THE muck and nettles of League One football would not strike many people as an academic stronghold.

Least of all, one suspects, Andrew Surman’s parents when they left South Africa for England in the interests of their children's education.

Surman was eight. He had been playing football for Marks Parkhurst, the team managed by his dad in Johannesburg, since the age of four.

And he was already pretty handy as it goes, sufficiently so to be snaffled up by Southampton within two years of settling in Blighty.

The precocious midfielder played for Saints’ reserves when he was 15 – ironically enough, the teenage Surman’s school day was disrupted to inform him he’d be travelling to Chelsea with the stiffs later that night.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until he was sent on loan to Paul Merson-managed Walsall in 2005 that Surman learned what life at the coalface of professional football really entailed.

Later the same year, he continued his schooling with six months at Cherries.

Mercurial former Arsenal attacker Merson didn’t pull up any trees in his lone managerial gig – but Surman won’t hear a word against the man who gave him his Football League debut.

“It was a great experience and just completely different,” he says, speaking exclusively to the Daily Echo. “It means something – it is people’s livelihoods.

“When you are playing youth football, you are trying to prolong your career, yes, but there is not so much at stake. Trying to win points and stay in the league is completely different.

"Paul Merson was a huge character and I learned a lot from him. He used to train with us and his ability was something else. I owe him an enormous amount.

“But it was the six months with Bournemouth that set the tone for my career, really – playing, scoring a few goals and being at a club that wanted to play the right way.”

Back to coltish Surman’s first taste of real men’s football, which came at the behest of then Southampton boss Gordon Strachan.

“He had just taken over and wanted to blood some young players into the team,” says Surman.

“I was at school and got a message from the headmaster to say I would be playing a reserve game that night. I came on for Matt Le Tissier, who was my boyhood hero – it was an amazing experience.”

When that second-string match took place, on March 4, 2002, Southampton were comfortably ensconced in the Premier League.

They were in the thick of their first Championship campaign by the time Surman broke into the team, under George Burley, early in 2006.

In the midfielder's first full season, Saints lost a play-off semi-final to Derby.

On the final day of his second they beat Sheffield United 3-2 to survive – an occasion Surman ranks among his career highlights.

There would be no escape the following year, though, when Southampton were relegated to League One.

“It was a turbulent time,” says Surman. “And because I was a local lad I took more on my shoulders than I needed to. You take it to heart because it was the club you supported.

“It went downhill after losing the play-off game. When we did go down it was a really dark day… one of the worst of my career.

“But it was probably something that needed to happen to Southampton. There was so much negativity around the place – but they were taken over after the relegation and it gave the club a new lease of life.”

Surman’s own transformative moment would have to wait. As one of Southampton’s few bankable assets he was sold to Wolves who, in turn, had sold him the Premier League dream.

“When a Premier League club like Wolves want to sign you, you are not going to say no,” says Surman.

“But it was my most disappointing year. Mick McCarthy was a top manager and I had a good relationship with him – even when I left. I felt I did not get the opportunity I deserved, but that happens in football.”

Scarcely used and deeply frustrated, Surman had actually resolved to end his time at Molineux within six months of arriving. He departed after one season, taken to Norwich by Paul Lambert in summer 2010.

The Carrow Road club promptly won promotion into the top-flight, where Surman played 25 matches as Lambert’s team comfortably survived in 12th spot.

The manager’s work saw him spirited away by Aston Villa and replaced by Chris Hughton. Surman, meanwhile, was bedevilled by a knee injury. This perfect storm resulted in him featuring in a paltry seven games in 2012-13.

When Surman pitched up at Cherries ahead of the following season, then, he was a man in need of a pick-me-up.

“I came to Bournemouth when, physically, I wasn’t in a good place – or mentally, to be honest,” he says.

“If anyone was going to turn me around it was Eddie Howe. He believed in me and put me in the right frame of mind to show how good I could be. I owe him a lot for that.”

Surman has made the down payment to his manager – and then some – in the three years since he signed on permanently at Dean Court.

He remembers a feeling of near-invincibility during the Championship-winning campaign, and a subsequent realignment of ambitions as a consequence of rubbing shoulders with the country’s best teams.

“The Championship season was amazing,” says Surman. “Every game we were going into, we were thinking, ‘we are going to win this’. That was not being cocky or arrogant; it was just confidence.

“Then, suddenly, you have to change your goals. After we were promoted it was, ‘right, can we finish 17th?’. It was a different mindset.

“So, it was trying to get that, knowing we would lose games. You have to accept that, sometimes, teams in this league are just too good.”

Nevertheless, Surman is conflicted as he dissects the most recent campaign.

“I look back at games where we dropped points, and the bad runs we had – and we were still ninth,” he says. "But we should have won at Leicester on the last day and finished eighth. We want to improve next season and beat the 46 points we got last time."

Then, the sign off, rapped out with compelling conviction.

“We believe we can do even better.”

You do not doubt him. Andrew Surman has graduated from a first-rate footballing education network, after all.

Mum and dad played a blinder.