Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Footballers in Retirement Part Three: why all professionals need to be supported

Posted on 27 July 2020 by Hal Fish

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In Footballers in Retirement, we have discussed how the media may be guilty of overstating the issues footballers go through when retiring. Regardless of this, there will always be some who require help and support for their mental wellbeing. That is just human nature.

Director of Player Welfare at the PFA Michael Bennett explained to the Sport Gazette the reality players face when leaving the game.

“The public perception is, why should these players have any mental health problems when they are earning loads of money? But there is only a small percentage in the game that earn a vast amount of money. The majority of the players will have to work when they leave the game.

“These players are a person who plays football. And as a person they will encounter the same issues as anyone else. Some players are living from check to check. So it’s just as difficult for them as it is for a plumber or an electrician. If you’re not getting the work, and financially struggling, then it impacts you.”

It’s important to remember that when talking about footballers, that doesn’t just mean those who play at the highest level. Premier League players earned an average weekly wage of £64,000 in 2019, but that figure sits at £2,000 per week when you drop down to League One (the third of England’s four professional divisions).

Average weekly wage across England’s top three football divisions.

Sam Saunders spent most of his career playing for Brentford in the Championship and League One. He described how financial experiences differ across the divisions.

“Those boys want to live the lifestyle that they are used to,” he explained of top-tier players. “So when the money dries out and they still want to live the lifestyle it becomes difficult.

“The lower league boys obviously haven’t had that kind of spare cash to be splashing around the place. So they’ve probably been a bit more careful with what’s going on.”

Of course, there are myriad problems for footballers when they retire. The circumstances may be slightly different, but many of these issues are comparable with the general public. Which makes sense as, scratch beneath the Adidas training kit, and you’ll see most footballers are just normal people (maybe not Lionel Messi though, who is likely an extra-terrestrial).

However, something unique to the plight of former footballers is the physical aspect of later life. Years of playing high intensity sport will naturally take a toll on the body. But one positive to consider is that things may well be easier for the next generation of retirees.

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Dr Gwen Fernandes, who led the UK’s largest study of depressive symptoms and general health in ex-professional footballers, explained as much: “Because training has gotten so much better, rehabilitation centres have gotten so much better. They have sports physicians, they have physiotherapists, they often have sports psychologists now within teams.

“That’s not something the ex-players ever had. They were really lucky if they had a team doctor to be honest, these guys who are now in their 60s and 70s. I’m talking about people who played a good 20 or 30 years ago.

“We wrote another paper and one was about how half the players in a group had steroid injections. And that was at that time, and I think it still is, pretty controversial. It wasn’t something I published but I remember so many footballers saying to me, if I didn’t play the full match I would have peaked, so I had to play the full game.

“Often, they wouldn’t know what it was. But a team doctor was going to give them a shot which meant they wouldn’t feel pain for the next 45 minutes. They would do it. I’ve spoken to footballers who would say, it’s really bad and embarrassing to not know, but you just wanted to play. You just wanted to represent your club.

“So things like that have got a lot better. There’s so much regulation now. Overall I do think it will get a lot better.”

Another major change for future generations is how mindsets have improved concerning the support and discussions of footballers’ wellbeing.

“Footballers are treated as these anomalies. But if you look at trends in the general population you might see the same things there as well. The pressures of social media, having to look a certain way, a lot of people experience that. Not just athletes,” Dr Fernandes explained.

Bennett’s own professional career was curtailed by his mental wellbeing after a significant injury. He outlined how attitudes regarding support for players have evolved since he retired.

“Being a former player myself and encountering well-being issues with my injuries and stuff, there wasn’t any emotional support available to me when I played. It would have been very beneficial for me to have that. I think because of that, mentally I wasn’t the same player that I could have been.

“So I just thought I’d like to be able to come back and offer emotional support to players. I don’t think football was really ready for what I was offering in 2005. So I had to go down different pathways.”

A few years later, Bennett got a job at the PFA as the head educational advisor, before then progressing onto the welfare department which he leads now.

“I wanted to showcase the importance of emotional support because obviously clubs do a lot of work around the physical side of the game for players, getting them physically fit, but don’t do anything around the emotional side of the game. But the two go hand in hand.

“We started with 28 counsellors. And players could ring up with emotional issues. I did an assessment with them over the phone or face-to-face. And then we paired them with a therapist closest to them.”

The number of players using the service has grown exponentially year on year. Around 160 players used the service in 2016, by 2019 that figure was up to around 650, with both current and former players involved.

“We try and make it as comfortable as possible for them. We asked if they want a male or female therapist, if they want a former player or not a former player. You ask some questions to try and make sure you get the right therapist for them. Then we say to them, where do you want to access the support? Usually I go to the club, or they will go to the therapist’s offices and have the sessions there.”

The significant number of players requesting the service outlines a clear need for such aid. But with this support now there for those requiring it, when it wasn’t there in the past, it suggests a step in the right direction.

Perhaps we are edging closer to an age where footballers will be better prepared to handling life after the game. Of course, players face unique difficulties when they retire. There are few professions that require such a drastic lifestyle change at an age so young. But more support is available than ever. The shift into retirement need not be so jarring. Issues will always remain for some, but that is just the human condition, as opposed to anything intrinsically linked to football.

Robbie Earle summed life as a footballer up succinctly when speaking in Mick Dennis’ book The Team. The former Wimbledon midfielder said: “There are a million good things about being a footballer but the one downside is that it finishes so early.”

That’ll always be the most likely sentiment. But maybe future players will see retirement as an opportunity, rather than something to be feared. The final whistle may have blown, but what’s a whistle to the rest of the world?

Read part one of Footballers in Retirement to see how mental health in ex-professionals compares with that of the general public, and part two to see why so many former players stay connected to the game long after retirement.