Come May, football apprentices from across England and Wales may have to confront the harsh reality that a career in football may not be their calling.
Even for the lucky ones who receive a contract, the importance of building on their skills outside of the game will also become apparent as injury, competition and other factors all play a part in determining the length of their football careers.
On Wednesday 20 March this ethos was encapsulated as 1,000 footballers from 70 Football League clubs visited the ‘Create Your Legacy’ event at The Football Association’s national football centre at St. George’s Park, Burton.
So while Roy Hodgson put his England squad through their paces on the adjacent pitches, ahead of World Cup qualifying fixtures against San Marino and Montenegro, the players were quietly ushered into the event hosted by League Football Education and The Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust - which challenged the players and other elite athletes to invest in their futures by speaking to the 65 exhibitors representing employers, universities and training companies.
Momentary glimpses of their heroes Ashley Cole, Joe Hart and Wayne Rooney added to their enthusiasm but in a fiercely competitive industry around 60 per cent of the youth-team players will be lost to football as 18-year-olds. Even then half of those who do win a full-time contract will not be playing at a professional level by the age of 21 with just 15 per cent remaining.
“Footballers live in a bubble,” said former Aston Villa and England defender, Ugo Ehiogu who spent his afternoon mentoring dozens of those at the event. “It’s nice for the lads to see the senior boys (England) training outside but in here it’s more realistic. The statistics speak for themselves.
“When I finished after 20 years, I didn’t know how to put a CV together or what to do at an interview but The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses and I realised that I had plenty of transferable skills. Leadership, problem solving, communication, working as part of team are all pretty common to footballers but the hardest thing about the day is making them understand that they need to prepare for the future.
“Even when I was playing for England I was thinking what happens if I get an injury and have to retire – I made sure I had other options and a Plan B,” added Ehiogu who now runs a record label.
Current Bolton Wanderers manager and owner of personal training company, Focus Fitness UK, Dougie Freedman echoed Ehiogu’s sentiments:
“In my late twenties I started to think about what life might be like when I finished playing. I looked at coaching and went away and got experience and qualifications. I coached youth-teams every Sunday morning and then I would be back at work as a player every Monday morning. I always had a vision that I wanted to coach and strongly believed that it didn’t matter how well I was doing as a player – I needed to plan ahead.”
Double Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes who has made the evolution from full-time athlete to working across a number of roles in the media, sport and voluntary sectors said: “I know how hard it can be to transition from being a full-time athlete to entering normal life.”
“We hope that by providing a day like this, our elite sport performers will take advantage of the contacts they make and improve their knowledge, self-belief and understanding of the opportunities that are open to them,” added Holmes.