At a time when youth development in football is constantly being scrutinised a unique programme in West Yorkshire is taking a different slant on producing tomorrow’s professionals.
The Richmond International Academic and Soccer Academy (RIASA), founded in 2010, is based at Leeds Beckett University’s Headingley campus.
It offers international students aged between 18 and 22 the chance to combine studies with playing football across an intense, four-year course.
At the end of it they come out with a degree that is recognised both here and in the US.
The set-up is impressive with all the performance-analysing gadgets and gym technology that you would expect to see on offer at a full-time club.
Add in the fact that a clutch of former professional footballers are on board, including ex-Sheffield Wednesday and Doncaster Rovers’ captain Rob Jones, and RIASA feels like a professional academy set-up in everything but name.
“I’ve always said that no League One or League Two club can match us,” said founder Mark Ellis, former Bradford City and Halifax Town winger.
“We’ve got fitness coaches, nutritional advisers and a strength and conditioning coach. There’s everything you could ask for.
“But we’re an academic and soccer programme, first and foremost, and not an academy.
“These lads can pick up their coaching badges and the UEFA B licence and they are going back home with a fantastic resume.
If he was sat here now, I think Nahki Wells would probably say it was the best thing he ever did coming hereMark Ellis
“Even if they can’t play football they can end up becoming referees, agents or coaches and still being involved with sport.”
This point cannot be stressed enough by Ellis, who is keen to ensure that RIASA is not seen as an alternative to progressing through the ranks of a proper football club.
Despite this the programme has produced players who have gone on to make it in the paid ranks – its most high-profile graduate being Nahki Wells.
Upon completion of the course in its first year, Wells went on to represent Bradford City and Huddersfield Town and is on loan at QPR from Premier League Burnley.
“If he was sat here now I think Nahki would probably say it was the best thing he ever did coming here,” said Ellis. “You could see straight away he was so hungry and so talented.”
Ellis, 56, enjoyed 10 years at Valley Parade and made over 200 appearances, playing his part as the Bantams were promoted out of Division Four in 1982 and then won the Third Division in 1985.
He saw his career cruelly curtailed by injury and, after a considerable time spent coaching and networking, he came up with the concept of RIASA.
He said: “I had a series of meetings with Richmond University, an American University in London, through my contacts.
“After a series of meetings they said, ‘if you get 16 students signed up then we’ll run a programme up in Leeds’.
“We had 23 students to start with and nowadays we’re up to 97 – it has just built year upon year.
“When parents come from America or wherever they look at the fantastic surroundings and straight away they are impressed by what they see.
“It’s a unique and brilliant concept. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have an education when I was in football.
“I was only young when I got injured, about 26. I carried on struggling until I was 30 and then when I came out I was a bit of a lost sheep.
“So when I see the chance these lads have got I’m actually quite envious of them.”
As well as being drilled by former professionals, the students also get to pit their wits against established academy sides, including Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford, and regularly take part in tours.
Although the vast majority of the class are American there are over 20 nationalities represented.
It is not uncommon for the odd player to be scouted by league clubs as was the case recently.
In such instances Ellis says RIASA would never stand in a player’s way, but would want them to consider all options before taking such a big decision.
“We’d work with that student to make sure it was right for them,” he said. “It’s happened before when they have put their degree on hold.
“We would advise the student, but we’d never stop them (from taking up the offer).”
Ellis knows all about perseverance as evidenced in his desire to make RIASA succeed.
He sets standards high and believes the set-up that he has helped mould is one that professional teams would do well to follow.
“I’ve been around the world twice to get this,” he added. “The boys have to behave properly because they are representing a top uni in London and so we like to have them well-dressed and also have a no-swearing policy.
“I’m proud of the lads for how they behave, regardless of whether they win or lose.
“I think a lot of teams could learn from us.”