Uneasy Summers For The Discarded...

It's often tricky to have sympathy for footballers, but Daniel Storey asks you to feel for the hundreds that are released each year and spend the summer wrapped in uncertainty...

Last Updated: 16/07/13 at 14:02 Post Comment

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As a nation, we have a rather warped view of those careers that we consider to be desirable. Actors are continuously attending showbiz parties, musicians are sleeping with groupies and politicians get paid to eat fancy lunches - all products of our negatively-enforced generalisation. This is the reason we chastise such individuals so greatly when they fail to toe the line - we would kill for what you do, so how dare you f*ck it up?

Our stereotypical view of the footballer is that they welcome the end of the season with relief, utilising their summer breaks to live a celebrity lifestyle. Whilst supporters twiddle thumbs until August, players take the opportunity to rest aching limbs in exotic locations. I can't recommend enough the avoidance of such news stories as "Footballers on Holiday - The Boys of Summer."

However, whilst our typecast is evidently based on reality, such a view focuses purely on the loftier heights of the game. Ask League One or Two players whether they are looking forward to the summer, and a different picture emerges. For them, the end of the season potentially provides worry and angst rather than rest and relaxation.

The website of the Professional Footballers' Association has a gallery of all players released by their clubs after the end of last season and still unable to find a new club, a list that currently consists of 486 names. They range in age from 18 to 43, and have been released from Manchester United to Ebbsfleet United. These are the players that feared the summer, an average of three per club from the Barclays to the Blue Square Premiers.

Whilst at the highest level the downturn in economic climate may not seem to have diminished budgets, as you drop down the leagues financial prudence is a great deal more evident. Football League clubs are increasingly ruthless with players more loosely involved in first-team activities, preferring to utilise academy graduates over established professionals seen to be a greater drain on wage budgets. Contracts offered are of shorter lengths as standard, and the end of the season provides the danger of the dreaded call into the manager's office.

For a footballer, being released is a huge low. Many professionals have spoken about serious periods of depression and stress instigated by genuine concerns for your professional career with a family to feed. The stereotype of overpaid prima donnas may ring true in the Premier League, but in the lower leagues this is far from the truth. The average salary in League Two is £747 per week before tax, not a huge amount above the national average. Oshor Williams of the PFA describes the situation: "We are taking hundreds of calls from players whose contracts are finishing. For top-end players, the issue is a loss of identity and status, but for the lad who has been released by Accrington, the concern may be how to pay the mortgage"

The problem for footballers is that they are the Peter Pans of the modern day. As a rule, these are individuals that have played football for as long as they can remember, never attempting any other career or even fully committing to a childhood education - football is all that they know. A career in which you turn up at work to play with friends with whom you travel, share rooms, succeed and fail rather disconnects you from reality. Everything is timetabled and scripted, from daily training drills to pre-match meals and most things in between, meaning that players have never really been impelled to grow up. Add this dependence on fellow team mates to the forced emotional investment into the fortunes of the football club and its supporters, and when this bond is broken severe feelings of loss and emptiness are inevitable. Feeling like a detached individual in a team sport is a difficult concept to deal with easily, particularly if you have led something of a cocooned professional actuality.

This Peter Pan mindset is fully understandable. Being a footballer is a dream for many, but it is also a fragile existence. The constant risk of injury provides the realistic danger of significant time periods with little to fill the day, and the overhanging threat that a career could be ended at any point is real enough to be frightening. Just last week (on BBC's documentary Football's Suicide Secret) Clarke Carlisle revealed that he tried to take his own life after suffering from extended injury whilst at QPR, and Leon McKenzie has previously publicised the same. Confidence and a clear head are so crucial for effective performance that players must live for the moment, banishing any thoughts of negativity. If you were continuously worried about personal injury every time you crossed the white line, could you perform to the best of your ability? Therefore heads are simply buried in the sand, and upon the busting of the bubble, a dramatic fall out ensues.

We could be critical of players for not thinking of the future, but we are similarly all guilty of living for the moment to some extent. Most of us spend more on payday weekend than we should, and we all spend as if the status quo will continue unabated. We avoid the 'Where will you be in ten years' time?' question because it forces us to examine our current condition, raising doubts about our lives. In the same situation as Football League players, can we honestly say we would react differently or with more maturity, or do we simply have the benefit of hindsight?

As the summer progresses things begin to get more frantic. Players can keep themselves fit with personal discipline, but as their peers begin pre-season training their fitness levels will inevitably improve. As the new season approaches and a new opportunity has still not been sourced, decisions must be made. Do you attempt to pick up some part-time work to ensure some sort of income, or drop to a level below your ability on a pittance with the hope of being re-scouted by a higher-profile club?

One option that we consistently promote is for those in such positions to move abroad. This was the strategy taken by Rohan Ricketts, who after playing for Arsenal, Spurs, Wolves and Barnsley moved to Toronto FC in 2008. However, whilst Ricketts should be praised for his bravery, the negative aspect of his choice soon became apparent. "I decided I wanted to return to England as I was a better player and a more mature person, but I was hit with so much negative news. There were not many teams who were even willing to take a look at me. They had forgotten I was even playing because they don't watch the MLS. It really did get to me, and some people don't have my patience and actually do leave their sports for another job."

Although we champion the emigration of our players (principally because we believe it would help our national team) it is impossible to overstate the upheaval such a move causes to partners and families. Furthermore, such moves provide anything but a certain future, with foreign moves littered with the danger of broken promises and unfulfilled ambitions. As Ricketts states, it is frequently far easier to move away than to return back home. Below Championship level, it is often rare for players to have agents, so instead they must hope to arrange deals through word of mouth or contacts at other clubs. Such plans are difficult to instigate.

So, while their more illustrious peers may have been undergoing vital recuperation, there are 486 players currently sat by the phone, wanting and waiting for it to ring. I understand that it is extremely difficult for supporters to generate any sympathy for footballers, such is our deep-rooted view of their lifestyles, but in this context consideration and compassion should not be discouraged. Being out of work in the only industry for which you are designed and trained is no fun for anyone.

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