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The pay-to-play students aiming for a Europa League showdown with Cork City

Cardiff Metropolitan University will hope to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit this evening in the Welsh capital.

FOOTBALL DRESSING ROOMS are notorious for cut-throat jibes between team-mates, but there are few where low marks in an exam are the source of ridicule.

However, Cardiff Metropolitan University FC are no ordinary team. They are an educated mix of undergraduate, masters and PhD students who pay to play and now have the chance to pit their skills against European opponents.

Bangor City v Cardiff Met Uni - Dafabet Welsh Premier League - European Play-off Final - Bangor University Stadium Cardiff Metropolitan University manager Christian Edwards. Source: Barrington Coombs

This evening, the first British student-only male side ever to qualify for European competition host Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg in the preliminary qualifying round of the Europa League, hoping to overturn a narrow 1-0 deficit from the first leg.

“Studies come first, but we are giving them experiences in football that most of them would not have had otherwise,” Christian Edwards, who doubles as the manager of the team and a senior lecturer in coaching science at the university, told AFP. “They would be embarrassed to turn up to training if they got poor marks.”

A former Welsh international and Premier League player, Edwards has been the mastermind behind the transformation of the university’s football set-up from what he describes as the “armpit” of the Welsh game when he took over 11 years ago.

The team could even have disbanded had Edwards not taken on the role in exchange for having the fees for his own masters degree paid.

With barely even a ball to train, Edwards decided to implement a £150 (€170) per year membership fee for those wanting to join the team, a policy that remains in place today even though European qualification has guaranteed a bounty of £193,000 (€215,000) in prize money for the club.

PA-296517 Edwards played for Nottingham Forest in the Premier League. Source: EMPICS Sport

“When I came in we didn’t have balls, we didn’t have kit,” said Edwards. “I could have paid for that out of my own money, but it is a way of proving the players really want to be a part of something.

“They see it as a way of having a say and in return we get to train on first-class training facilities. At a time when money rules football, there is nothing wrong with hard work and commitment.”

A meteoric rise thanks to three promotions in four seasons between 2013 and 2016 took Cardiff Met back into the top flight, where they have finished in the play-off spots for the Europa League in each of the past three seasons. And they finally got the reward of European football by beating Bala Town in a penalty shootout in May.

Like most successful sides throughout the football pyramid, stability has been a key factor. Not only is Edwards a constant — so are many of his players, whose attachment to the team has helped prolong their education through masters degrees and PhDs, even if it means turning down the chance to earn a living by playing football.

“There is great emphasis on retaining players through masters and PhDs,” said Edwards. “I’m very fortunate that some of my players could be earning £300 or £400 a week in part-time football, but they see the value in an education.”

Edwards is a fine example of that himself. His initial plan to study to become a physical education teacher after retirement blossomed into a PhD, which he rates above representing his country as his greatest achievement. That road started with help from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) to get his A Levels.

So should more be done to help more footballers away from the bright lights and multi-million pay packets of the Premier League to secure the qualifications they will need for life after a short career?

“The PFA are there to help players, but the PFA can only take the horse to water,” said Edwards. “The players have to have that motivation and drive themselves.”

On the pitch and in the classroom, Edwards and his players have shown those are qualities they do not lack.

The winners of the Europa League tie between Progres Niederkorn and Cardiff Metropolitan University will face Cork City over two legs in the first qualifying round.

– Kieran Canning

© – AFP, 2019

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