The phrase Niall Quinn has to keep repeating is “I’m not looking for the public’s sympathy with these guys.”
He said it on the terrace bar at the House of Lords in London last week, he said it again on the phone from his beloved Sunderland yesterday, and he’ll be saying it a lot in the coming weeks.
“These guys” are the Premier League footballers whose existences switch from living the dream to the stuff of nightmares when they retire. We’ve all seen the high-profile cases, from Paul McGrath to Gazza and more recently Kenny Sansom, the players who have fallen from the greatest of heights to rock bottom.
But the thing that disturbs Quinn, and should worry anyone connected with a career in elite sport, is that there are many more like that — many, many more.
It was the bald statistics that shocked Quinn. “I knew a few people from the game who were in trouble, and obviously those high-profile cases, but I can assure you there are hundreds more with serious problems that the public never hear about.”
The problems are not new — bankruptcy, divorce, addiction to alcohol or gambling. But the numbers are startling.
“Forty to 50% of players who have had a meaningful Premier League career in the last 20 years are met with bankruptcy, and a similar proportion get divorced soon after they retire. That is basically half the dressing room in the average Premier League club. And it is not just football. Cricketers have big problems, rugby is another sport and there are horrific stories from the world of horse racing. It is an issue right across sport, and it is something we’re hoping to change.”
That is why Quinn was standing at the House of Lords, launching a new initiative last week. The company is Fleet Street Sport and Media, and the part that is Quinn’s own baby is called “Catch a Falling Star”.
He says there is a huge problem that hits players when they retire, and the work done by bodies such as the PFA, while admirable, is not enough.
“The PFA do a fantastic job, but there is a huge shift in mentality required, so that young players are not boasting about their latest Lamborghini and what it cost them, but instead slightly embarrassed about that. We need to create a culture where they don’t spend money without thinking or assume they will never have to work again.
“I know it is hard with the astronomical amount of money, especially in Premier League football. These guys are totally unprepared for what happens when they stop playing and the contracts expire — it is like a death in their careers.”
Quinn was alerted to the size of the problem when he spoke to Alan Gernon, the writer and comedian, who has just published a book called “Retired — what happens when the game is up.”
Gernon paints a bleak picture of players struggling to come to terms with life “when the lights go out”, as Quinn puts it.
“I was astonished when he sent me a rough draft. He told the stories of 80 players, but he said he could have written another 80,” adds Quinn.
“They are simply not prepared for the upheavals — psychological, financial, emotional — and it can be a slippery slope.”
So what can be done? “We’re looking at preventative measures, which means education at all ages and good advice. We’ve gathered together an auxiliary board of experts – from finance, counselling, life-coaches, medical experts — and the idea is to have an authoritative voice that the players will listen to.”
And their wives. “Yes, sometimes the wives are more important to reach because they often see the problems coming down the line, and obviously, they are affected in a big way too. It’s easy to make fun of them as WAGs or whatever, but there’s destruction coming their way too. We need to get all the stakeholders on board, and that includes the agents, who are often closer to a player’s activity than anyone else. We are talking to sports bodies about working with them, and our doors are open to anyone who can contribute.”
The Irish Examiner interviewed former Olympic Rower Gearoid Towey on the same subject in December. Towey, now based in Australia, has set up a group called Crossing The Line which deals with similar issues, the mental health of elite athletes, both during their sports careers and afterwards.
Quinn is looking more at the point of retirement when these falling stars need catching.
“Anybody who has been made redundant will tell you the hardest thing is finding a reason to get out of bed each morning.
“Being an athlete gives you that urge to jump out of bed each day, but how do you replace it? Some players think they will never have to work again, but we want to change that mindset, show them that there are plenty of careers to get you jumping out of bed each day.
“A former team-mate, Jody Craddock, was a fantastic artist and he has taken that passion and turned into a new career, with his own gallery. There are loads of opportunities in the media, as I know only too well, and football is reaching new markets all the time. In China, there are millions of new fans that ex-pros can talk to via the media opportunities that are there. It’s an exciting time.”
To this end, Fleet Street have a media training arm, as well as a TV production facility and a publishing arm. There are other areas of expertise, too.
“Because I and few others have been involved in high-profile takeovers, we can offer sound advice in that area, and we have financial advisors, legal advisors, all sorts on board. Now that we have launched, we can form a board to ratify our plans and make formal approaches to all the potential stakeholders.”
The most important ones are the players, of course, even if they don’t know it yet. “The simple fact is that half the players in a dressing room are going to face massive problems when they quit, so the question we ask them is simple: ‘Which half do you want to be in?”
See http://fleetstreet.media/ for more details
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