This is the time of year when hundreds of footballers are at the end of their contracts and may not have a future in the game. Some older people decide to retire voluntarily.
Most players like to think their career will last forever. I was one of them, I never thought about what life might be like after football. It was actually out of fear. How do you replace something that was your constant from the age of five to your mid-thirties?
Unfortunately, I learned the hard way. I enjoyed the early years after my retirement in 2013, playing golf, doing media work, and taking family vacations, but what happened next hit me like a sledgehammer.
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The realization that I would no longer play football, combined with the loss of most of my savings, made me suffer from depression, something I denied at the time.
During the dark days, which lasted 12 months, I indulged in alcohol, drugs and gambling. My marriage broke up, I broke up with my brothers and friends, and I became really isolated.
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It was a horrible place until a mix of professional therapy and support from loved ones helped me back. And I consider myself blessed by comparison: I know many other ex-players who have struggled for years, some of them felt suicidal.
This is the first time I have known my difficulties and I hope it can help the next generation of players who are at the crossroads of their careers. If it keeps one of them from falling victim to the worst pitfalls of retirement, it’s worth it.
All my life I had thought it was weak to ask for help. I grew up with three older brothers and the culture was ‘Don’t cry’. Soccer players generally have big egos.
I didn’t want to accept that I felt vulnerable, when I now realize that it is actually stronger to reach out and be grabbed than to go down alone. Some footballers retire seamlessly. It is usually the ones who have worked out a plan. For most, like me, it was very difficult.
Why is the transition so difficult? Not every factor applies to every player, but there are some common themes, including financial, which I’ll explain in a moment that might surprise people who think Premier League footballers are built for life. The first difference is simple: the decrease in physical activity.
As a soccer player, your body releases dopamine and endorphins every day. They both do a great job for your well-being. Endorphins keep you energized. Dopamine gives you that happy euphoric feeling, whether it’s by scoring a goal or by the fans chanting your name. Even if you hit the gym three times a week, you can’t replace that dopamine fix. Without this you feel sluggish and sluggish.
As a professional football player, your body releases dopamine and endorphins every day
Losing the distraction of football can also have wider implications. During my career, some terrible things happened to me off the field. My dad died while I was at Spurs.
It was awful as you’d expect, but as heartless as it may sound, you’re pushing it aside with a big game coming up and thousands of fans are counting on you. I went to training two days after my father passed away. It wasn’t until after I retired that I began to grieve properly. Things like that can have a delayed psychological impact.
Leaving football also removes a safety net and status. As a Liverpool, Spurs or England player you have an umbrella of people to help out. Family member unwell? The club will send a doctor. Tickets to a concert? An agent will set it up. Some players let others go through the process of buying a car or booking their vacation. When you leave the game, you are less equipped than other adults to deal with the ordinary things in life because you have been pampered.
As a football player, your schedule will be worked out for you. When to Exercise, When to Play, What to Wear, What to Eat. Getting up all of a sudden in the morning and filling your own diary with things that motivate you is a challenge.
Once it fully realized that I would never play football again and without facing other problems, I looked for some kind of fulfillment and escaped the wrong way.
I would drink and gamble longer. I would study drugs. What started as social activities eventually led to isolation. The vices would be moved behind closed doors. And of course the problems I wanted to leave behind had doubled in my head the next morning.
Once it was fully realized that I would never play football again, I looked for fulfillment and escape
I now realize that I was depressed. But I didn’t recognize it then, or maybe I didn’t want to. Instead, I struggled badly. Every interaction turned into hard work. My mom got cancer and I didn’t have the strength or understanding to support her properly. Fortunately, she got through.
When I played in my younger days and heard that a former pro was having a hard time coping with it, I thought, ‘Keep a grip. I didn’t think you could be rich and depressed. But then I became that former pro and I could see it wasn’t that easy.
There was another problem that caused more pressure: finances. I would say one of the great and little publicized scandals of the Premier League era is financial abuse. Players are fine while collecting high wages, but all too often when they go to their investments after their careers are over they are gone.
Football players are usually working class workers with little experience or knowledge of financial matters. So you’ve got this entire industry of men in smart suits, impressive company names, shiny brochures, and all the banter that promises to make sense of your income.
Sure, there are some decent financial advisors, but footballers will know others who turn out to be greedy and selfish. Some foreign real estate investments turned out to be disastrous. I, like many other players, was caught up in the movie schemes sold to us as a tax credit. It became a story of lawsuits and police investigations.
I had worked hard during my short career to save for the rest of my life – and most of it was gone. That took an added toll on my mental health, in addition to losing the physical buzz, camaraderie, and acclaim the game had given me.
I had worked hard to save the rest of my life – and most of it was gone
I have many friends, ex-Premier League players, who are bankrupt and have gone through long periods of depression.
They can feel suicidal because their finances are not handled properly, coupled with not playing football anymore. I had no doubt that I was in a black hole and I would urge any player who feels the same way to seek help, regardless of whether some people think footballers have the right to feel unhappy.
I now understand that everyone has their own low point. I felt guilty and crap when my friend from school may have been struggling to pay his mortgage. But you cannot judge or compare people who are in pain. Money does not guarantee protection against psychological problems.
During my lowest periods I continued to function, but it existed, it was not alive. There were some windows of light, my kids – the media work that kept me close to football – but mostly I masked my true feelings.
However, I want to end on a positive note. I am an example that you may encounter from the other side.
My turning point was to open up to friends and family about what I was going through. I was tired of acting erratic, making bad decisions, and feeling terrible. The hardest thing I’ve ever been through was sitting with people I love and being brutally honest about where I was.
But it was a cathartic experience. You knew you would let them down in the past, but once you talk and they understand your situation, it’s a great feeling to realize they care.
I want to end on a positive note. I am an example that you may encounter from the other side
I embraced professional therapy and it was the start of my recovery. I have a wonderful relationship with my children, have a wonderful partner who has been wonderful, and I am back on good terms with my siblings. We didn’t speak for over a year when I was at my worst.
Therapy stops blaming yourself for feeling bad and begins to analyze why. I hope, of course, that today’s players can avoid the pitfalls that plague me and many of my generation.
The hard truth is that once clubs are retired, they aren’t really going to care about you. You are no longer an asset, so you should try to be accountable to yourself. I would love to go to clubs and talk to players about how to make a better transition from football to ‘civilian life’. Some may nod and not hear, they will be focused on the next game, but I would still like to look them in the eye and call on them to make a plan after football to make sure that their finances are in order.
Many players have gone through hell from being ill-prepared. It’s not something I would recommend.