ALSAGER Town are celebrating a groundbreaking link-up with Manchester Metropolitan University and Newcastle College.
The three organisations have joined forces to launch a new two-year scholarship for 16 to 18-year-olds, kicking off in September.
Students will be given the chance to feed into the club's youth structure, which operates teams from Under Sevens to U18s level, while studying for nationally recognised academic qualifications.
A two-year B-Tech national diploma in sports science is on offer for pupils with five GCSEs at C or above, including mathematics, English and science.
A one-year first diploma in sports science is also available to 16 or 17-year-olds who have two GCSE passes at C or above, of which one must be mathematics or English.
Alsager Town chairman Peter Clegg said: 'This is a fantastic opportunity for youngsters to enhance their academic and sporting skills to the highest level and everyone connected to the club is thrilled. We believe this will be the first of its kind in the country.
'I have been with Alsager Town for 18 years and this is a momentous day for the club.'
The club has secured FA funding for coach Melvyn Wilkes, who will oversee the football side of things.
Les Burwitz, head of the Exercise and Sports Science faculty at MMU, said: 'This is a win, win, win situation for all parties, but mainly the young people of Alsager.'
Graham Pickford, the faculty's resources and development co-ordinator, added: 'I was first approached by Peter Clegg with the concept of developing young footballing ability while giving the play-ers a good academic background.
'The concept is unique in this country. It has not been done at this level of non-league football and it is the first partnership of a local college, university and football club working together.
'These youngsters will have the chance of a lifetime to develop their footballing skills while gaining a good education. And at the end of the two-year period, they may be able to pursue either avenue.'
Mary Hunter, head of lifelong learning at Newcastle Town, said: 'When I was a student, I captained
England's U23s hockey team and I well remember the tensions of juggling sport and study. This programme will be blocked in such a way as to lessen those tensions.'
From the footballing perspective, Alsager hope to attract talented young players to the club. The players will train at the university's Alsager campus and take advantage of the faculty's facilities.
Mr Clegg said: 'There are other areas we would like to develop but this is a very important step for the club. We have a fine coach in Melvyn Wilkes, who has worked at several professional clubs and knows the game inside-out, and his experience will be very important.
'The players that are coming up from our U16s now will be the first group we will look at, and if they are good enough with their football skills and academically, they will be eligible to go into the scheme.
'If there are local people who like what we are doing at this club, we want them to come and see us as we think this is something special.' Trial dates will be announced shortly. In the meantime, anyone interested in applying for a place should call Peter Clegg on 01270 876013 or youth development of -ficer Andy Plant on 07974 748757.