With the UEFA European Football Championship well underway, I put my football hat on, admired the silky skills on show in the matches, and let my mind wander back to England’s green and pleasant land, where beautifully situated independent schools are doing their bit to help get the English team back where it belongs…
You wouldn’t normally associate the term “middle class” with the English national team, as football is generally considered a working class sport. But there are signs that independent schools, which have ambitious students and excellent facilities, could supply England’s youth teams and senior team with talented individuals for years to come.
Let’s delve a little deeper into the history of English football to see how independent schools have influenced the development of the sport.
1. Matches between Westminster and Charterhouse commenced in 1863, making it the oldest annual fixture in the world. Public school boys’ teams, such as the Old Etonians and the Old Carthusians (former pupils of Charterhouse School), had a big influence on the development of the modern-day FA Cup with their enthusiastic participation in inter-school football matches.
2. Charles Alcock, an Old Harrovian, created the FA Cup, basing it on a knockout tournament that took place during his time at Harrow School. The first FA Cup final took place in 1872. Interestingly, the old boys of Eton and Charterhouse competed against each other in the 1881 FA Cup Final. The Old Carthusians won 3-0, which was a shocking result at the time.
3. Upper-class teams from the south didn’t have it their way after their successes in the early 1880s. London teams were reluctant to turn professional due to a deeply-held belief that sport should be recreational. So plucky northern teams began to dominate.
4. Moving forward to more modern times, there are signs that football has begun to flourish in independent schools. The wind of change started blowing in 2011, when around 30 players in Premier League and Football League clubs were privately educated. One of the most famous examples is Frank Lampard, who was educated at Brentwood School in Essex, a coeducational day and boarding school for children aged three to 18.
5. With world-class grass football fields and AstroTurf surfaces at their disposal, it comes as little surprise that independent schools now produce a much higher standard of football than ever before. One school of note to mention is Millfield, which has 11 full sizes pitches, and 19 coaches to help pupils maximise their skills. Along with a host of other independent schools, Millfield does not shy away from awarding scholarships to promising footballers. Tyrone Mings, who is currently at Premier League club AFC Bournemouth, enrolled on a two-year scholarship at Millfield, and is quoted as saying he “loved every minute of it”. The popularity of football, and a desire to drive up the standard of the game, has also pervaded prep schools. Crystal Palace Football Academy, for instance, has a special link with Hornsby House in Balham, South London.
6. The Royal Family, who are traditionally associated with rugby, have taken a keen interest in football in recent years. Former Eton pupils, Princes Harry and William, were spotted at Wembley supporting their respective teams, Arsenal and Aston Villa, at the 2015 FA Cup final. Other royals, such as Prince Andrew, a Norwich supporter, have mentioned their love of the beautiful game.
Irrespective of who supports which team, who gained a scholarship, and who attended which school, it is satisfying to know that children from all backgrounds are engaged in competitive sport, and have bright futures ahead of them if they make the grade at an academy. Additionally, independent schools like Charterhouse, Millfield, King’s College (Taunton), and Dulwich have started to place more emphasis on football. This is a significant transition, as rugby has always been the sport of public schools.
Of course, the financial opportunities football brings have not escaped the attention of the middle and upper classes. But many schools associated with rugby have shifted their attention to football because of the injury risks of the former. Patrick Bamford, who studied at Nottingham High School and showed promise as a Rugby Union player, instead chose to pursue a career in football. Bamford has made appearances for several reputable clubs such as Norwich and Crystal Palace.
With a host of independent schools willing to employ some of the best coaches, and spend huge sums on upgrading their football facilities, the only way for English football is up.