Sports Gazette

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

Footballers in Retirement Part Two: why do so many former players stay in the game?

Posted on 8 July 2020 by Hal Fish

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It is commonly accepted that a footballer’s personal life suffers greatly when they retire. Yet studies have shown levels of anxiety and depression in ex-professionals are comparable with the general public.

Still, there seems to be an unwillingness for players to leave the safety net of the footballing world once they retire. Quite often they don’t really undergo an exit from the game, but rather they stay attached in some way. For instance, they become a coach or a pundit.

But why is this?

Rob Moore is an agent who has looked after the likes of Benni McCarthy and Steven Pienaar throughout their careers. Both players have stayed in football after hanging up their boots.

“It is the exception, rather than the rule, that a player would have an outside interest that is so profound he then wants to think of a career in that field,” Moore explained to the Sports Gazette.

Speaking at the 2020 London Football Awards, a number of former players stated they were content in retirement, but all had still remained within the world of football.

Ex-Arsenal forward Alan Smith reflected positively on his own retirement: “I don’t miss it really, no. I’m pleased to be what I’m doing now. I had a great career.”

But, like many others, he was grateful that his new career (as a commentator) had kept him close to the game: “It’s just lovely to be within that atmosphere,” he told the Sports Gazette.

Marlon Harewood echoed Smith’s sentiments at the same event, saying: “I don’t miss it really because I have a business I look after but I’m also in it [football] at the same time.”

Despite having an outside interest, it seems football still sits firmly on Harewood’s horizon: “At this moment in time I’m just doing it [coaching] part-time to keep my badges going. At a later on time I will take it seriously and try get as far as I can,” he said.

Carlton Cole, now the under-16 coach at his former club West Ham, had similar thoughts: “I would obviously like a job in the game eventually,” he said, referencing a more senior management position.

Cole also spoke about how he feels like he hasn’t really left the game, despite playing his last professional match in 2017.

“For me, I’m not retired. In my head I’m still a footballer. That’s part of my problem, not transitioning properly. To be honest, because I am still in football, I wake up every day like a footballer. I go and coach, then I come back home. It’s the same routine,” he told the Sports Gazette.

Incidentally, Cole was fined by the FA in 2015 for swearing at a fan on Twitter who had told him to “call it a day” on his career. It seemed he was not so keen on leaving football back then either.

He was then declared bankrupt in early 2018 before returning to football as a coach at West Ham later that year. For better or for worse, it does seem that most footballers are unwilling and hesitant to leave the game. It is an understandable way of safeguarding their futures.

In Cole’s time away from the game, he lost a significant amount of money. This is a trend in some footballers but shouldn’t be presented as the standard. But maybe more could be done to prepare players for later life, so that they can enjoy living without football.

Sam Saunders spent the best part of his career at Brentford, helping the London club gain promotion to the Championship during his seven-and-a-half-year spell there. When the midfielder hung up his boots in 2019, he returned to the Bees once more, as a coach with the club’s now highly esteemed B team.

Saunders feels that players could perhaps receive more guidance to better organize themselves for retirement. Many footballers don’t plan for their futures. They often don’t consider life after football until they have actually played their last game.

Alan Smith alluded to this when discussing how he became a commentator: “It just happened. That’s life, sometimes things take you in a direction you’re not expecting. But I was never really into coaching, so to do this was the next best thing.” 

It worked out well for the former Arsenal number nine. But that’s not always the case, especially for those who play lower down the divisions.

“Unfortunately, some footballers are wet behind the ears, they’ve never really seen the real world. They just think they will play forever and that’s not the case,” Saunders told the Sports Gazette.

“That’s why you see cases of boys coming out and being depressed. Not having a structure, and not having someone telling them what to do, affects them.”

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The Sports Gazette spoke to the PFA to find out what kinds of guidance they provide for players when they leave the game.

“We go into the clubs on a number of occasions during the year. At which point we give them a presentation about the PFA and what we can provide on their behalf. Not only in terms of transitioning but also moving into retirement,” said Pat Lally, Director of Education at the PFA.

Saunders explained his experiences as a player: “The PFA do a lot of good things, but you know, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. When they come in and have discussions it’s fine and it’s great, but they’re not actually getting people qualifications. Some listen but some will just walk out the room and think they’re going to be a footballer for the rest of their life.

“A couple people come in and speak about life after football to players, but it’s few and far between. There’s not loads going on. I think they should make players take some kind of course. Some compulsory kind of course that would get them set up.

“Whether it be coaching badges, whether it be media stuff, whether it be a plumbing course. They can do that alongside their playing career so that when they do retire they are qualified and ready to go into the real world.”

It’s easy to understand the point Saunders makes, but it’s hard not to think the onus is ultimately on the players. And the PFA do provide financial support for those who may need it to study ­– not every footballer in England earns a Premier League wage.

“Anyone wishing to go to university, we provide them with £1250 a year as a bursary to enable them to purchase printers, computers, books and any other equipment they feel that they might need while they’re doing their degree program. That also applies to members who go across to the United States on scholarships and do degrees over there,” said Lally.

“And then for other courses that are nationally recognised and accredited we provide 50 percent of the cost of the fees, up to a maximum of £1,500 in any one year towards their course fees.”

It is no surprise, however, that most of the players apply for courses related to football.

“It’s mainly on the coaching side when they may be looking to go into football management,” Lally explained.

Saunders is no exception to the rule. He spoke of his own misgivings about leaving football.

“To be honest I would have struggled not having a structure. Not being able to go in with a bunch of lads all with the same common interests. I think if I didn’t have that, then I probably would have been in a bad way.”

Can you blame him for feeling that way? Throughout their lives, footballers are told to ‘stick to football’ (just ask Marcus Rashford), and for the most part they do.

So when you have footballers fearful of stepping out of their lane, combined with the media shining a spotlight on the former players who have struggled once retiring, why would they want to leave the comfort of the game?

In part three of Footballers in Retirement, the Sports Gazette will take a look at what support is provided for players in retirement regarding their mental health, and how they may be better prepared for life after football.

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