“This, for my family, is one of the proudest moments for them. I was speaking to my nan and grandad and they were welling up a bit they’re so proud.”
George Lapslie, his voice brimming with fulfilment and satisfaction, could be referring to his Charlton Athletic debut in August 2017, winning the Addicks’ Young Player of the Year Award at the end of last season, or achieving Championship promotion with his boyhood club at the age of 21. Instead, this intense pride is attached to an achievement away from the football pitch.
This Saturday, George may don the red and white for a home game against Derby County, but on Tuesday, George was clad in a very different ensemble, wearing a cap and gown, as the professional footballer took to the podium at Anglia Ruskin University to mark his graduation from his Sports Science and Coaching degree.
The plague of uncertainty is profound and constant in football, but in many ways Lapslie has added a security blanket to his life, protecting his future away from the game as he looks to make a famous future at The Valley.
“I’m not always going to play football, there will come a time when I’ve got to retire whenever that may be. Hopefully I’ve got a few years left in the game, but it’s nice to have something to focus on after football.
“I think there’s no reason not to have the education. It is possible to do a degree alongside being a footballer and more than anything it humbles you a bit, brings you down to earth. You’ve still got to have something going on after football. Say I have a good career and retire at age 35 or 36, I’ve still got a big chunk of my life left to live and what do I want to do with that? So it’s preparing myself for when I retire and if something were to happen and I get an injury and have to retire in a few years or ten years down the line, I’ve still got something to fall back on.”
Charlton’s Head of Education, Joe Francis, echoes this sentiment, with uncertainty perpetually on the mind of a man attempting to bring higher education into the insulated world of football.
“What I try to do with every boy, is that I will encourage them to pursue formal education, because you never know what will happen in professional football.
“It’s not common, but I’ve put five players through degree programs since I’ve been in my position. Sometimes it’s difficult for the boys to grasp how important it is.”
Post-football life can be a terrifying and lonely wasteland. The Professional Footballers Association (PFA) estimates that over 700 footballers are released by their clubs every summer and the statistics for young players is even more petrifying. 75% of footballers who enter the game at age 16 will be out of it by 21 and just 1% of those currently in academy structures will earn money playing football, according to The Guardian.
All in all, while education might be seen as a Plan B to most budding footballers, the fact is that it is critical to rewire this mindset into believing that a degree is crucial.
Lapslie will champion the importance of education over and over again with a second career after football already on his mind despite turning 22 just last month.
“I think there’s a perception that going on to do further education, many kids will look at it as if you’re not believing in yourself, but it’s just being realistic. Football is a short game, make the most out of it.
“The way it works, they’ll view that as a weakness in themselves but it just adds to your portfolio, adds to who you are. When speaking to young people I always say ‘go for an education, go for an education’, it’s just as important as what’s going on on the pitch.”
There’s a reason that Francis often asks George to come speak to the next generation of Charlton footballers and his mentality around education is as much that reason as is his success in the Addicks first team.
“It’s great when you have a young player like George who shows that you don’t have to be a footballer or get a degree, you can do both, which is my mantra at the academy. You can earn an education alongside wanting to become a professional, and not dilute the desire.
“This idea of Plan A/Plan B I don’t agree with. A young professional although he’s got a lot of commitments in order to try and bridge that gap between youth football to the U23s to the first team, still has a lot of time on his hands. So they can do something really positive and there’s nothing more positive than educating yourself.
“So I'm really really proud of him because when you have someone like George who has done both, that speaks volumes to anybody else who wants to pursue it. You can always say, ‘Well, look, George did it’ and George is always happy to come speak to the young lads, he’s such a fantastic role model like that.”
The dual-life that George has lived over the past three years has placed him in great stead for the foreseeable future, but despite intense success in both areas of life, earning a 2:1 in his degree as well as amassing over 40 appearances for Charlton, these achievements have not come easily. Lapslie’s accomplished journey has needed support and guidance from those around him and the young midfielder believes that the assistance is available to help young footballers succeed.
“There was a point when I was struggling, where I found the work-load quite hard. I had a tutor, James Baker, who was with me for the whole time and I was quite lucky to have him because if I didn’t have him at that particular time, which was around Christmas when we had so many games and I had so many assignments due in all at the same time and it was hard to balance it, so I’ve got to thank James.
“Charlton funded a large part of my degree, the PFA funded a large part of it. I know that if I go to the club and want to do my masters I’ll get all the support I need from Joe Francis and the people there. There are people in clubs who want to help young people get to where they want to be.”
Football is a precarious business, built around unpredictability. The reality is that no one knows what each set of 90 minutes will yield let alone the fate of someone’s career. But on Tuesday, George Lapslie cemented his status as a University graduate, something that can never be taken from him regardless of what his football career brings.
“It’s something I’m quite proud of. It was quite hard but I got there in the end and now it’s something I can always look back on and always be proud that I got my bachelors of science undergrad honours degree.”
Photograph by Phil Mynott
Article by Benjy Nurick