Like so many players, Neil Wills made no provision for his retirement. Now it's got him worrying about death
According to Marianne Faithfull, it was at the age of 37 that Lucy Jordan realised she would never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair. According to my brother Clive, he was a mere two years older than that when he realised that if he didn’t stop playing football, his hamstrings would explode. This terrified me because hitherto I had always assumed I would play football for ever. I suddenly realised that – all genetics being equal – at 32 I probably only had seven years to go. For the first time in my life, I faced the grisly prospect of retirement.
The plight of the professional footballer on being put out to grass is well documented. No one, however, seems to care about the psychological trauma retirement can have upon the vast hordes of amateur hoofers when the referee blows that most final of final whistles. What is “Jimmy” or “H” or (arf arf) “Bus Pass” to do with all those Saturdays or Sundays suddenly devoid of close encounters of the turfy kind? After all, no one can be expected to spend every weekend from here to eternity trawling the record fairs for the first Buzzcocks EP, can they? Can they?
Neither can we suddenly decide to give up our jobs to run pubs à la Peter Lorimer, Larry Lloyd and a cast of thousands. Lucky old ex-professionals, eh? If they’re not making a fortune from sports shops and going to live in the Cayman Islands (Bill Gates – the Middlesbrough one, not the computer geek), they’re breaking into the dazzlingly effervescent world of soft drinks (Tony Hateley). They either ensure their name remains up in lights (step forward Len Allchurch of the Len Allchurch Shoe, Leather and Sheepskin Centre), or, like former Chelsea goalie Petar Borota, they get themselves implicated in some stolen painting scam resulting in lashings of intoxicating court-room drama.
Trevor Ford (Swansea, Villa, Sunderland) arranges to get himself on as substitute fielder for Glamorgan, no less, when Gary Sobers whips out six sixes in an over. And even sombre old Derek Hales now describes his modus sponduli as “constructional enterprises” which sounds like he’s either joined the vanguard of some post-modern school of painters or he’s getting stoned somewhere on a golf course with Ronnie Biggs. Notice how glamour follows these people around like a lonely puppy on Temazepam?
Sadly, we park footballers are already soft drinks reps or proprietors of eponymous shoe, leather and sheepskin emporia when we retire from the game. Not for us a few lines in Where Are They Now? proclaiming, “A well-travelled painter and decorator, X’s career spanned 20 years before he finally hung up his brushes and became a wing-back at Anfield.”
So the bottom line is, where do you go after, in my brother’s case, an illustrious career in the Unijet Mid-Sussex League, the famed “toughest league in the world”?
The options remaining inside the game do not tempt. Spectating as younger former team-mates strut their stuff only leads to morbid nostalgia, and you can forget about applying for some sort of coaching or managerial post. Tried it, mate. Written the letters, filled in the forms. Nothing. You wouldn’t believe how picky Premier League sides are these days (well, with the exception of Everton, but just how desperate do you have to be?).
Let’s be brutally honest. Retirement from football is traumatic principally because it is a landmark – a watershed, if you will – on your way to impending dotage, frailty, senility and death. All the time you’re playing football you are deafening yourself to the ravaged shrieks of Father Time and the constant rumours as to the finite nature of your existence. After all, statistics are on your side: very few active footballers die, and one does not normally fret out the week scouring the obituaries to see if any of your team-mates have expired before Saturday’s crunch tie at Dormansland Rockets. Former footballers, on the other hand, are no longer safe and are wont to kick the bucket with alarming regularity. You’ll either have to start looking Life’s Big Questions boldly in the eye, or find some other sport to distract you.
Another sport it is then. First off, admit to yourself that the retired footballer and contact sports are not a marriage made in heaven. If your body no longer feels inclined to propel you into your opponents’ box, it’s unlikely to welcome with open arms the idea of suddenly becoming a tight-head prop. The obvious choice, for reasons which continue to elude me, is golf. Doubtless the attraction of all that lush turf with none of those unsightly goalmouth bald patches may be enough for some but it will always remain the cowards’ way out.
Yes, there is still a ball involved; yes, there is some sort of goal to aim for; but – crucially – there is no goalkeeper. You might as well be playing football alone in the back garden, where at least you have the advantage of forcing the lawnmower into being Gary Sprake.
My brother, for his part, has decided to exchange his boots for a badminton racquet. This always seemed a bit of a weedy wet game to my mind until he invited me to play doubles with him and I felt the crack of racquet and head locked in a tension of opposites. If it’s the ever-present risk of imminent hospitalisation that most thrills you about football, badminton is a friend awaiting your acquaintance.
Of course, if all else fails, you can always seek inspiration from tests that show post-football trauma is almost unheard of among women. Let them teach you how to be more rational, balanced and rounded as a person, thus developing a wider, richer view of life. Or there’s always racing pigeons.
From WSC 144 February 1999. What was happening this month