Offside, 28 November
The key to the Bath University team's success? They are not really students.
It’s a long time since a university football team made the headlines. In 1880 Oxford University were beaten 2-1 by Clapham Rovers in the FA Cup Final. Since then no university side has competed in the first round of the FA Cup – until last week, when Team Bath of the Screwfix Direct Western League Premier Division were beaten 4-2 by Second Division Mansfield Town.
There is always a flurry of media interest in the early rounds of FA Cup when minnows from the lowest reaches of football’s food chain are pitted against the big fish of the Nationwide League. This week, Queens Park Rangers were left licking their wounds after losing on penalties to Vauxhall Motors of the Unibond Premier League, while Leyton Orient were dumped out of the cup by Margate of the Vauxhall Conference.
But there has been an exceptional degree of interest in Team Bath’s cup run. ‘The media coverage has been phenomenal’, said 28-year-old Bath striker Barry Lavety, who has played professionally at St Mirren and Hibernian. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it, even when I was at Hibs playing Rangers.’
Bath’s cup-tie against Mansfield was broadcast live on Sky and attracted an audience of 1.5million viewers. Newspapers throughout the world covered the story. In fact, so many journalists descended on Bath University that a media ban was imposed to enable the players to concentrate on their training. Five thousand students managed to shake off their hangovers and drag themselves out of bed before midday to cheer on their team.
The story of Team Bath captured the public imagination because it chimes with the contemporary disenchantment with the commercialisation of football. As one dewy-eyed journalist put it: ‘This season more than ever before, the presence of a purely amateur team in the first round proper comes as a blessed relief to those of us who still believe the essence of football should be about the pursuit of sporting distinction, not power or money.’ (1)
It is indeed tempting to view Team Bath through sepia-tinted lenses as a throwback to a prelapsarian age before football became tainted by commerce. ‘It was different in those days to today’, reminisces Team Bath’s 86-year-old assistant coach Ivor Powell, who once played alongside Stanley Matthews at Blackpool. ‘It’s always money, money, money today. We played for pride and prestige’, added Powell, sounding uncannily like Ron Manager.
In fact, the cup heroes of Team Bath are not exactly your proper Pot Noodle-munching, Teletubby-watching, traffic-cone-thieving students. Few of the players are studying for degrees.
Most are taking the new higher national diploma (HND) in coach education and sports performance at the Sports Training Village that is attached to Bath University. The team is largely comprised of former youth team and academy trainees who have been released by professional clubs, as well as a few ex-professionals like Barry Lavety, whose positive drugs test for ecstasy while at St Mirren now appears, in retrospect, as the ideal preparation for student life.
Team Bath’s success owes nothing to the amateur ethos of the aristocrats who dominated the early FA Cup tournaments. The diploma in coach education and sports performance is a far cry from the academic ideal of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The course is designed to give young footballers who have been discarded by league clubs a second chance and, as such, represents the growing vocationalisation of the university sector.
‘I haven’t had to use my brain for quite a few years’, admits Barry Lavety. I wouldn’t worry, Barry. A diploma in coach education shouldn’t be too taxing on the old grey matter.
The footballers of Team Bath, many of whom receive scholarships of up to £12,000 a year, are effectively semi-professionals masquerading as amateurs, much like US or Australian sports scholarship students. The players train every day and enjoy training and fitness facilities at the £6million sports complex that would be the envy of many a league club.
Whereas the nineteenth-century gentlemen footballers would have frowned at the merest whiff of commercialisation, Team Bath recently concluded a £100,000 sponsorship deal with the clothes designer Ted Baker.
So if you are minded to wax lyrical about how Team Bath epitomises the true Corinthian spirit of football, think again. The secret of Team Bath’s success is cold hard cash and a large slice of professionalism.
(1) Students teach a nation its love affair is still on, The Sentinal, 31 October 2002
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