“There was a point last season where I let it get on top of me a bit,” says the Bournemouth defender Jack Stacey, sharing a story symbolic of the sacrifice sometimes required when juggling a business and economics degree with a burgeoning football career. “We were playing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on the Saturday and I had an assignment due on the Monday. We ended up winning 1-0 and a few of the lads were going into London for a meal to celebrate. I had to say no because I had to go home and finish my assignment … there are a few times that has happened,” he adds, smiling.
Stacey is five years into a six-year Open University course – “I can almost see the finish line now” – that he started while on loan from Reading at Exeter City, when home was a wooden cabin at Fingle Glen golf course near Dartmoor, where the club sometimes house new signings. “When you are in League Two, you always have to think long term. There was no wifi there so I couldn’t go and watch Netflix or play PS4 so I started looking into other options, and I’d already done my A-levels so it was something that appealed. After training, I enjoy having something to help switch off from football. I work Monday-Friday, an hour to an hour and a half each day, so I get the weekend off. I would advise any player to look into it and see if it’s for them or not.”
In between exams, webinars, networking on LinkedIn and logging on to the online portal, there are case studies to get stuck into and recessions to analyse. At this point, Stacey slips into the kind of jargon commonplace in his textbooks as he explains the differences between emergent and deliberate strategies. “It’s the same in football where you might decide on one plan and then something comes up. For example, the team might not be doing as well, so a director has to get rid of the manager or change direction. I always try to apply what we learn into football and I think that helps it stay in my head.”
His career may be in its relative infancy but Stacey, an erudite character, is considering a postgraduate degree combining sport and business, as well as the prospect of working as an agent or for a club once he hangs up his boots. “I’d love to stay within the industry for as long as possible. For fans, the most important part is watching their team play on a Saturday or a Tuesday but everything behind the scenes is what makes sure clubs can put 11 players on to the pitch. We have had teams like Bury and Macclesfield struggling and there might be a few more with the way everything is going. That economic side of football really interests me.”
He achieved straight As at A-level at Windsor Boys’ School and is reaping the rewards of hard work on and off the pitch, having played a key role in Bournemouth’s encouraging start under Jason Tindall, Eddie Howe’s former long-time assistant who was appointed manager in August and is unbeaten in the league. It has been a seamless transition, Stacey says, but he highlights the shift to 3-5-2 as an explicit change, with the buccaneering Stacey flourishing in an increasingly vogue wing-back role.
Stacey joined Reading as an eight-year-old and was schooled as a right winger but filled in defensively on loan at Exeter before excelling as a flying full-back for Luton, ousting James Justin, now of Leicester, to left-back en route to successive promotions following a £25,000 move. “When I was younger Jamie Carragher said ‘nobody grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville’ because nobody wanted to be a full-back. I went to Luton [playing] in the diamond formation and everything clicked; there was a massive emphasis on full-backs going forward, trying to create and doing the defensive side. I think that was the start of me being able to play in the Premier League.”
On Wednesday Bournemouth entertain Bristol City, another team with designs on promotion, but not so long ago Stacey failed to make an impression at the foot of the Football League, when on loan at Barnet under Martin Allen. “I only signed to go there for a month and after two games he called me into his office and said I could go back to Reading. He was very good about it but reading between the lines I knew that meant he didn’t want me in the team. It was a huge disappointment in my career but, looking back now, it was probably the best thing that happened to me.”
In three years Stacey went from losing the League Two play-off final with Exeter to the Premier League with Bournemouth. He is reluctant to bask in his rise but in April, for his 24th birthday, friends bought him a present to chart and commemorate his journey. “A little book with pictures of all of the [Premier League] games I’ve played, against Harry Kane, Sadio Mané, Dele Alli. Flicking through, that was when it dawned on me – it is only when you reflect that you think: ‘Wow, what a long way I have come.’ There are a lot of blank pages, so hopefully they will be filled in over the next few years.”