Ex-Queens Park Rangers (QPR) pro-footballer Elliott Cox switched his studs for a two-year degree course in Business Management at GSM London and hasn’t looked back since. The 25-year-old from Sydenham, south-east London, has played a key role in developing the student voice within the higher education institution and most recently was appointed to the position of Student Union President. He has also been awarded a first-class honours degree and plans to eventually set up his own marketing business. We asked him what prompted his career change and what plans he has for his new presidential position.
How long have you been playing football for?
I started playing football around the age of 10 in 2002. I have always had a real passion for the sport, all my friends played football and my dad has always been sporty (although he played rugby more than football). I would spend all of my free time playing and eventually I secured a Youth Team Scholarship in 2008 when I was 16 and was signed to QPR. After the two-year scholarship, I secured a professional contract also with QPR.
What an amazing achievement. Tell us more.
Well, as you can imagine, it was a dream come true for someone like me who had a childhood love for the sport. I was getting to compete with some of the best players in the country and meeting some of my footballing heroes. But about a month into my professional contract, I was involved in an awkward tackle which resulted in me rupturing my ankle ligament. I remember feeling a burning sensation after the tackle but did not realise the extent of the injury I sustained. I later learnt that I had ruptured about 80% of this ligament.
I had started my professional contract and had seven and a half months left to honour on it but due to my injuries, was not well enough to play. I underwent ankle surgery and luckily had a fantastic surgeon –a foot and ankle specialist called James Calder – who helped with my recovery. As well as that, I was having specialist hospital treatment, injections in my ankle and was trying to get fit as well. But all this recovery time meant I was losing fitness and was unable to showcase my talents.
That same year that I was released from QPR (due to my injuries), the club entered the Premier League – the highest professional league for men’s association football clubs. The experience was difficult because it was the first time I had been released from a contract. I then spent around five years playing in the non-league as a semi-professional footballer for clubs such as Hastings United, Maidstone United, Margate and VCD Athletic – a semi-professional football club based in Crayford, south-east London.
I did not know it at the time, but that was the catalyst for ending my professional career and my move into higher education.
That must have been a challenging adjustment. How was the experience of transitioning from professional to semi-professional/non-league for you?
Well there is a financial difference. When you are a professional footballer and you sign a contract, you are guaranteed a certain amount of money. The money I was making previously was helping to support my mum, who I was living with, and my sister. On a semi-professional wage that money was lower and had to stretch further. Because I was injured it meant that I couldn’t play and I was on half as much money, which did not cover my travel expenses.
There is also a difference in terms of the services you can access too. As a professional footballer, I had access to massages, ice baths and excellent training facilities but you don’t get all of those when you are non-league. The difficulty with non-league football as well is everybody is there for a different purpose, whether that is to progress to be a professional footballer, to play football as a hobby, to gain extra income alongside their full-time job, or to just use it as a socialising platform. In professional football, the majority of players are looking to progress in football as a career, so the two environments are remarkably different.
Having said that, I also had some of my best moments playing semi-professionally. One moment, I will never forget was when I played to one of my biggest crowds when I was with Hastings United. I played against Middlesbrough FC in the FA Cup third round. Although we didn’t beat them (the final score was 4:1), it was such a euphoric feeling playing to a crowd of over 12,500 spectators.
So was it during that period of adjustment that you decided to continue your education?
Well while I was on my scholarship, I was doing a BTEC qualification in Sports Excellence. We studied sports science, which was compulsory, and learnt about nutrition and the human anatomy. So when I became semi-professional, it made me think that I needed to have another trade. If you look at it statistically, the majority of players do not always make it, even though many of them are fantastic players. I did not want to come across as a one-trick pony with my only training linked to sport. I wanted to show my versatility in pursuing something else.
My sister was a big influence on me. She graduated from Brunel University in International Business with a first-class degree. And my girlfriend, who studied Law at Bournemouth University, was supportive too when I eventually decided to go into higher education. Business Law was my first-ever module and she was amazing at helping me get to grips with the subject, which seemed extremely daunting, especially as I had been out of education for five years.
A friend called Eku Deen, who was doing Business Management and IT at GSM London, recommended I come here. I enrolled on the accelerated Business and Management degree course in June 2015, which allowed me to focus on topics including marketing, accounting and strategic management.
GSM London: How was the transition from playing professional football to studying?
Because football is a very competitive environment and I am used to that, I am accustomed pushing myself. I think I transferred those skills into my studies and that has pushed me to achieve higher.
Being at GSM London has really helped to boost my confidence too. The lecturers have been really supportive. Through the course, I have learnt to give presentations, gained management skills, participated in group tasks – and activities like this have helped to force me out of my comfort zone. I have always taken an interest in marketing and consulting and business strategy and these transferable skills will be invaluable as I plan to start my own business in the future.
What are your plans as the new Student Union President?
I will be creating an active Student Union and with that helping to support the student voice, lead the Student Reps, and make improvements to the student experience at GSM London.
I want to ensure that the GSM London experience for students does not end. I want them to be advocates for the institution, because they feel it is a place that embraces their wants and needs and encourages them to be the best they can be. I have already had a chance to talk to students about the kind of things they would like to see develop. Areas such as more contact with employers, work experience opportunities, and extended library opening times are among that list. I will make an active effort to ensure we focus on areas that need improving, as well as not overlooking the areas which are currently popular among students.