An innovative training project based in Larne is offering a new field of academics to the next generation of talented young athletes.
Larne High School Football Academy has gone from strength to strength after launching in September last year, giving students the opportunity to study a BTEC Extended Diploma in Sports Studies - equivalent to three A-levels.
A total of 13 boys from across east Antrim and greater Belfast are currently involved in the programme, which sees them enrolled as sixth form students at the school.
With a combination of academic study and physical training, it offers an alternative pathway for students whose interests lie outside of traditional ‘core’ academic subjects such as maths and English.
“It means we can encourage students who are excelling in areas like PE to stay on in school,” said Ashley Knox, head of Physical Education at Larne High.
“It doesn’t just offer the academic qualification; there’s added value as they become qualified first aiders and referees, and they’re giving back to their local clubs through coaching.”
The study element takes in a range of units, including nutrition and lifestyle training, sports psychology, and sports injuries.
However, there is a strong practical element, including pitch sessions with UEFA qualified coaches and coaching with younger teams.
Nathan Henry was one of the first to enrol in the programme after spotting the opportunity on Facebook.
The former Larne Grammar School pupil is currently coaching with his old club, Larne Youth.
A number of the academy’s students have gained coaching experience with Crusaders FC, including Brian Tyre, from Belfast, and Thomas Smith, from Carrick.
“It’s great experience,” said Thomas, who also trains first to third years at Larne High.
For Carrickfergus teen Matthew Long, the course is a natural progression. “I’ve always played football and I’m playing for Carrick at the minute,” he said.
Another of the academy’s young athletes, Reece Weatherhead, will soon be departing on a two month coaching placement in the US, secured through Challenger Sports.
“Some of the students want to go down the route of being a professional athlete, but the academic qualification builds on that; a lot of them have fallen in love with the coaching side of things too,” said Ashley.
Meanwhile, the academy operates a partnership with Larne’s Inspire Gym, with pupils offered free membership to take part in strength and conditioning training.
And with the help of Inspire’s strongman champion Chris McNaughton, the students act as anti-bullying ambassadors within the school.
Enrolment for the course in the 2018-2019 school year is due to open shortly, and the academy hopes to extend to include a female team.
“Female football is the fastest growing sport in Europe,” said Ashley. “There are a lot of talented girls out there so it would be lovely to have some of them involved.”