WRITTEN BY LOUIS LANGDOWN — APRIL 3, 2019
At 26 years of age and 7 years after his release from then League One side AFC Bournemouth, former professional footballer Alex Parsons has finally found a new career as a personal trainer. In a candid interview for the Football Family website, Alex speaks of untold truths in his struggle with uncertainty, depression, anxiety and lack of motivation for anything other than football. Chance encounters, true friendships, and a rekindling romance with the game serve as evidence that with time, support and strength there is work and life after football.
Now a business owner who combines working full time as a personal trainer with playing football for Worthing FC he admits;
“Nothing grabs you like football. I couldn’t get excited about a new career, I still wanted the occupation on my passport to say professional footballer”.
A two year plumbing apprenticeship and working with his father, a stint in the big smoke as a salesman, and a brief sideline in modelling plot his work journey. A season with the Nike Academy, he credits as saving him from quitting football entirely, and the transition to part-time footballer run parallel. The influence of non league football is discussed in equal measures of beauty and brutality.
On the week the League Football Education open registration for ‘assessment day trials’, the release of Alex’s story is poignant. Marketed as your clubs last opportunity to unearth a gem and start recruiting early from the hundreds of 18-20 years olds determined to find a route back into the professional game, it is for the majority quite simply the last chance saloon. The likelihood of a successful one match trial playing in a cobbled team all desperate to perform? Slim, improbable, remote… please insert your own preference of the verb ‘unlikely’. The stark reality, fail to impress the invited scouts and the indignation of ‘unemployed footballer’ beckons.
LOOSING YOUR JOB AND ‘KNOWING FOOTBALL’
“You don’t really think you’ve made it, but you do. I’m training everyday and often the message is to work hard, knuckle down and do more than the next man”.
There is a time in football that everyone becomes anxious, not just the players but staff, owners, sponsors and supporters. For the Scholar it’s ‘decision day’, when they are retained or released. January when the contracted player has only the season remaining on their deal. And at anytime if the teams not winning, or when their is a managerial chance.
It’s true a few of the non playing squad members view a change in leadership as a new opportunity, but the majority feel some uncertainty over how many new faces will be on the new gaffers shopping list.
“I was called up after training by the new manager and told in a brief conversation that I would be ‘let go’ and told if I could fix myself up before the end of my deal to do so.
You can almost handle the decision at the time, I was still in digs, still training and full of hope I’d find another team.
But I had no agent, an unsuccessful trial at Brighton and then the exit trial. Well that was horrendous, poorly organised, a complete shambles and if there where scouts there I’d be surprised. The car journey back home was tough, it was dead silent, I didn’t want to talk and this is where it first hit me, I was low and had no idea what to do”.
I had to prompt Alex here, I needed to know why he was so low. His reply instantly hit me.
“You don’t really know football unless you’re in it”. You know what it’s like Lou…”.
What is it like being a footballer? I can’t answer that as I was never a footballer. What is it like being in football? Well that I can answer. The world of Football is an unbelievable place, full of emotion, mostly good, sometimes bad, but always ‘alive’ and ‘buzzing’.
Pitch yourself with 30 like minded people of similar age, add a competitive edge, throw in a highly charged atmosphere, a set of agreed rules, and you’ve created a culture. Your culture. You walk and breathe a shared existence. It’s a way of life, only your squad number or initials printed on the training kit an identifiable difference. Only those in football understand the little nuances unique to the training ground environment, and these rarely leave you. To this day I can’t walk in a public shower room without flip flops on, address Dowie, Taylor, Warnock, Bradbury, Whittingham, Barker or Awford as anything other than ‘gaffer’. It’s the only place of work I know that on arrival you embrace each other with a hand shake (or fist pump depending on your age), train twice a day either pitch-side or in the gym, eat lunch together, and leave with the exact same embrace.
You’re connected, you have a sense of belonging. At its strongest you’re a family who care and support each other, at its lowest you’re an army who battle and protect each other. To know football, you have to be in football.
“I went from being surrounded by good friends everyday, training and playing football to not wanting to go outside, not wanting to see anyone.
Everywhere I went for the few months after my release people would ask me how football was? What am I doing, who am I with? I couldn’t face it, I had no answers, I was nowhere. So I removed myself from it, stayed in and trained alone, it was tough tough time”.
This presents a disturbing side affect to footballers removed from the inner circle. That sense of belonging and camaraderie are no longer there. Everyone will have, or will find, a coping mechanism to deal with this. For Alex, his coping mechanism arrived from those that reached out to him, probably without even themselves knowing.
“I needed to be around people that knew football, who understood the game and knew how I was feeling”.
Empathy arrived in his teammate and friend Shaun Cooper.
FRIENDS, LIKE MINDED PEOPLE, CHANCE ENCOUNTERS, AND THE NIKE ACADEMY
“A good friend and team mate Shaun Cooper took me in and I stayed with him for a while, I had no income and now no digs without a playing contract and he’d offer advice and chat things through. Another great bloke, Ryan Garry and the Nike Academy stopped me from quitting football all together at 20”.
The Nike Academy was a funded project by mega sports brand Nike. Run with the intention of helping a revolving squad of unsigned under 20 players find a professional club. Ryan Garry was a casualty, like this author, of the organisational change in management at AFCB. Released from his first senior coaching role the former Arsenal and AFCB defender became the lead coach of the fulltime Academy based at Loughborough University. Now professional development coach at Arsenal FC, his ‘connection’ to Alex allowed for this opportunity to arise.
“To be honest I debated doing it, but it was just what I needed, we where all lads in the same boat, we’d experienced the low points, we felt the same and it really was a class set up. We played show games at Barcelona, Espanyol, Man United, Exeter, it was unreal.
If it wasn’t for that year I’d have walked away from football. I know that, 100 percent I would have quit”.
Michael Calvin’s highly acclaimed book ‘No Hunger in Paradise‘ provides this sobering statistic. ‘Only 180 of the 1.5 million boys who play organised youth football in Britain, will become a Premier League Pro’. However, it is a surprise to witness Alex struggle to think of any of his former AFCB Scholars still playing, at any level! We come up with Dan Strugnell at Conference National side Havant & Waterlooville. The likes of Danny Ings (Burnley, Liverpool, Southampton and England) and Jayden Stockley (Aberdeen, Exeter, Preston North End among others) are notable friends to make the AFC Bournemouth first team, but fall a year either side of his age group.
The importance of being with like minded people strikes me here. Cooper and Garry, among others, tipped the balance for Alex. And for players now looking for new clubs, the power of your existing network should not be underestimated. Think of the many managers, coaches, sports scientists, and players who have known you as footballer. These are valuable connections in a world still openly operational on ‘who you know’. So reach out!
Clubs now run initiatives such as ‘alumni programmes’, whereby released youth players can access support and stay in touch. The influence of such great initiatives are very much reliant on the vigour of club staff to instigate and pursue contact and support. It will get better, more refined and purposeful I’m sure. With the now defunct Nike Academy, along with Glenn Hoddle’s pioneering Spanish Academy, the choices for unsigned players are limited. It’s trial dependent, which requires two things; an active and connected agent, or coaching staff with a network of extensive contacts and influence. The player has little or no ability to pursue leads themselves, although many try with chance emails in what feel desperate times. Every football club produces, and is compliant with, a detailed ‘exit strategy’. Under the remit of the education and welfare department a number of pathways are identified and various exposure to educational courses commence. The American soccer scholarship presentation always adds an air of glamour to the otherwise less glitzy options.
Position yourself in that audience at 18 years of age. Picture your surroundings. Are you sitting in a classroom decorated in your team colours? The club crest stunningly emblazoned on any material or vantage point acting as a constant reminder of ‘who’ and ‘where’ you are. Seats, carpets, stationary, screen savers, even windows, majestically promote your identity. Are you now reading the motivational quotes splashed over the team coloured walls; ‘Potential into Excellence’, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’? Amid the mass of wall mounted images celebrating the ‘academy production line’ of this magnificent multi million-pound purpose build football training centre, I’m afraid for some the die is cast. Could you listen attentively to a list of possible apprenticeship schemes and vocational courses presented as viable options to football and footballer? Did you hear anything that grabbed you? Unlikely. But as Alex testifies…..
“This feeling doesn’t last, it’s ok for you to feel unmotivated right now, I mean nothing grabs you like football”.
BECOMING A PART TIME FOOTBALLER
Unable to secure a move on the back of the show games while at the Nike Academy, the next step was non league. The very real prospect of Tuesday and Thursday evenings training and a day job. Alex signed for National Conference South side Whitehawk and immediately learned two things.
“Non league is a much better standard that I ever realised, there are proper players combining a career with football, and some teams offer very good money.
This team was full of characters, some older lads on their way down from the pro game mixed with young lads looking to make their way up. But here was I doing nothing in the daytime, not because I was lazy, I was just stuck”
For Alex breaking point arrived while on loan at Hampton & Richmond after a period of limited game time. Ask any footballer, injuries aside it’s the training and ‘not’ playing that really affects their mental state.
“I’ve never spoken to anyone about this, but I cried to my mum in the car on my home after not making the squad, I just had no idea what I was doing and now I can’t break into the Hampton side. You have to remember you’re two or three years behind your mates, they’ve graduated from college or university, they have jobs and careers”.
It had come, the moment of realisation. The occupation on his passport needed an update. A little over 3 years after he was ‘let go’ and as the tears roll down his face, and in the presence of his mother, he knew.
“After the Nike Academy, I still thought I could get a full-time club, two years at plumbing college and working with my dad, who I get on so well with, and staying as high in non league as possible was my route back to a full time club. But plumping just wasn’t for me, so I tried being a Salesman in London and commuted from home (Worthing) and played for Bognor Regis.
I loved my time at Bognor, they played football the right way, it helped they had a decent gaffer and good players. Clubs at non league vary massively with facilities, some are dead, terrible. Others have pretty much state of the art facilities like 3G pitches, Gyms and decent stadiums. But for me, the most important thing is the coaching staff and set of lads. The kindest thing I can say is about sales is that I wasn’t for me. Football at Bognor was giving me the balance I needed, I was loving it. You know what it’s like in the changing room, it’s a great place to be”.
When Alex unexpectedly won the Sun Newspapers “Hunk Hunt” a future modelling career aside, there was no hiding place in the changing room. Cue the inevitable nicknames, a fine, and picture cut outs plastered on every inch of Bognors Nyewood Lane base.
“You expect a bit of a ribbing once the lads catch wind of it, it’s the football way. Deep down everyone is happy for me, but they can’t show that, and it all helps to add to the atmosphere and you know full well it will be someone else’s turn to take a hit soon enough”.
A years modelling contract with London agent Nevs reward for the competition winner and a change in occupation, for a short time at least. Alex moved to Worthing FC and heaps further praise on the club, the coaching staff, and their support in allowing him the time to devote to his new business.
“I obviously had my PT course to attend and pass even before I could concentrate on building the business and brand. I was lucky, the Gaffer (Adam Hinshelwood) understood and gave me time off training to push myself. He and Jamie Howell at Bognor were both managers that you could work with, they listened and helped. I think the fact they’d both been ex pro’s and that Hinsh (Hinshelwood) had recently been coaching at Brighton (Brighton & Hove Albion FC) Academy meant they had a real understanding of my situation. I can’t praise them and both clubs enough for helping me play and get myself sorted work wise. Worthing FC where I am now has played a huge part in me being settled on and off the pitch, the way the club is run and the direction it’s going with Hinsh as the gaffer is something I want to be part of.
“To any young lads out there who have been released please recognise that there can be happiness found in non-league football”.
This refreshing approach seems to be paying dividends. Alex is skippering the Bostik League Premier side to a promotion push with Worthing FC currently occupying a spot in the play-offs with just 4 games of the season remaining. Here the message is clear. It’s two fold. Do not judge your experiences of one non club with another. If Alex quit after his difficult time on loan at Hampton & Richmond from Whitehawk he’d never have found those good times at Bognor, or now at Worthing. Also, find coaching staff that invest in you outside of football, who can understand your situation and can empathise with your need to find that new career. In stealing Alex’s words ‘football sucks you in and spits you out’, so embrace the bad, and revel in the good.
ALEX PARSONS FITNESS “NO HARD FEELINGS”.
“Seeing one of us make it big is brilliant. Just to know that someone’s playing at the top, it’s a pleasure”.
Alex is talking of his friendship with Danny Ings, his former AFCB scholar team mate and now established Premier League striker. I instantly know what he’s talking about. Wade Elliott was my Danny Ings, the one player to make it in our age group. You know the sacrifices they make to get to the top. I know the same joy and pride we shared in Wade scoring the winning goal at Wembley to get Burnley FC promoted to Premier League, was felt by him when one pal opened his restaurant, another graduated from University, and a couple of others won their first game as a non league management duo.
“We know each others journey and as proud as I am when I watch Danny playing for Saints, he feels the same watching me at Worthing and seeing my business grow. I truly believe everything happens for a reason and I certainly have no regrets or hard feelings about how my career went. I mean I’d have missed the brilliant holidays, my friends and families’ weddings, and all those things you take for granted, these are the things you have to sacrifice as a top player. Why are we proud of each other? Because we started with the same dream and at some point we both thought this might not happen, we might not make it.
I know what Dan’s gone through to make it to where he is now and that I have huge admiration for. Trust me that journey isn’t all pink and fluffy like most think. I’ve been with him in the car home after games as a youth team player to him playing in the Champions League and I can promise you now the feelings I have after a win or a loss, after a good or bad performance at Worthing in non-league is exactly how Dan feels after his games. No matter what crowds you’re playing in front of or how big the occasion, sometimes you can feel alone.
Remember Danny went on loan to Dorchester Town before breaking into the Cherries team. I know when he looks at me he’s thinking could I have done that? Kept playing and found a new career and started a new business”
The last part of the interview is very interesting. I asked Alex why ‘personal training’?
“As a footballer you learn many things from knowledgeable people, we are told what to eat, how to train, I mean it’s so supported nowadays. I just took the things I knew and enjoyed doing. Plumbing and sales didn’t work, my release from those jobs was football. Now for my clients I know their release from their lifestyle is me and my training regimes.
It’s like a full cycle, I’ve used what was once my support network in professional football to be the ‘team’ of support for my clients’. It gives me pleasure and the motivation to know I’m helping people feel good, live healthier, and change physically and mentally for the better”.
Where stories of plumbers, salesmen, models and personal trainers plucked from non league by professional clubs catch the countries imagination, we can identify with an under dog, or the proverbial rags to riches story. From factory worker to Premier League winner with Leicester City, we all know the magnificent rise of England international Jamie Vardy. It is an easy pill to swallow. The Ian Wright of my generation. Such is the significance of the former Northern Premier League players influence on the perception on non league that we witness a sea change in mentality and recruitment of professional clubs. Non league is now seen as a visible talent pool for new players and the battle to find the ‘next Jamie Vardy’ is in full swing. Add the creation of his own V9 Academy designed to offer education, coaching and promotion of non league talent, his legacy builds.
Substitute that single story with the hundreds annually who struggle to transition out of professional football. These contrasting stories of the turbulent landscape of the non league pyramid, and the search for an alternative career, are barely whispered.
These young adults deserve the same accolades, and we should applaud the character and openness of those that walk in Alex’s shoes. For his story serves as a stark reminder to the ‘unemployed young footballer’ that there is another career, and there is always football.