on to something, but what about the opposition? There wouldn’t be much point in him providing such great coaching if the schools they were playing weren’t up to scratch. But as I trekked around the country watching Bradfield’s First XI, I soon realised there were lots of other independent schools whose teams were just as good. Millfield, Repton and Royal Russell are outstanding, and Ardingly, Hampton, Bede’s and Shrewsbury aren’t far behind. Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse invariably field strong teams. Like Bradfield, Winchester College has a full-time coach who used to be a pro: Jason Dodd, who played 398 times for Southampton. As director of Southampton FC’s academy, he brought through current professionals like Arsenal’s Calum Chambers and Manchester United’s Luke Shaw.
The facilities at these schools are first rate, with lush green pitches as smooth as snooker tables. But it’s not just about the mod cons — the teams are getting stronger too. Lots of independent schools award football scholarships. This is good news for everyone, not just the boys who get the scholarships. As anyone who’s played football knows, you can only improve if you go up against players who are better than you. These newcomers don’t just enhance their school team’s prospects, they help their teammates improve. And some fine young players are coming through. Last year Rhys Norrington-Davies, a pupil at Royal Russell, signed a professional contract with Sheffield United. He’s now in his second year with the Championship club.
The governing body of this growing circuit is ISFA, the Independent Schools Football Association. Affiliated to the FA, its chairman is David Elleray, formerly a top Premier League and Fifa referee. The highlight of the season is the Boodles ISFA cup final, staged at MK Dons’ palatial stadium in Milton Keynes (Bradfield beat Repton 3-1 in this year’s final — a thrilling match refereed by the Premier League’s Martin Atkinson).
ISFA also fields a national team, and the standard is impressive. Traditionally, ISFA has commonly been regarded as a weaker team than ESFA, the English Schools Football Association, which draws nearly all its schoolboy players from the state sector. However last year ISFA lost 2-1 to ESFA. This year they drew one-all. The gap is closing… could next year be the year that the balance of power shifts in ISFA’s favour?
Meanwhile, the list of professional players who’ve attended independent schools grows by the day. Victor Moses (Chelsea) went to Whitgift, Will Hughes (Watford) went to Repton, Jonathan Bond (Reading) went to Berkhamsted and Michael Doughty (Peterborough United) was at Harrow when he made his first team debut for Queens Park Rangers. Five Millfield old boys are currently playing professional football. Brentwood boasts three Football League players and two Championship managers: Frank Lampard (Derby County) and Neil Harris (Millwall).
So what does this all prove? That football never was just a game ‘fit for butchers’ boys’ (as Shrewsbury School’s headmaster, Samuel Butler, opined 200 years ago)? In fact, public schools were absolutely central to the foundation of the ‘beautiful game’ that’s played around the world today. Old boys of Eton, Harrow, Winchester and Shrewsbury drew up the first rulebook in 1848. Old Carthusians helped to form Stoke City. Old Malvernians set up Blackburn Rovers. Old Salopians founded Shrewsbury Town. The Wanderers, largely composed of Old Harrovians, won six FA Cups between 1872 and 1878. Old Etonians won the FA Cup in 1879 and 1882.
It was only in the Edwardian era that public schools started to drift away from football. But the tide is turning. Could the 21st century see independent schools dominate British football, as they did in the late 1800s? Unlikely. But as countless independent schoolboys can confirm, for a budding footballer, a private education need no longer be a handicap. Indeed, it might even be an asset.