Mental Health Awareness Week: Book Review: Retired
Retired by Alan Gernon
Published by Pitch Publishing
As we have established over our series of articles this week, footballers and football supporters are by no means exempt from the fact that a quarter of people suffer from mental health disorders. That these conditions are established as illnesses is also undeniable and great strides have been made in in recent years to help the wider public recognise the fact – the reaction to the news that Aaron Lennon was detained under the Mental Health Act last week was universally one of sympathy and support.
While the clinical aspects of mental health disorders are clear and present and while treatment via counselling and pharmacy are a big part of the picture, as Ben discussed in his monumental post yesterday, it’s also clear that such illnesses are often the result of serious causes. Alan Gernon’s Retired devotes only a single chapter to mental health explicitly but it’s a thread that runs through the whole book: an engrossing account of how footballers fare after hanging up their boots.
Brought to us by Pitch Publishing, the firm that published Mike Gibbons’ excellent account of Euro 96, When Football Came Home early in 2016, the volume recounts the acute psychological distress that players can experience on retiring from the game. Yes – a couple of the interlocutors do open pubs – very much the traditional road to rack and ruin in the popular mind – but all the interviewees talk frankly about the pressures of having to revert to being a ‘normal’ person.
As Gernon explores some of the major issues surrounding retirement from football, the statistics are stark. Take bankruptcy – two out of five Premier League footballers face bankruptcy within five years of retiring despite earning an average of £42,872 a week. Take divorce – a third of footballers are single within twelve months of retirement. Take injury – 80% will suffer from osteoarthritis in later life. Take death – it’s astonishing to note that suicide accounted for 11% of deaths of professional footballers between 2007 and 2013.
In addition, a significant point made by the author concerns the age at which most footballers retire. Only 2% of 16 year olds are still professional at 21 – so it is a youthful cohort indeed that form the bulk of the sport’s jettisoned. Indeed, within a week of release, 35.7% of players experience clinical levels of psychological distress.
The subjects of the book – including former West Ham and Everton terrier; Mark Ward, the recipient of the most famous leg break in English football history, David Busst and Vincent Pericard, a man who played for both Juventus and Havant & Waterlooville, are articulate and forthright, talking often of the sense of loss that comes with leaving the game, the suddenness of the need to adapt and the mental anguish that can accompany such a loss of fulfillment.
There have been many notable efforts to combat the causes and effects – that engaging representative of the highly recommendable Second Captains series of podcasts, Richie Sadlier suffered a career ending injury and went on to study for an H Dip and a Masters in Counselling and Psychotherapy; West Bromwich Albion fans are a credit to themselves for their support for Jeff Astle – their highlighting of the ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign drawing attention to the former England striker’s death at just 59 years of age from a degenerative brain disease; and the efforts of XPRO, a body set up to help footballers adjust to retirement are rightly foregrounded.
But sadly, the environment footballers are in can also be far from conducive to good mental health. Much has been written about ‘banter’ and its pernicious impact and while the term certainly needs better defining and may not be all that distinct from the joshing you’ll get on the occasional football podcast run by a national newspaper, its crueller end – where ‘gay’ might be used as an insult, where players are seen as weak for an unwillingness to play through injuries and where physical defects are rounded upon – is certainly highlighted in the book. Again, perhaps the book’s most fascinating chapter tells of footballing refuseniks – those who gave up the game because they simply couldn’t hack it any more. Shane Supple, whom we covered in the early days of this blog, talks frankly about the forces that led him to leave Ipswich amid a dressing room where players were disappointed the club that qualified for the play-offs because it meant their holiday would be deferred for a month.
But as well as among players, it’s also at the institutional level that insufficient help is afforded for retirees. Osteoarthritis still isn’t classified as an industrial disability by the UK government, a UEFA pro-licence costs £6,000 in England in comparison to £500 in Germany – thus allowing less players to be able to afford to study for one – and supposedly benign institutions including churches can prey on the naiveté of footballers – former Charlton man Richard Rufus is alleged to have suffered from such a scam. Unsurprisingly, insurance companies are also far from sympathetic – it took former Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday defender Jon Newsome two and a half years of legal wrangling to obtain a pay out after an injury ended his playing days. Indeed, it’s often the anecdotes about players the reader will know and remember that are most thought-provoking – Mark Ward ended up at Walton Prison and six suicides took place on his wing during his stay while Paul MacGregor’s account of his time with the unwanted label of the ‘Britpop’ footballer are also fascinating.
Occasionally one suspects that the curse of the unreliable narrator takes hold. Gernon has to take people’s word for it and a chapter on players’ inability to find employment in the media is perhaps the volume’s least satisfactory. There is a partly understandable bitterness about Gordon Watson and Espen Baardsen that won’t gain them an opportunity any time soon (although Baardsen has resorted to financial trading) and the inevitable anonymous interviews, while interesting, are also tantalising because of that cloak of secrecy. All in all though – and while an index would have significantly improved the volume – this is a significant addition to the literature of the game that is written very much in the style of Michael Calvin’s recent phalanx of books on football, a real eye opener written in entertaining style with a nice dollop of self-deprecating humour.