The ECFA shapes college students’ lives, improves access to football for local communities and brings home championship-winning trophies from Italy to boot. Truly one of the unsung institutions in England’s footballing landscape.
By Lucy Mertekis
Leaving school is a huge milestone for everyone, but for many talented young footballers, the graduation to college life offers the invaluable opportunity to compete in some of the most exciting leagues and tournaments in the country. This is all thanks to the hard work and dedication of the English Colleges Football Association (ECFA), which provides a pathway for students in further education to participate in high-quality football across a range of competitions, including the ECFA Women’s and Men’s National Teams. So, while you might have spent your college years dossing around with your mates, future football stars are honing their skills with the ECFA – some even becoming international champions.
The ECFA is the football delivery arm of AoC Sport (Association of Colleges), the lead organisation for sport and physical activity in sixteen-plus education. The ECFA aims to be diverse and inclusive in everything it does, and this “equal access” approach ensures that the football on offer is enjoyable while also providing appropriate playing opportunities for disabled players. What’s more, the ECFA develops a future workforce by training student volunteers in a youth leadership programme. This is then paid forward to the local community by sharing the student workforce and facilities of the further education institutes with local grassroots clubs.
ECFA Women’s National Team Manager Keith Boanas, one of the first male UEFA A Licence coaches to start working in the female game, is a strong believer in making football as inclusive as possible. “The biggest joy of football is that it is playable by all and everyone, so it should be accessible and inclusive to everyone no matter what age, race, gender, ability level, disabilities, size or shape.”
“From my experience spanning some twenty-plus years, linking football to education is a vital cog in the wheel,” says Keith. “We all know that sport aids good health and can lead to better academic success through a more positive approach to life in general. So they compliment each other. Particularly at this age, when many young people are contemplating their future, the ECFA programmes provide an opportunity to grow and a realistic enticement to get that second chance in both the game and education.”
Keith’s inspirational patter off the pitch is matched by his team’s on-field success. In 2019, the ECFA Women’s National Team travelled to Italy to compete in the Il Cacio E’ Rosa in Rome on their debut in the competition. After sailing through the group stages, beating all the Italian regional teams in their group, the team faced Welsh Colleges FA in the final, winning 1-0 in a nail-biting match with a goal from team captain Chloe Gilroy.
“The whole trip was fantastic,” Keith reflects. “Following a good camp at St. George’s Park, the girls were made to feel like a true national team squad. Of course, not with some of the luxuries the actual national teams have, but we tried to make them feel special and act professionally at all times whilst enjoying every moment. We were over the moon with the efforts of the girls and the football played.”
Another string to the ECFA’s bow is the ability to prepare players for progression into the professional game. For example, Player of the Tournament in the Il Cacio E’ Rosa, Beth Roberts, is now a left-back at Stoke City Ladies FC and credits the ECFA for her development.
“Being part of the ECFA National Team was extremely important for my career so far,” Beth reflects. “It gave me the exposure I needed as a young player and the chance to play some of the hardest opponents. Winning Player of the Tournament in Italy was so surreal, and I immediately felt a massive sense of pride in how far I’d come. It also played a huge part in me catching the eye of the England youth set-up, where a few months later I was selected to be part of a Lionesses Under 18s camp.
“From the players and coaches to the background staff, everyone at the ECFA is so welcoming and invested in the process. The coaches believed in every single player and pushed them to be their best. For me, I struggled with confidence but it allowed me to be outside my comfort zone and have the support I needed to improve and thrive.”
Improving and thriving is what the ECFA is all about. And all of this impressive work is supported by the ECFA’s sponsors Future Elite Sports, UCFB, Catapult and Veo. So, as the new season is beginning, what are Keith’s hopes for the year?
“I hope it can result in many more positive experiences and memories for the girls and inspire even more to push on into WSL clubs or any dreams in the game they may have. This programme definitely gives that platform where many may miss out otherwise.”
At a time of disruption for young people everywhere, we can’t praise the ECFA highly enough for the support and opportunities it provides for students across the country. Here’s to all the future Lions and Lionesses waiting in the wings in England’s colleges.
[i]To find out more and to get involved with the ECFA, visit https://www.aocsport.co.uk/ecfa/competitions/england-colleges-representative-teams/.[i]