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6 November 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

Where have all the graduate footballers gone? A football player reader explains

Just over a year ago, David Wheeler made it into the Football League, joining Exeter City in League Two, where he still is, a dashing and hard-working right winger. He started reading the NS six months ago.

By Hunter Davies

Isn’t it strange that there are so few graduates in football – and yet half the population goes to “uni” these days? (I still find it hard to write “uni”. It feels sloppy and demeaning, though saying “varsity” always makes anyone sound like a right prick.)

It’s strange because 40 or so years ago, when only about a tenth of the population went to university, it was common to have one or two graduates playing in our top teams, such as Steve Heighway and Brian Hall at Liverpool, Tony Galvin at Spurs and Steve Coppell at Man United. You would have thought that with all these graduates hanging around today, we would have loads more who are pro footballers. So why don’t we?

A few weeks ago, my eyes pricked up when I read an interview with someone called David Wheeler who was the subscriber of the week in this magazine. It didn’t say that he was a graduate, just that he was a footballer. His favourite New Statesman writer, he said, is Mehdi Hasan. I decided to phone him up.

Dave is 24 and was born in Brighton; his mother is a nurse and his father a former teacher. He did very well with his GCSEs but not as well as he’d hoped with his A-levels, getting an A in PE but only Cs in history and human biology. Not that it really mattered. All he had ever wanted to do was play football.

From the age of ten, he was on the books of Brighton and eventually played for England Schoolboys. No one from his year with that team actually made it as a professional – though in the year before him was Chris Smalling, now at Man United.

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At 16, Dave was chucked out by Brighton and told he was never going to make it. “It wasn’t the worst thing that has happened in my life,” he said. “Losing a family member, or my dad getting cancer: that’s far worse. But it was a terrible blow – and so unexpected. I had always been told I would make it. Suddenly my whole outlook on life changed. I was forced to consider other options.”

So for three years he went to Brunel University in Uxbridge and read sports sciences, continuing part-time in non-league football, for Lewes and then for Staines, which gave him some pocket money as a student. Just over a year ago, after graduating with an Upper Second, he at last made it into the Football League, joining Exeter City in League Two, where he still is, a dashing and hard-working right winger.

“I suppose some do refer to me as a geek but the only real teasing I get is about my clothes,” he told me. “They are always saying I dress like a student, which is probably true. I don’t spend money on clothes like a lot of footballers.”

David started reading the NS about six months ago. “I have a couple of friends who are very political. I read it in motorway service stations before deciding to subscribe. I was reading it on the coach when our media manager saw me – he borrowed my copy and now he has subscribed,” he said.

When Graeme le Saux was at Chelsea in the late 1990s and was seen reading the Guardian, he was immediately described as a “poof” – dressing-room banter that got even nastier when Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler made obscene gestures seemingly about his sexuality.

“It would still be very difficult for a player to come out as gay but attitudes have changed,” Dave said. “Most players are aware you don’t make homophobic remarks any more.”

Watching Prem players on the telly, he does admire how good they are, how they can manipulate the ball. “But they are still human beings, not gods. You have to think that, if you want to progress.”

As with most players in the bottom two leagues, Dave is on modest money, compared to the wages in the Prem, where the competition is fierce and the training intense, unlike 40 years ago. This could be why so few graduates get into football today. “You’re made to choose at a young age whether you want further education or a professional sports career. I don’t think it should be a choice. At least have the option to pursue both.” Thanks Dave. That could explain it. 

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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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