A* footballers who can pass exams as well as they pass the ball are key to England's success

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Bukayo Saka - Eddie Keogh/Getty
Bukayo Saka - Eddie Keogh/Getty

Football fans used to tell a joke about David Beckham going to the barber. Asked to remove his headphones so the barber could cut his hair, he dropped dead.

When the shocked barber picked up the headphones and put them to his ear, he heard the words, "breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out".

It is a somewhat harsh judgement on Beckham’s intellect, but it neatly sums up the age-old cliché of footballers having little between the ears.

No one who has watched England’s impressive young lions being interviewed on the way to the Euro 2020 final is likely to make similar jokes about the likes of Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford or Bukayo Saka.

And it is no coincidence that the players who have taken England to its first major final since 1966 are also among the best educated.

Research has shown that achievement in the classroom translates into achievement on the pitch, a fact that has not been lost on Gareth Southgate and those running the game in England.

The younger England players have been brought up in a Premier League academy system, called the Elite Player Performance Plan, that was set up in 2012 and recognised that passing exams is as important as passing the ball.

Saka, the breakthrough player of the tournament at the age of just 19, achieved four A*s and three As in his GCSEs, an achievement for which he would have been teased by team-mates in previous generations, but which is now respected by players who also have a clutch of GCSEs to their name.

"We can get rid of the old cliche of thick footballers," said Huw Jennings, academy director at Fulham FC and former youth development manager of the Premier League. "The value of a broad education is now appreciated by players, clubs and families.

"You can have football intelligence without academic intelligence, but modern footballers are required to take on a lot of information - about tactics, individual opponents and so on - and translate that into decision-making on the pitch. And it's good decision-making that sets the best players apart."

Boys going through Premier League academies now achieve grades that are 10 per cent above the national average for English and maths and the programme has been rated "outstanding" by Ofsted in its last two inspections.

Many of them are also taken on field trips abroad, where they combine playing in tournaments with visits to historic sites such as First World War battlefields around Ypres and the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

Neil Saunders, the Premier League’s Head of Youth, said: "We teach the young players about peace and reconciliation, about friendship, and impress on them how lucky they are to be growing up in England in this era.

"The commitment to the holistic development of players is woven into everything we do."

Statistically, 75 per cent of players who are apprenticed to clubs at the age of 16 will be outside the game by the time they are 25, and of the players who join a club when they are aged under nine, only one in 200 will ever play for the club’s first team.

But having academic qualifications is no longer seen as "something to fall back on", said Mr Saunders.

"The boys recognise that it’s part and parcel of what makes them good players. Their mental and emotional well-being, which manifests itself on the pitch, is underpinned by so many things."

And while the boys’ education is the responsibility of the clubs, a tutor will also travel with them if they are away on England duty for youth teams, making sure they get their homework done.

Gareth Southgate, who was manager of the England Under-21 side for three years before taking over the first team in 2016, is not only aware of the benefits of educated players, but helped to develop the system that produced them.

And as he leads his team out for the Euro 2020 final against Italy, he will hope to reap the ultimate reward.