A SQUAD of football hopefuls is being offered a world of opportunity in a unique partnership between a college and the professional game.

Around 50 students have already signed up with Darlington College and the Martin Gray Football Academy, which provides qualifications offering opportunities as a player, coach, referee or in the sport and leisure sector.

Owned by former professional player and manager Martin Gray, the academy is managed by ex-Darlington College students Deano Browne and Anthony Verity, who lead a team of coaches, many of whom have also followed this unique partnership route.

The college/academy initiative also offers the chance of work experience, apprenticeships and full-time employment in anything from playing and coaching to refereeing. Seven of the academy’s top team started as students at Darlington College.

Martin said: “The prospects within sport, either on our doorstep or globally, are endless whether that is as a player or the amazing careers around officiating.”

Deano’s career began in earnest at Darlington College 18 years ago after what he admits were relatively unsuccessful school days.

“I came alive at Darlington College,” he said. “I did the level 2 and 3 Btec in sport, managed to get my maths and English and by the time I’d finished was coaching in the community.
“From there I was able to move to America to coach for UK International Soccer in San Francisco.”

Operations manager and head of coaching Anthony Verity, of Darlington, also began his career wanting to be a player but after being released by a club’s academy decided to study at Darlington College.

A degree in sports science followed, combining his studies with working with Martin Gray, before taking up an opportunity to move to Australia, where he was employed by the Total Football Academy and played for Magic United on the Gold Coast.

“Martin then offered me a fulltime job as a coach and I have been here ever since,” he said.

A perfect endorsement of the joint initiative comes in the form of Martin’s son Jonty, who left school to join the programme at Darlington College. “I was so lucky having such great mentors around me. I gained my level 1 and 2 qualification I have learnt so much,” said Jonty, who is a coach with MGFA.

For Ross Howell, 18, the initiative provided the chance to go from school boy footballer to apprentice.

His career started when he joined a football academy in town run by his uncle Paul Bielby, a former left winger with Manchester United.

He joined the level 3 course at Darlington College, has just signed for Durham FC and has been taken on by MGFA as an apprentice.

“Martin gave me a taste of coaching and I realised how much I enjoyed it,” he said.

Coach Lewis Walton was also encouraged to enrol on the Darlington College course. He said: “Training in the classroom and on the pitch gave me so many new skills.”

Coach Nathan Stephenson joined the Darlington College/MGFA programme after being released by a club’s academy.

“I’ve been with Martin five years now and learnt so much about the business,” he said.

Coach Brad Blythe, of Newton Aycliffe, added: “I absolutely loved the course and within weeks made new friends who I know will be there for life.”

For more information on opportunities at Darlington College visit www.darlington.ac.uk.