Harrison Dunk plays it by the books as perfect student of the game
PUBLISHED: 13:38 17 January 2018 | UPDATED: 13:38 17 January 2018
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How the Cambridge United midfielder has combined academia and football
There has long been a stereotype around the education of footballers.
Where rugby players are deemed to be more studious and qualified for the outside world, the stars of the round-ball game have always had to put up with a stigma around their intelligence.
There is seldom any wavering from conceptions of the two sports, and, to be honest, it is easy to understand why when you consider the very varying routes into the professional game.
Rugby tends to adopt an approach of professional status from the age of 18, after college or sixth form.
In contrast, the football systems swallow up players from such a young age and place such a high demand on them that it does become difficult to dedicate, or even concentrate, a certain amount of time to academia.
Making the decision to pursue education rather than commit to endless hours of training will still earn the description of ‘throwing away an opportunity in the professional game’.
It was exactly that dilemma that faced Cambridge United’s Harrison Dunk when he was 16.
Having been on the books of Fulham as a youngster, he found himself released after struggling with injuries but other offers were put on the table.
However, Dunk decided to commit to his studies, and went to prestigious independent school Millfield to do his A-levels.
“I could have gone to Brentford, and at the time that was the only real concrete offer but there were other options I could have tried taking up. But I wasn’t too interested at that point,” said 27-year-old Dunk.
“At first I wasn’t too open to the whole boarding school situation of Millfield. It didn’t really appeal to me, but I just had a bit of an epiphany and it just opened my mind that I did need my A-levels.
“When I went down there, saw the facilities and spoke to people it was a no-brainer because it was a nice balance between both [football and education].”
Millfield specialises in a wide range of sports, and that brought Dunk into contact with a huge mixture of different people.
Many of his friends from the A-level days are professional rugby union players, and they include British & Irish Lions Mako Vunipola and Jonathan Joseph, England sevens and Harlequins player Ollie Lindsay-Hague, Ireland’s Rhys Ruddock and Bath’s Chris Cook.
And sport at the school was treated almost as if it were an academy, with Bournemouth’s Tyrone Mings and Exeter City’s Reuben Reid having also studied there.
But Dunk, Mings and Reid are more of an exception to the rule compared to his rugby playing friends.
“There were a few footballers, but it’s harder in football to then come into the system; whereas in rugby you join a club when you are 18. Football is completely different,” said Dunk.
“I wasn’t sure of how it worked in rugby, I didn’t really understand the system, whereas in football it is almost the polar opposite.
“No-one does their A-levels in football, if they were to they’d probably do it alongside an academy; in rugby it’s just the norm.
“You don’t leave school at 16, just play rugby and get a low qualification alongside it; in rugby it’s almost like a draft system where after 18, people are picked up in school matches.”
Pursuing a career in the professional game remained a dream for Dunk while he was at Millfield, but his level-headed nature meant that he knew breaking back into the system would be difficult.
He got a foot in the door at Bromley on a part-time basis, and then went about proving himself.
Dunk impressed in his first season, but contractual issues meant he had to stay another season and having caught the eye of then Cambridge United manager Jez George, now chief executive, was offered the move to the Conference.
Seven years on, and with promotion to the Football League and appearances at Wembley and Old Trafford under his belt, Dunk is the longest-serving player at the U’s – he passed 250 appearances for the club against Newport County on December 16.
But he is still just as grateful for being given the chance.
“I don’t take anything for granted; I know how lucky I am,” he said. “To play football every day is an absolute honour; I don’t take one day for granted and I enjoy every day it lasts.
“When I was finishing school, I had no idea what was really out there but I had always dreamed of being a professional footballer.
“To be eight or nine years on, and I’m still living that dream is really nice. I know one day I will look back on that and be really proud – which I am now – but more so later in my life.
“It is a real achievement and hopefully I can get some more memories before my career does end.
“The one thing it probably does give me is a greater understanding of what is outside of football. I’m studying in my spare time, so it opened my eyes to outside of football.”
It is law that Dunk is currently studying, with the long-term goal of becoming a solicitor – he has previously done a sport and health foundation degree.
“It’s looking outside of football because obviously football doesn’t last forever so you’ve got to prepare for life after football,” he said.
“When you go down the leagues you see more reality obviously because you have to have more reality to your life.
“Through the PFA, they help pay towards your education and qualifications which I think more players should use.
“I have always found law quite interesting, and I just wanted to explore it more to see how it goes. It’s a very long-term course and will take me a lot of years to complete.”
And as well as the opportunities on offer through the PFA, Dunk’s story shows that it is still possible to combine top-class sport and education – and dispel the myths of intelligence in football.