Most footballers are judged on their ability to catch, tackle, pass with precision or put the ball in the back of the opposition’s net.
But, after enrolling on Sheffield United’s ‘Futures Programme’, Keenan Ferguson knew his academic performance would also decide if he was selected to play or not.
“If I didn’t get my work done,” the teenager admits, “Then I wasn’t going to play. There’s been times when I’ve fallen behind a bit or missed something because of matches. Even then, I was told to make sure I caught up.”
‘Futures’, a pioneering scheme run by United’s Steelphalt Academy and The Sheffield College, is designed to give youngsters who might previously have been attached to professional clubs a second chance to build careers in the game. Combining regular training sessions with studies towards a recognised qualification in sporting excellence, it is difficult and demanding. But, according to one of those involved with the course, graduates are likely to be more mature than those who have taken the conventional route.
“These lads know what it’s like to suffer a set-back,” Derek Geary, United’s under-18’s coach, explains. “They’ve thought, at some point or another, that they weren’t going to make it or that they weren’t good enough to earn a living from football. Not everybody is going to do that but, if you’ve been in the system from the age of seven or whatever, the chances are everything has been laid out for you. What happens when you hit a bump in the road then? The lads on this have already done that.”
Geary, the former United, Stockport County and Sheffield Wednesday defender, uses Ferguson’s own journey to Bramall Lane to illustrate his point. The defender, aged 16, enjoyed a brief spell with the club after moving to Woodhouse from London before spending time at Chesterfield. Admitting he was planning to combine his studies with a spell in non-league football after being released from the Proact Stadium - “I was planning to go to sixth form college because I didn’t think I’d get another chance” - Ferguson was recently awarded a 12 month contract after impressing Geary, academy manager Travis Binnion and Lee Dunn, head of the ‘Futures’ project, on and off the pitch.
“Even though Keenan might have said he thought his chances of becoming a professional footballer were over, there was something in the back of his mind that clearly didn’t agree,” continues Geary. “And that’s something I really respect and admire; that will to never give-up and determination to succeed.”
Dunn describes ‘Futures’ as “a real win/win situation” for everyone involved.
“The ultimate aim is to see one of our lads make his debut for the first team. That’s the target but we’ve already had plenty, like Keenan for example, represent the under-18’s or the under-23’s. It’s good for the club because everyone develops at different rates, not everybody is the same, and it’s good for the lads too because, even if they don’t go on to become footballers, they will finish with a qualification which will allow them to work in sport or even help them go on to university.”
Ferguson, a member of the squad which won last month’s Professional Development League 2 play-off final, agrees.
“I like studying and I love football so, to be honest, this seemed perfect. It’s not easy and Lee really keeps an eye on us, he pops up when you least expect it Once, I was sat on the computer in the library looking at YouTube and he appeared, telling me to do something a bit more useful instead.”
Geary, whose first coaching position of note was on the ‘Futures’ programme, makes no apology for the discipline it requires students display.
“Listen, if you work in a factory and mess about, you’re probably going to get sacked. You’re definitely not going to be promoted or get along. So why should football be any different? We don’t just want good footballers, we want good people too and this is all a part of that.”
“If somebody isn’t pulling their weight in terms of their studies, then they aren’t going to be involved in matches until they do,” Dunn, echoing that sentiment, says. “I usually lay that marker down quite early on and, to be fair, don’t have many problems of that nature afterwards.”
After being recognised for his progress in recent months, Ferguson now hopes to continue developing in both a sporting and scholastic sense.
“I just want to keep on working hard and listening to people like Lee and Derek,” he says. “This has really helped; not just with my football but also with my education too.”
n For more information or apply for a place on the ‘Futures’ programme’s September intake,email: firstname.lastname@example.org