I make a point of reading The Football League Paper every Sunday and I always make a beeline for the Where Are They Now column. Every week it features a grainy black and white team photograph dating back up to forty years or so and provides an update on what the players have been getting up to since they retired. Some, but a very small minority remain household names to this day, predominantly as managers and coaches, but the overwhelming majority have faded away into relative obscurity, their glory days long-since passed and they now work in a variety of common-or-garden or mundane jobs. A worrying number have also passed away and I find it hard to realise or accept that a gnarled veteran in his early thirties when I first started watching the game fifty years ago is now in his dotage – or worse. I well remember researching the whereabouts of some of our former Brentford heroes from the sixties when working on the Big Brentford Book series and making the shocking discovery of how very few players from that era still remained with us.
So what happens to footballers when they retire and how do they cope with being out of the spotlight and no longer being a global, national or local hero? What happens when they have to adapt to the dull and prosaic reality of having to manage their own affairs, make their own travel arrangements, find alternative employment, adjust to a massive reduction in their earnings and even look after their passport rather than having it held for safekeeping by their club?
Retired footballers have on average around sixteen thousand days to fill from the time of their retirement until their death and it is not surprising that many former footballers find this transition difficult if not impossible to manage. Many fall upon hard times and the results of the loss of their former fame, glory, stature and even sense of purpose can be drastic and catastrophic with over one hundred and fifty ex-footballers ending up in prison, predominately for drug offenses. Others suffer from mental health issues and bankruptcy. Divorce is rife with a staggering one third of all footballers ending their marriage within a year of hanging up their boots and, tragically, suicide is also all too common.
Writer and award-winning stand-up comedian Alan Gernon has now produced a well-researched, thought-provoking and comprehensive book that is certainly not a barrel of laughs. Retired provides a disturbing analysis of the never-ending variety of troubles and problems that footballers can face once they stop playing; what can and does happen to them, and what support and help are available to them when things begin to go wrong as they attempt to readjust to normal life. Liberally illustrated with a plethora of case studies of ex-players whose difficult and sad stories are either already in the public domain or who have been brave enough to go public with their recollections within this book, Retired is a much-needed and long-overdue cautionary tale of the problems and pitfalls that can await every footballer once he leaves the spotlight.
Mr. Gernon has ranged far and wide in his research and has obtained insights, some of them excruciating in their honesty, from former players such as David Bentley, Lee Bowyer, David Busst, Geoff Thomas, Jody Craddock, Mark Ward, Richard Sadlier, Gary Stevens and John Newsome, amongst others, who between them have suffered from a myriad of problems since the end of their glory days.
Some of the statistics are mind blowing. Research undertaken by XPRO, a charity set up to help, support and advise former professional footballers highlights the following:
- There are over sixty thousand former players living in the UK and Ireland
- Two out of every five Premier League players, who earn an average of forty-two thousand pounds per week, face the threat of bankruptcy within five years of ending their career
- One third of footballers will be divorced within a year of retirement
- Eighty percent of retired players will suffer from osteoarthritis
World players’ union FIFPro also revealed that thirty-five percent of former players faced problems with depression and anxiety, particularly if they had suffered serious injuries during their playing career, more than double the figure for the general population.
What about the young kids who dream of becoming footballers but have their hopes and dreams shattered? The odds are heavily weighted against them. Former Liverpool schoolboy player Michael Kinsella’s story is typical of so many like him. Thirteen members of his schoolboy side joined professional clubs with only two enjoying long-term careers. Six ended up in prison, with Kinsella himself receiving a ten-year sentence for drug offences.
Some players are fortunate enough to become managers or coaches, others seek the Holy Grail of a pundit’s role within the media but these opportunitiesare few and far between with demand massively exceeding supply. There are nowhere near enough jobs to go round and the majority go to the biggest names.
Some players even die early from the effects of heading the old-style heavy leather football which resembled a cannonball when wet. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain condition becoming more common among footballers. Jeff Astle, a renowned header of the ball for West Bromwich Albion and England in the sixties and early seventies died tragically young in 2002 and the coroner concluded that he suffered neurological damage from heading a football and his illness was later diagnosed as CTE.
Former West Ham player Mark Ward struggled after retirement and turned to alcohol and was short of cash. He rented out a property which was used to store drugs and he ended up in prison. Michael Branch was a special talent at Everton who ended up serving a seven-year sentence for supply of Class A and B drugs.
The book is relentless featuring tale after tale of players who have fallen foul of a variety of problems and pitfalls and it can be so hard for footballers who can resemble thirty-seven year-old newborns emerging from what Niall Quinn has so memorably described as an adults’ playground to adapt to what they have to face in the real world. Thankfully there is now far more support at hand and it is no longer considered a weakness to cry for help.
Hopefully this quite brilliant book will help raise awareness of the seriousness of the situation and reinforce the fact that there is now expert help available whenever it is required.
This is help that perhaps former Southampton player Bobby Stokes could surely have done with. Never a star, but a solid, dependable, all-action midfield dynamo whose place in Southampton legend is assured by virtue of the dramatic and unforgettable winning goal he scored in 1976 to win the FA Cup for The Saints against Manchester United. He was the toast of the town and became that rarity, a Portsmouth boy who became a hero for their hated rivals in Southampton.
He died far too young in straightened circumstances and life after football was not easy for him. Mark Sanderson has lovingly recorded his life and achievements in Bobby Stokes: The Man from Portsmouth Who Scored Southampton’s Most Famous Goal.
It is a biography that has been written with sympathy, affection and respect by a man who has a light and deft touch with words and possesses an immense knowledge of his subject.
Both books are highly recommended.
Retired By Alan Gernon And Bobby Stokes By Mark Sanderson are both published by Pitch Publishing.