A career change for any footballer is inevitable. The time will come when you are unable to earn a living playing the game you love. For the younger professional or the scholar failing to earn their first contract, transition is often sudden and involuntary. Deselection at this stage of the footballing journey often leaves only one option, a change in occupation.
So when you find a success story such as George Branford, a now thriving business owner and fitness expert, we are duty bound to share it, celebrate it, and learn from it. George opens with;
“Imagine if you only apply half the effort and discipline it takes to make it in football, and to get as far as you did in the most competitive industry, and put that into a career or business. You’ll not only stand out from the rest, but you will succeed”.
George’s background story is unfortunately not unusual in football. A promising midfield player whose undoubted talent rewarded with a decade on the books of first Chelsea, and latterly, Portsmouth Football Club. Nathaniel Chalobah, Adam Webster and John Swift a few household names to grace the pitch with George during their formative years. The future looked bright as he juggled adolescence with secondary education and focused training sessions, all in pursuit of the dream. Finally, that day came as Portsmouth FC presented George his first professional contract.
But almost as soon as it came, it went. At the end of the season George was informed that his contract would not be renewed. He now faces the unknown. Ten years he’d identified as a footballer, so what now? It may be that you are a young player reading this, or chances are you may know someone in this place right now. So please read on. George is determined to show YOU that there is a new passion ready to replace your love of football. YOU can thrive in a new career and YOU can harness those experiences gained from your football education to assist in this major transition.
“My advice for young players going through a career change would be that there is so much more to life than football. Outside the bubble of football you can achieve things you never knew, you can create your own pathway and you no longer need to rely on others opinions to decide on how successful you will be”.
This mindset might seem a long way off for some. When the news of your release arrives there will be TRAUMA. We know the extent of the trauma is often linked to both the ‘timing’, and the lack of ‘control’ in the decision process. Someone has decided your time is up. The more sudden the news, the heavier the potential effect on your mental health and wellbeing. Stress can elevate, confidence drain, and thoughts of failure often manifest. There is no one blue print however, reactions and experiences are individual, so too a persons coping mechanism.
“I actually felt relieved in some respects, I had felt like I wasn’t progressing at all over the last year and knew that I was never going to get an opportunity to play first team football. So I was excited to try a new challenge else where, as it worked out I never managed to find a new club”.
Straight away you realise George is very self aware. Most probably down to a mixture of his education and the voices of his Portsmouth coaching staff at the time. The idea of a new challenge in football can also present an exciting opportunity. But the realism here is the football industry is tough, unforgiving and ruthless. Chances are limited. What is needed here, is that YOU be proactive. Don’t expect others to search for clubs on your behalf. The best people to help are those that have spent the last few years educating you. It’s your coaches that have the network to open an often closed door.
YOU will need support, and for George that came through friends and family stating;
“I had little or no support from the club really”. Adding, “I feel clubs could touch base more after being released, but I also recognise now that there was nothing stopping me from calling. So please, pick up the phone and call your coach. Reach out to your sport scientist, psychologist or whoever for advice or a chat”. Great advice!
Thankfully Clubs have revised and improved their after care provisions for players in recent times, often having dedicated personnel responsible for just this. But George is bang on, be proactive, make the call! Trust me the staff will be happy to hear from you. It’s just the nature of the beast that sometimes we forget those that are not in front of us. A gentle reminder and reconnect is often all it takes for support to arrive in abundance.
What is important to understand is that through YOUR journey as an apprentice footballer, YOU have experienced and mastered many ‘life skills’. Defined as ranges of transferable skills needed for everyday life, by everybody, that help people thrive. Sometimes not clearly apparent. But let’s look at the typical player development pathway.
YOU would have successfully transitioned from foundation phase to elite youth development phase, along the way hitting physical and technical targets. No doubt experienced deselection, spent time on the bench, played up or down a year, suffered and overcome an injury, said hello and farewell to many team mates, and come first or last in countless bleep tests. Think about how many dedicated hours you spent in the video analysis suite critically analysing your performance against the club’s philosophy and your positional role and responsibility within the team structure. Now throw in the countless video clips viewed on upcoming opponents as you unpick their strengths and weaknesses before game day.
Let’s rephrase the above paragraph in ‘Life Skills’ language. YOU have mastered a range of interpersonal skills including social skills, respect, leadership, communication. YOU have developed personal skills including organization, discipline, self-reliance, goal setting, managing performance outcomes, and motivation. All social skills identified as the most important life skills, YOU are ready for YOUR next challenge.
George offered this insight in to what is the start point.
“Training was always something I was passionate about throughout my career and doing everything I can in the gym to get better was a priority… once I left playing football professionally, it only felt right to give a role in a gym environment a try. In football you’re educated every day on how to improve your heath and fitness levels, so for me I wanted to take advantage of that, and I absolutely love it”.
George merged his passion for training with the idea of helping and educating others in maximizing their health goals. Noteworthy, is George lent on his education through being, and training, as a footballer to further his chances of becoming a fitness expert. Ask yourself now, what else are you interested in? What parts of your football education can you take with you to a new career? And what do you need to do to start that process?
YOU will see that you’ve acquired some serious transferable skills that employers and entrepreneurs alike desire. YOU have a winning advantage.
Let’s finish where we started and leave the final words to George;
“Imagine if you only apply half the effort and discipline it takes to make it in football, and to get as far as you did in the most competitive industry, and put that into a career or business. You’ll not only stand out from the rest, but you will succeed”.
Finally, my thanks to George for the catch up. Check out just how great he is doing by visiting https://georgebranford.co.uk or give him a follow on Instagram @georgebranford
In a series entitled ‘inside the academy’ this blog reflects on the experience and insight gained from visiting professional football clubs and discussing pastoral care for players past, and present.
Liverpool FC are the first to feature. Accepting an invitation from Michael Edwards (Sporting Director), the gates to their new purpose built training facility in Kirkby opened, and a seat n the luxurious boardroom awaits. The two-day trip happily coincides with the visit of KRC Genk for a double header, result! The U19’s fell to their first UEFA Youth League defeat of the season after Genk scored a stoppage-time winner claiming a 1-0 win at the academy. Only for the senior side to avenge that loss with a convincing 2-1 win at Anfield only a few hours later. Honours even.
In truth, this was a fact finding mission with the focus on pastoral care, and the aim of sharing good practice. Firstly, it is worth saying that the experience we receive from club to club varies greatly. You simply cannot second guess what might happen when you enter a training ground as an ‘unknown’.
If you’ve never had the privilege to step foot beyond the imposing iron gates of any Category 1 training ground, allow me to paint the picture. On arrival most share a striking resemblance to that of a military base, or the institutions designed to house the countries undesirables. A gatehouse and barrier are always the first indication you’ve arrived at your destination. A security guard appears from the comfort of an enclosed office acutely aware of your arrival some 500 meters away as the multiple camera feeds update every inch of the sites boundary. Security checks conducted, questions answered via an interactive screen, photographic ID produced, the security staff satisfied and our arrival announced, a stark contrast awaits when you pass through the lacklustre entrance.
Greeted with immaculately presented grass pitches (thank heavens for some prevailing traditions of the modern game), roaming youth players and passing staff meet you with a hello and smile. Our first impressions? A welcoming atmosphere littered with polite and humble people. With striking logo emblazoned buildings and pitches as far as they eye can see, this is a disciplined functional environment.
The enjoyment, the insight, and the importance of the information earned is dependent on the people you encounter. Our first meeting was with Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Manager). I’d already had a few conversations with Alex over the phone, and knew by his tone and the passion in his voice, player welfare was firmly on his radar. We had an engaged audience. A good start.
As is the case in the football world, and those that have made football their working life after playing has stopped, there’s a ‘feeling out’ period at that initial meet. You bounce questions and slowly latch onto each others stories of yesteryear. Crossover almost always happens in what is still a very insular and network driven industry. It’s not what you know and all that. Ours was a fairly obvious common thread. In the lavish surrounds of elite football we bond over non league coaching and management. Kindred spirits of all things non league Alex at Leatherhead and myself and Adam at AFC Totton. Cutting your teeth in coaching with players that love the game and play for for enjoyment and beer tokens (mainly). We talk about the relative unknown skills a manager needs in non league such as; washing kit, driving the mini-bus, pumping up balls, meeting sponsors to squeeze whatever money you can to keep your club afloat, not the usual coaching badge content.
However, it’s your development in dealing with people that is probably our biggest learning curve when transitioning from player to coach. Being both a mate and the gaffer throws all sorts of challenges and curve balls to any aspiring coach. To the non league player, football is their outlet, their enjoyment and often their distraction. You have to invest in the players’ life. Find out what stresses and strains they are enduring. And help! There is no safety net in non league, you become the expert in psychology by default, or you fail in helping the mental health and wellbeing of your players.
The talk of why myself and Adam have spent time to create a support network for ‘the football family’ takes us through the first 30 minutes of our time together. All fairly scripted, the standard dialogue you would expect from a person in a senior figure at an historic and established academy on the subject of mental health.
And then that human connection hits Adam and Alex like a train, almost instantly the guard drops. All it took was for Alex to mention Tommy Taylor (his former coach at Leyton Orient). Adam smiles, “he gave me my league debut for Cambridge United as a 17-year old”. Well that’s’ me done for the next 10 minutes.
Now firmly a lunch meeting, we had two new additions join our table. Enter Yvie Ryan the clubs Performance Coach. How Yvie is utilised by the club is interesting. The first of our three take homes messages. Traditionally, coaches and sport science staff would recognise a player showing signs of distress in their behaviour and would either refer the player to the club psychologist, or request the psychologist to arrange a meeting with the player. Either way, any diagnosis and initiated strategy would be owned by the appropriate department or staff member.
Here’s the twist. Alex sees Yvie’s work more akin to that of a ‘consultant’. She is there to educate and upskill the frontline staff involved with player development. Ensuring she is a regular visitor to the grass, the gym, the treatment room and analysis suit. In practice this places Yvie in effective collaboration with the player and staff member, increasing what we like to call in the academic world ‘ecological validity’.
Ok, so I said earlier that we had two people join our table. Welcome King Kenny. Now I can’t tell you any of the wonderful anecdotes or memories of Sir Kenny Dalglish’s career, these past times remain his to tell, and ours to enjoy. Suffice to say, he can hold an audience and we were very fortunate to have the ear of such a footballing legend. Two hours flew by and it was now approaching kick off. What I can tell you is this, there is an ease and rapport between Kenny, the youth players, and the staff.
Kenny recalls with alarming accuracy a youth football festival some weeks prior to our visit, even naming the stand out players. The U19’s are huddled in the foyer awaiting a team meeting prior to beginning their pre match warm up. Each player that catches the eye of Kenny either nods, smiles or greets the man. Kenny had time for everyone. He added an enthused commentary on the game events throughout to the small cohort of people stood in close proximity from our balcony view. Often challenging the lads in certain situations (including the Genk players) and congratulating touches, skilful movements, and always praising brave blocks and individual work-rate for the team.
It was a great insight into how to integrate, respect, and treat a club legend. But key to this was the humility and eagerness of that club legend to be part of the process. Football courses through the veins of many an ex player. Having a former decorated player, coach, manager and director of football walk the walls of the training ground strengthens the ‘Liverpool connection’. I’ve not witnessed many operate in this way, but I’m hopeful it happens. Basic learning and teaching theory points to ‘lived experience’ as a key theme in the transfer of knowledge. Who better to act as a sounding board for staff and a presence around its youth players? This surely is ‘added value’.
And lastly, our third take home message. And this is quite innovative. Liverpool have created a new role tilted ‘Alumni Manager’. This was designed with the idea of contacting and supporting those players no longer at the club. In a shift from the norm, this adds a new dimension to player welfare. Focus has remained largely on the registered players for many successful academies with a conscious effort to reach out and assist released players. Now a leading football power is trialling a new initiative to promote ‘Alumni support’, could this be adopted by others?. Open to all players who have at one stage represented the club at any playing level or age.
This for me this missing across the sport. If you read the following extract from my former colleague Gary Issott, and Alex’s equivalent at Crystal Palace FC, he says; “As an industry we’ve got to do more for post-player care. It’s a traumatic experience, effectively players are being sacked if they don’t get a new contract. It affects your finances, your wellbeing, your ego and status, your dreams, you lose friends from a dressing room environment. So it’s a huge trauma leaving a professional football club.”
Candid, blunt and hard hitting from a man who’s spent over 20 years living and breathing everything associated with youth development. Players’ transitioning out of the game is so complex. Retirement, injury and unemployment all manifest a number of serious mental health issues.
The PFA will do well to share a coffee with Alex as his team capture this impactful longitudinal data. How can we triage the trauma? We can but raise awareness of the good initiatives and share practice that has a positive impact on individuals. This is after all about helping people. Get sharing, keep caring.
Match day at Anfield is always special. Just before kick off, and on cue, Liverpool supporters enter full Gerry and the Pacemakers mode. It’s a spine tingling moment. The presence of its former players at Kirkby and Anfield, together with the creation of the Alumni Manager are further evidence that at Liverpool FC ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
“Southampton Football Club, over a period of time became a lot more than just a football club to me, they allowed me to do things I didn’t believe possible, meet incredible people and live my dream. But more importantly I made friendships with people for life, felt cared about and welcomed which as a 14-year old moving away from home is something that overwhelmed me and made my experience better than I could imagine!”
Former Southampton Scholar
In an unusually candid interview Ian Herding speaks with an authority and passion on his duties as Life Education and Performance Officer at Southampton FC. Ian helps to shed light on typical and non typical ways football clubs tackle the ‘unspoken’ issues of player welfare. We are undoubtedly living in times of change when it comes to sharpening the focus on a structured and proactive duty of care for our footballing hopefuls. The sharing of good practice is one major leap forward in what must be a connected and purposeful attack on how we value preventive measures.
Ian displays an impressive
schedule of events for the current playing season. In total facilitating and coordinating 144 targeted ‘life education’
sessions for registered players between 9-23 years. These include crucial
guidance in off-field learning outcomes such as; social media awareness,
financial planning, car and insurance dealings and other topical ‘house keeping’
administration. This to many would resonate as typical channels of support and
expected currency at most Academies, not necessarily out of the ordinary.
So, lets look at the atypical, and the extraordinary
If you asked yourself how many academy footballers have travelled to a foreign country and addressed its Chancellor and visiting Presidents’, your reply I’m guessing would match my own, zero? Except of course those fortunate group of 14 and 15-year old schoolboy players from Southampton FC whom travelled to Germany. Their reason? To take an active role in a World War Commemoration Service. Angela Merkel (German Chancellor) and Emmanuel Macron (French President) among the 1500 strong parliamentary audience, heard the wonderful tribute of World War 1 hero, and talented footballer, Walter Tull, as told by a 15-year old Southampton FC player.
The service was broadcast live
on German TV with figures of 3.5 million viewers. Was it luck that this U15 group
happened to include a teenager with the courage and confidence to articulate such
a moving tribute to a captive, somewhat daunting, audience? Or can we trace the
character building work of Ian and his team to suggest ‘luck’ isn’t responsible.
The players learn about the
tragedy of War and the heroics of allied and enemy service men and women. It’s
a fascinating insight into the history and politics that clearly galvanise and
promote a far wider appreciation of individual courage, leadership and sacrifice
for the greater good.
When I think back on my time
as a young player and reminisce about the good old days, stories of those trips
together as a team are never far from conversation. I can’t always recall the
most basic of information, or retain the most important of facts, but along
with my friends we can, and do get lost, in the happy chat of footballing vacations.
The club and Ian are firm advocates of the benefits a residential footballing
trip can bring.
The conscious effort to ensure
at least one foreign excursion per season for all the age groups testifies that
resolve. Supported by his colleagues, trips to Italy for example are coupled
with Italian lessons and the cooking and eating of the local cuisines. Cue geographic
and cultural insights preceding the trip promoting an awareness and understanding
of its people and landscape. And maybe you
have a few additional lovers of all things Italian.
Careers day was another ‘life experience’ session that caught the eye. In conjunction with an external partner and part of an annual dedicated series, the U15’s visit Sky Studios. Working in small teams the players are briefed with real world contemporary issues such as teenage obesity. They then research around the subject and prepare to conduct a ‘live broadcast’ of their newly acquired knowledge.
Identifying their own strengths
and interests the players decide on what role they would like to occupy;
presenter, camera man, sound engineer, director and so on. After some teaching and
tutorials from the respective experts the players put together a news reel the
like you would see on Sky News. Cutting from the studio to an outside broadcast
and back again. This is all filmed and made available to each player recording their
achievements. Could this lived exposure to alternative careers maybe spark an
interest for the future should professional football not materialise? I believe
Shared experiences and open dialogue seem a constant with Ian. ‘Captains corner’ is a scheduled meeting with the respected captains and vice captains of all age groups from U13’s upwards. A chance for the players to talk informally with the first team captain. A simple but effective opportunity to bring your age group leaders together to gain insight from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and Steven Davis before him. This I really like, it provides a team within a team, and draws on experience from respected players throughout the club. Another of the positive learning environments that get ‘buy in’ from all corners of the football club.
the alumni database, and the approach to the released footballer as detailed in
the first part of this interview, we are beginning to see the Southampton Way.
Ian, on behalf of the club,
sits on the Premier League Player Care committee as one of six invited members.
Their remit; to research, discuss, design and implement new initiatives in supporting
players’ mental heath and wellbeing. There remains a battle to invest in worthy
initiatives, and an unwillingness to discuss the negative affects of the industry.
But the voice of the released footballer
is becoming louder. I can’t think of a better person, or football club, to
contribute and lead this growing area of responsibility to football and its footballers.
Ian Herding is arguably the most important person at Southampton Football Club you’ve probably never heard of. But to all released academy players he is the go to man.
Lost in a mass of dedicated Academy staff befitting the now world renowned Category 1 Academy at their magnificent Staplewood base, the Performance Education and Life Care Officer conducts his pioneering work in typically understated fashion.
Southampton are an innovative football club. It’s a word that most organisations want to be associated with, and all too readily pronounce, but few ratify their claims with substance or evidence. This two-part interview provides insight into good practice with the hope it may spark the imagination of our footballing community. Separated into two themes titled; ‘The released footballer- gone but not forgotten’, and; ‘Life education-the Southampton way’.
How do you define innovation? For me, it’s simple;
“Innovation is anything new, useful, and surprising. Great innovation often leaves you thinking, wow that’s a good idea, why didn’t I think of that”.
None more so evident than their approach to the ‘released player’. While the world wakes to ever increasing stories documenting the struggle of mental health issues of footballers, it’s reassuring to hear that preventative actions have, and are, well under way when it comes to the 99.5% that don’t make it to first team level. Recent cases of bullying, depression, anxiety and unhappiness within Academy football settings are as alarming as they are distressing. Let’s try and redress the balance with some innovation.
With pleasant ‘surprise’ Ian opens his laptop to display the clubs ‘alumni database’. Eight years of data tracking 165 released players at the end of their scholarship (U18). A permanent evolving record of their current playing status, career pathway, and specific educational and vocational support offered by his team/ the club. A database that grows organically through the concerted efforts of its creator, as is customary with a practiced auditor. The crucial part is most notably the human interaction. Ian details their last communication logging the conversations. So much so that with an air of certainty he’s able to update me on some unfamiliar names to the average Southampton fan among this talented crop of 2010/11.
The avid Saints fan with just a cursory glance at this youth team photo will probably be able to recognise the fresh faced footballing success stories of Ward-Prowse, Reed, Shaw, Chambers, Isgrove, Turnbull and Hoskins to name a few. But to a former employee pictured with this crop some eight-years past, it was the familiar names of Nicholas, Foot, Curtis, and Young etc. that grabbed my attention. Lee Nicholas was ‘let go’ after his scholarship, and Ian was able to update me on his timeline since. Entering full-time education and gaining qualifications from Loughborough and Solent University, the degree graduate then went on to improve his coaching qualifications with the support of the clubs academy staff acting as mentors. He is now employed as the Coaching and Development Officer in the foundation arm of the club. An FA affiliate tutor he’s also one of the academies foundation phase coaches, completing a full cycle in impressive fashion.
Perhaps offering the most powerful testament or indictment of the work Ian and his team undertake are these honest opinions of the released player. Personal reflections from the player and their parents on how they perceive Southampton FC’s after care provision seem to vindicate the need and validate the process. What a rich collection of data! The academic in me is itching to investigate the qualitative data and examine player differences and perception (on hold for now). Within the remarks Ian highlights one or two negative statements in which he refers to as “important to appreciate so we can reflect, evaluate and improve our practice”. But on the whole, the feedback is heart warming.
“The club and the people involved with the club did more than enough to prepare myself and the other members of the team for life after football, and I couldn’t be more grateful! The help they supplied us with has led me to the next chapter of my life which is at a University in North Carolina, without the help I was given I would neither be prepared and able to do this without the club and the people within it”.
Player who spent 4 years at Southampton before release at 18.
“I will forever be grateful for the time people at the club have spent making sure my time there was the best it could be, but also the time they spent making sure we grew into be good all round people and live good lives whether it was with football or without”
A released Scholar.
In a data driven world why don’t we introduce some numbers. Southampton released 11 players from the U16 group from the 2017/18 season. All 11 players went on to sign a Scholarship at a professional football club, a 100% success rate. The following season 10 players were released of which 7 have signed with professional clubs, 2 have entered higher education, and 1 is unaccounted for at the time of writing. Is this tremendous statistic by chance? No chance.
The club operate an exit strategy for all released players. It is of course the nature of the beast in this occupation, and considered by many academy football practitioners as the toughest part of the job. Ian, aware of the decisions and which player’s will need his support, prior to parent and child meetings begins his work immediately. Acting almost as an agent or intermediary on behalf of the player. Contacting clubs through an extensive network built over time he is able to forward a comprehensive dossier showcasing their talents to any prospective new employer.
The detail is exhaustive. A combination of written documents and video files offer a true reflection of the players’ performance metrics. It’s true that since the inception of the The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2012, accountability at club and staff level has increased tenfold. Every staff member associated with that player’s development contribute to a mix of objective and subjective information. Technical coaches offer summary of their skills, highlighting strengths and weaknesses supported by game statistics and periodic performance reviews; analysts capture game and training footage; conditioning coaches map the physical load, training data, and current maintenance or production programming, with a mix of performance measurements that chronologically define the player’s output. Some CV!
It is not always an easy process for both Ian and the player. The administrative duties are far-reaching , player incomings and outgoings within an academy take considerable expertise and knowhow. Notwithstanding the logistics of transport, accommodation and kit, there is always the overriding governance of the Premier League, the Football League, the Football Association, and the club’s internal policy and procedures to comply and satisfy. On behalf of one individual Ian contacted 54 clubs, with the player unsuccessfully trialing at 9.
Today, the player remains unattached and Ian remains determined.
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.