Few careers offer as little longevity or stability as that of the professional footballer. The cliché is to describe footballers as under-worked and overpaid, but the top-earners have thrown all sense of perspective out of kilter. The true reality becomes blunter further down the divisions where the wages are much closer to being ‘reasonable’, but the career of a footballer is in a constant state of flux and usually all-but-over when they reach their mid-30s.
In interviews, most players tend to concede that they don’t know what they’d have been if not a footballer (except Peter Crouch, who emphatically knows the answer). They’re inducted into that world before they’ve finished school, and once they’ve hung up their boots, they’ve suddenly got an abundance of free time and a dearth of other skills.
There is no guarantee that all footballers will experience the same rites of passage. A debut can be delirium or disaster; a first goal can be a match-winner or a futile consolation; a transfer can mean hitting the big-time or relocating for playing-time.
However, it is the decision to call time on playing days that shares similar traits for all players – it is acquiescence that the physicality has beaten them. 34-year-old Brazilian striker Ronaldo retired early this month, and admitted, “Mentally I wanted to continue but I have to acknowledge that I lost to my body.” He should probably be grateful to have had a career at all – his prodigious talent granted him access to the best surgeons available, who habitually mended his delicate anterior cruciate ligaments.
A week earlier, however, Oxford United winger Mitchell Cole was forced to retire at the age of 25 without the same fanfare. His career wasn’t ended by his pain threshold or niggling injuries – Cole has a heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which, at worst, can cause sudden cardiac death. The defect is often asymptomatic and so its suffers can be caught unawares – as in the case of Cameroonian midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé, who died just hours after collapsing during a Confederations Cup match in 2003.
Cole had been originally diagnosed with the disease as a 17-year-old at West Ham’s academy, before much was known about the condition. He passed his medical when he moved to Oxford from Stevenage last summer, but he went for further tests recently after struggling to find fitness. On the advice of his cardiologist, he quit football immediately when his results came through.
So where now for Cole? Unlike his Premier League counterparts, he can’t afford to rest on his laurels. He has a mortgage to pay, a wedding to arrange, repayments to make on his car and two young children to feed – not an easy prospect when you’re a retired League Two footballer with no obvious prospects on the horizon, and 40 years to wait for your state pension. “It’s like being hit by a ton of bricks, because it’s all I’ve ever known,” Cole told the BBC, “In school, you pay attention but always in the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘I’m going to make this, I’m not going to be doing anything other than football.’”
With the support of his family, the Professional Footballers’ Association and Oxford United, Cole sounds upbeat for the meantime. However he conceded that his future, at the moment, is a blank canvas. Andy Scott could perhaps provide some inspiration – his playing career was ended abruptly, albeit at the age of 32, when it was discovered that he had the same heart condition as Cole. Scott settled on coaching straight away and within two years had replaced Terry Butcher as Brentford manager. Although, Cole might seek his advice when they meet in the dole queue – Scott is also currently unemployed as the Bees sacked him two weeks ago, following a seventh game without a win.
MK Dons manager Karl Robinson began his coaching badges early, knowing full well that his back problems would end his career prematurely. By the age of 29, he had become the youngest ever holder of a UEFA Pro Licence, and became the Football League’s youngest manager when he replaced Paul Ince at stadium:mk. Cole has also had the foresight to begin his coaching qualifications and, with the right support from the PFA, he should be able to land himself some work. Not all players are as prepared though, and one mistimed tackle can bring the curtain down on any player’s career in the blink of an eye.
The PFA could try killing two birds with one stone by encouraging more players to get involved with coaching. When highly-successful footballers retire, they tend to crop up in cameos on matchday sports coverage, looking languorous and having evidently taken a turn for the rotund (see: Matt Le Tissier), rather than putting anything back into the game that treated them so well. Current footballers should be encouraged to learn how to teach the game, as not all former-players can afford such an indolent lifestyle as the elites.
It recently came to light in late 2009 that there were merely 2,769 UEFA-qualified coaches in England, compared to 23,995 in Spain, 29,420 in Italy and 34,970 in Germany – all of which also have far fewer registered players than in England. Perhaps with some encouragement, the PFA might help to extend the livelihoods of all footballers into a lengthier lifecycle rather than letting them stagnate when their use on the field has expired.