In the build up to the Rugby World Cup there have been several articles published in the press again focussing on England rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson, his battle with depression and his struggle to deal with his retirement from the game. I was discussing said articles with an acquaintance recently, and upon saying how I really felt for him and how hard it must be, I was met with the all too familiar reaction, “what on earth has he got to be depressed about, he has lots of money and he was successful, I just don’t understand it!” The truth is, there are many scenarios that are incredibly difficult to deal with for athletes, injury, loss of form, personal problems, disagreements with managers and coaches, contract talks and issues, and of course, ultimately, retirement. All of these are played out very much in the public eye, scrutinised and analysed at extraordinary lengths by the media. Tell anyone that works in a non-sporting occupation that after twenty years of work in their chosen field that they will have to change their vocation, sometimes with no notice whatsoever, they will probably consider it a big deal. Players that perform at Jonny Wilkinson’s level, for as long as he did, have an obsession with their sport, a desire to be the very best. To replace that is incredibly difficult and this is the reason that so many retired athletes stumble into drink, gambling and financial problems post-career.
I recently attended an excellent conference, Mental Health in Sport, at the Maudsley Learning Centre in London and I am hoping to attend the Sport & Recreation Alliance Sport Minds Conference at Wembley stadium next month. Some of the points in this blog were discussed there at the Maudsley’s day and will no doubt be discussed again at the upcoming conference. On the whole sport seems to be waking up to the fact that mental health is a real issue, both during and post-career. It will take some time before the stigma disappears completely (if ever), but hopefully we are on the right road. Athletes like Jonny Wilkinson talking publicly about his problems can only be a tremendous help for the cause and will hopefully persuade others that it is not a sign of weakness.
During my career, I hid physical injuries from the manager and staff for fear of losing my place in the team, there was no way I would have admitted I had a problem mentally. That has to change. Currently the outlook is often bleak. 1 in 3 former professional footballers are divorced within a year of retiring, 2 in 5 are bankrupt and currently there are around 150 former players in prison. There are also countless numbers with drink, drug and gambling problems, these are shocking statistics and need addressing.
I retired eight years ago after two serious knee injuries and subsequent operations, no help at all was offered from my last club or the Players Union, the PFA. Seventeen years of playing football, and then nothing, no financial advice, no career advice, nothing. This has improved since then but not enough, the game owes more to the hundreds that leave the game each year than just a ‘thanks’ and ‘goodbye’.
This brings me on to another subject that has been making the news recently, player loyalty, or the lack of it in the modern game.
The crazy transfer system has just closed its latest window, I cannot help but think the only people that benefit from it is Sky Sports and their completely overblown and exaggerated coverage of ‘deadline day!’ Surely it is about time the transfer window closed before the season starts, that has to be better for managers, players and fans as they plan for he season ahead. Amongst the many ‘will he, won’t he’, ‘should he, shouldn’t t he’, ‘can they, can’t they’ stories, one man had his fair share of column inches as the transfer window clock ticked, West Bromwich Albion’s Saido Berahino. He has had his fair share of criticism over his on-off move to Tottenham Hotspur and his public declaration that he would never play for WBA again. Now, although I do not necessarily agree with the manner of the very public negotiations, I do not blame the player for trying to force through a move to Tottenham, a step up for him in terms of the size of club, their potential to win trophies and, of course, a much improved salary!
Loyalty in football is a two way street and believe me, clubs very rarely show any loyalty to their players once they no longer have any financial value to the club. It was no surprise to see Leicester City recently publicly condemn several young players with no transfer value and then sack them for their appalling behaviour on a foreign tour, only to back a first team player shortly after for something equally deplorable. I signed for my hometown club Swindon Town FC at fourteen years of age and progressed through the youth, reserves and eventually to the first team. My seven year affiliation with the club ended when I was sold to Portsmouth FC and told to collect my belongings on the way out, this conversation with the manager lasted less than 30 seconds! Years later at Wycombe I was told there would be no renewal of my contract when I had spent 11 months recovering from a knee injury sustained playing for the club, no advice or offer of help came from any of the coaching staff.
Clubs offload players throughout the season when they have no financial benefit to the club, therefore I cannot blame any player that wants to move on and better himself either in his career or financially. Fans need to realise that the best they should expect from a player is that he will try his very best for them during his period of employment with that club. The players, in most circumstances, are not fans of the club they represent and play for. If a man that works for Vauxhall is offered twice as much money to do the same job for Ford, how much loyalty would he show Vauxhall? The game that means so much to the fans means a lot to the players also but just in a different way. It is their livelihood and they have to try and capitalise on their status and value within the game whilst they can. The average career length of a professional footballer is now seven years, that is not long to try and make enough money to sustain yourself for the next sixty to seventy years.