What Happens to Footballers When the Game’s Up?

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Irish author Alan Gernon’s first book ‘Retired: What Happens to Footballers When the Game’s Up’ has already made the long list for eir Sport Sports Book of the Year and Niall Quinn, who provides the foreword, has called it ‘the most important football book in a long time.’ Here, Alan gives a taster of his work which gives an incredible insight into what happens to players when the curtain comes down on their careers.

Since you started reading this sentence Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney has earned around a fiver.

Incredibly, Rooney’s weekly wage would pay for 400 entry-level season tickets at Old Trafford, which are around £700 a pop. While that might not seem great value based on some of the team’s performances since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, it seems absurd to realise that United would have to sell 20,000 season tickets a year – or just under a quarter of all seats at Old Trafford – just to pay Rooney’s salary.

With such an outrageous weekly stipend the general public can find it difficult to comprehend how professional footballers can get into financial difficulties upon retirement. But Rooney is an outlier – one of the highest-paid sports stars in the world. The striker was 34th on Forbes’ list of the World’s Highest Paid Athletes in 2015, beating off the likes of Serena Williams, Andy Murray, Wladimir Klitschko, Usain Bolt and Jordan Spieth.

However, research from XPRO, a charity established to help, support and advise former professional footballers, suggests that two out of every five Premier League players – who earn an average of around £40,000 per week – face the threat of bankruptcy within five years of ending their playing careers. A third will be divorced within a year of hanging up their boots, rising to 75 per cent within three years.

Ernest Hemingway wrote that “retirement is the ugliest word in the language”, and that can certainly be the case for many ex-footballers.

“With little or no support from the game to which they gave their lives, many end up addicted, depressed, living with debilitating illnesses, behind bars or even worse.”

While an elite few may be financially secure, or others may land plum managerial jobs or punditry roles, it transpires that for the majority retirement is something that they’re not prepared for and lives can spiral into a rapid and depressing decline.

The majority of the bankruptcies involving retired professional footballers have been down to a combination of bad investments and failure to tailor their spending habits to their new financial circumstances once retired.

As recently as November 2015, the Sunday Times claimed that dozens of retired players – including many household names – faced financial ruin as a result of investing in film schemes and property ventures.

Many earning large sums during their playing careers may replicate this in their spending habits, leading to the lack of a nest egg to help ease the transition into retirement. This is a major problem for elite sportsmen who typically face an opposite income cycle to most people, earning their peak returns early in life, but retiring young and not hitting those income levels again.

The staggeringly high rate of failed marriages among recently retired players can also have a detrimental effect on a former player’s financial situation, where a footballer’s ex-wife can expect up to half his wealth in a divorce settlement.

Both physical and mental health issues can be acute. XPRO estimate that 80% of retired players will suffer from osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease that will typically affect 10% of males over 60 in the general population.

The hidden effects of retirement on mental health are a key issue. Recent research by world players’ union FIFPro revealed that 35% of former players faced problems with depression and anxiety, particularly if they had suffered serious injuries during their playing careers. This compares to a rate of between 13% to 17% in the general population.

Mental health issues are often linked to a loss of identity, with retired footballers often struggling to adapt to life without football. Many players liken the world of football to military life, where they are told what to do and where to go. Everything is planned for them and their identity is shaped around their profession. When it stops suddenly, in their mid-30s, the transition to ‘normal life’ can be difficult to deal with.

If a footballer hasn’t planned ahead for retirement, which many don’t, he can find it difficult to let go of his sense of identity as a footballer and establish new life goals and a new career. Many are known as ‘a footballer’ from childhood so when that ends they find it difficult to comprehend what is left. The transition to retirement can be an emotional period as former players struggle to re-assess who they are and what their place in the world is.

Many liken the loss of their playing career to a bereavement and often take a number of years to grieve for their lost careers. This loss of identity can trigger other problems such as addictions and divorce, as former players strive to recreate the buzz from their playing days.

Over 70% of Professional Footballers Association (PFA) members indicate a desire to remain in the game upon retirement but there are simply not enough management, coaching and media positions to go round.

The biggest obstacle many retired footballers face is the loss of the camaraderie in the dressing room, the team spirit, the everyday banter. Some takes years, even decades to get over this loss. Indeed, 70 per cent of those who access the PFA’s nationwide network of counsellors are former players, the majority of whom have struggled to cope with life without football.

Those abandoned by the game sometimes turn to a life of crime. This is more prevalent in young footballers that have failed to make the grade, left on the scrapheap by their clubs in their late teens and early twenties. With many clubs signing boys as young as seven years of age, attrition rates in academies are extraordinarily high, with just 2% of scholars signed at sixteen still playing the game professionally when they turn 21.

Many of these young men leave the game with little or no qualifications or life skills and enter a competitive labour market where job prospects are incredibly low. It comes as little surprise that some turn to crime to subsidise their income. Figures as of October 2015 intimate that 141 former players are in the British prison system. Almost 90% of these offenders are under the age of 25, with a similar percentage incarcerated for drug-related offences. Many more are believed to be in the young offenders system.

Problems encountered during retirement from professional football are not standalone issues. This loss of identity may lead to divorce, which in turn leads to financial problems. Financial problems can lead to mental health issues. They are all interlinked.

Sadly, despite support from organisations such as XPRO and the PFA, there is still a cohort of footballers who seem to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to planning for the transition to a new career. Some ex-players I spoke to for my recent book, Retired: What Happens to Footballers When the Game’s Up, didn’t think about retirement until the ‘day it happened’.

Retired: What Happens to Footballers When the Game’s Up by Alan Gernon is available now from all good book stores or you can order from Amazon here

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