West Ham Sundays, Lectures Mondays – Football v Degree

FOOTBALL: FRANCESCA TYE on balancing a starting place for West Ham Ladies with her degree.

Arch and Anth Blues football CUWAFC Francesca Tye west ham West Ham Ladies Women's football

What comes first, a degree or football?

Not perhaps the conundrum that Wayne Rooney faced or indeed most teenagers looking towards a footballing career, but one that I, as West Ham Utd player and second year undergraduate (note the order) am attempting – foolishly in some eyes – to balance.

Two recent meetings with supervisors ended with them declaring that I do know I can’t possibly consider playing in my final year don’t I? Oh yes, obviously rubbing your name off the West Ham team sheet to concentrate on final year is the only right thing to do. Sure.

I don’t think so. I have played the game I love since I was 8, gaining much of my “education” at the Ipswich Town centre of excellence and then subsequently signed for West Ham Ladies at 16 slightly nervous at the thought of senior football. My captain was a 30 year old woman who had done it all, van driver, Arsenal fanatic, a stint in prison; you name it she’d been there. I was a 16 year old studying to get the grades for a place at Cambridge.

Different universes you may think but united by a love of Arsenal, she took me under her wing. According to her I was “raw meat in this league” and thus needed her guidance, she taught me the ins and out of senior football, from avoiding the “Hollywood ball” to the art of the scrape down the achilles. After a year of reserve team football, I was looking at a place in the first team until this came up, this degree.

There is not a penny in women’s football, so most girls have to face up to the fact that a professional career in football is untenable. The lucky few that become semi-professional (Arsenal first team) can get part-time jobs and earn an acceptable, but by no means decent, living.

At West Ham many have chosen the more sobering path of working as post women to allow enough time to train in the evenings. I would like to have a well-paid job, hopefully in sports media, so not getting a degree was simply not an option.

Many women are forced to choose whether to sacrifice their working life or football career and because of this, players are turning their backs on England for America’s more sports-friendly education system. Some may say that this is the reason behind the academic success of English universities like Cambridge, but although it produces good exam results, does it actually produce well-rounded individuals?

Of course lack of investment in England, does not prevent my passion for the game, and I have continued to play for the club whilst studying here. However, as supervisors regularly state, a degree at Cambridge comes before everything – maybe a stint in the Blues could be tolerated, but travelling to east London up to 3 times a week, forget it.

But why should I be discouraged from developing another part of my life? Is a degree at Cambridge really everything? The things I have learnt from playing top level football are not necessarily the same as learning about genetics, but they are none the less significant. Frankly, some of the pressure you come under in the last 20 minutes 1-0 up against table-topping Chelsea, puts making essay deadlines into better perspective.  It teaches about the importance of taking responsibility, decision making under pressure, to cope with the highs and lows that accompany success and failure.

But somehow, the qualities seemed to be viewed, not as irrelevant, but certainly less important than the class of my degree. Would this have been the case if I had gone to America? More and more sportsmen and woman are asking this question.

So, message of this article? Start watching some women’s football so we can get paid and people like me can consider a professional career, rather than being dissuaded from playing by concerned supervisors. Although, if Wayne Rooney could offer 1% of his weekly salary in a single annual instalment, then that would equally do quite nicely.