This is an area I have been meaning to write about for a long time and it is also a very taboo subject in football, in particular the level that I played at. I saw a tweet this week from Rob Swaine, a non-league footballer who I had played against over the years, saying that for the last 3 years he had been driving around in a big expensive car and had the biggest relief when he got rid of it yesterday. I was going to write a tweet and reply but there are so many areas that I wanted to touch on, that I thought I would write it in a blog.
For some reason in society, and particularly in football, we have to be seen to keep up with the rest of the crowd and to try to prove how well we are doing by buying materialistic things that we can barely afford (in some cases can’t afford). You’ve got to try and prove to friends, or on social media, that you are doing well by upholding this typical footballer lifestyle which includes the flash car, the expensive watch, the designer clothes, the £500 trainers and the holidays to Marbella and Dubai. I don’t want to sound like a moaning ex footballer or by any means want to tell people how to spend their money, but I did just want to give some advice to people based on my experiences, particularly during these uncertain times when football and the rest of the world is in a place it has never been before.
I signed my first professional contract at the age of 18 for Brentford, in League One. I went into that office and was told the best news of my life at that time, that I was going to become a professional. I was called in to see the gaffer and I was alone and had no agent at the time and was offered a non-negotiable £150 per week in 2009, I absolutely jumped at the chance. All of my mates outside of football assumed I was on massive money now I was a professional and I let them believe it and probably tried to pretend I was at times on the occasional night out.
Money had never been a motivation for me at that young age though. I was living at home and had little outgoings apart from my phone bill and my little Volkswagen Polo. That car was my first taste of independence and I absolutely loved it, within a couple of years I had paid it off and my insurance was going down every year. It had nothing fancy and a dent in the side, but that car took me everywhere over the years. I kept that car until the age of 23, I had been at AFC Wimbledon and then dropped into non-league with Welling United but I had now been bought by Luton Town and I was on the most money I had been on in my career, by a considerable amount.
I signed for Luton Town and they had some big personalities and were paying experienced players big money for the level. That came with a few egos and on my first day I honestly remember a player saying ‘You’re gonna have to get rid of that now you are at a proper club’. I laughed along but I did actually feel a little bit inferior to some of the other lads and was a little bit embarrassed about my little polo. I had come through non-league and some of these lads had played at the highest level earlier in their careers and I felt like I needed to be taken a bit more seriously. I decided to get a brand-new Mercedes on finance and felt like the man… for about 2 weeks.
It was an expensive car and I could barely afford it with all of my other outgoings. The only way I could afford it was by agreeing to only do around 8,000 miles a year. I had started to date my now wife, who lived in Blackpool… so those miles were done within about 3 months!
I was never advised on money by anyone in football, whether it was coaches, managers, agents and it just seemed like a subject that is unspoken in football. The fact is 99% of players try to act as if they are on more money than they are!
But having this car became such a weight on my shoulders and I started to realise that I had got myself into a deal that I couldn’t get out of and that I was going to lose a lot of money. I was constantly worried about how many miles I was doing, I was spending a lot of money every month in payments and I didn’t even enjoy driving it. I had never been interested in cars and the only reason I got it was purely to keep up with team mates, look impressive and just do what all the other footballers did. I had moved to Stevenage a couple of years after having the car and was now on less money than I had been which made it even harder. The day I managed to get rid of that car was such a relief and even though I’d lost money on it, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. I have seen first hand a former Premier League player who had entered into a car agreement with huge monthly payments, and was now playing in League 2, have his car repossessed at the training ground. He was still trying to live this lavish lifestyle and no longer had the same income and was paying the price.
I came through the academy at Chelsea. One of my ex teammates had a Range Rover as his first car at the age of 18. As well as paying a silly amount for the car he was paying over £7,000 a year on car insurance. He is now in the Football League and massively regrets some of his decisions and how much money he wasted as a young player.
The older I got and more comfortable I was in my own skin, I did not care what people thought, particularly teammates. I was at Stevenage and I can still remember everyone laughing in the car park when I turned up in a Fiat 500, but I did not care one bit. After a couple of weeks and after I had explained how much I was paying for it, I had people asking me where they could get one.
As I said, these things often come with experience and during my time at Stevenage I became one of the more established players and I didn’t feel the need to have to impress young players or my mates with materialistic things. The club captain at Stevenage drove an old Ford Fiesta and the top earner at the club drove a Ford Focus. They’d got to the stage in their life where they had families and more important things to spend their money on. It’s a short career and hopefully most people have a realisation of that and start to see that you don’t need to waste money on luxuries all the time. If you’ve got the money and you can be certain you will carry on earning that for years to come, then it’s a lovely position and go ahead, but I would urge anyone who isn’t in such a privileged and secure position to think twice about buying a fancy car just for status and to look as if you are doing well.
Credit cards is an area that I can really relate to. I was in my early 20’s at Luton Town, when I was told that my chances for a mortgage would increase if I was to apply for a credit card. Most footballers typically rent for the majority of their career due to the uncertainty of where you will be located and the majority of times you are on a short contract. I applied for the credit card without any knowledge or understanding and stated my wage and my occupation and couldn’t believe it when a card was posted to me with an interest free balance of £15,000. I come from a family with not much money and grew up on a council estate. I had no advice on what do with money from anyone in or out of football, whether that was an agent or member of staff at the club, nothing.
I received that credit card and immediately thought that I could do things that I had never really been able to and simply pay it back over the coming months. I went on holidays, I treated some of my family and friends, went on nights out and also shortly after met my girlfriend, who would later become my wife. I met her and initially tried to give it the biggun! I would try to take her out to fancy restaurants, nice hotels, buy her gifts and again just think that I would pay it back slowly but surely and it would be no problem. At this time there was no internet banking, I didn’t check my balance and was completely oblivious to how much I was spending. My wife, like me, comes from a really humble background and often just wanted to stay home. But it would be me that would be trying to impress and take her out. I remember I was at Luton and not really in the side and unhappy there and going out with her to nice places was often my escape. After a while I got a letter through the door saying that I had spent over £12,000 of the balance and was due to start paying interest soon. I had a massive sinking feeling and a realisation that I’d been living beyond my means and spending more than I was earning. It caused me sleepless nights and so much anxiety and I had got to an age where I was a lot more mature and realised that all of these materialistic things meant nothing to me. It did affect my football at times and I’d be even more devastated if I was on the bench for a game because it meant I wouldn’t be earning my appearance fee or win bonus, which was all money I needed to repay my debt. It took me until nearly the end of my career to slowly but surely clear that debt and it was the biggest relief when I did manage to. Any extra money that I was making in bonuses was going straight towards paying for my mistakes as a young lad rather than being saved for the future. I know first hand that a lot of players were in a lot more debt than I was and I felt I was lucky that I learned my lesson quickly.
My biggest frustration is when I see lads who I know full well are up to their eyeballs in debt but cannot help themselves when it comes to trying to impress and keep up the act that they must live the footballer lifestyle. I know a player who could not get accepted as a tenant for a flat due to how poor his credit rating was and how much debt he was in, so he had to have a member of staff at the football club do it in their name. But this player would still turn up to training in a Range Rover and would always have the most expensive designer clothes and trainers on, be spending fortunes on nights out and going away to Dubai in the summer. From the outside he looked like he was very comfortable and had a load of money but in reality he was struggling more than anyone.
All of these things often come with experience and maturity but I just feel the subject needs to be spoken about more and the earlier the better.
Clothes, Holidays and nights out
Talking of designer clothes and trips to Dubai… another big bug bear of mine!
I have absolutely no problem and again I have been guilty of some of these things myself in my youth, so I completely understand it. But continuously I see players, especially in the lower leagues or in an u23 set up buying £500+ Balenciaga trainers, Givenchy T shirts, ‘Off white’ I think is the latest trend… (I’m getting old) but some of these lads are on £250 a week. I know full well some have little outgoings, but I’ve also seen lads who are renting flats or living in digs and cannot afford to buy a decent dinner at night and would take home leftover food from training so they could save money but then would turn up to training in a £500 pair of trainers!
Holidays and nights out are again things I have been part of. Trips to Marbella when I was paying £20 for a bottle of beer when I was on £300 a week, just so I could do what the other footballers do. Don’t get me wrong I’ve got some unbelievable memories from some of these days but I ended up paying for these holidays over a course of years, just to be seen as living like a footballer. I much preferred my £150 all in trip to Malia in 2008.
Nights out are a big part of football, again particularly in the lower leagues. It’s great for camaraderie and although I’m massive on players being professional and doing the right things, there is a time and a place where It is needed and is good for the team.
These nights out will always consist of the word ‘Table’. For those that don’t know, the infamous table is usually a tiny little table in a VIP area of the club, where you have about 12 lads paying 10 times over the odds for a few sips of Vodka. Again, I’m not saying I haven’t been a Greygoose W***** on multiple occasions over the years, and I’ve loved a lot of these nights out as my ex teammates will know. My issue comes with players who do this on an almost weekly basis and again live beyond their means to try and look impressive to people they don’t even know. These are the nights where all the designer gear comes out, people who couldn’t afford to pay a £5 fine in training suddenly have the money to pay for a £200 bottle of vodka and again it’s all to keep up this image of being a footballer and being seen to earn more money than you actually do. You do often have to go through some of these experiences to come out the other side differently but some players do not grow out of this which is why I feel as though it can be seen as a laugh and enjoying yourself but doing it on a regular basis will have an impact on your football as well as your bank balance.
My biggest worry with the way football has gone over the past 5-6 years is the u23 system at big clubs. I think it can be great and it is something I think would have benefitted me in my teenage years. It allows a little bit more time for extra development and a chance for some of the late bloomers to improve. The biggest issue I feel is, through no fault of their own, they are often put on big contracts and earn sums of money which often doesn’t reflect their ability. Don’t get me wrong some of the players will go on and become Premier League stars, but the vast majority will filter down the leagues and often into non-league. Some of these lads will become League 2 players but would have been earning double or even triple the amount that they would get in League 2 and at an age where they haven’t fully matured. They are all of us sudden on £5,000 a week, get used to earning that kind of money and would have spending habits that go along with it and a sudden new lifestyle to uphold.
I have seen some unbelievable young people and players come through the u23 system and since retiring have seen some of the incredible work that goes on behind the scenes at that level but a lot of the time some players aren’t willing to take advice on board until it’s too late. In a lot of cases these lads would come on loan to a League 2 club and would be the negative stereotypical u23 Premier League player. They would turn up in a big 4×4, Gucci on from head to toe, washbag under the arm and massive ego to go with it. The lads that I have seen turn up with this attitude more often than not don’t have the ability to back this up. They come in and struggle to adjust to the level, stroll around in training and walk around the training ground turning their nose up because the facilities aren’t what they are used to. This happens so often and everyone in the lower leagues would have come across at least one of these players, but these players are usually let go by the u23 team after a couple of years and then are suddenly thrown into the real world. They are no longer on big money and have cars to pay for as well as trying to keep up this Premier League lifestyle to put on a front to the rest of the world and particularly on places like Instagram. It’s scary how many of these players are not even playing football a few years later. Conversely as I said before there have been some great young players from u23 level that have come in, got their head down, mixed with the boys and had the right mentality and are now forging good careers for themselves in the professional game.
If a club is willing to pay these lads a large sum of money then it’s understandable that they take it. We all would. But it often affects a player’s hunger and drive and allows them to be sucked into a certain type of lifestyle. Their first contract as a professional, and before they have played a professional game, is often the biggest of their career: which is crazy. I’d love to see a Premier League rule introduced so that a percentage of an u23 players wage is put aside and given to them when they are 25 and more mature and appreciative of it. Some of these lads come from nothing and do not know what to do when they come into money, something I can relate to. They also struggle when that money isn’t coming in anymore.
For me this is all about culture and also the people around young professionals. Players are getting better and better education at the clubs they play at but there’s lots that players can do, from top to bottom, to remove the peer pressure of a spend spend spend football environment. I love hearing stories that come from training grounds where senior pros pull young players aside when they turn up to train in the first team in a big flash car. It’s about surrounding yourself with good people who want the best for you.
I look back at how miserable and anxious I was driving around in that flash car and how relieved and happy I was in my little Fiat 500. It’s a short career and I’d just urge players to live within their means. Be mentally strong enough to make decisions for yourself – not for others. Don’t feel as if you need to prove anything to anyone with how you spend your money. If you haven’t been advised on money then try to seek help from your club or the right people.
I’m not a hypocrite, I’ve made these mistakes and have had a good time making them on occasions. I’m not a financial advisor or selling anything. I’m just trying to pass on a tiny bit of my experience and as I always say, if one person sees this and it can help them in any way, then it was worthwhile opening up and writing about this.
Thanks for reading