Retired is a thorough write-up of the numerous troubles faced by football players upon leaving professional football. The footballing public is often unsympathetic and critical of highly-paid stars who have fallen on hard times, however Retired provides some much-needed perspective on the personal and health issues ex-footballers are consumed by when the game leaves the players behind.
Retirement for ex-footballers is indeed a scary premise. Over nine chapters, author Alan Gernon remains sympathetic of ex-footballers in navigating the retirement ‘minefield’. His description of issues such as divorce, bankruptcy, drug use, gambling, physical and mental health, and crime are well-researched and underpinned with relevant and often shocking statistics. For example, the author states that: 80% of retired players will suffer from osteoarthritis; 75% will get divorced within three years of retirement; and 35% will suffer from some form of depression. In a book replete with such statistics, Niall Quinn’s insistence that Retired is “the most important football book in a long time” is certainly given credence. The anecdotes from and of ex-players also give depth to the sobering and often dry reading. As such, the stories of Lee Hendrie, Peter Storey, and Michael Branch among others are drawn upon.
Jeff Astle’s sad passing from CTE frames Retired’s damning assessment of the football industry’s handling of the mental health of ex-professionals; an assessment that also touches upon male bravado in the dressing room as a mask for depression and anxiety (remember what John Gregory said to Stan Collymore all those years ago?).
The tone of Retired is hard-edged and softens in its treatise of players voluntarily giving the game away completely, or staying in the game as a pundit or coach. Who’d ever thought David Bentley would be now running restaurants in Spain, or Lee Bowyer would be clearing the brush away from his own fishing lake in France? You may not be familiar with names such as Richard Leadbeater or Shane Supple, but their stories are fascinating. Such anecdotes serve to show that players fall out of love with the game, and the decision to quit can be a slow-burning one or even a sudden one—as in the case of Espen Baardsen’s decision to give it away just as he was about to tuck into a Tesco sandwich. This softer side of Retired acts as a counterpoint to the first half of the book.
Of particular highlight is the interview with BBC pundit and seeming Renaissance Man, Pat Nevin. He comes across as erudite and well-informed, and throws in his two cents about the desperate hordes of ex-professionals thinking that punditry is a given upon retirement.
Retired hits hard like an expose aimed more so toward footballing authorities, rather than the failures of footballers failing to recognise the pitfalls of a cutthroat profession. A sense of entitlement pervades but is rarely touched upon, and player failings in avoiding issues such as bankruptcy, divorce, and gambling and not covered in Retired. Although these failings are not the only causes for an ex-player’s downward spiral in retirement, the blinkered attitudes of professional players at the highest level prior to retirement was not adequately covered in Retired. A pro career may finish in an instant, or it can be a dramatic fall from grace. The author, in this respect, was prescient with his description of a World Cup 2018 England squad featuring Joe Hart.
Nevertheless, Retired is indeed an important book for football fans that will add broad shades of understanding to complex issues facing ex-professionals, and will add much-needed perspective to often one-sided pub arguments.
On the attrition rate of young professionals:
“A young player, groomed by their club since childhood, has solely focused on a career in the game. They generally have no education to fall back on, so when they’re one of the 98 per cent to be jettisoned between the ages of 16 and 21 panic sets in—remember you are only two per cent on 16-year-olds on a club’s books that are still playing professionally by the age of 21. For the 22 players on the pitch in the next match you watch, consider that there are another 1,100 who were churned out and discarded by professional football before getting the proverbial key of the door.” (pg. 103)
In an interview with Gordon Watson:
“Watson had been gambling during his career but the free time afforded by retirement exacerbated his problems. ‘I think that it took hold all the way through my career. Time, place and money are the triangle of disaster. But I didn’t have the time when I was a player. I was training or travelling or preparing for a match. But as soon as the lines of the triangle align, then it’s just like a runaway train.” (pg. 237)
FULL TIME SCORE: An end-of-season 2-2 away draw upon which the long-serving veteran stands tearfully contemplates his retirement before the travelling support.