The former Portsmouth, Watford and Sheffield United striker on hanging up his boots and the transition into life after professional football.
I decided to quit playing football a couple of weeks ago. For the first time in 18 years I’ve got no pre-season to look forward to and I’d be lying if I said I won’t miss it, but I’m convinced I’ve made the right decision.
My family knew, but I felt like I should make it public. I wasn’t expecting it to be front page news. Or even back page news, but I didn’t think it too indulgent to tell people following me on Twitter. With a heavy heart, I pressed ‘send’ – and was quickly heartened by the response. Players and former colleagues like Gary Neville wished me well. Fans too. Then you had fans who thought I was the worst player they’ve ever seen. Or fans who reminded me of very specific events in my career – events which meant a huge deal to them, chances missed or taken. Negatives which I’d long worked through in my mind and moved on from, but clearly rankled with them. Like a penalty against Chelsea in 2007, which was saved. Had I scored it, Sheffield United would have stayed in the Premier League. But I didn’t. I let someone else down that day, too. Sir Alex Ferguson had collared me a week before and said: “You’re playing Chelsea next. Beat them.”
My football career was not how I hoped it would be. At 16, I thought I’d be playing for England and Man United for my whole career. That’s how you thought when you were a young United player. You aimed for the top, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, I had 14 operations and played in all four divisions. I didn’t consider my career to be a success, yet my opinion is starting to change on how I view it. I was fortunate to play professional football for a long time at some great clubs. That alone is something I’m starting to feel proud of.
I also knew the end was coming. I realised that it was closing in aged 30 when my body wouldn’t do what my mind wanted it to do on a football pitch. From that moment, I began my transition from a professional footballer to where I am now, a football agent with media work. I also did my coaching badges, just in case.
I didn’t want stepping out of the football bubble to be the culture shock it is to many players. I knew I’d miss the game too much if I just went cold turkey. Miss feeling ultra fit, the buzz of the crowd, the beautifully manicured pitches, of scoring a goal and watching 20,000 people go wild. It’s a buzz which so few get to experience, but it’s wonderful. I know I’m lucky to have experienced it and it becomes addictive. As does the dressing room craic between the players. It has become a cliché where players say they miss it, but football is like no other job for the camaraderie and jokes. They can be brutal and side splittingly funny. To walk away from all of that – and the good money which footballers receive – is giving up a great deal.
I knew I had to prepare myself. I played for Salford City in the last two seasons, the perfect move as it allowed me to wean myself off the drug that is playing football. It was a gradual step down from full-time football. It was hugely enjoyable too, playing in two promotions for a club which also reached the second round of the FA Cup. I loved it. I’ll stay close to Salford and go to games. I live locally, I’m close with people at the club and might even train with the boys.
I could have played on this season but, aged 34, I felt it right to stop, to give more time to my young family and work. Even at Salford we trained twice a week and played twice a week. There was a lot of travelling and there will be even more now that the team are in the national league north, with trips to Darlington in the north and south to Brackley.
So I’m upping my work with an agency which has a couple of players who’ve done well in France. I’m working identifying younger players and using my knowledge acquired growing up in Manchester, playing for United, Watford, Sheffield United, Portsmouth, Leeds, Accrington and Salford. My skill base is in football and I think it’s wise to stay in football, though the agency world is as competitive as the football world. De-regulation means that anyone can call themselves a football agent, even if they don’t have any players. As in football, though, the cream usually rises to the top. I’ve seen good agents and bad ones. I had four myself and a real mix of experience with them. Some are sharks in it for a short term profit, others genuinely care about the players they work with and try to do their best for them.
There are agents who are ex-players and can relate to their clients because they were professional footballers, but just being a former player doesn’t make you a good agent. Hard work, intelligence, compassion, contacts and knowledge all help. That’ll be my focus, though I might be distracted on the first day of the season when I’m not pulling a football shirt on myself.