It can be difficult to have sympathy for footballers. They are rich young men, who seem to have everything going for them. They have the mansions, the cars, the women. But what happens when it comes to the end of that lifestyle and it is time for them to move on?
Retirement is a big part of anyone’s life, but imagine doing it with a severe lack of life experience. The biggest stars in world football can be surrounded by advisors who will aid them into retirement and beyond, but what about the lower end of football, or those who disappear slowly?
There are examples where it is done right, Park Ji-Sung, for example, whose venture into a university degree doesn’t only provide the LadBible with plenty of clicks, it also gives him a genuine chance to improve himself and get the experiences that can shape his post retirement life into a positive one. However, there are examples where the post retirement world is less forgiving, where the individual involved is less self-aware as Park.
The most obvious example has to be Paul Gascoigne. The man is a footballing legend, and yet he is now a figure of mockery for the tabloids to pick at. Indeed, Gascoigne is a clear example of what sports psychologists call the restitution narrative. When Gascoigne’s body started to give up on him he was faced with the cognitive dissonance of wanting to continue playing whilst not being physically able to. His desire to continue playing forced him to move further and further down the leagues, forcing his body to continue.
The restitution narrative is the idea that when faced with some form of hindrance (such as Gascoigne’s decaying body) they refuse to accept it. They tell themselves that they used to be okay, they are currently ill, but they will be okay again in the future. The final part of this is the key. It is a failure to move on from what they want to be. Gascoigne simply could not imagine himself as anything other than a footballer and couldn’t shake the belief that he would return to his former glory.
This, of course, is a dangerous issue, as it is diagnosing from afar, but Gascoigne’s decline is there for the world to see. He played to the age of 38, before retiring from Boston United in dirges of English football. 38 is a late retirement age for a footballer, and whilst his disappearance from the top leagues was sudden, by continuing to play and not formally retiring whilst at the top stopped his retirement from being news worthy. By the end he was considered a joke, rather than being remembered as the legend that he was. His name is now tainted, but ultimately the man should have been remembered as a legend.
You can look at the likes of Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Jamie Carragher, who went out at the top. Sure, they may have wished to carry on, but they were able to go out with some dignity. Steven Gerrard perhaps pushed it too far, his pay day at LA Galaxy probably coming a season too late, but most of his dignity remained.
The footballing world is not all doom and gloom, however. There is a trend now towards post retirement care. Many clubs have foundations to support their ex-players and there is a general trend towards another of sport psychology’s narratives, the quest narrative – where an individual accepts what has happened and that their time is up.
This is the narrative which is seen in players such as Park and also recently in Mathieu Flamini who is coming to the end of his career with Crystal Palace.
Flamini has been helped massively by being prepared and his company – GF Biochemicals – as has been well documented, has made him even richer than his footballing days have. But there are players who have retired to less glamourous lives and still display the quest narrative. They have accepted their retirement and have found a focus on family or other pursuits.
One such player is Stuart Ripley, who won the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers in 1995. In an interview with the Guardian in 2015 he spoke of his life after football, and how he turned to further education and his family. He is now a solicitor and a law lecturer – a relatively understated life for a man who has achieved one of the highest accolades in English football. His focus on moving on from the sport and doing something completely different has allowed him a respectable life where he can be a valued member of society and leave his playing career untainted.
Paul Gascoigne, though, has ultimately left the restitution narrative, and moved on to a narrative which can be considered a purgatory between restitution and quest – The chaos narrative.
This narrative is one where there is a complete lack of direction. It is not acceptance of who they have become and it is not the wish to return who they were, it is a complete lack of identity. Gascoigne grew up only knowing football, and now it has left him. Football was his identity, and without it he turned to drink and recreational drugs to replace it. Gascoigne continues to go to rehab, but it appears that no matter how hard he tries he cannot replace that football shaped hole. He seems to be able to stay sober when given a distraction, such as producing his self-titled documentary on his life in 2015, but he has had to return to rehab earlier this year. If he had gone out at the top, then perhaps he would have found a place in football coaching or punditry, but he went down too low down and as too much of a joke to survive in a sport that moves too quickly.
Stuart Ripley retired with O-levels (modern day GCSEs) and the desire to continue his education afterwards. Perhaps it is the responsibility of clubs and football associations to ensure that the Gascoigne story is learned from. The boys and young men who are sucked into the world of football and the glamour that comes with need to be reminded that it is not forever. It is fantastic whilst it lasts, and it should be celebrated, but like all good things it must come to an end.
For more information on psychological narratives, take a look at Frank Arthur’s 1995 paper titled ‘The wounded storyteller’.