- Credit: Submitted
John Nice of Easton and Otley College meets a young sportsman combining a degree programme with football at the Easton campus
The rise of the Premier League has seen footballers become some of the richest people on the planet. But not all have a straightforward route to the top. Take Jamie Vardy – one of the current top scorers in the Premier League; he was released by Sheffield Wednesday at 16 and went to work in a factory. He didn’t give up on his dreams and managed to work his way through the leagues to reach the glory and riches of English football’s top division with Leicester City. Former Arsenal legend, Ian Wright followed a similar path, making it as a professional in his 20s. So could the next Jamie Vardy or Ian Wright be from Norfolk?
Easton and Otley College hopes so. It runs a football academy at its Norfolk campus. It started in 2000 with 24 students, and 15 years later, almost 100 learners are studying on a variety of courses.
One of those students is 20-year-old Ryan Hawkins, from Mattishall, who has had a rollercoaster few years since he started out as a seven-year-old playing at the Norwich City Football Club academy. He was released by Norwich at the age of 13, then went to Taverham and ended up playing for Dereham Town. He played for Dereham first team at the age of 16, had trials with Leyton Orient and Cambridge United along the way, and was asked back to Norwich at 18, playing in youth games against the likes of Manchester City and Aston Villa.
Norwich didn’t give him a contract so, having scored 24 goals for Dereham last year, he secured a two-year semi-professional contract with St Neots and is now combining a degree programme with football.
He says: “Football is now like a full-time job. I train four times a week and we have a nutrition coach and a sports science coach. Having been at teams that are in the Premier League, the difference between levels is noticeable. At St Neots you are told to work and train hard and become the best you can be.
“We have to do our own jobs before we play – and after the game we have to sweep and mop the changing rooms - it brings us (the team) together. The football is different as well. It’s more direct. You have to win at every point. Team bonding is a massive thing.
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“I’ve been at Easton and Otley for four years. I struggled academically at the start but I’ve worked hard. The support has been great. You learn a lot and you are taught how to conduct yourself. Ultimately you never know what is going to happen in life. You need something to fall back on, so I’ve done a degree just in case I can’t play football for a job. Long term – I’ve got one more year at St Neots and they are looking to go up – I want to play at the highest possible level that I can.”
His coach at the college is Daniel Connelly, former head of youth at Exeter City. He says: “We have a highly committed football education team who want to help these young players fulfil their potential. Fundamentally, this is an education course but we have been fortunate that four players have gained professional contracts through our academy. We are hoping Ryan could be next and we are doing all we can to support him. We’ve created a really strong football learning community that supports football players, coaches and practitioners at every level. The holistic football provision that we provide is something that we are very passionate about.”