I’ve been thinking about opening up on a few aspects of retirement of footballers and sports people for a while now and after seeing the tragic events of an ex player taking his own life on new year’s eve and also speaking to other ex-players who have really struggled, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences.
It’s been almost 9 months since I was forced into early retirement at the age of 28. Since then there have been some massive lows and some massive highs. Without the birth of my daughter and having such an amazing wife and family, I really fear for where I would be right now. I had always worried about retirement and that day when I’d have to go into a new job and give up my dream. All I’d ever wanted to do was play football and I was fortunate enough to achieve that as a professional. When you are solely focussed and driven on becoming a footballer, it felt like it would all be downhill once I’d have to give that up. But with the average UK male living up to the age of 80, we aren’t even half way through our lives (hopefully) and we need to not be defined all of our lives as ‘the footballer’ and realise there is a lot more after the game and plenty of life to live.
For me, one of the biggest struggles for a retiring footballer is identity. You’ve always been known as the footballer. Every person you’d been introduced to, friends, family, when socialising, you are seen as the footballer. People’s ears prick up when they hear the word ‘footballer’ and to most people you suddenly become interesting. You’ve had a routine since you were a kid which led up to a game on a Saturday. Your body was conditioned, you felt fit every day, you were achieving what you’d wanted to as a child and, in your head, this was what your life had built up to. So when that is taken away what do you do? The routine and everything you had ever done since the age of 9 has gone. You don’t have a wake up time, you have to make an effort to stay in shape, you have only ever thought of one thing you wanted to be and now you can no longer do it, so what is next?
There aren’t many careers that have a time frame like the ones in sport. I’ve seen friends who didn’t quite make it as footballers and transitioned into new jobs at a young age, whilst still living at home without bills or outgoings and are now on the upward curve and gaining promotions in secure jobs that they can carry on doing until they are in their 60’s. I know full well these lads looked at me and would trade places in an instant to have fulfilled their dream of being a professional, but likewise I also envied that they had already made a transition and were becoming successful in various different fields and had no time frame or ticking clock as to when they would need to retire and start again.
Having to transition into a completely new role and new career at the age of (in most cases) 35 years old is another reason that retired footballers struggle so much both mentally and financially. As I stated before, a lot of my friends made the transition when they were released at 18. At the age of 35, you have families to provide for, bills to pay, rent and mortgages to pay as well as losing your identity as a footballer and having to start at the bottom as something else. It’s a lot of pressure and I have felt that personally.
It’s a scary, lonely place. I always focussed everything into football. I trained, ate right, went home and rested, didn’t have a huge social life, watched and analysed football, got out of the housework because I was knackered from training and went to bed visualising football. If I was to try and prepare for life after football it would hamper my focus on the ‘here and now’ and I wouldn’t be able to play to my full potential. This was my outlook as a player. I did have a vision that I could just become a coach after football, so I went and did my coaching badges one summer and thought that was me sorted for after football. Never really did much coaching, didn’t know if I enjoyed it or was any good, didn’t look into how much a coach makes, just assumed that was me sorted. For some people this is the route forward but at the point I retired I didn’t get the coaching buzz and didn’t have a real passion for getting out on the grass and putting on a session.
The early stages I sulked. I thought it was unfair. I had days where I would be lazy, eat rubbish, enjoy a few beers now as I wouldn’t have to be in training the next day but luckily, I’ve got a strong wife who didn’t let me get away with this for too long and started to realise what I want to do next with my life, but I can see so clearly how players spiral. That odd day turns into 2 or 3, that beer turns into 6 or 7 and slowly you get down and resent your friends who are still out there doing what you want to. The bankruptcy and divorce stats are mind blowing when you look at retired footballers. The Daily Mail did a study and claim 33% of footballers are divorced within the first year of retirement, which must ring huge alarm bells and must tell us that something isn’t right in the industry and how more needs to be done to help players. With 40% of players also declared bankrupt within the first 5 years of retirement. I still have a lot of days where I overthink, question myself, feel anxious and lost and I feel like I’m one of the luckier ones, there are people out that that need help and guidance.
I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts with retired footballers who have struggled with mental health, gambling, drink and money problems (Undr the cosh is one I would recommend). So many of the issues are a common theme. No idea what to do next, get lazy, get fat, depression, no help or program to help transition you, spend savings within a year or so, chase the buzz of football with gambling and drink and even more in some cases, until eventually your wife has had enough and you end up divorced or bankrupt or both. The statistics of these cases are absolutely ridiculous, so I don’t understand why more isn’t being done to help.
Ego and pride are another thing that is a barrier and mentally tough to deal with. One week you are playing in front of tens or thousands of people and the next you are looking on job websites and not being qualified enough for 90% of the roles you would want. One week people are asking for autographs and a year later you are the forgotten man. I’ve seen a former Championship player absolutely ridiculed on twitter for now working as a delivery driver for UPS. It infuriated me, he’s no longer earning his living playing in front of thousands and on TV every week and is now delivering parcels to people that used to cheer his name. He will have a family to provide for and my utmost respect.
Managers, Governing bodies, clubs all need to come together and take a serious look at the situation. We are adults yes, we have done what most people dream of, we should be planning for our futures but when a club or manager usually sees that it is taken as a lack of focus or a lack of interest and you should ‘eat, sleep football’. We need to change this mentality and allow players to develop themselves outside of the football bubble. I recently turned 29. I’ve never had a job interview, I wouldn’t know how to take holiday if I worked outside of football, I had never been made to stand up and speak in public, I had no idea what opportunities I could do outside of football and not been educated and exposed to a lot that I should have been. We need to understand how much ex players have to offer after football.
I really don’t want to sound like footballers have such a struggle and we need help more than others. I know full well people have bigger problems than I do and I’m extremely mindful of that and that I have been fortunate to do what I have done (through hard work). But help is needed. There are a lot of retired players that have spoken about being suicidal and feeling worthless and feeling like they have nothing to offer anymore. The problem isn’t just a financial one as I said before, its an identity one. I have spoken to a Premier League footballer who is going through some of the same struggles as an ex league 2 footballer. He may not have the financial burden but has plenty of others.
Players need to talk. Both former and current and break the stigmas. It’s a male dominant, alpha male environment with so many outdated issues which need addressing. Retirement being just one of those. It’s a mentally draining career, with extreme highs and equally as many extreme lows. You can go from hero to zero in a matter of days very quickly and from the outside people don’t always see how brutal the game can be mentally at times.With this post I just wanted to share some of my experiences and thoughts and If I can relate to or help one person by writing this then I’d be happy. It’s taken me a good 8 months to find my real passion and my calling for my future and that is player care within football. To help young players suffering with the mental side of the game, to help them prepare for life after football, to expose them to different things, to push them out of comfort zones, to be a good male role model in someone’s life, to be someone to talk to at all times and to help create good human beings. If that helps someone go on to maximise their footballing potential and make it as a professional then perfect, but if not, hopefully you’ve helped improve a human in some way so that they can lead the best life possible. It’s now up to me to work as hard as I can to do that and be ready for any opportunity that I may be able to take within the game.
Equally I’d also like to help with the senior players in some way and continue developing people no matter what the age, particularly players coming to the end of a career. Hopefully things like this post can raise awareness of the help I feel is needed and I’d be happy to be part of helping the process for others in any way I may be able to.The last thing I wanted to do was share a few tips which helped me. Everyone has different needs, and this won’t be for everyone, but again if it helps one person in my position then I am happy.
Things that helped me:
Get up! – Don’t lay in, set an alarm even if you have nothing planned and get up early.
Exercise – You’ve been an athlete ever since you can remember, it keeps you mentally fit as well as physically. I’ve found getting up and getting to the gym early or going for a jog early sets me up for the day. Allow yourself days off and rest after a long career but don’t become lazy.
Be Busy! – Pester people, use any contacts that you have made and seek opportunities. Don’t worry about being seen as ‘busy’ or a pain in the arse, it’s your life. Go and see people face to face and find out if there is any way they can help.
Limit the boozing – Enjoy a beer, you’ve been disciplined for years. But don’t let it escalate. It’s so easy to do and I’ve been guilty on a couple of occasions, but it usually only ever results in being unproductive or making poor decisions after you’ve had a drink.
Enjoy family time – Appreciate time at home. I’ve missed countless birthdays, weddings, family get togethers since the age of 16. This is the first Christmas I’ve had in 13 years where I’ve not had a game on Boxing Day or been in training Christmas day, so enjoy those moments.
Get help if struggling – Men in general but particularly in sport where you are taught to be strong and show no signs of weakness. This is so outdated and something we need to change before more unfortunate incidents occur. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and not having to be robots. There are governing bodies out that that can do more but there are still some great work and help out there that can ease the mental struggles, which you can contact.