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28 April 2021

A long retirement is the price footballers pay. Is 15 years of glory worth 50 years of emptiness?

Young players don’t think about the future; they blank all that from their minds as they chase after the exultation of scoring. 

By Hunter Davies

I felt sorry for Mark Noble, hauled off last Saturday (24 April) for West Ham against Chelsea. It was just 20 minutes before the end, and West Ham were 0-1 down. Noble is getting on, but can be relied upon to give hope to his team.

Did he shout and scream, kick the bench, storm off in a rage (all pretty normal behaviour when being substituted)? No, all he did was gently shake his head as he left the pitch. It somehow made it sadder, that he was bottling up his fury. Is it the worst thing that can happen to a player? All their millions in the bank, their fame and status, count for nothing in that moment of public humiliation.

Of course not. Let me count the worser ways.

An injury that ends a career prematurely – that must be tragic. Loss of form, being dropped, is also pretty bad.

Life after football, though, is the longest, most depressing thing they have to face – empty decades stretching ahead, leftover life to kill. Divorce is very common in retirement. Then there are the ailments that may have been caused or exacerbated by their career, such as arthritis and dementia.

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[See also: Mourinho was always a bad choice for Spurs, but I know better than to despair]

My ambition throughout my youth, like millions of boys and girls around the globe, was to be a professional footballer. I must have been so naive.

Yet professional players don’t regret it. They feel grateful and are aware that, but for football, most would not have had much money in the bank. But they don’t think of what happens after they retire, with perhaps another 50 years to live, if they are lucky. They blank all that from their minds. Should we feel sorry for footballers?

I had a farming friend in the Lake District, Alan, who raised turkeys. I took my children to his farm once, walked them through the cramped battery sheds where the young turkeys were being raised, ready to be killed by Christmas. My children were distraught, almost in tears.

“Never feel sorry for a turkey,” said Alan the farmer.

[See also: From cheerful suffering to purring, polished artistry: Man City’s strange path to glory]

His point was that they were fed, watered, kept safe from predators and diseases, fattened up and fussed over. Yes, they were going to be slaughtered soon, but before that, they had a grand time.

The life of a footballer these days, at least in the Prem, is pretty grand, feted and fussed over, protected from mundane worries and problems. Players will not end up running a pub or a newsagent, as their predecessors did.

The Super League fiasco also shows that players do have some power these days. It was their articulate protests against their own clubs that helped scupper that dopey idea. And I suspect it was the dressing room at Spurs that finally finished off Mourinho. But even so, another bastard manager will come along to ruin their lives. And who would trust the top six Prem clubs not to do deals in the future for their own good, not the good of players or fans.

So would you do it if you had a choice? Take 15 years of glory and 50 years of emptiness?

I am still working full-time at 85, so the thought of being unemployed for the last 50 years, with no point to my day and none of the fun, stimulation, satisfaction and social intercourse that work brings, horrifies me. Gawd, how could I have coped?

I do have arthritis, thanks to playing park football until I was 50, which was really stupid, and have had a triple bypass, like Graeme Souness and Glenn Hoddle. But I still consider myself active, and have a young girlfriend of 73 to prove it.

[See also: The Prem has achieved the impossible. It turns out there is such a thing as too much football]

And yet, and yet, looking back I would still have loved a career as a professional footballer. The highs, the joys, the camaraderie, the escape from real life – forgotten when you are in the park – the sense of creation when a move goes well, the exultation of scoring, or winning, the total physical exhaustion of it all. I have not had that in my life since I stopped playing. So yeah, I do envy footballers.

Of course, I tell myself I would not have ended up an out-of-work lost soul. Oh no. I would have been Gary Lineker…

Hunter Davies’s new book, “London Parks” (Simon & Schuster), is out now

This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas