Mark Ellis, who played for Bradford City, Halifax Town, Guiseley and Harrogate Town in the eighties and nineties, led a team of investors in taking over Finnish third-tier team PS Kemi Kings. Already a pioneer with the international academy he heads in conjunction with an American University based in London, Ellis now wants to take it a step further by giving graduates the chance to continue playing football professionally
In 2010, Ellis who spent many summers after his playing days coaching soccer in the States – is now academy director at RIASA (Richmond International Academic and Soccer Academy) based at Leeds Beckett University.
“Kids used to come up to me in the States and say I’d love to come over to the UK and Europe and play,” he begins.
“After researching American universities in the UK we spoke with Richmond and formed what is a unique partnership.”
Richmond, an American international university in London, is a US accredited university and the partnership with Ellis’s company gives international students the opportunity to come to Leeds, study a four year dual-accredited US/UK international business degree while training and playing football in a professional environment at the academy
The programme is run from Leeds Beckett, and Richmond students play in both the British Universities League and Under-23 leagues.
“We started with 23 students, Nahki Wells was one of them,” says Ellis, of the Bermudan international who signed with Carlisle after just a year at RIASA before making his name at Bradford and Huddersfield.
“We ended up with 96 students pre-Covid and we’re gradually bringing them back again. They train like they would as professionals, four days a week. There are something like 200 companies taking kids from this country over to the States, but we were the first programme to reverse the pathway.”
From September RIASA will expand further, offering its first female programme
“The programme might be more advantageous to women because there’s not that many options to play after college in America for women,” says Ellis.
“We’re giving them the option to come and do a degree here, play football and then we’ve got a club in Finland where you can play professionally.”
Purchasing a club is something Ellis has been keen to do for a number of years. A frequent visitor to Finland, he saw how Kemi Kings had fallen on hard times, going bankrupt and falling through the divisions.
But he and his fellow investors believe they can restore the club whilst simultaneously offering male and female graduates a route into professional European football.
Ellis continues: “Normally after four years many of them return home to do a Masters or get a job, whereas now we have a club in Finland which gives them another option, which I firmly believe most of them will want to take if they make the grade.
“It offers them a way into European football, it’s an extended pathway. Finland has four spots in European competitions, so this gives young players more chances to play European football.”
The RIASA programme is not just open to overseas students. A boy or girl from Bradford or Leeds could study there and be the one to take the next step to professional football.
So what does success look for Ellis in five years’ time?
“A bigger cohort of students and an equally successful women’s programme running alongside the men’s,” he says.
“This is a chance to go further than ever before, a shop window.”