The dark side of the beautiful game

The dark side of the beautiful game

Early last month, the PFAI conducted a survey of the Irish Under 17 squad in an attempt to look into the lives of Ireland's newest set of professionals.  The results confirmed their suspicions. Not only were 50 per cent of the players surveyed suffering from homesickness, but 10 out of the 14 English-based members of Tom Mohan's panel admitted to regular bouts of boredom.

Whether this is a cause for concern among the players' employers is a moot point. Some clubs tend to be better than others at addressing the needs of the teenagers in their care, but for the most part, they leave the kids to their own devices. "These young players are spending two-and-a-half hours in the club each day and then, the rest of the day, they're on their own. That's not healthy," says Shaun Elebert, the PFAI's Player Development Advisor.

In an ideal world, their spare time would be used to complete their education yet best practices aren't common in footballers lives. Instead an alarming number are already, even in their formative years, drifting towards addictions. "Online gambling has become a huge issue for us to try to deal with," says Elebert. "The problem is these guys are young, have more money than they could ever have dreamed of having, and are bored. They need guidance and they're not getting it."

Even if they were guided, you'd wonder if they'd heed the advice.  "There is no doubt that the majority of footballers are dreamers," admits Elebert, a former professional player. "They have massive ambition and it’s fed into them from an early age. Go to England. Play at the highest level. Earn lots of money.

"But the reality is that just one per cent of professionals make enough from the game to live off their earnings for the rest of their lives. Eighty-five per cent of players in England never receive a second contract from the club that signs them as a 15 or 16-year-old.

"Some drop down a level to another club. Some drift away from the game altogether. Others will come back to the League of Ireland and harbour dreams of going back across again, as Keith Fahey did. A footballer will always believe he can be the next one to be spotted, the next who will make it big.

"That would be all well and good if he was using up his spare time getting a Leaving Cert of taking the online degree course which is available to them via the PFA or the PFAI. Sadly, the vast majority don't see the bigger picture, not until it is too late. And that is a huge barrier we have to jump across."

Can they do it? It's a big ask because you cannot create awareness unless there is finance behind you. And the PFAI, a small operation operating out the back of the FAI's headquarters in west Dublin, have limited funds. "Government assistance is needed in the area of mental health," argues Elebert. "They spend €40 million-a-year on road safety and €4 million-per-annum on mental health issues.

"Those most at risk to suicide are young men in the 16-24 age-bracket which also happens to be the age of a significant proportion of Ireland's professional footballers."

Niall Quinn.  Photo: INPHO. Niall Quinn. Photo: INPHO.

If those statistics are a cause for concern then so too are the stories of some of Irish football's success stories. Niall Quinn, a hero of Italia 90 and Japan and Korea in 2002, retired a rich man. His had been a great career, a story of someone who got the most out of whatever talent he had and who was still there, at 35, making a living from the Premier League.

He seemed to have the perfect set-up, financial security, a house back home, a stable family-life. Still the year after retirement hurt. "When I look back now, I can see I was suffering from depression," Quinn said at a charity dinner in 2005. "When you are 16 you enter this place where the mickey is taken out of you constantly, where you are challenged, where you have to stand up for yourself. That place (the dressing room) can be daunting, but it becomes your protection. You end up feeling safe there. Then when you leave that place, it hits hard. You know you'll never go back. I missed it terribly. It took me time to get used to being away from that environment."

Quinn's story is a salutary lesson that even the brightest of individuals still suffer from the cold reality that a footballer's career is a short one. "They are all cocooned into a lifestyle that means they cannot cope with real life without football," says Elebert.

Tony Cascarino admitted as much. "The year after retiring, I got this toothache," said the former Irish international. "And it just wouldn't go away. But I didn't know what to do. As a player, all I did was go to the club doctor whenever something was wrong, health wise. Now, here I was, out on my own, having to deal with real-life things. And it freaked me out a little."

Cascarino isn't the only player to be hit with post retirement blues. Another former Irish international from that era - who doesn't want to be named - has been fighting severe depression in the last six months. Football was his life. Then it ended and he has struggled to adjust.

The good news is he is receiving professional help. The bad news is he is trapped in a place of reflection, spending his time nursing memories of his past, all the while knowing that when he was playing, all he did was worry about his future.

"A dream job?" asks Steven Reid, the Burnley defender and former Irish international. "At times, it can be, yes. But I had my anxious moments. Signing for Blackburn from Millwall, becoming a Premier League player for the first time, I wondered. 'Am I good enough? Do I belong here?'

Steven Reid. Photo: INPHO. Steven Reid. Photo: INPHO.

"It took me a few years before I accepted that I was up to scratch. Shortly afterwards, I did my cruciate and was out of the game for the guts of a year. Now that was an awful time. I was getting well paid, but I didn't feel I was earning it. And I didn't want the Blackburn supporters to see me around the place, because I wasn't contributing."

By hiding himself away, he was running away from the problem, though. Sessions with Dr Steve Peters, the renowned sports psychologist, helped. So did time. His knee was rehabilitated and his career resumed. Now, as he nears retirement, he is actually better prepared for the sporting afterlife than most. "The fact is that it could have ended for me six or seven years ago. So I knew then that the day would come when I'd have to do something else with my life."

For so many, though, that realisation never seems to dawn. "Too many players think they will go on forever," says Elebert. "We know, of course, that they can't. But when you are 21, 22, you don't want to think about a life after football. You just want to play."

Graham Gartland understands where Elebert is coming from. He was 22 when he opted for a full-time contract at Drogheda rather than stay in part-time football with Longford Town. "No one forced me to take the choice I made," says Gartland, "so I'm not looking for anyone's sympathy.

"I had a job at the time, but I wanted to win medals. My ambition was in football. Teams were going full-time in the League of Ireland and I knew, straight off, that I'd win nothing if I stayed part-time because the best players were all heading to the clubs that were paying the big wages.

"So that's fine. I won nine major medals in my career. Great. But now? Now, I've retired and I'm playing catch-up on my education. I've gone back to college, but I'm about to become a father soon and if I'm going to be in a position to support the child, I'm probably going to have to give up my study.

Graham Gartland. Photo: INPHO. Graham Gartland. Photo: INPHO.

"What annoys me is that I didn't do the study when I was a player. Had I done so, I'd have been in a better position now, financially. I wouldn't be in a place where I'm going for job interviews and the managing director is looking at me and asking me loads of questions about being a footballer and saying, 'Jeez, that must have been great craic' and then saying, 'thanks for your time, we're going for someone with more experience'.

"A footballer's life can be great. If you're being well paid, if you're on a winning team, you love those moments. But your career takes up just a fraction of your life. There is a long way to go after retirement."

And the journey is considerably more treacherous without the safety net of education to fall back on. "The one regret from my career?" asked Roy Keane recently. "Not getting an education."

Keane isn't the only ex-player nursing that particular regret. For a decade or more, Stephen Geoghegan was one of the League of Ireland's best players and by extension, one of its best-paid ones. "No one ever earned enough from League of Ireland football to retire on," says Gartland.

Geoghegan certainly didn't. He has been out of work now for over three years. At 45, the sacrifices he made as a player to maximise his talent resulted in him forsaking the opportunity to upskill in other areas.

"Being out of work, it's horrible it is," says Geoghegan. "I've had a long, tough few years. You could go off your trolley."

The PFAI are there to support. "We want people to give us a call," says Elebert. "We're there to help."

Sadly, though, the vast majority seek that help at a stage in their life when it is too late. Best job in the world? Or the worst?