The rise and rise of university football: Meet the students bridging the gap between pro sport and study

Updated: 14/04/2024

When Cardiff Met lined up to take on Bangor City in 2017, they stood on the brink of history. The university’s fresh-faced student side were on the verge of becoming continental trailblazers – a win away from being the first higher-education football club to ever play in European competition.

For a group of youngsters who didn’t get paid and combined studying with playing, it was a massive achievement to simply be holding their own in the Welsh Premier League. So, for Cardiff Metropolitan University’s sports club to have battled and scrapped with grizzled campaigners to be just one match from a Europa League qualifier was almost unfathomable.

Footballers aren’t famed for having high IQs, after all. Yet it seems that tag might soon be shifting, for some at least.

That’s because Cardiff Met’s success story – despite failing to reach European competition after losing 1-0 to Bangor in the 2017 play-off – doesn’t stand alone, with a surge of university football teams appearing across Britain’s senior leagues.

And these aren’t sides made up of the players who can overcome a hangover to drag themselves out of bed either. They’re hungry, ready and trained by some of the brightest young coaches to upset the odds.

Over the past few years, a host of university teams have been infiltrating the national game as higher-education football programmes look to bridge the gap between study and senior football.

It’s a marriage that might seem alien to many wannabe pros, although the trend appears to be growing.

Other elite sports, including rugby and athletics, already enjoy a healthy relationship with some of Britain’s best unis, while in the US the college system is seen as the route for young sports stars to hone their talents.

There is a misconception in football that any player not on the books of a pro club by their late teens isn’t of sufficient standard and that university teams are made up of nothing more than hobby players. But this view is changing.

A season before Cardiff Met’s brush with the record books, Stirling University were pulling up trees north of the border. Led by now-Scotland women’s boss Shelley Kerr, Stirling finished third in the Highland Football League – only two positions away from a play-off for promotion to the Scottish Football League.

Several university clubs have popped up in England’s non-league too, with the likes of Loughborough University and Team Solent flying the student flag. But any significant success for these clubs is stymied by an FA-enforced glass ceiling that means university clubs can’t play above the eighth tier.

The draconian rule was put in place in the wake of Team Bath’s period of glory in the previous decade, which saw the side based out of the city’s university reach the Conference South in 2008 and the FA Cup First Round three times in seven seasons. However, when the Football Conference informed the Crescents – who were managed by Paul Tisdale at the time – that they would ineligible for further promotions unless they became a limited company, the university pulled the club out of the competition.

Instead, university clubs in England choose to offer senior football as a carrot for player development rather than to progress themselves. That’s probably just as well, with term times often posing selection issues before the academic year kicks off in September and at Christmas, culminating in polarising results throughout the season.

At a renowned university such as Loughborough, which specialises in helping talented athletes from all sports excel on and off the field, their team has produced a string of players who have gone on to play professionally, with West Ham youngster Dapo Afolayan and MK Dons pair Robbie Simpson and George Williams among recent alumni.

For all the developments in university football clubs over the past decade, the annals of history show that it’s by no means a new phenomenon. Loughborough’s side, for example, has been playing a part in footballers’ progression for decades, and counts Arsenal legend Bob Wilson and 1988 FA Cup winner Lawrie Sanchez among its graduates.

Even further back, Oxford University’s student side achieved a feat that will almost certainly never be matched by another higher-education when they lifted the FA Cup, thanks to a 2-0 victory over Royal Engineers in 1874. It was far from a flash in the pan, with the Blues also losing finalists in 1873, 1877 and 1880.

Oxford’s superiority didn’t continue into the 20th century, though, and heralded the drop in perception of the university game that only now appears to be showing any signs of being shaken off.

So, while it’s unlikely that England’s future squads will be packed with graduates, more players with degrees might soon emerge elsewhere in the country’s professional ranks.

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