REVIEW BY DEREK BELL – @derek2bell
Footballers. We all know about them. Earning more in a month than we do in a year, having everything done for them, travelling the world, beautiful women falling them, only working half days and getting to play professional football. What could be better? If Mark Knopfler wrote ‘Money For Nothing’ today it would be about footballers. That’s the way you do it, play the football on the Sky TV.
In post Euros England one of the instant reactions to English failure was around the money the players earn and how this reflected badly on the level of performance. Look how much Wayne Rooney earns, look at Raheem Sterling buying a house for his mum etc etc.
At first glance Alan Gernon has taken on an impossible task by asking us to look at what happens to footballers when they retire and possibly even feel a degree of sympathy for them. It’s obvious what happens isn’t it – they sit back and count the money whilst living a life of leisure with the odd media appearance or they find a good managerial or coaching job based on who they know rather than what they know. How lucky is that? Who amongst us doesn’t want to retire from the drudgery of the 9 to 5 and be able to live a nice life? Surely they can’t have anything to complain about or expect any sympathy from us supporters? How much he succeeds in this is a testament to his writing and the people he speaks to.
Gernon’s curiosity about retired footballers is stimulated purely by the coincidence of him sharing a date of birth with Freddie Ljungberg and his retirement from the game at 37. Gernon’s initial thoughts are, much like those most of us would have – ‘lucky sod’, but then he does a bit of digging and discovers the reality isn’t always quite as we imagine for players when they leave the game. From this he has written a fascinating, insightful book into what retirement actually can mean. He discovers that huge numbers of retired professionals face the threat of bankruptcy within five years of retirement, a third will be divorced in less than a year, many will end with addictions, physical and/or mental illness or even in prison.
It almost feels as if retirement is the wrong word for what Gernon is talking about. Retirement suggests a peaceful walk into the sunset at the end of a glittering career at a time of the player’s choosing. The reality, as is shown in many of the cases in the book, is far from this – players retire at all ages and without any choice, they may have a career ending injury, a new manager may come in who doesn’t fancy them for his team, they may even fall out love with the game. For some, retirement seems to arrive before they have even started and they are discarded in late teens/early twenties by their club.
Gernon looks at each of the issues that can affect retired players by chapter interviewing ex-pros as he goes along, as well as various sports psychologists and experts in the impact of retirement on professional sportsmen.
What this does is open our eyes to the problems and elicits a degree of sympathy towards players even where it feels that some of the problems are self-inflicted and caused by a failure to even think about or prepare for the future after football.
A recurrent theme throughout the book is just how hard ex-players seem to find it hard to replicate the feeling of the dressing room, the lads and the banter. For many of us these are phrases we hate hearing but Gernon manages to get this across in a way which helps you to understand the void that’s left. When your entire life from your teens has been built around a dressing room and around a team ethic, being brutally cut from that must have an effect. The way it is described players are almost institutionalised to the lifestyle, to having everything done for them, to having the fixed structure to their life and trying to fill this void and make their own decisions can prove overwhelming. One of my favourite phrases in the book is from Johnny Giles who says he was 15 when he went to England and 15 when he retired. Add to this the fact that most players have cut off all their other options for future careers frequently with the collusion of the clubs and their parents and it’s easy to see how things can go wrong when they leave the game. Again, this a theme that recurs throughout the book.
One of the beauties of the book is that Gernon never fails to acknowledge what we may be thinking – partly we assume because these were his thoughts as well. So the chapter on bankruptcy starts with a deconstruction of Rooney’s wages. This chapter is a sobering one as you realise just how easy it is for footballers to get bad advice, how they don’t seem to prepare for their post-football future and how the rug can be pulled from under them through injury, divorce or bad investments.
The chapter on physical injury is a real eye opener and it is startling to read that up to 80% of ex-players could be suffering from osteoarthritis compared to 10% of males over 60 in the general population. This immediately had me sitting up and taking notice, partly because I am currently working beside an ex-semi pro player who is a few years younger than me and whose knee is ruined by his playing career; partly because I’ve worked with a lot of people who suffer arthritis and become aware of just how debilitating a condition it can be. In addition to that, brain conditions are more prevalent amongst ex-players than the general public. All of this impacts on the effect of retirement on players.
Gernon works through the other themes including prison, divorce and mental health issues using well known cases and interviewing other retired players who eloquently tell their stories. Even staying in the game in coaching or managerial positions is less easy than you might think. I had no idea (which is my ignorance I realise) just what was involved in getting UEFA licences in terms of time and cost. An A Licence in England costs £6,000 as opposed to £500 in Germany, obviously still peanuts when you consider salaries at the top of the game but still becomes a barrier for some. There is also the lack of opportunities in the game – there are a limited number of coaching and managerial positions to be filled.
Even media work doesn’t seem as straightforward as you imagine. Gary Lineker didn’t just turn up in the studio one day and start presenting. The section on ex-players in the media is probably the one where I found I was at divergence with Gernon, although not by much, as I don’t think he challenges the assertion of the TV execs that the public prefer ex-pros as pundits because they’ve been there, done that. I’m less in thrall to the cult of Gary Neville Pundit and actually like having programmes with football writers but as is the way with Gernon he addresses this argument and with specific reference to BT Sport’s European Football show (my favoured Sunday evening viewing). I would also like to have learnt a bit more about the media work and just how lucrative it is. My interest in this being stimulated by the fact that the same players seem to appear on a remarkable number of platforms – I noticed during the Euros a tweet from a bookmaker linking to a discussion on games and when I opened it there was Lee Dixon and another member of the ITV panel giving it the exact same as they had on the TV; similarly when channel hopping one night I noticed that Chelsea TV was free and the pundit was none other than Pat Nevin who seems to be on every channel (especially if you live in Scotland and listen to 5 Live, meaning it’s TV for Scottish football and radio for English) – not something I object to as I like Nevin, but it did make me wonder if they have to work so hard because it doesn’t pay that well outside of the main experts. This is a minor quibble with the book.
It’s not all doom and gloom though and there are plenty of positive stories as well – players who have retrained in sports sciences, sports psychology or who have chosen totally different careers. It also looks at possible solutions to the problems faced by players and the aforementioned Pat Nevin gives an intelligent view of the role of the PFA and the growth in other organisations trying to support ex-players is encouraging for the future.
Before I read the book I was half expecting a tale of two halves – high earning premier league players who blew their money and low earning lower league players who never made enough for retirement. Instead I got a far more nuanced sympathetic look at what happens when players at any level are no longer able to play. Gernon has given us an engrossing read, well researched and filled with insights from those affected and the professionals they seek help from. It’s well worth a read and may even alter your views a little about ex-players and how they cope with retirement.
Oh, and who wouldn’t buy a better house for their mum if they could afford it?