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Footballers' brains aren't always in their feet

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Jack Ross | 09:46 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

It is not unusual for a player to be described as having his brains in his feet. If an individual is given this label then does it qualify him as an intelligent footballer?

Being a clever footballer, it would seem, is not dependent on being intelligent in the other sense, as most coaches and players would say that game awareness and vision come from natural talent combined with good instruction.

I think that most would tend to associate these types of players as being forward-thinking and creative types, usually playing in a more advanced midfield role or just off the striker.

Such an assumption can, of course, be supported by players such as Teddy Sheringham from the recent past, and the top stars of today such as Andres Iniesta.

However, there are, in my opinion, just as many intelligent players who play in defensive roles and whose reading of the game and ability to see the next two or three passes allows them to be truly appreciated by team mates.

The modern-day creation of the sitting midfielder is one such role which requires game intelligence but how many would consider their centre-halves to have similar qualities?

And yet, the central defenders who are smart enough to recognise they cannot win every header, who know when to go tight and when to drop off the game and when to step into the play are those who stand a level above others who view the position as simply a matter of aggression and challenges.

These are perhaps the reasons why Davie Weir has enjoyed such an extended successful career and why centre-halves such as Willie Miller were rated so highly in the past.

French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez

Goalkeeper Fabien Barthez has set up an academy to educate players in France. Photo: Getty

Earlier in this blog I made the point that football skills are not reliant on a good education, but will this continue to be the case, and should it be? I would suggest that football ability and academic achievement should not be seen as incompatible, but rather that they could be mutually beneficial.

One of the accusations that is often labelled at Scottish players can be an inability to quickly adjust to new tactics and systems, with perhaps a greater emphasis placed on a young player's general education being a catalyst to them in turn being more responsive to new instructions on the football pitch.

Furthermore, as media coverage of the sport has intensified greatly, the ability to communicate confidently has increased for both managers and players alike, with an improved schooling again perhaps being an advantage in preparing for handling press attention.

In my experience, clubs are generally uninterested in how a player performs at school, although I acknowledge there are some who have bucked this trend.

Generally, however, an individual will be judged on his football talent and while this is fair and what supporters will only really care about, is the game then doing a disservice to players by not encouraging general education alongside football development?

I am aware that the former French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez supported a goalkeeping academy in south-west France where local businesses and sponsors in conjunction with the French FA funded the school in providing pupils with the national curriculum alongside intensive coaching.

It would be interesting to see whether such a school would ever be set up in Scotland where top football talent was educated to a good standard while receiving first-class training.

In an era where the science of sport is more influential than ever and where we are seeking every advantage in our bid to reach greater football heights, it might just be the answer.


  • Comment number 1.

    As far as im aware, some clubs do this already Jack. My team Leeds school the juniors too, from what i've heard. So if they don't make it as footballers, their life isn't ruined.

    Certainly in college sports in America, the athletes are forced into education alongside their chosen sport.

    Nice blog by the way, i really enjoy reading your columns, infinitely better than Jardines, and to be fair, a lot better than most of the so called experts on BBC.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good topic.. it's amazing to think in this day that some clubs are not interested in their kids having a decent education at school..

    You look at Wayne Rooney, joey Barton for example.. both were young players picking up good money and have made numerous mistakes in their personal lives.. Both would probably not have bothered much with school with being on the books of big teams from a young age.. Would more attention to education have helped them develop as wealthy young men?..

    There is of course the story doing the rounds that Chelsea managers became so frustrated with Joe Cole's inability to understand basic information given to him.. and this hampered his play at times..

  • Comment number 3.

    Check out Dundee United who have recently set up a partnership with a local secondary school where 11 players who have just started 1st year are given 4 years to work in an "advanced" academy set up. They are all aged 12.

    The players train four hours a day early morning and after school. They start school at 7.45am, and the emphasis is on skill and technique not brawn. Also, the players development is viewed over the long-term not just the short-term "one season and you're out" mentality.
    A welcome change from how we approach football in Scotland.
    Hopefully we will be watching a few of these players in the next five years or so.

  • Comment number 4.

    I suppose it's often a case of economics whether or not certain clubs can offer this supplementary education. Certainly it must help on the pitch for a player to be the 'forward-thinking and creative type' especially when his legs start going on him, but can this footballing brain be taught in a classroom? Many of the worlds most skillful players come from the shanty towns of South America or from poor African countries where education is at a premium. Even our own 'stars' aren't always the brightest academically - take Gazza. I wouldn't have thought of Barthez as the brainiest guy though so who can really tell?

  • Comment number 5.

    Phil wrote, "Certainly in college sports in America, the athletes are forced into education alongside their chosen sport."

    I think that may be true for what is considered 2nd-tier sports in the US but there is still a great deal left to be desired educationally for the big 3: American Football, Basketball and Baseball.

    Our youngest went to see Auburn play South Carolina Saturday and discovered they have five kickers on scholarship - five! Move up to the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, etc. and you'll be sure to find that the higher the talent level, the more academics will be overlooked to keep a player on the field come Saturday.

    At the other end of the spectrum, our oldest plays soccer (football) for a small college, well out of the limelight. Will he ever be able to take it professional? Only God knows for sure. But he was recently selected to his conference's all-academic team. An award that speaks to his ability to get good grades, if not to start every match.

    It's an age-old question: Who is better served? The lad with a bucket-load of talent but nothing to fall back on? Or the bright spark that finishes his education and has something else to do with his life if the football doesn't pan out?

    Good article Mr. Ross - thanks for thinking...

  • Comment number 6.

    some of the scotland players could do with being educated

  • Comment number 7.

    #5 "Move up to the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, etc. and you'll be sure to find that the higher the talent level, the more academics will be overlooked to keep a player on the field come Saturday"

    Alabama's quarterback already has an undergraduate degree and will find out on Thursday (Sep 30th) if he has been accpeted as a Rhodes Scholar.

    To the best of my knowledge, every college athlete in USA has to achieve, and maintain a certain GPA (grade point average) in order to be considered for selection.

    Compare the post match interviews of American sportsmen with the "...over the moon/sick as a parrot, John" quotes from English players.

  • Comment number 8.

    Good talking point this.

    I would very much agree that football clubs should invest a lot more in a young players education but not for footballing reasons. I think that players should be set up to find a career once their footballing one ends, or indeed, doesn’t start at all. I know a lot of teams do this but from a clubs perspective it doesn’t seem beneficial to fund education for players who sadly wont make the grade as a footballer.

    I would definitely say that a player's general intelligence (or intelligence in the other sense as Jack put it) does not determine whether they will be an intelligent footballer. If you spend umpteen hours everyday playing football of course you're going to learn footballing intelligence but you probably won't do well on Hangman 2 down the pub.

    Have to agree that not all 'intelligent footballers' are creative ones. Probably one of the most intelligent players to grace the English League was Paul McGrath. Massively talented.

  • Comment number 9.

    Very interesting piece, well done. You're right, young lads who have been acquired by professional clubs must ensure that they do all they can to continue their studies: you know as well as anyone that the drop-out rate, even between the relatively advanced ages of sixteen to eighteen, is huge. Aston Villa are as good an example as any English club of one that takes responsibility for its trainees doing as much as they are able to maintain their academic studies.

    Many of the brightest academics couldn't put into physical practice what professional footballers have to learn and carry out every week, whether they are defenders or midfielders; there is a great deal more margin for error in physical- as opposed to academic exercises. Many of the reasons for this are understood and explicable by leading neurologists only: take a bright bloke with a First from university, give him all the training and practice you like and tell him to carry out what an Iniesta or Cole does on a field and he can't; okay, of course there are physical strength, speed, coordination and flexibility elements to account for, but the brain is a very complex organ which we don't really understand and the fact that our university star graduate can transpose thoughts from brain to paper in an articulate, informed way doesn't mean that he's going to be able to push up in a line with his team mates at exactly the right split second to catch the opposing striker offside, no matter how much he practises.

    Serious Football

  • Comment number 10.

    For once an intelligent Blog on BBC. Well done.

    With the number of young footballers just failing to make the grade, or get the "break" to make a career in the professional game, they definitely need something to turn to career wise should this happen.

    As with schol studies, the theory of football can be taught and learned. However, to put that into practise still requires the physical attributes and talent. Some players are naturaly more talented than others, as with any sporting code,but they still need to be able to learn, to take instructions and understand them in order to be able to carry them out.

    A footballer does not need to be a rocket scientist in the making, but he does need an education. Not only will it enhance his natural physical talents, but will give him the "security" of being able to find some way to make a living should he not make the final grade on the football field, or should his career end early due to injury.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    Another excellent blog Jack - 2 in a row now!

    I suppose that there is also an assumption that the careers of the footballing 'gifted' will largely take care of themselves but given that playing careers are short there should be an emphasis on players (and clubs) to prepare themselves for a life after the game. Look at Gascoigne: not academically gifted (or possibly even competent) it seems and sadly struggling to find a foothold after the 'fame'. Others though such as Maurice Malpas and John Colquohn went and did their degrees either during or at the end of their careers and these are the type of routes that bodies such as the Scottish Players Union are trying to promote to players in the game today. Contrast this with the likes of Billy Abercromby who I beleive went 'drinking' after his professional life was over before sobering up and writing an autobiography. Traditionally footballers tended to come from backgrounds where academic studies were not highly valued.

    Does 'academic' intelligence mean football intelligence? Well no, otherwise Einstein, Russell and Dawkins may have had different careers. Football combines different 'intelligences' including spatial awareness and the ability to just react quicker than others: and psychologists these days tend to use reaction time as a key measure of 'intelligence'.

  • Comment number 13.

    There is definitely a massive difference between intelligence and footballing intelligence.

    Reminds me of when I played in a football tournament with some mates and one of our lads was a bit overweight with not much pace but always seemed to be there at the right time to intercept, tackle or make the right pass. When I asked him how he managed to do this, he tapped his temple and replied, "First ten yards are in (the) head" - marvellous!

  • Comment number 14.

    Certainly at the extremes physical and intellectual are opposites - pattern recognition and problem solving by such as Einstein, Newton, and to chess players is achieved by being quite disconnected from the physical world from birth; whereas world class athletic performances rely on the opposite.

    Within the extremes though you have examples such as Gary Linecker who built his career on studying defensive patterns and working out how best to score against them. Or the German team, who man for man were physically inferior to England but as a team superior tactically.

    Good chess players have an ability to look at the board and focus on which pattern of moves to make to block the opponents most dangerous possible attacks, and when having the advantage where to create the most danger; while discarding all the millions of other possibilities.

    It is much the same on a football pitch and some players stand out as superb at 'always being there' or 'able to play at a walk'; normally not the best physically - basically they are your chess players.
    To have the physical and the intellectual both at a very high level is probably impossible - but just as certainly to concentrate on one type of player to the exclusion of the other is a bad path to be going down I think.
    (not sure England FA and the academy scouts are listening yet though)

  • Comment number 15.

    Jack, the little 'blurb' at the top right is now inaccurate as The Pars are sadly not an SPL club. If you can help them get back there it would be great!

  • Comment number 16.

    Fascinating topic Jack. Was most interested to see the comments on the US college system at #s 5 and 7.

    I do not think that the development of sporting talent should be linked to academic ability. The Scottish game has been in the past, and is now, littered with very good players who are, frankly, as thick as two short planks. It would be quite ridiculous if gifted players were denied access to any future academy places because of an inability to pass an 'O' level.

    Football academies must place potential talent for the game as the most important entrance criterion. If a player is less academically inclined then there are several FE colleges looking for people to train for any number of trades. A link-up between clubs and more vocational training makes a hell of a lot of sense.

    You are one of the fortunate few Jack. A gifted player with the added ability to gain a degree. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Comment number 17.

    Thank you for all the comments.

    A further point I wanted to add was that sometimes clever (in an academic sense) players can sometimes be viewed a liitle suspiciously by some coaches as sometimes opinion and argument in a sensible manner is not always appreciated.

    Regardless, an improved education for young players is a no lose situation. It gives them better future opportunities and could make them better all round players

  • Comment number 18.

    interesting topic jack
    we are years behind in this country and it doesn't look to bright for the future, we need secondary schools to have specific sports training during school hours gauged to the pupils and the talent they have been blessed with whether it's football, rugby, swimming or any sport for that matter.
    Jack, as colleges and universities tighten their belts your blog seems to me to be twenty years too late. i have first hand experience of this topic, i remember playing an international tournament in west germany many years ago and finding out my german competitor's were training for their sport as part of their daily schooling, it was a jaw dropping moment. Our school had strikes by the E I S which litterally wiped out sport after school in one foul move. I remember our football teams and rugby teams abandoned just like that because teachers weren't allowed to take after school activities. How do you compete with that in early teen years when your school just dropped the lot, ABSOLUTELY PATHETIC if you ask me but hey what do i know, we were in the hands of educated people and you would imagine they could have sorted this out but alas not, what a disgrace it proved to be.
    To be honest i think education in sport now has had it's day, we are so far behind other countries it seems pointless to start, where would you start in the current climate. We should be installing a better work ethic into young people now because it's been forgotten about altogether, where does a degree get you now, how many people hold degrees and can't get a job, young sportsmen and women should switch off the wii's and x box's and get out working somewhere, anywhere doing anything, i bet you would see a different attitude towards sport when they realise how tough life is outside sport.
    your comment about educated footballers being "viewed a little suspecially" raised an eye brow, could you elaberate that point, i'm wondering if you are having a dig at someone or are you saying having an education in football actually hinders your career because your peers, coaches and managers aren't educated, you've written a blog an article and contradicted it.

  • Comment number 19.

    Why don't we extend the school day? Instead of finishing at 3.30pm (or whatever) keep the schools open to 5pm or even 5.30pm and allow more time for all different types of sports?
    Help to eradicate childhood obesity at one end of the spectrum & help to further advance & educate our athletes in their chosen sport.
    Take it a step further & scrap, or cut back, football club academies & entrust football development programmes to the community & schools, which removes the 12 year old "transfer market" and helps make the whole game fun for kids again.

  • Comment number 20.


    i hope someone reads your comment because it makes perfect sense. You have touched on so many good points.

    initiatives should be brought in and your points should be implemented as part of daily schooling.

    all sports in this country would change dramatically .

    your comment is undoubtely one of the best i have read .


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