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Why more footballers should be studying for degrees

January 26, 2017 in Opinion

The only certainty in the life of a professional footballer is that one day they will become an ex-professional footballer.

Some have long careers at the elite end of the sport and invest wisely for their retirement.

Others find themselves released by clubs and unable to find a new one in their early 20s or even younger. More still never get offered pro deals in the first place.

According to the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), of those entering the game aged 16, two years down the line, 50% will be outside professional football. At 21, the attrition rate is 75% or above.

The question is: are young footballers getting the education they need to prepare them for life outside the game?

First-class honours

Many aspiring pros leave school at 16 with a handful of GCSEs, go into full-time football and spend one day a week at college.

Most are pinning their hopes on ‘making it’ but, as the statistics show, the vast majority of them won’t.

So perhaps more should follow the example of Sunderland and England U21 striker Duncan Watmore (pictured above).

In 2015, Watmore graduated from Newcastle University in BA Economics & Business Management, becoming only the second Premier League player gain first-class honours.

Watmore started his degree whilst playing semi-professionally with Altrincham. After joining the Black Cats, he managed to complete his degree, achieving the highest grade possible.

PFA help

According to a report by Xpro.org, an organisation established to assist former professional footballers of all ages, two out of five players are made bankrupt within five years of ending their playing careers, often because they have little education or training to fall back on.

Mindful of the problem, the PFA provides members with many opportunities aimed at their transition into life after football.pfa

Among those backing its work in this area is Bradley Pritchard, who featured in Sky’s ‘Out of Contract’ documentary about players left in limbo after being cut by their clubs.

Like Watmore, the midfielder began his career in the semi-professional game before going on to play for Charlton, Leyton Orient and Stevenage.

At 31, he is now back in non-league with Greenwich Borough but, with the PFA’s help, has added a law qualification to his first degree and is aiming to become a solicitor.

Another testimony on the PFA’s website comes from Carlisle defender Michael Raynes, who graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016 with a degree in Sports Science.

“I’ve always wanted to do something, my career has always been that of a lower-league footballer, so you always know that you’ll have to get a job when you finish there’s no two ways about it,” he says.

“It’s not like the Premier League players who are financially set. We know that we’ll need a job after, so I’ve always had in my mind that I wanted to have the best opportunity to do something that I enjoy and that’s how I looked at it.

“It was an opportunity for me to determine where my path after football goes instead of clutching at things and trying to find a job.”

No appeal

So why, with testimonies like these available to inspire footballers, are so many players finishing their careers with little education to fall back on?

For many, football is a way out of having to rely on qualifications to get a job. It’s their route to wealth, fame and acclaim, and it sidelines thoughts of college or university.

“Maybe it’s better to take the route of Pritchard and Watmore, who didn’t go through the professional academy system and completed their education first?”

In the higher leagues, young players are offered huge amounts of money and have agents taking care of everything for them. They are thrust into the limelight and think it will be on them forever.

Former professional Stephen O’Halloran was forced to think about life after football when two cruciate ligament injuries during his time at Aston Villa forced him to quit the pro ranks and go semi-professional.

He qualified as a physiotherapist, graduating from University of Salford in 2016 whilst playing for Salford City part-time, and now had a full-time job in the NHS thanks to his degree.

O’Halloran told the PFA website: “I made the decision about four years ago [aged 24] that I didn’t want to be going from club to club without anything to back me up.

“I was about to sign for Nuneaton in the National League when I got onto the course with the help of [assistant director of education] Oshor Williams at the PFA.”

Better off in education than academies

Watmore and Pritchard’s stories are different to those of O’Halloran and Raynes. The latter were young professionals who went back into education once they realised that football wasn’t a lifelong career.

Watmore and Pritchard completed their education and degrees before becoming pro footballers, and that fact begs the question if the fault lies with the academies of professional clubs.

The fact that older players are having to go back into education once the penny drops about brevity of their careers is surely down to a lack of guidance given to them as young pros.

Academies need to do more to encourage young professionals to go university, or study things other than sports science and exercise at college, to give them the best chance at finding what’s best for them after football.

So maybe it’s better to take the route of Pritchard and Watmore, who didn’t go through the professional academy system and completed their education first?

Carlisle reaches out after taming his demons

November 21, 2016 in Interviews

Not a day passes where Clarke Carlisle does not think about 22 December 2014. On that wet, gloomy morning he stepped in front of a lorry travelling at around 60mph on the A64 in North Yorkshire. 

Having been charged with drink-driving just hours earlier, the former Queens Park Rangers and Burnley defender had hit rock bottom. No hope remained. The only way out was to end his life.

Two years after his near-death experience, the first thing that strikes you when speaking to the one-time chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association is how open he is when discussing his suicide attempt.

The 37-year-old says his outlook is now more positive, but admits that life is still far from perfect. He still has dark times but the worst has passed and now his main focus is discussing these issues with the wider public.

“Things are incredible right now but that doesn’t mean life is a bed of roses,” he says.

“What it means is that whenever pressures or stresses come on in my life or when I get uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anxiety or anger, I now know how to cope with them and process them.

“I know how to handle that in a constructive manner so on a day to day basis, life is very good.”

Depression

Many factors contributed to Carlisle’s fragile state of mind but the main one was struggling to adjust to retirement from football.

Although he suffered from depression throughout his career, when he finished his career at Northampton Town in 2013 aged 34, he no longer had a sense of purpose or direction in life.

“There are a lot of outside factors that can contribute to a deepening depression,” admits the Lancastrian.

“One of the factors for me was the transition from playing football and going into another industry. Even though I had another job lined up and I went straight into broadcasting with ITV, the loss of structure and the loss of identity was hard for me.

“When you’re an elite athlete, every day has a strong goal and focus, but when I came out of that and I was working in broadcasting, I was only contracted to do 36 days a year, which even if it was an overnight stay it was 72 days a year.

“I had no structure in what to do and even if I did fill that time with going for a run or anything like that, it wasn’t something that contributed to a greater goal.”

Carlisle says being part of an industry which kept reminding him of the one he had left was also not particularly helpful.

“I was commentating on players and I knew I was better than them or I could do just as good as job as them.

“There was a lot of feelings of failure that came around that and that was very tough to deal with, plus the standard pressures of bills to pay and the loss of income.

“The fundamental factor was that I didn’t have a coping mechanism. I didn’t have a way to understand what those stresses were and how to process them in a constructive manner. I was basically running away in the destructive way that I used to.”

Aftermath 

Life after his suicide attempt and deepening depression was difficult for Carlisle’s friends and family, a situation which in hindsight he calls “disgusting”.

“It’s incredibly hard to articulate the [impact] it had on my wife when I was married at the time, my children, my parents and on my siblings,” he said.

“All the old coping strategies like getting drunk or hiding or isolation, they are no longer a part of my life”

“They were coming to visit me in hospital to offer me love and support but I was still there telling them I wanted to die.

“It’s not as though I immediately changed my mindset and my approach around life as soon as I got into hospital.

“There was a long period of purgatory where I was in that frame of mind that I wanted to kill myself. The impact on those around me was disgusting.

“Going through psychiatric hospitals was hard but being there for six weeks was incredibly important to start the beginning of me turning that journey around.”

Handling depression 

The man named as Britain’s Brainiest Footballer in 2002 after appearing on a TV quiz says his progression from running away to now confronting his problems is a big factor in his recovery.

“I was an emotional retard when I went to psychiatric hospital,” he admits. “However, the journey that I have gone on since has been all about understanding myself.

“I now understand the individual emotions that I’m feeling and I understand that I need to feel them, and I need to be able to be at ease with those emotions.

“When I’m feeling incredibly sad or fearful or anxious, I now know what to do in order to help me get through that. It might be going and talking to someone or it might be calming and centering myself by using prayers or meditation.

“That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel or I hide or avoid emotions, it means I now understand and acknowledge them and I meet them face on and that’s made such a huge difference to my life.

“All the old coping strategies like getting drunk or hiding or isolation, they are no longer a part of my life because I know they aren’t necessary.”

Lack of understanding 

In the past, sport has been criticised for failing to understand depression, and Carlisle says the main reason why people within football take physical injuries more seriously is down to an absence of awareness.

“There is a distinct lack of understanding but it’s just not in the game, it’s in society in general,” claims the former England U21 player.

“Even though things are being done to address the issue, the fundamental knowledge in how to support someone in these situations is lacking across all industries. It isn’t football’s fault, it’s a societal problem.

“Football has the money, the time and the resources to be able to create a support template that other industries could adopt. They need to look after the health and safety of their employees at the workplace.

“People don’t engage and understand what mental health is. One of the factors is that it’s intangible. A broken leg is visible whereas with mental health issues, it’s the mind that is injured but it’s not something that can be seen.

“It is all about basic understanding and education. The way we can try and change that is by educating children so when they grow up and become the decision makers, they will know how to make far more informed decisions about situations and circumstances that are relevant to sufferers.”

Support network 

Although his life will continue to have good and bad moments, Carlisle is now aware on how to face his problems head on.

He speaks at awareness events for many charities, but his own foundation the Clarke Carlisle Foundation for Dual Diagnosis is continuing to help others with mental health issues.

“You don’t have to stand up and tell the world… but it is mandatory that you tell somebody”

“By being public about it and putting support mechanisms out there, it’s given people permission to acknowledge what is going on in their lives and has given them a chance to seek support and seek an emphatic ear,” he explained.

“It’s wonderful but it’s also good for me because as much as I’m helping others, it’s helping me because it normalises with what I’m going through as well. The illness itself makes people believe that they don’t have no one to speak to and no one wants to listen but that is utter rubbish.

“There is always people out there, whether it be your GP or charities etc, but there are so many people out there who want to listen and want to help and who can help.

“My advice would be: you don’t have to stand up and tell the world and you don’t have to tell everybody, but it is mandatory that you tell somebody. It’s from there that you can begin to engage with a support pathway.”

Follow Clarke Carlisle on Twitter @CCforDD 

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255

Millar contemplates life after the final whistle

October 24, 2016 in Interviews

Chris Millar was the golden boy once but, as he enters the latter stages of his professional career, he is becoming more like the olden boy.

At the age of 33, the St Johnstone midfielder is no longer a man in a hurry, content to play a waiting game and win back his place in the Saints’ first team.

The man nicknamed ‘Midge’, is undoubtedly one of the most colourful and passionate figures in Scottish football.

In a career spanning 13 years, which began training alongside the likes of Henrik Larsson at Celtic and is now approaching its end, Millar has never been too far away from the headlines.

Whether it was winning St Johnstone their first-ever Scottish Cup in 2014, experiencing European football in the Europa League or contemplating a move to Australia, his career has been eventful.

However off the pitch, the Glasgow-born player is forging as impressive career for himself as a sports journalist.

“Ultimately, my hope is to host something, a bit like Gary Lineker. Whether that happens or not time will tell, but like anything it’s about opportunity and working hard to create that”

After working for broadcasters including BT Sport, Millar is optimistic about the future and once he decides to hang up his boots.

The former Greenock Morton player is setting his sights high in a career in broadcasting.

“I think there is definitely a realisation that life after football has to be planned for,” admits Millar.

“Not every player earns the money that will keep them ticking for the rest of their days, especially in Scotland.

“Many players are aware of it and are making plans once their career is over, and the PFA are doing a great job in highlighting this issue.”

Chris Millar on duty as a journalist

Despite the criticism that former players get once they land a role in the media, Millar insists that he wants to try and change the views of professional footballers.

“I think at times some players think there is an agenda within the media to sell units,” he says.

“As a former player, I do not have an agenda to push. I just want to report the events as honestly as I can and try to open up the game more to the public.

“My main aim is to show the public about what goes on at football clubs with players, managers, etc.

“I enjoy most aspects of journalism like writing, broadcasting both radio and TV. I have done work in all three and I have held down a slot as a pundit on radio and I work for a national paper.

“Ultimately, my hope is to host something, a bit like Gary Lineker. Whether that happens or not time will tell, but like anything it’s about opportunity and working hard to create that.”

University life

For many players, their first port after retirement is to become a coach or manager. After initially contemplating this, Millar chose to broaden his horizons – and he says completing a degree at Staffordshire University was one of the best decisions he ever made.

“I have always wanted to stay involved in the game,” he says. “It’s all I have known since I was a 17-year-old at Celtic so it is important for me to stay involved.

“As a pro, I think you can relate more to players as you’ve been through many of the things they go through so it gives you an insight that not many journalists have”

“When I saw that I could do a sports broadcasting degree whilst still playing, it got me thinking, so it really came from there.

“Many players want to go into coaching so there is only going to be so many jobs going around. I enjoy using my brain and learning new skills so for me it is interesting to use a different skills-set.

“As a pro, I think you can relate more to players as you’ve been through many of the things they go through so it gives you an insight that not many journalists have.”

Most individuals would struggle to manage their professional and academic lives, but Millar has balanced both and he says even though it was difficult, it was worth it in the end.

“It was tough, don’t get me wrong,” admits the Scot.

“Juggling footy, two kids and a degree takes time and effort. However, in the end it paid off as I gained a first class degree. By using my brain again, I enjoyed learning a whole new skill set.

“The funny thing is that I played some of my best football whilst studying. It gave my mind something else to focus on – it’s good to have a release from that.”

The return of the Old Firm 

With the return of Rangers to Scotland’s top division, the competition in the league has gained an intensity that it had been missing in recent years.

Despite the likes of Celtic, Aberdeen and Rangers being touted as the ‘big boys’, Millar’s St Johnstone have continued to progress under manager Tommy Wright, a journey Millar says will continue.

“We’ve been up there the last few seasons and as a club we now see ourselves as a top four side, so we will continue to improve and progress as a team.”

“The return of Rangers has been huge for Scottish football,” he says.

“They bring a bigger spotlight to the league and obviously you have the Old Firm derby back which is a huge game. As a player, you want to play in front of big crowds and I have honestly missed playing at Ibrox.

“We [St Johnstone] have started well but ultimately I do not think we can win the league. However, I do not see any reason to why we cannot challenge for the other top four spots.

“We’ve been up there the last few seasons and we now see ourselves as a top four side, so we will continue to improve and progress.”

Scotland’s World Cup adventure 

Scotland and RB Leipzig’s Oliver Burke

Looking at the national team, Scotland’s qualification campaign for the Russia 2018 World Cup has not been going well, and in November manager Gordon Strachan faces a huge test – against England, at Wembley.

“Results have not been good enough ultimately,” says Millar.”I compare ourselves to teams of the other home nations and when I look at them, man for man we have as much if not more talent than them yet they have just been to the Euros and we have not. That is not good enough,” he says.

“The last two results in the qualifiers were poor and it means we must now go onto beat England. If we lose that then for me, Strachan must go.”

As Millar points out, Scotland have a number of star players and one of the most highly-regarded is former Nottingham Forest and current RB Leipzig player Oliver Burke.

His goal for Leipzig against FC Koln made the 19-year-old Scotland international the first Scot to score in the Bundesliga since Brian O’Neil for VFL Wolfsburg in November 1999.

“He has all the physical attributes needed in modern football,” insists Millar. “He is athletic, quick and he can score.

“He is still very young and he has a long way to go but I think going to Germany will enhance his learning. More players should try to play abroad as I think it can only enhance your development as a player.”

Not calling it quits yet

Despite his age and planning for the longer term, Millar insists he is not yet done with playing football.

“I have been at the club for nine years and had some amazing memories and success with St Johnstone”

“I have an ambition to play as long as I can as I love the game and feel I still have plenty to offer,” says the midfielder.

“I had issues with injuries last season but that is behind me. There is still life in my legs yet and I do not feel that I am off the pace. When I do feel that, then that is the time to stop.

“I am fit now and have been for most of the season so far, so I am ready to play when called upon. I know when I get back in the team, I will play well and then get my chance again.

“I have been at the club for nine years and had some amazing memories and success with St Johnstone. I have achieved things that I wanted in my career like playing in Europe, winning trophies and playing at the highest level in Scotland.

“It is a fantastic community-based club with loyal fans who have made me feel like one of them. It will always have a place in my heart.”

Chris Millar is on Twitter @MidgeyMiller

Review – Out of Contract

October 19, 2016 in Opinion

“You’re a product. If you are doing well, people would want to buy you.”

Sky Sports documentary Out of Contract followed five professional footballers from different levels of the game and in different stages of their careers.

According to the Professional Footballers Association, 75% of pro players who find themselves out of contract at U-21 level fall out of full-time football for good.

Out of Contract revealed the struggles that players released by their clubs go through as they search for a new one.

Michael Collins is a journeyman midfielder who you might not have come across as he plied his trade with the likes of Huddersfield, Scunthorpe an Oxford.

The former Republic of Ireland U-21 international made a bold choice when he left Oxford by mutual consent and went to play for Bengaluru FC in the Indian Premier League in order to provide for his family.

Collins, 30, won his first ever career title with Bengaluru. However since then, he has struggled to find a new club.

Contrast

Bengaluru coach Ashley Westwood said: “You can earn more here [in India] than in League Two.”

As the Indian Premier League is gaining popularity, more players in the same situation as Collins, are making that move abroad in order to earn a living, find fresh challenges and remain in the sport that they love.

Of course, football is a game of huge contrasts, and whilst millionaire superstars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic line up their next lucrative move, lesser lights may have to consider entirely new careers.

Out of Contract highlighted the case of Bradley Pritchard who, after being released by Leyton Orient last season, decided to enter the legal profession and now has a new job as a paralegal.

The documentary brought home that these footballers are normal people just like us; often facing life-changing decisions as they battle to make the best of things for themselves and their families.

Factors

There can be a long list of factors that can jeopardise a potential transfer.

Peter Odemwingie (above, main photo) was due to move to Hull City before the 2016/17 season. The manager at the time, Steve Bruce, was a huge admirer of the player. Everything was all set until Bruce resigned and the move was off.

Odemwingie also turned down offers from across the world to focus on his family. Sometimes, it is not all about football and there are other commitments which are more important.

Success

Most of the footballers featured eventually found new clubs, but often at a lesser level and, consequently, on lower wages.

Emmanuel Sonupe, 20, was at Tottenham for 10 years before being released when his contact expired. The midfielder had trials at clubs such as QPR and Leicester before signing a one-year deal with League One Northampton Town.

Former Watford and Bolton forward Marvin Sordell found himself in the same situation as Sonupe, albeit at the age of 25.

Released by Colchester at the end of an initially promising but then injury-hit 2015-16 season, Sordell had various offers from around the world before deciding to join Coventry City on a one-year deal.

Hope

The message that came across in Out of Contract was if you continue to work hard and strive to stay in the professional game at some level, you will see success at the end of the road.

For those whose best efforts are still not enough, the PFA provides training courses and support for players who find themselves having to hang up their boots and consider other options.

Any footballer who find their career not going to plan should take some inspiration from Bradley Pritchard and his new vocation in the legal profession.

Out of Contract wove his and the stories of other players into an exceptional documentary. Whether you’re a football fan or not, their tales of overcoming adversity and battling the odds make it a must-watch programme.

Image courtesy of Sky Sports

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