Throughout my playing career, balancing professional football and studying, there was one recurring question that I asked myself: why don’t clubs invest more in the education of their players?
So when I joined Aston Villa in March I had one project at the front of my mind and close to my heart that I wanted to drive right away. The first proposal I wrote was for an expanded partnership with Aston University that would allow the club to support female players in their education, from youth to first team. It has taken a lot of work, collaboration and support at the club but our Students of the Game programme is now up and running.
I went to university to study law while I was a semi-professional at Charlton, and for some years at Chelsea. After graduating I tried to develop myself as a lawyer while playing professionally, and looking back not only did it help me have more self-discipline and efficiency, it has helped me in my preparation for a post-football career. I think career security is very important in the women’s game, where the vast majority of players aren’t going to earn millions so need to invest in their futures. If clubs can support that development, they will be rewarded with more well-prepared people with more to offer when they transition away from the pitch. I’m passionate about the dual careers model because I’ve seen the benefits.
I believe Aston Villa Women can be a leader in offering education sponsorship and dual-careers opportunities and that in time it will benefit the club, our players and the England team. We want to recruit young players, as they come out of college or school or potentially when they are at university, and if we can support their studies we become a better proposition for them and their families.
What we now offer may also allow some young British players who have typically gone to America to benefit from their college system to stay in England and progress here. When I was at Chelsea I played with Alessia Russo, who was a top young player at the time but wasn’t getting into the first team so moved to America where the infrastructure was there to let her study and play. Now a full England international, this summer she came back to join Manchester United. We hope our model can present another option to a player in that position, so we can retain our best talent in England.
Aston University has created a bespoke elite athlete programme for our players, which allows studies to fit in with their professional training schedule – one thing that distance learning during the pandemic has actually assisted. The Professional Footballers’ Association helps its members to access certain courses, but there is a limit to the subjects it can support. Partnering with a large university allows us to offer more courses, and more opportunities beyond exclusively sports-related subjects. We are also building a women’s leadership programme with Aston University that will form part of a wider chartered management degree apprenticeship, and hopefully we can get a cohort of women from the community to join the course along with our Portuguese forward Diana Silva, who holds a master’s in pharmacy. We want to encourage and to promote female empowerment, female education and female business management.
One thing we make clear is that once we invest in a player’s course, we will cover fees for the duration of that course. If a player leaves us two years into a three-year course, the third year will still be covered. We are investing in the future of our players, in our people beyond the pitch.
Take-up has been encouraging: Asmita Ale, our young right-back, is studying accounting and finance, Diana Silva is joining the women’s leadership course, Caro Siems moved to the club from Germany in the summer, two years into a psychology degree, and is going to complete the qualification at Aston University with dual accreditation. The club is part-funding the sporting directorship master’s that Marisa Ewers, our club captain, has started. Natalie Haigh is keen on performance analysis, and will be able to hone her skills and intern in our academy as she comes towards the last phase of her playing career. Kerri Walsh, who was integral in our promotion squad last season, transitioned to coaching in our regional talent club and academy. To have five of our 20-person first-team squad already involved says a lot about the appetite that exists for this kind of model.
We want to be a club that leads on dual career and education not only in the UK but globally. We are competing with a model in America that has done that for many years and has used it to attract young players from around the world. We’re trying to bridge that gap. I believe it will help us to recruit and retain players.
Another motivation behind Students of the Game is for the women’s team to engage with the student community in Birmingham. It’s a huge student city, with five universities and 80,000 students, with sport central to their activities. We want to take advantage of their ability and creativity, ultimately we want them to be part of our fanbase, and a big part of that is giving students the opportunity to experience the professional environment of Aston Villa Women.
We want to bring students in, to partner with our local universities in areas of research and development, and to involve students in our development as a professional team. Some students doing relevant courses, maybe in sports nutrition or sports science, can come in, see what we’re doing and be part of our development. I’m keen for data intelligence to inform our recruitment, and want students at local universities to help us build a database that will inform what we do in the transfer market. This is all part of Student of the Game programme: helping our players to study, and also getting students to help our players’ environment. We want education and innovation to be a key part of who we are, and we want to make use of and to contribute to our community.
There’s no hiding from the fact it has been a difficult start to the season for us in the league but it was great to get our first win in the Continental Cup last week. Hopefully programmes like Students of the Game show how much effort is going into establishing Aston Villa Women and into the long-term futures of our players, our community and the women’s game.