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Marcus Rashford the latest to benefit from Man United’s education setup

Much is made of Manchester United’s commercial deals, but less is known about another of the club’s longstanding partners: Ashton-on-Mersey school, which the club’s young players have attended since 1998.

Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans, Paul Pogba, Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique are among the youngsters who were educated at the state-run school, which is located close to United’s Carrington training ground and has been labelled “outstanding” in several official inspections.

Today, players like 18-year-old Marcus Rashford attend lessons and complete a normal curriculum alongside other students.

“Marcus has just completed Year 13 and comes to the school on a Monday and Thursday,” explains David Law, a teacher at the school. “He is studying a BTEC Diploma in Sport, which is the equivalent of two A Levels. In addition he studies Functional Skills in Maths and English and is undertaking his football coaching badges.”

A football manager for many years with semi-professional clubs Flixton and Trafford, Law attended a meeting 18 years ago, at which he learned that schools could apply for sport college status and that Premier League clubs were looking to link with them.

The biggest stumbling block was that they needed £100,000 in sponsorship. Law phoned Dave Bushell, the then-youth development officer at United.

“United didn’t know anything about it but Dave Bushell said he had a dream of linking up with a school where the players could be educated,” says Law.

Previously United and Manchester City youngsters were sent on a Wednesday afternoon to Accrington College, an hour north of Manchester. It wasn’t an ideal situation. United liked the idea of a link with Ashton at a senior level and a meeting was held at Old Trafford, at which the club agreed to pay the sponsorship fee.

“From that moment we were known as the United school within teaching,” explains Law, now in semi-retirement. “That wasn’t always music to my ears as I’m a City fan, but we were proud of the link up and the relationship has been fantastic.

“I explained to that first group of players how vital education was because, statistically speaking, most were not going to become professional footballers. I cited examples of players whose careers had finished early because of injuries. Most of them knuckled down with their studies. A few didn’t care.

“Dave Bushell has been the driving force. He’s one of the unsung heroes at United. He puts so much time into those young players, he lives his job. He’ll be there in the morning and he’ll be at the airport in the evening picking up players.”

Law produces a list of the first intake in 1998.

“The big difference between then and now is that they were almost all British kids,” he explains. “Luke Chadwick and Paul Rachubka made it. There was a Welsh lad called Wayne Evans who was a wonderful choir singer. He didn’t sing at school, it wasn’t very good for his street cred. The young professionals would only attend on a Monday morning and all day Thursday.”

That was a requirement of the Professional Footballers’ Association, who were concerned that players were leaving school with no qualifications and then not making it in football.

Initially, players arrived at Ashton as 15-year-olds but, currently, 13 is the age at which they begin. Meanwhile, as restrictions were eased on clubs recruiting from overseas, United began to stretch their wings.

“Paul Pogba, Gerard Pique, Michele Fornasier, Giuseppe Rossi all joined our school,” says Law. “Michele has been going out with my daughter Abby for three years. They live in Pescara where he plays in Italy and won promotion to Serie A last week. Michele and Paul remain close friends from their time at United.

“The foreign lads tended to be more polite and respectful. The British lads came from a large cross section of society. At one end you had a boy like Jonny Evans, who was a genius. He got all As in his exams, including four A*. He also got A Levels. He was absolutely brilliant.”

Then there were players like Ravel Morrison, who was better suited to helping out with physical education lessons than the academic world. Some players came from tough backgrounds and were a challenge to educate, but the club persisted.

Law, who recalls with a smile that some players “spent time practising their autographs when they should have been learning,” was promoted to deputy head teacher with special responsibility for behavioural issues.

United were pleased with the way their relationship with the school was developing.

“The players started to attend more days at school,” explains Law. “They would train at the school in the morning, ball work at 8 a.m. with coaches like Tony Whelan — another person who has put a lot into the relationship. Then they’d train in Carrington in the afternoon. The best year we had was probably the boys who won the FA Youth Cup in 2011, including Jesse Lingard, Larnell Cole, Sam Johnstone. Jesse was cheeky with a dry sense of humour. We were delighted when he scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final.

The footballers were expected to be normal students, even though everyone knew they were potential Manchester United first-team players.

“They were popular but we never had any issues or problems with them. Some of the players became close mates with students; they were their school mates after all. The players weren’t allowed to play football for the school, but they were allowed to compete in athletics. RoShaun Williams broke the school 100 metres record set by (future Olympic medallist) Darren Campbell.”

The school has also benefited from its United links.

“Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex Ferguson have both been in to talk to the students; Ferguson about leadership. Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown spoke about combating racism and we hold the annual school awards at Old Trafford. (Former United CEO) David Gill was excellent for the school, too.

Law is not supposed to have favourites, but one player stands out above others.

“Darren Fletcher was a lovely lad,” Law says. “He made his debut on a Wednesday night (in 2003) against Basel at Old Trafford. He came into school the following morning and looked absolutely shattered because he’d been replaying his debut throughout the night, with adrenaline rushing through his body. I stopped the PE class and Darren spoke to them all about his experience.

“After that, he’d come along to present trophies to the kids,” Law continues. “He’s just a humble and polite lad, with no edge to him. We tried to get the footballers involved in the life of the school and they were willing. Year 7 did project on newspapers and held a press conference in the school hall. Players including Gerard Pique sat at the front asking questions.”

That media experience would have been Pique’s first of many and formed part of the all-round education which helped him and many other United players during their teenage years.

This article was first and originally published on ESPNFC.

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