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Ex-Cats stars go back to the classroom

Two former Sunderland stars are heading back to the classroom to launch an exciting new soccer Academy.

Ex-Black Cats players Martin Gray and Brian Atkinson are joining forces with Boldon School, a specialist sports college in South Tyneside, to set up the new football academy.

Similar to the USA-style Soccer scholarships, encompassing the National Curriculum, GCSE courses and sporting talent, the new project will develop the school’s elite young footballers while also inspiring their academic studies.

Around 50 boys and girls throughout the school will spend two hours each week with the Martin Gray Football Academy’s education team before spending another two hours every Wednesday evening with Gray and Atkinson, developing skills and techniques for the professional game.

The academic studies will be part of the normal curriculum, and Boldon School’s head teacher Elizabeth Hayes is extremely excited about the new venture, which is already proving a huge success at Greenfield School in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham.

“It’s a fantastic development which we know will benefit the school massively,” said Mrs Hayes.

“The primary aim is to support students in school who have ambitions of becoming a professional footballer. One day we hope some will realise their dreams.

“You ask boys what they want to do when they grow up and for many; it’s to be a footballer.

“Through this exciting initiative, our aim is to improve the standard of coaching at the school and in-turn improve our players and teams while ensuring students continue to receive excellent academic education at the same time.

“Our PE department has an excellent reputation, one of the best in the area, but we want to continually build on that reputation and improve our footballers’ aspirations, both as individuals and the teams generally, and we’re looking forward to working closely with Martin and Brian.”

The school’s deputy head Chris Smith added: “Of course, it’s important that normal academic studies aren’t affected, which is why the new Academy enhances the normal curriculum with an education enrichment programme, benefitting all children in the academy structure.

“It’s just a fantastic opportunity for the elite young footballers in Boldon and surrounding areas to benefit from elite football coaching which can only improve performance.”

Gray, 40, began his career as a midfielder with Sunderland in 1990 and played 79 league and cup games for the Wearsiders before joining Oxford United for £100,000 in 1996. He went on to play for Darlington and later became assistant manager.

Gray and Atkinson held a series of taster sessions at Boldon towards the end of 2011, shortlisting more than 100 boys and girls before whittling them down to around 50.

The selected students, who will wear different MGFA-branded PE uniforms, will still train with their teams during the week.

Gray added: “Our vision is along the lines of the American Soccer Scholarships, when football is incorporated into full-time education.

“It’s an exciting new project for us at Boldon and I really believe the school will benefit hugely from it.”

Atkinson, also 40, played 169 games for Sunderland between 1989 and ’96, including an FA Cup Final appearance against Liverpool at Wembley in 1992, and also played for Darlington before coaching his hometown club Newton Aycliffe to three promotions to the Northern League first division.

“I have a passion for football and for coaching, and both Martin and I share the same philosophies on playing football the right way,” said Atkinson.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to improve our most elite players and give them the best possible opportunity of becoming a professional footballer, while maintaining and improving their academic studies.”