Soccer players talk retirement: ’10 years of my life went into the abyss’

Retirement can be a daunting prospect in any profession — the loss of income, the sense of the best days being in the past, the need to search for a new purpose — but it can also offer new opportunities and a release from the day-to-day pressure of a working environment.

For a professional footballer, though, retirement often comes before most people have even started to climb the career ladder.

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A select few reach the top, enjoy success and receive the kind of earnings that allow them to retire in their mid-30s and enjoy a life of leisure and contentment. The majority aren’t so lucky. The game retires them, either through injury or simply the discovery that the phone has stopped ringing when they need a new team. Many don’t achieve great things or set themselves up for life financially.

It means retirement for footballers can be more challenging, financially and psychologically, than it is for most professions because the end comes when they should be in their prime.

With many footballers now waiting in vain for the phone to ring and beginning to contemplate retirement, ESPN has spoken to five former players about their difficult transitions from playing to being an ex-player. Here are their stories.

There is always a challenge when you’re a footballer. Either in games or in training, when there was a constant determination to be better the next day, you identified a challenge and pursued it. Football gives your life a structure and purpose. But it is a competitive environment; friendships are embedded in a culture of performance, success and failure. It is like no other industry.

When it stopped for me prematurely, there was nothing to aim for and it felt like I was drifting towards oblivion. Panic sets in, and it isn’t just the financial implications: it’s about filling the void on a day-to-day basis. What do you do when you are part of a collective, based on a structure of trust and bonding, then cast out from that social network. Part of you, and life in a collective group, is gone.

Contrary to society’s beliefs about football and those who play the game professionally, financial stability and security is a myth — footballers are very much precarious workers, with a short career. I’d always planned to retire at 35, 36, 37, so you put money away each month to support you and your family when retirement comes. But when you retire at 29, it’s really unexpected and that short career, in which you earn very well for a relatively brief period, becomes just a moment in time. To put this into context — by the time surgeons and doctors finally finish their training, my career was essentially over.

Given the nature and culture of the business of football, I lost out on a lot of future income, my peak earning years, and I also missed out on compensation through insurance because I wasn’t insured. I had suffered a bad knee injury at the age of 25, so no insurance companies would give me a policy in case my knee broke down. The policies that were offered to me were extortionate — for example, it would have cost me £80,000 per year to insure myself against injury, but without cover for the knee. I knew the knee would finish me at some point, so I would have been throwing money away taking out insurance that wouldn’t cover that key area of my body.

Often these issues put strain on professional and personal life, but given the rewards involved, players are reluctant to come forward with these pressures given the backlash from the wider football fraternity. My final three contracts, at Wigan, Portsmouth and Bolton, were all just short-term deals, so the clubs were wary of my knee.

In addition, I found the structures in place for players transitioning, from player to life after the game, to be inadequate. There was nobody at these clubs or within the PFA [Professional Footballers’ Association] to help me prepare for retirement. Player welfare is an afterthought once they as a commodity had ceased being an asset.

I don’t like to use the word “retirement,” or in fact the culture built up around athletes stepping out of the game or sport and transitioning to something new. As sportspeople, we should use the word “graduation” — we have banked a wealth of knowledge, had highs and lows, been inspired by good leadership and let down by poor structure. We know the importance of culture and player welfare, how to make sporting environments more equitable and get rid of toxic environment. We also know the organisational structure, the outside influences on decision-making.

We are not just players; we are in fact training every day. When we stop playing, we are in fact graduating and moving to something else, where we take all this training and apply it to different roles.

I do think that the game needs to be better in terms of offering career advice, or education planning, to players facing the end of their playing days, to help them in the next stage of their lives — to change the culture of transition. The PFA is evolving and learning, but it could be more enterprising when it comes to transitioning and planning.

At 29, you hear the word “retirement” and you think of old men. I wasn’t even 30, not even in the prime of life, so you have to cope with that reality. That’s tough. It’s also hard to watch your contemporaries winning trophies, still playing at the top level, when you have had it all taken away. It’s not envy or bitterness; it’s just your competitive instinct looking for an outlet. It’s the unknown of what you could have achieved. Instead, you’re left with a feeling of constant “shame.”

My end came at Vail, Colorado, in the clinic of the world-renowned knee specialist Dr. Richard Steadman. He had operated on me before and would clean my knee out to help me continue playing, but on this occasion, he said it had deteriorated to the point where it wasn’t viable to play on. I’d spent three years at Blackburn trying to overcome the knee injury, and I felt like paying the wages back because I didn’t feel as though I deserved them. That’s how injuries make you feel.

Initially when I retired, I felt a relief psychologically. I could go for a meal and have a glass of wine and try to enjoy myself, but it was a novelty factor. Within a few weeks, I would get up on a Saturday with my heart rate really high, feeling angry and uptight. I’d be up and out early, walking the dogs, trying to burn off the adrenaline because it was a Saturday and there was nothing to replace the buzz of playing. Although I needed time away from it to recover mentally, I was still in love with every aspect of the game.

You become needy and withdrawn — that certainly happened to me — and I started pushing people away. You start shaking the tree to see who’s going to be around for who you are because I’d always been David Thompson, the footballer, someone who would always be there to solve the problems of everyone else.

That’s the emotional side of retirement. There’s also the financial hit, and I had the misfortune of retiring in November 2007, just as the global financial crash started to play out. I was trying to prove myself in business investments and property. I remember one night thinking, “What have you done? You have invested your whole life savings and I don’t know if it’s going to come back.” I was trying to prove I could still keep my family in the lifestyle we had been accustomed to.

When you look back, it’s an emotional breakdown — an oppressive state you don’t even realise you’re in. I only realise that when I look back.

I’d say that 10 years of my life went into the abyss after retirement, financially and personally, trying to move on and build a life after playing. I started a new relationship with my partner, who is really good at putting things in perspective, and realised I needed to take accountability for things and get some qualifications that would support my future.

There was a sense of entitlement there because things had always been given to me as footballer. Life had become a little bit easy, but when it was tough — and it was really tough — I had to make decisions rather than sit there, expecting things to happen.

I’ve always known I had a certain level of intelligence — I just wasn’t putting it to good use until now. I’m doing a master’s degree in sporting directorship, I have diplomas now in critical thinking, and have just finished a literature review on sportswashing and the Middle East. I’ll be doing my dissertation on the subject of geopolitics impacting the sporting economy.

I’ve highlighted a career action plan on where I need to be, with a timeline and timescale, and how I’m going to get there. That’s only because I’ve taken control of that. It’s not left to chance. It’s me knocking on doors now trying to find the right route. No one is going to do me any favours, no one is going to drop anything on my doorstep, I will have to forge my own path.

I love football: it is my whole life, I hope to be back among it again soon. I have too much to offer not to be, but even if I’m not I know I can channel this energy into something valuable, something important.

I started planning for retirement when I was in my mid-20s. I had left Manchester City to join Queens Park Rangers and found myself in a dressing room with older players who were beginning to realise they weren’t ready, financially or mentally, for the end of their career.

Some of them were talking about investments that had gone wrong, or really bad injuries they’d suffered that left them worrying about how long they had left in the game. They would talk about not being sure where they were going to play next. They didn’t have a plan for what, or where, their next season was going to be, so I started thinking that I needed to put myself in a situation where, if I’m retiring, I’ve made the call to do it, rather than have football retire me.

I used a financial adviser to create a picture based on how much money you spend, how much money you need, and put investments in play to sustain me and my family after I retired. It helped give me an idea of what the financial situation would be post-playing, enabling me to focus on short-, medium- and long-term security, but also plan for unexpected things that may come along.

Having played in the Premier League for over a decade, I earned a very good salary, but although players would generally aim to retire in their mid-30s, I was 28 when I realised that the clock was ticking. I had a move lined up to West Ham under Sam Allardyce, but was told that, at 28, I was too old for the club. That surprised me, but football is a tough and ruthless game and clubs make business decisions like that which fans often don’t see.

When my contract expired at QPR in 2018, I was 31, the club captain and had played throughout my final season. They offered me a pay-as-you-play deal that was worth 95% less than the contract that had just expired, so I had to leave on a point of principle as much as anything. I was stunned.

At 31, I had interest from teams in England, but in that situation, clubs make you wait. They don’t want to commit to a salary for a player in his 30s when they have younger players in the squad, so that’s when you start to train on your own, waiting for a call.

Some players retire after the final game of the season, but there are more who retire in July, August or September when they realise they aren’t getting another club. You think you’ll be fine in July. You’re all right, then you’re not all right because it’s September and nobody has called. I was only out of contract once in my career, in 2018, and it was for three months. I was trying to stay fit, but you ask yourself, “Who am I staying fit for, where am I going to be, what am I trying to achieve?”

I ended up moving to the U.S. and I enjoyed my time in Salt Lake. I had the option of a two-year deal there or a six-month contract with Los Angeles FC, but at 31, you take the security of the longer deal. The COVID-19 pandemic hit during Year 2, though, and that was tough, especially on my family, so I decided to come back to the UK and look to the future.

Do I miss playing? I’m happy not to have to do preseason training, but you get the frustration of knowing that you can still do it — I know I can still do it — and I do miss the feel of being involved in a big game. But those occasions are less than 1% of your time as a player. The rest is travelling, being stuck in hotels and training in tough conditions — when you don’t win your games, it can be horrendous with criticism coming from all directions.

I don’t miss being a footballer. I get my satisfaction now from watching games, being involved in big games while working in the media. Last season, I worked at the FA Cup Final and Champions League final, and I’m never experiencing either of those if I start playing again.

I know that a lot of ex-players aren’t as fortunate as I have been. In retirement, many footballers suffer financial problems, see their marriages break up and they struggle to find a new career. What happens after playing depends on the person, but I can see why there are psychological challenges. You have been the main financial contributor since you left school, but that changes for all but those who have played at the top level.

How do you handle that change in dynamic when arguments start to happen because those nice things you used to have suddenly become a lot more expensive?

You also hear of ex-players and their partners spending more time together, but they don’t actually know each other because their lives have only been spent in a football bubble; the ex-player also has to adjust to a life where nobody outside of your family cares about you anymore. They have never had to book a holiday or go shopping, but all of a sudden, the real world is right there and you realise the rest of your life has to be normal.

A lot of guys become miserable because they’re lost without the team environment, but for me, that wasn’t an issue because by the time I retired, there were people playing who were born after I made my debut.

So when I decided to retire, I was excited for the rest of my life. I feel like I’ve done the football thing now.

I remember being booed while I was playing for Blackpool. I was the team captain and we were losing. The fans started to turn on me. I had never experienced that before and it made me angry.

I just thought, “I don’t deserve this kind of thing,” so I reacted. My attitude was, “F— you!” I had been a Manchester United player — I turned down a contract offered to me by Sir Alex Ferguson when I was 23 because I wanted a change — and five years later I was being booed at Blackpool, so I started to show them how good I was.

I was talking to the crowd, saying “Is that good enough for you?” but at the end of it, I realised I just couldn’t do this anymore. I told the manager that I was done and asked to have my contract settled.

Blackpool paid me up and my professional career was finished at 29. But it made me happy: I was free of the pressure that comes with the game and it felt like a release, that I could I breathe now.

I’d lost interest in football. I was bored. When I was a kid coming through at United, I used to love the routine of training, playing, being around the club and watching the first-team, but the senior game was different — the same monotonous routine every day. It just became a job, but although I was a good, technical player, lots of things happen in football. There are politics within the game — managers either like you or they don’t — and I fell into a pattern of moving around from one club to another, probably an element of self-sabotage in it all too.

By the time I called it a day at Blackpool, I was depressed, but back then it wasn’t the kind of thing you would admit to. I wasn’t in love with what I was doing, wasn’t 100% focused on playing and, when something isn’t right, you can’t prepare for games in the right way. You don’t push yourself, but I didn’t want to “just do enough.” I needed a change.

But once I retired, I thought, “What am I going to do now?” I enjoyed a bit of retirement, played a lot of golf and felt good, but you get bored, don’t you? And you realise you have no qualifications to do anything else.

At that point, I had started to play for Hyde United, a part-time team near Manchester, and it proved to be the most enjoyable three years of my career because there was none of the pressure that comes with the professional game. I absolutely loved the feeling of freedom of training once or twice a week and then playing at the weekend.

It’s relevant to point out that I was diagnosed with autism after I finished playing. I always knew I was on the spectrum because a lot of my anxiety came out in the form of little twitches or ticks, and there were times when I played that I thought my head was going to explode.

My diagnosis helped explain why my career went the way it did: how I would get bored, want to do something else. I was part of United’s class of ’92 — I used to room with David Beckham on away trips, and Sir Alex wanted to keep me at the club. My friends tell me I could now be living Gary Neville’s life had I stayed at Old Trafford and made the right-back position mine rather than his, but I’m happy being John O’Kane. And I’m happier now than I ever was as a footballer because retirement from the game has taken me into a new career working with, and caring for, kids with special needs.

A friend of my ex-wife worked in care and asked if I would be interested in helping kids with autism and other challenges. They ended up giving me the toughest kid to handle, and despite having no real qualifications, I loved it. Something just clicked and I felt like I belonged in the environment. It’s not about giving something back: it just felt quite personal to me because I’m on the spectrum myself.

In football, which is a tough profession, I had to suppress a lot of feelings, particularly in terms of anxiety and nervousness, and it explains why I walked away from it all at such a young age. I’ve now been working in care for almost 20 years and I have never been happier.

People say, “Oh you were weak because you didn’t make it to the top,” but they don’t realise what I had to cope with apart from playing football. There’s another side in my head, it’s talking to the other, do you know what I mean? Little things you don’t understand if you’re not on the spectrum.

Obviously, I am not earning anything close to what I had as a footballer, but money has never been a motivation. It was just me and my mum when I was growing up — we lived for the moment — and my only priority now is to ensure that my kids are fed, clothed and loved. I have enough money to survive, and there’s nothing that I feel I need or don’t have.

The money that comes with playing football only creates a fake existence, so I don’t miss being involved in it.

I had some pretty severe injuries at a young age, some bad broken legs, and I always knew from the first one that I should have something else beyond football that I was interested in. I was 15, but although my dad told me I didn’t have to put myself through the risk of a sporting career, I wanted to see how far I could go because I knew I was good at it. But I still went to university and ended up with a degree in graphic design to give myself an option outside the game if or when I needed it.

Education, that pathway to college and uni, is more accessible and normalised in the United States, where I was born and raised, so it felt a natural thing to do. Good income raises your ceiling, but a good education raises your floor and that was key for me.

Women’s football is still a relatively young professional sport, and we have been paid pennies in relative terms. We’ve always had to work twice as hard for half as much, you know what I mean? That is always something that scared me. I always wanted to play for as long as possible, but I also wanted to make ends meet and be able to prepare financially for the future.

I have had injuries along the way, but I often felt that if I could sustain a career until the age of 30, it would be awesome. That’s why I took a master’s degree in sports directorship in my early-30s: I saw the prospectus on my agent’s desk and thought it sounded really interesting, especially as the women’s game was growing professionally and there would be scope for taking my career in that direction once I retired.

I completed the degree just before the 2019 World Cup, which was timely because I suffered an injury during the tournament — a really bad hamstring tendon tear — which marked the beginning of the end for me. I knew it but didn’t really want to accept it, and that’s when stuff started to get really hard, in between realising my time was coming to an end and actually retiring.

It was kind of like, “Right, what’s going to happen?” I’m terrified and I’ve got this degree in my locker, but it’s all theoretical — none of it is in practice. I don’t have any real-world experience, so I went to Gavin Makel [managing director of Manchester City Women’s Football Club] to ask the question: “What next?” So we built a plan, shaped out what the next five years would look like, and he helped me with different opportunities within the game to help me transition into a new career.

I hadn’t retired at that point, but I was really fighting psychologically. I didn’t like football anymore, I was questioning why I was doing it. My body never got to where I wanted it to be after my injury and it really took a toll on me, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown in the winter of 2020-21 when I felt so isolated.

I remember that Christmas when we weren’t allowed to go home, I had to stay in Manchester by myself. I normally go back to California to see my parents, so that was a really bad time for me.

I ended up getting a dog to have something to look after, something to care for, because it got to the extent where I wasn’t really looking after myself either. It was a really difficult, dark time, but I got through it. I had some support from the club, a couple of psychologists that I worked with over lockdown and some weekly touch points with the team. I was still training when I could, but it wasn’t until I had a loan spell back in the U.S. with OL Reign that I fell in love with the game again.

But it’s a tough time when you know your career is coming to an end. You feel like you are losing your identity. As much as I don’t want to admit it, that identity was formed around what I did on the pitch. It wasn’t, “Oh, you’re daughter or a friend.” It was like, “No, you’re a goalkeeper and how do you move on from that?” I found that really, really difficult.

A crucial factor for me was that I met my partner who really helped me through a lot of the stages. He became my sounding board for being able to share thoughts and feelings and plans — “What does this sound like? What does that feel like?” He became a really integral part of my support system.

When I retired, literally overnight, I just went a bit nuts and did a lot of the stuff that I’ve been putting off for years. One of the first things I wanted to do was go surfing because I’d never been allowed to do it because of contract restrictions as a player. I ended up booking a week at this random surf resort in Wales and spent the whole time surfing and climbing.

I have also started skateboarding and take lessons. One of my life goals is to go down a quarterpipe or a halfpipe. I’m from California, I love being outdoors, so I loved the sense of freedom, but having been a professional athlete, I still need an adrenaline rush. I got into yoga for a while and really liked the spirituality and mindfulness, but it just wasn’t hitting the exertion button. But I think I have become addicted to CrossFit [a high-intensity fitness regime] since retiring. There’s a mini-community of us all, everyone wants each other to do well, so there is that team spirit there which I had as a player. It helps fill a mini void.

Do I miss the game now that I’ve retired? I do miss the training aspect of football and the camaraderie of the changing room, but I don’t miss the psychological side of it or the pressure that you are under to be perfect all the time. I’m enjoying life after playing.

I always say that the fact I’ve had cancer twice was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to see what life would look like when football is finished.

It’s obviously not a nice thing to have to say, certainly not ideal for me or my family, but I retired at 29 years old having pushed my body to the limits. The cancer treatment had taken its toll and I had to accept that it had not only made me more susceptible to injury, but also meant that I would take longer to recover from the pulls or tears that are an inevitable consequence of a footballer’s career.

With everything factored in, including the advice of the doctors and specialists, I realised I was at a junction in my life. So I closed one chapter and moved onto the next one.

I had put myself in a smart position businesswise, particularly after overcoming cancer the second time, so there was not a big financial pressure on my decision. But I do remember how I felt when I was released by Tranmere Rovers a week after I had finished my treatment the first time. They let me go with three little lines that basically said, “Thanks for your services.” I was 24 at the time, but it lit a fire inside me and made me want to prove them wrong.

The day I was released, I put my training kit on and hit the road, but it gave me an early warning about how quickly it can all come to an end, so I made sure I prepared for that.

When you sign your first professional contract as a teenager, you are just riding off adrenaline and ready to pursue a career, but you don’t see it as a job. That only happens in your latter years when you have seen the game from the inside. As a kid, you’ve been good in the playground, you’ve been scouted, you’ve then played well for the club and now you’re playing at a professional level.

Anybody that plays any professional football should take a lot of pride from it because you’ve only got to look at the statistics that say less than 2% of young footballers make a career from the game. I always remember thinking that it’s going to finish at some point, though, and I wanted to retire at 32. But having cancer twice gives you a different outlook, and I made sure I had a post-playing plan that now involves motivational speaking, based on my experiences as an athlete with cancer, media work and involvement with companies in the health industry.

When it came to being in a financial position to finish, I still had a few months remaining on my contract at Rochdale, who were in League One at the time, but I’d put things in place and I’d started talks with the club. I needed to basically rubber-stamp it all by saying, “Look, I’m done with football now.”

I still woke up with aching limbs on a Sunday morning for the first few months, though. Even though I hadn’t been playing on a Saturday, my body still took time to adjust to that reality.

Players might be in a good position financially when they finish football, but there’s only so many golf courses you can go on. I remember my agent saying to me, “Right, that’s no more headlines now,” and I said, “What do you mean?” She made the point that it isn’t about me anymore and that football moves on. The day after I retired, there were a few features about me in the newspapers. The following day, there was nothing, She was right. The game had moved on.

Dealing with that mentally can be tough for all footballers, and you understand why players struggle with it because they lose a sense of purpose. They are having to reinvent themselves as people because you don’t know who you are. That’s a lot of my work now: helping mentor younger players and asking them to think about who they are besides being a footballer, because there’s a lot of skills they have that they’re unaware of.

There is also the loss of a physical outlet, so you start to understand the mind, body and soul aspect, and the loss of a sense of belonging too. I now play six-a-side games every week with friends — some are ex-players, too — and that helps fill the competitive void and need to be part of a team.

My wife knows it’s important to me too. She’ll ask why I am using foam rollers on a Tuesday afternoon, but I tell her I have a big game later with the lads. It may be six-a-side, but the competitive element doesn’t just evaporate.

The loss of being in and around a team, and an environment where you are all working together, is something which players really struggle with. You do feel isolated on your own, but I suppose the first step to dealing with that is communicating and talking about it.

Footballers have been footballers since the age of 10, when they are the best kid in the playground. When it all ends, no matter what age you are, you have to learn to deal with. I remember getting up one day and thinking, “Why am I having this breakfast?” I didn’t need it as fuel for being on the pitch anymore, but I was still having it. So you can understand why ex-players lose their way a little bit.

The dynamics change, especially at home, so you have to come down from your high horse, help out with the kids and just chip in that bit more. But it’s still hard to escape that Saturday feeling, when it gets to 3 p.m. and you tell yourself that you should be out there. You naturally reminisce about it.

It’s a hard time to fill because there’s nothing to do apart from being a normal person, rather than a footballer.

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