Stewart Robson was something of an under rated footballer of the 1980s. Unfortunate to have figured most prominently for Arsenal during the dog days of the Terry Neill/Don Howe era, George Graham preferred Steve Williams in the midfield anchor role and the tough tackling and energetic Robson is now half-forgotten.
I say half-forgotten because Robson has since gone on to forge himself a career in the media after subsequent playing and coaching spells at West Ham, Coventry and elsewhere. A regular on The Times football podcast and contributor to Talksport and ESPN’s Italian football coverage, the 49 year old’s name has remained relatively prominent.
During his playing days, articles on Robson often chose to concentrate on his education – Essex’s Brentwood School via Westcliff-on-Sea’s Alleyn Court Prep School. Given that both institutions require the parents of entrants to pay fees to attend, at the time this constituted a rare case of a British footballer with a privately educated background.
I shall not dwell on football’s firm and highly deserved reputation for being a solidly working class pursuit. Stretching back to the nineteenth century, it has been a sport for the ordinary man with the Saturday afternoon-long opportunity provided by the temporary closure of the cotton mills, steelworks and dockyards allowing the activity to take its place in the weekly calendar.
Given the beyond egregious Michael Gove’s infamous quote that ‘more than any other developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress’, this process has continued beyond deindustrialisation and the gradual erosion of the UK’s manufacturing base. So, footballers these days are just as likely to come from working class backgrounds as they were before – quite simply, an average fee of £14,000 per year to attend a private school is well beyond all but a tiny slither of the population (500,000 at last count) and so the majority of players have emerged from the state school system.
But while Robson will have been no doubt treated to nicknames such as ‘Lord Snooty’ and resented for his comparatively privilege, times are changing and the number of current footballers attending independent schools has reached something of a swell in recent times.
Indeed – and most peculiarly – Derby County are currently fielding no less than two privately educated players and not insignificant ones either. Firstly, wunderkind Will Hughes is a product of prestigious Repton and represented the Derbyshire institution in the Independent Schools FA Cup Final.
Latterly, the precocious Hughes has been joined by the sensation of this Football League season and purveyor of spectacular goals, Patrick Bamford. As chronicled in this excellent piece from the Derby County Blog, Bamford is a former pupil of Nottingham High School for Boys. With his blond, fresh faced looks and unhurried style, my Dad’s response when I informed him of Bamford’s background was ‘that explains everything’ – for if Bamford does seem to possess one thing, it’s that fabled ‘public school confidence’.
A quick aside here for non-English readers – ‘public’ school in this instance actually refers to the more illustrious of our ‘private’ or ‘independent’ schools and while the reasons for this nomenclature are utterly baffling, its usage is still common, especially when used pejoratively.
Those are not the only examples. See also Tyrone Mings of Ipswich and Reuben Reid of Yeovil Town, both products of sports-mad Millfield School in Somerset; Reading centre-back Alex Pearce, once of Berkshire’s Oratory School and a player whose occasionally stilted style again forced my Dad to remark that ‘he doesn’t look like a footballer’; Johnny Gorman of Leyton Orient, another participant in an ISFA Cup Final as Repton took on Shrewsbury School in 2010 and a cluster of alumni from Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn including Bristol City goalkeeper Frank Fielding and Sheffield United’s Chris Porter. Another ‘QEGS’ man is Accrington Stanley player-manager James Beattie while Millwall legend and first team coach Neil Harris somehow made the journey to Zampa Road from Brentwood, the same alma mater as Robson.
There is an additional group of players which perhaps provides a hint as to one of the reasons for this comparative influx. England internationals Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Frank Lampard attended Southsea’s St. John’s College and Brentwood respectively while Neil Mellor is a product of St. Bede’s College in Manchester and Howard Wilkinson’s son Ben was also educated privately.
All are sons of fathers who played the game and given the riches that have been on offer since the revitalization of football post-Hillsborough, Fever Pitch and all that, we can perhaps expect a steady stream of wealthy fathers to stump up the cash and package their lads off to private school as the years wear on – witness Harry Lineker’s goals for Charterhouse.
Independent schools are rarely ignorant of financial opportunity and the general prosperity football brings with it has allowed it to gain a firmer foothold among the upper classes. Pat Francis, a scout for Aston Villa and former football coach at Forest School, has been quoted in this article from Simon Kuper to the effect that ‘a lot of top rugby schools now want to play football because of the injuries in rugby and the prestige that football is getting’ – which perhaps explains how Bamford for one was able to pursue a career despite strong discouragement from the hierarchy of his rugger-fixated school.
Indeed, my own school, though a comprehensive, had delusions as to its position having once been a grammar, and the presence of a very stern Welsh games master meant football was very much off the agenda – the oval ball’s intolerance for our game ‘played by thugs’ has left me with a degree of animosity to the game lasting to this day, despite having turned out for a school rugby team that also featured future broom-cupboard and I’m a Celebrity dweller Toby Anstis at full back – coincidentally also Bamford’s position for Nottingham High.
The days of rugby playing schools’ disdain for the round ball are now pretty much over, with Eton, always a strong participant to give the school its due, fielding 23 teams across all age groups and Harrow housing a cornucopia of fabulous resources including two all-weather pitches – indeed, such facilities perhaps provide another clue as to why top footballers are as likely to come from the monied classes as the local technical school given the drastic cut back in facilities at the latter dating back to Margaret Thatcher’s assault on state school playing fields.
Elsewhere, Crystal Palace provided a young Victor Moses with an opportunity to further his education at Whitgift School, showing that scholarships rather than money are often a factor – former Chelsea centre back Colin Pates coaches at Whitgift while ex-Charlton man John Humphrey is at Highgate.
But there is some evidence to suggest that this still modest number of privately educated footballers may turn out to be something of a blip and this comes from within the world of private schools themselves.
For as highlighted in a quite brilliant piece from Danny Dorling in The Guardian, school fees are rising steadily and are quickly becoming out of reach for the aspiring middle class from which many of the footballers’ parents mentioned above will have hailed – £14,000 may be the average yearly fee and is already a significant tariff, but the boarding school mean is actually £27,612.
Between 2010 and 2011, fees rose by 6% a year and parents are increasingly looking to compromise solutions such as sending their kids to grant-maintained grammar schools and to private colleges for A level education only – the influence of an overwhelmingly privately educated government and a Press that paints our state schools as somewhat akin to those depicted in Series 4 of The Wire is maintaining class distinctions but the hit on people’s pockets is becoming fiercer.
Social mobility in education is actually lowest where ‘choice’ is supposedly greatest – where grammar schools are allowed to continue – while as Dorling had pointed out, ‘economic inequality is linked to biases in self-perception’ and we have ‘an educational system designed to polarise people’ – while he accuses our private education system of forging the creation of an ‘elite…who think that they should earn extraordinarily more than everyone else’. That characteristic of the ‘public school boy’ that the world is his oyster is oddly similar to the profile of the average Premier League footballer.
Thanks to a host of tweeters for tips for this article including Jenni Silver, Phil Lloyd, Jacob South-Klein, Anthony Vickers, John McGee, Ollie Wright, Daniel Storey, Gary Andrews, Nathan Morley and fellow Unfortunate Lloyd Langman