The 21st of March is a date that I will always remember, the day I officially had to retire from professional football. Just a few weeks before, I had played in one of the biggest games of my career against Pep Guardiola’s historic Manchester City side. Just days after this match I was taken to hospital with heart palpitations and chest pains & was later told I’d never be able to play professionally again.
It was a huge shock for me, and those initial days were very hard to take. It was my passion and the only thing I’d ever done since I left school. Not to mention the only way I’d ever supported and provided for my family. My wife was 7 months pregnant with our first child at the time and this felt like even more pressure on me and it all got a bit much at that stage, which resulted in anxiety and a lot of sleepless nights.
I remember in hospital writing a list on my phone of potential avenues I could see myself going in to: things I was interested in and the strengths I believed I had. My main priorities were staying within sport but also doing something where I would get to see my daughter grow up and be the best father possible. The list read; Coach, agent, mentoring, teaching, scouting, sports media & journalism.
As a player I was always told I would make a good coach. I had done my coaching badges alongside playing and felt that this could be an option. However, I remember soon after my retirement going back in to my old training ground and I find it hard to explain the feeling. I felt awkward, uncomfortable, envious and I felt I couldn’t be around the training ground environment. Only months before I had felt like an essential and integral part of this environment but now I felt like something of an imposter. I had tried coaching younger age groups as well but It was just too soon for me to be back on the pitch and it didn’t feel right. I remember feeling guilty about this and feeling like it was the natural thing that I was meant to go in to – that’s what footballers do, isn’t it? Play, then coach; but I couldn’t force it and had to go back to the list.
I’d always liked the idea of becoming an agent. I liked the idea of having a group of players I could advise, nurture and look after. Teach them where I went wrong and things I looked for in an agent. I spoke to a lot of different companies and there are some great people in the industry who do things properly. There are also a hell of a lot that are out to exploit players and miss what I think is the vital element – mentoring and player care. I looked into the possibility but none of the opportunities felt right and I thought to myself; would I have signed with me at that time? Probably not. I knew I could bring great value in mentoring young players and I had great contacts in the game but I felt there were still a lot of skills that I was missing in order to become an agent. Players had known that I had just retired and had no real expertise in the field. So back to the list.
I began to get even more anxious and was panicking about mine and my family’s future. I was constantly on my phone and looking at job websites, LinkedIn and searching to see what former players had gone on to do after retirement. I began to reach out to as many people as I could. Former teammates, coaches, friends and anyone who would speak to me. I visited clubs, looked at what was available, tried to gain as much knowledge as I possibly could to give myself a chance. I managed to land a part time scouting role through a former teammate. This really helped me mentally. Financially it wasn’t something I could live off, but it wasn’t about that. I had a purpose, and this made me get up out of bed and look forward.
I reached out to the PFA and sought help. I spoke to people and began to see the positives. I was asked if I’d be interested in further education and initially, I said: not a chance. Study was something that had largely ended in my teenage years, the idea of it was completely out of my comfort zone. But then something clicked, I need to get out of that comfort zone and that football bubble, so I started saying “yes” to things. I agreed to go and do a part time Master’s degree on VSI’s Sports Directorship MSc at Salford University.Something I never thought I’d do.
I was feeling a lot more positive and fortunately my former club Newport County FC had supported me and their level of encouragement, kind words and support from the club’s fans was overwhelming and really helped me to bring my anxiety and stress levels down.
I then got a phone call out of the blue. An ex-teammate of mine was now working in a Premier League academy and asked if I’d be interested in speaking to a lawyer that he worked with at the club. I was told he was a reputation and privacy lawyer that worked with Premier League clubs and top level players. I had no idea what he was talking about but I trusted his judgement and went along to meet Matt Himsworth for a coffee. If I am honest, I didn’t really conceive of what a reputation and privacy lawyer was at the time.
I didn’t know what to expect when I turned up but I quickly realised that this could be the project I needed. I would be educating young players, supporting and mentoring them with any issues and problems they had, helping clubs to anticipate risk and gain knowledge by producing Player Intelligence Reports for clubs, dealing with social media issues and supporting and helping players who are dealing with some of the awful abuse and harassment, particularly racial abuse, that sadly still comes with social media platforms. The list went on and I realised that this was a real opportunity to make a real impact in player care and using off the field support to allow young players to develop and focus on the pitch. Matt had seen my story and felt I could offer something different. As a former professional athlete I know some of the issues the players face, I knew the emotional reaction to those problems and I looked back and there were times in my career when I needed someone to turn to. Now I potentially had the opportunity to be that person.
After that conversation I was in. I looked back at the list I had made in hospital and I would be ticking off almost the whole list in one with this job. I’d be coaching playing with off the field behaviours, being a mentor, teaching and educating players of all ages, I was dealing with social media and journalism daily & also writing articles (like this one – and more blogs to come!).
At that was how it started, within months of first meeting Matt we had set up B5 Consultancy and the rest is history. In that time I’ve been on the road, across the country, meeting people working within diverse and different sports, visiting football club training grounds, commercial offices and even getting on my feet and giving presentations to squads.
I never thought I would be doing something like this but it’s a great opportunity to do all the things I am passionate about. Matt and I have the same morals and outlook and I’m working with a great team of people who are just as driven as I am. I’m working within sport and most importantly I’m given the flexibility to be the best dad I can possibly be, something I know Matt and everyone else within the firm are passionate about.
It’s nearly a year now since I retired and I still find it hard to say that word, ‘retire’. That signals the end. I now see it as I have simply changed career paths to help the next generation. I don’t want to be defined as the old footballer or that bloke with the dodgy heart. I’m still a young man and have so much more I want to achieve. It feels a million miles away from those sleepless nights in a hospital bed!