‘Life After The Game’
By Alex Stedman @astedman1
Life without football for diehard fans is one of the hardest things in the world. Summer months can seem to drag by without any action, and fixture release day – such a novelty discussion during season time, is looked upon as a momentous milestone.
So imagine what it must be like for a professional to suddenly stop playing altogether. What has been a daily routine for years can come to an end, and a player’s career finale can be sprung upon an individual when they least expect it.
The biggest issue then, is what to do after the game – when the fans no longer cheer your name from the stands. Professionals fall into one of two categories – they can take up a plush seat in the press-box and describe the action as opposed to partaking in it, or they opt instead to try and manage and coach the next generation.
Both avenues have their advantages, but both undoubtedly have equal stresses and strains. The pair are clearly much different than playing 90 minutes each Saturday, but they’re importance to the game and the challenges that they pose shouldn’t be underestimated.
The decision to follow the media route is something that former Norwich City striker Iwan Roberts took up when he hung up his playing boots. Having enjoyed a career with Watford, Huddersfield Town, Leicester City, Norwich City and Gillingham the well-travelled striker certainly boasts impressive pedigree.
The Welsh forward and Norwich City Hall of Famer revealed how he tried his hand at coaching to begin with, before recognising that the particular pathway wasn’t his cup of tea.
“It wasn’t for me, I did the first part of the UEFA A licence but simply didn’t enjoy it. So I never went back to finish it off,” he began.
“I love what I do now; I work really hard in it and always make sure I do my homework and preparation. I wouldn’t say it’s an easier route – it’s just down to the individual.”
His role now sees him as a key figurehead at BBC Wales, covering the likes of Swansea City and Cardiff City each week. The tone of his voice demonstrates his enthusiasm for his new found profession, but he was keen to emphasise that his case was a privileged one, and that he had pretty much fallen on his feet when his playing days began to draw to a close.
“Personally I was fortunate – my first language is Welsh and had contacts in the Welsh media. So when I decided to hang my boots up they offered me work straight away – so I’ve never been out of work,” he continues.
“It doesn’t always happen like that for everyone, when players are at a loose end then that’s where you start to get problems. Problems with mental health and depression start to creep in.
“But touch wood I’ve never suffered from that because I’ve always kept myself active and busy, and that’s the key.”
Indeed, the issue about what to do when playing days are over is somewhat of a taboo amongst many dressing rooms – players are more often than that reluctant to think about their futures away from the game when the legs get tired after 60 minutes and not 90.
This reluctance to accept that the end may be near can cost professionals once they step away from the pitch.
“Some players take the media side of the game for granted and really don’t do as much as they should to prepare,” Roberts highlights – with a sternness to his voice.
But this is where the Professional Footballers Association comes in. A quick visit to their website reveals things such as the ‘4 The Player’ magazine which has features such as ‘Life after the game’ and ‘the future is now’ – both demonstrate aspects of an organisation that seems tailor made for the sorts of scenarios in question.
“When the players are in their careers they get guidance off the PFA and that membership is there for us until the day we die. The PFA are there to help players, they’ll pay for coaching and media courses.
“Players can go back into college and do degrees that are set up for further education and the PFA will fund three quarters of the fees for players. We do get a lot of help off the PFA and I don’t think they get enough credit for the work that they do.”
Another difficult balance to strike is how to make the most of the spare time that suddenly becomes afforded to professionals – Roberts has noticed a change in routine but not a drastic change in terms of the workload he has.
“I get a little bit more time to myself now I’ve stopped playing, but not a lot.
“When I was playing I’d get most afternoons off because we’d train in the morning. Pre-season was different because we were in most days over an eight week period.
“But I wouldn’t say I have too much extra time off now with my media work.”
Arguably, the pursuit of a job in management is harder to maintain compared to working within the media. A lack of opportunities at football clubs can result in various closed doors and dead-ends.
“There’s only so many coaching jobs about, and so many football clubs,” Roberts specifically points out.
“There’s only so many managerial roles and academy places available to people – so not everybody can go down that route. The next best thing to coaching is working in the media and it’s difficult because if you’re no good then nobody’s going to employ you.
“But media’s not everybody’s cup of tea either and not everyone can talk on the radio or talk in front of a camera. Some find it hard, so you’ve got to be comfortable in what you decide to do. Some people simply won’t enjoy sitting in a lecture room trying to pass coaching badges.”
So, does Roberts ever envisage crossing the divide and attempting to forge a career on the touchline as well as from the press box?
“I think at 47 now I’m sticking with media. If the coaching and managerial side was something I was going to do then it would have happened by now in all honesty,” he admits.
“I’ve got my career now that I really enjoy. I’ve been lucky with BBC Wales and have got my foot in the door at Sky Sports over the past six months too. I do some work for TalkSport and a column for the Eastern News every Friday – so I’m more than happy with what I do.
“There’s not as much stress and there’s not as much pressure as the coaching route – maybe that’s what I’ve still got a full head of hair!”
His former Norwich City teammate Darren Huckerby was notorious for his memorable hairstyles – and currently finds himself as an academy coach as part of the set-up at Carrow Road. The popular midfielder and wing-wizard has elected to try his hand at coaching the next generations in Norfolk.
Now an Under-16 coach at the Premier League club, the fresh-faced burgeoning teenager who made his professional debut 22 years ago is working hard to oversee the newest conveyor belt of talent at the hugely territorial football club.
Huckerby has scored in the Premier League, all three original football divisions, the FA Cup, the League Cup, the Johnstone Paint Trophy, the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Cup – as well as the MLS, he therefore seems well placed to shed further light on the topic – he revealed his story.
“I began occupying myself with a few things when I started to reach the end of my career. I started up a charity, and I started to do local coaching and coaching badges too – I had an idea of what I wanted to do.”
The work in questions is the Darren Huckerby Trust, which makes contributions to the lives of local people – helping charities, community projects and individuals across Norfolk.
“It wasn’t like I was planning years before to be honest, I pretty much finished playing and then decided which path I wanted to take from there – but I didn’t lose my focus on the pitch and still gave everything until my last game.”
The quip about footballers focusing solely on their current careers was reflected on by the former Norwich City fan-favourite when asked about the preparations done by professionals approaching the conclusion of their playing days.
“You can take all manner of different courses now which the PFA will help you pay for. But until you finish playing I don’t think people really see it all coming.
“I don’t think many people plan in advance, if they’re injured then they may do but you’ll find the majority are primarily focused on the here and now.”
As was with Roberts, the suggestion of more spare time becoming available when the playing boots are hung up was equally quickly dismissed by Huckerby – who revealed his current workload far exceeds the one he endured whilst being a player at the highest levels of the English game.
“It’s good but the hours are a lot longer now I’m doing my coaching work and that’s the biggest difference now.
“When you’re a player you go in at nine o’clock each day and then you’re all finished by two in the afternoon.
“There’s a lot of travelling as a player, but the numbers of hours are completely different, I’m doing nearly 70 hours a week.”
The time-consuming role he speaks of is his job with Norwich City, where he works with ages ranging from as young as 15 all the way up the U21 squad at the club. It’s a role in which the goalposts have been firmly and permanently moved since his playing days.
“It’s completely different now,” he continues.
“You’ve got so many factors now such as nutrition staff, video analysis and sports psychology and the training methods have altered now as well.
“When I was in the first team at Coventry City we didn’t have anything compared to what we have here now – I’d say Norwich City has ten times as much as when I played in the Premier League.”
Back with the subject matter – what would it take for Huckerby to cross the divide? When posed the same question as the one which Roberts answered with the hair jibe, the well-travelled midfielder was equally stern and non-moving with his answer.
“I’ve done coaching for a few years, but I’ve got no real interest in management to be honest. I enjoy coaching and will stick with it – I’ve got no interest in becoming a manager full time.”
It’s quite a talent to be able nurture young talent and send individuals on the pathway to success – very few top class managers in the game are renowned for such capabilities.
However, Huckerby was insistent that the tasks surrounding player development are how he gets his kicks now he’s retired from the game.
“The biggest buzz for me is seeing players that I’m coaching and teaching beginning to develop. I work with 15 year-olds all the way up to 22 year-olds so it’s a big range of abilities and attributes.
“They all start from different places too so there’s a lot to be done.”
It seems life without football is almost unimaginable for the two Norfolk legends, who are visibly working hard to ensure their futures lie in the game they love in one capacity or another.
While Roberts is broadcasting the fortunes of the two biggest sides in his home country to the masses, Huckerby has chosen to try and nurture the next generation – both seem to be the next best thing for the pair.
Returning to the quip at the top, it therefore looks as if it is almost unimaginable for players to down tools and forget the game altogether – life without football is one of the hardest things in the world, so we should all be grateful then that it seems the final whistle isn’t often blown on involvement completely.