x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Life after football can be traumatic for former stars

Former top footballers, like Andrew Cole, Les Ferdinand and Neil Webb, tell of some of the challenges they have faced as ordinary citizens after retiring from the game

Andrew Cole: enjoyment stopped. Adam Davy / Empics Sport
Andrew Cole: enjoyment stopped. Adam Davy / Empics Sport

"They shoot horses, don't they? I think that a lot of players would prefer to have been shot once their career was over, because they have found it very difficult to battle through life."

- Jimmy Greaves, the former England striker

 

Sportsmen, it is said, die twice. Ultimately, when their natural lives end, but first when the life they lead as a hero to the masses is brought to a close.

When the whistle blows for the final time, coping with vastly altered circumstances becomes the biggest challenge the majority of footballers ever face.

For the rest of their lives, they will never be as fulfilled as they were during their playing days. How do they replace the thrill? When the realisation dawns that their youth has gone, and the adulation with it, the future must seem long and empty.

"I miss the one-on-one confrontation," says Danny Mills, 33, the former rambunctious right-back who played 19 times for England.

"The testosterone, the adrenaline rush of me against an opponent. Me, physically, mentally having to beat somebody else.

"That's what I looked forward to. Eye-balling each other in the tunnel before the game. Coming off after the game and thinking actually I was better than you, and I beat you.

"I think that's something all top sportspeople have, and that's something that's difficult to let go of."

This week marked 50 years since the abolition of the maximum wage in English football. Never before have players been so well paid. Never before have they been so distanced from their fans and ordinary life.

Carlos Tevez's weekly wage at Manchester City, for example, is approximately 380 times that of the average working male in the UK.

It is not just the common man who struggles to associate with the children of the Premier League revolution.

"Football has changed so much," says Andrew Cole, 39, another former City striker, but one who is more readily associated with their cross- city rivals, United.

"Perhaps the young generation coming to the game see the game in a total different way to the way old pros see the game.

"The young generation see the game more about earning good money, having a nice car and a big house.

"It just got into a stage that I couldn't see the game the way they see it. So I felt it was time I retired because I wasn't enjoying it anymore."

Unless they are spectacularly reckless, today's Premier League footballers should never have to work again once they hang up their boots, given the rewards on offer for even the most average.

Mills had to give up playing at 31 because of a chronic knee injury. He is comfortably off having invested wisely, he says, during his younger days. Now he has opted to throw himself into charity work.

Last year, he completed a marathon in a wheelchair to raise funds and awareness for a spina bifida charity, the disease which claimed the life of his son, Archie, in 2002.

"I'm determined not to be one of these players who puts on a bit of weight," he says. "That's one of the things I do miss, the fact I can't run.

"I used to enjoy running. I used to say pre-season I was the best player by far, until the balls came out then I'd drop down the pecking order a bit.

"My knees aren't great. They still creak when I walk down the stairs. Occasionally they give way and I fall over.

"My whole game, my whole life was dedicated to being one of the fittest players. I was never technically superb, so I always had to be fitter and stronger than my opponents."

Neil Webb, the former England midfielder who became a postman after retiring, once said match days were the hardest for him to bear now that he was no longer involved. The only remedy for him was to sleep through entire Saturdays.

It is no surprise many players cling on for as long as their limbs will allow. "Just look at David Beckham," says Les Ferdinand, 44, the former England striker who is still involved as a coach at the club he supports and played for, Tottenham Hotspur.

"He could easily sit back and enjoy his life because he has the money and has done everything in the game. Yet he keeps going because he just loves football and I can totally relate to that.

"I miss it every single day. I work with the youth players at Spurs and when I drive to that training ground, and this is every day, I want to be going there as a player, not as a coach.

"I wish I could still do it. I retired at 39 so I had a great innings and would never complain, but it still wasn't enough.

"I still wake up every day and wish I could still go out there and do it, even at my age. The mind is willing. The legs and the rest of my body are not so sure."

Remaining so close to the game, in a managerial role or coaching capacity, is seen as the natural progression for footballers. That or becoming landlord of a pub. But it is not the life for everyone.

"What I miss most is Saturdays," says Darren Anderton, 38, the former Spurs and England midfielder.

"Before the game you go out in the tunnel and as you go out you see the crowd and you see everything and you are about to go and live your dream for the next two hours.

"It is an amazing feeling. But also when you are playing with your teammates, you are all young guys having fun in the dressing room."

Anderton finally let go of that dream when he retired from playing two years ago, as he finished up at Bournemouth on his native south coast.

He says he is happy to get the chance to let his brain take the strain rather than his legs.

"My fiancee and I always want to travel around the world after I finished my career, but my dad unfortunately passed away soon after," he said.

"But we are doing it now. I have a business with property which I always enjoyed doing. You can do that when you are a footballer but now you can be more hands on.

"I have taken a couple of other things as well where people have come to me and I have invested in different projects like a solar power project and things like that.

"It is totally nice for the brain to do something different after many years of kicking the ball."

 

pradley@thenational.ae

* Quotes courtesy of Abu Dhabi Sports