Inside the private school revolution that is giving Premier League academy stars an alternative route to the top

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Luke Webb was 10 years old when he first realized something was wrong with the academy system. He was a trainee at Arsenal, an academically and athletically gifted lad who sometimes felt guilty about taking the place of another young footballer whose intelligence might not carry him through to college and beyond.

And that feeling stayed with him. It was there when, at the age of 15, he suffered lower back and hip injuries and felt the pressure of playing in pain. It was six years and two clubs later that pain forced him to resign. And that would manifest itself in an urge to explore how to fix a system that chews up and spits out hundreds of young footballers every year.

Why should young players be forced to choose between education and football? Why did they have to sacrifice “normal” youth for the slim chance of success? Who created these compromises?

Football had destroyed Webb’s love for science, but quitting the game would see him through the next phase of his life. Webb felt he had two choices: become a manager at a club and push education from within, or create an elite football program at an established school.

The son of former England midfielder Neil, he had followed his father around the country, during long spells at Nottingham Forest and Manchester United, and when the family moved to Reading towards the end of the career of his father, Luke spent some time at Bradfield College, a £40,000-a-year private school in rural Berkshire.

“I realized going to school was faster,” Webb says. “A football club should build a school. It would have been so much more expensive. To build a school like Bradfield would cost millions.

“Bradfield is 170, it’s not going to happen overnight. But you can deliver an incredible holistic football education program in a decade with the right people, understanding and knowledge, and that’s what I ‘have done.

Webb, 35, still wants to build a school with a football club. He has laid out a plan to revolutionize the development of elite sport in Britain and believes that when one elite team does so, others will follow. He borrowed his ideas from Premier League academies, psychology, the American scholarship system, Taoism, private schools and more.

At Bradfield, students only played football from September to December. After starting out as a teacher, it took five years of lobbying before her bosses approved a probationary year that was so successful that she stuck around.

Not only have Webb’s footballers received football scholarships from US universities (where two play pros), some have completed their studies in the UK, one is a Hong Kong international and three have signed professional contracts . Ed Cook went to Burnley, Jacob Roddy signed for Charlton Athletic. A boy is currently close to completing his tenure at a Premier League club.

But first, Webb had to design an elite league for his teams to play in. “It’s no use if your team is great and can’t play against big teams,” he says. “I founded the National League of Independent Schools in Hudl.

“You have to be willing to travel across the country, you have to film every game and upload every game so we can study each other. Everyone can see everyone. We learn from everyone. The boys can edit their clips and learn.

Even before the creation of the Hudl League, some talented footballers came out of the private school system. The Repton school was attended by Crystal Palace midfielder Will Hughes. Aston Villa captain and England defender Tyrone Mings went to Millfield on a scholarship after leaving Southampton.

But in the five years since the league’s inception, around “two to three boys a year” from the nine schools have signed professional terms with clubs. “If you look at the Hudl league stats, other people have gone to great universities and got great jobs,” Webb says.

“The word I hate is ‘liberated’. The word we used is ‘graduate’. I don’t know why clubs don’t use it. Even if you leave the club, the club experience should have enriched your life, not destroy it. Because they used the word ‘liberated’, they claim it was them.”

Schools now welcome a handful of footballers who, at the age of 16, do not win contracts in professional academies but meet the academic requirements. The Premier League and EFL are circulating Webb’s details and clubs are now contacting him directly. You can earn scholarships through scholarships. Last year they welcomed boys from Swansea and Sheffield United.

And through it all, Webb met Ged Roddy – the man who created the elite player performance plan in 2009, the modern academy system that has produced incredibly talented footballers but had negative consequences unexpected for many others. Ged’s son is the footballer who went to Charlton, who visited Bradfield after being sacked by Southampton.

“I used to say we were in tier 1 but Ged always told me not to. He helped me see that what we offer is different and in many cases , better. They have an excellent academic and pastoral training. Everything together is much more. But the children just want to know more about football.

“I would say if you apply the EPPP standard, we are category 2 football in terms of skills. We beat a few, lost to a few. We have two or three category 1 players but no 16. From time to time, like this year, it comes together. We kind of transcended school football this year. And this is the first year the guys have gone through the system from the start.”

There were obstacles and stumbling blocks. Webb reached an elite football ceiling that he couldn’t break. He attempted to enter the FA Youth Cup but was turned down by the FA, who insist they must be from a professional club and not a school.

“If you qualify for the FA Youth Cup, beat Arsenal, Chelsea and those teams, people will say, ‘What’s going on?’ It would only take one, a Manchester City, to build a school. If Manchester City could do it with the talent they already have, they would win everything forever. And then the other clubs would do it.

“That’s how football has always worked. You built this facility, we’re copying it. So maybe one day the government will invest in state schools to be those places. Maybe the FA or the Premier League will finally say the academy system won’t start until the age of 14, which should happen.

The obvious argument against it is that it is out of reach for most teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds. That even if the most talented boys wanted to choose a private school before Manchester City, they could only do so on a paid scholarship, and the pool is limited.

Although Webb accepts this, he believes the next step is for football clubs to build schools. “These must be normal schools. Your Under 14-18s are the A teams at these schools. If a player gets kicked out, he stays in school and becomes a team B or C,D,E,F player and he still has his friends. If you are late, you can participate. But once they are “dismissed”, they stay in school. You will never be freed. It’s always a conclusion of that.

It sounds far-fetched, but so was the idea a decade ago of private schools competing with Premier League academies to produce the next generation of footballers.

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