WORDS: SAM PARKIN
What goes through the mind of a journeyman professional when he decides to call time on his playing career? Former Ipswich, Swindon and St Mirren striker Sam Parkin recalls the moment when he realised it was time to hang up his football boots and how he coped in the months that followed…
It wasn’t the first time I had considered giving up playing professional football, but the decisive moment arrived when I was driving back from pre-season training in the summer of 2014.
I had just been released by Exeter City and I had spoken to various non-league teams that summer, even going to train with one club. My thought process was to ease the transition into a new career by playing on in some capacity, while starting to do some other bits as well, maybe media work or getting my coaching qualifications. That way I felt I could ease the transition so it wasn’t a complete end to it because that was what I was afraid of saying – no more football, bang!
I needed to make a living and income was important, so if I could get ‘x’ amount per week from playing football – even it was just training on a Tuesday and Thursday night with a game on Saturday – that would give me enough flexibility to go and work in a different capacity. I thought that would give me time to think about the future.
But then I went and trained and something just didn’t feel right. I think a lot of the problem was the level I had previously played at because I had played league football all my career. It wasn’t so much the standard because I was really impressed by the level of some of the non-league players, but there were differences in the facilities and the financial situation which would have taken some getting used to.
The setup was different. I turned up with my own kit and everyone was in different kit, then we trained on two different surfaces the first night. It was a lot to take in and it dawned on me that it’s still serious at that level, it’s still people’s livelihoods and just because I had played at a professional level, the manager isn’t going to give me an easy time on a Saturday afternoon if I’m not pulling my weight – he’s still going to bollock me if I’m not closing down a full-back. I just felt that my motivation wasn’t there to play at that level and I think it wouldn’t have been fair on those people to go and play on when I wouldn’t have been motivated to turn out at non-league clubs.
There are a lot of footballers who have played professionally for years and play on into their late thirties, and with some of them I think it’s because they’re scared of the future. It’s all they’ve ever known, so they play on until they physically cannot go on anymore.
For me, it has been more of a mental decision, based on the thought process that it’s better to look to the future now, at 34, and think about what my next 25 years are going to entail, rather than finishing at 38, 39 – five years further down the line – and thinking, “Shit, what now?”
The moment came when I was in the car back from training with the non-league club I mentioned earlier. We had done a really hard session from 6-8pm and I had given the manager my word that I was going to play at the weekend in a pre-season friendly.
I was giving one of the other lads a lift back to west London. He worked in retail during the week and had got a move from the Ryman League to the Conference, so this was going to be his big move. I could hear in his voice and tell from his mannerisms how excited he was and it was clear that, for him, this was it – he had made the step up and he was absolutely chuffed.
At the same time, with me being in decline, I just didn’t feel any excitement. We were both strikers and I felt that if I was going to potentially take this guy’s place in the team on a Saturday, and not care about the game anymore, I would just be doing it to make ends meet. I realised I had to be brave and make a decision.
You have to balance that thought process against the fear of not knowing what you’re going to do next. I have thought about this over the last few years, so it was not an off-the-cuff decision. I had not really enjoyed my football for the last three or four years. I think that’s just because I’d not been playing regularly due to injuries, loss of form – a number of factors.
Even then, it’s always flattering when someone shows an interest in you in the summer and you get that call from a team who want to sign you for the next season. It is not just flattering, it’s also another year playing football, another year of what you know.
Playing football is all I’ve known since I was 15, so it’s very difficult to turn that opportunity down. The analogy I’ve made a few times since I retired is that it’s a bit like breaking up with someone, but then you forget how bad they made you feel and you keep going back to them.
In the last couple of years, when the football season finished, I felt like it was time for me to pack it in and look to the future. It was like, I’m not the player I once was, I’m not scoring goals, I’m not enjoying it much and maybe it’s time for something new. Then the phone would ring and it would be another club offering me the opportunity to play on, and I was flattered.
In my heart of hearts, did I still have the motivation? I probably wanted to do well initially, but I probably knew that, after a short spell of the season, I would spiral back into feeling the same way. In the summer I’d forget what was wrong and I’d go back and do it again, but come October, November-time, I felt it was the wrong decision again.
Injuries during my career also affected my mentality. Once you have had a procession of injuries – serious, career-threatening injuries – and you miss nearly two years of football through them, it is hard to get that rhythm back. I missed almost a whole season at the height of my career at Ipswich and a whole season at Luton as well.
When I returned I wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t a physical thing. Not once did I shy away from a tackle, but I lost that feeling of knowing I would go out there and score, that repetitive nature for a striker to see the ball dropping and, without thinking about it, go: ‘Bang. Goal.’
When that happens, you start to take an extra touch or an extra step which allows a defender to get across you and get a foot in. After those injuries, I only reached my best levels sporadically.
I wasn’t the only player to feel that way during the latter years of my career. I’ve certainly seen a good number of players in their early thirties who are declining but probably don’t want to admit it. The hardest thing for me was admitting that it was over and, after the conversation I had with that lad in the car back from training in pre-season 2014, I had a moment where I pulled over and thought about things. I made the decision that it was time to stop playing and I had a bit of a cry. I think that was good for me because it gave me a little bit of closure.
Since retiring, I think I’ve missed the game but what exactly it is that I’ve missed is difficult for me to put my finger on. I suppose I’ve missed the structure, I’ve missed being busy and I’ve missed the lifestyle – being fit, feeling fit. That’s three or four things there that I’ve missed. I’ve been in the same sort of structure since I was 14 or 15. I’ve always known when my days off are coming up, when I’m going to be doing a training session, when I’m going to play a match, when I’m going to be travelling.
For six months after retiring I really struggled without that structure and I even had a little flirtation with going back to the game in January 2015, when a friend of mine got the manager’s job at Welling United.
I said I’d go and train, with no guarantees that I would agree to play. So I trained for two weeks or so and I really, really enjoyed it. I enjoyed that feeling of having physical fitness and being back amongst the players.
Then I played a practice match, more-or-less a year since I’d last pulled my boots on, and I hated it. I hated it because I didn’t have the motivation. When it became serious, when it wasn’t just training, a bit of technical stuff, a bit of shooting, I didn’t enjoy it. When it became serious and I realised I had to show something that day to get in the team, that I had to chase the full-back down, I realised I had made the right decision in retiring. The young kids around me that day were always going to be in better physical nick than me, but I noticed they were also in better nick than me mentally, they wanted it more.
I was relieved not to enjoy it because it reassured me that I’d made the correct decision. Things had been progressing in other stages of my life and I had now attempted to go back twice, and it hadn’t worked, so it clarified everything for me. Having called it a day, I had to look seriously into a secondary career and, to be honest, I was completely lost because I had probably set myself up for a few months financially and that soon goes.
The long and short of it is that I’m in quite a fortunate position because if I had children, I might have had to go and get a job to make ends meet, which is a realistic proposition for a lot of footballers at my level who have finished playing. If they have got a family, how difficult is that for someone who has lived as a footballer for 20 years and suddenly has to go and get a completely different job, whether it’s on a building site or in retail or in a bar? That is the reality for so many lads.
Unlike some others, I didn’t have to rush out immediately and get whatever work I could find, but I was completely dumbfounded. I just did not know what to do with myself and at that stage it becomes easy to stay in bed and not get up, then to stay up late as well. That is the worst thing you can possibly do. I don’t know if I was depressed but I certainly was incredibly down.
I didn’t know how to go about pushing myself forward. All my life, when people have asked me what my best characteristics are, rather than saying the things that would get me a job or the things that make me a good person, I have always spoken about my characteristics as a footballer, like my hold-up play or something. I have never been able to tell anyone what my skills are as a person. So, since I have retired, to hear people talk to me about things like that has been so refreshing.
I’ve had to be guided about certain things. I’ve always been sociable and I’ve always been interested in the media side of things. Throughout my career, I always did media-related stuff and I knew that was an avenue I wanted to go down, but I have had to be guided by people to tell me that I speak well, or I’m good with people, or whatever it is.
I’ve bought myself a bit of time but I have now gone into a new professional world – the media – where I am determined to learn from the bottom. I have said to myself, “This is the next 30 years. Go and learn the industry.”
I have been fortunate to go on some courses and I love learning about the profession. I feel like I have come out the other side of what was a really difficult period, but I am only taking tentative steps at the moment, this is by no means a settled situation.
For those lads I was alluding to who have to take jobs in other areas completely outside of football, it is harder to get your head around the changes in your life, and I don’t necessarily think the support is always there. If you reach rock bottom, as has been the case with a lot of high profile cases, the governing bodies are there for you, but is someone who has had minor problems, who has spiralled into a little bit of depression and drink, going to pick the phone up and seek help? I know that I didn’t want to because I felt like I was being pathetic and I felt that I should pull myself together.
Thankfully I am in a better place now but it opened my eyes to the fact that, if you are teetering on the edge, a lot of lads are not going to seek help. I think people need to be aware that is incredibly difficult to come out of elite sport at around 35 and go into the real world.
I gradually began to see my future more clearly and feel better about my prospects but I think it was just a case of trial and error. For example, exercise has been massively important for me and I think that is just a feel-good thing. I am used to being fit so I have thrown myself into all manner of exercises and that has helped a lot.
In fact, I feel now that I need to get football back into my life in some way, just not as a profession. I need to play five-a-side once a week or get involved on Sundays with my mates. I feel like I need that. I’ve been given a talent and I’ve worked on it, I’m still a young man and while I don’t want to play professionally anymore because I don’t have the motivation, I feel it would be a shame for me to cut it out of my life completely because there’s no bitterness in me towards it.
I’ve also found that just being busy helps, even if it is just writing to people and saying, “This is what I want to do with my career. Is there any chance I could come in and shadow you, take notes, and spend a bit of time to see how the business works?”
Even doing unpaid work, coaching with a charity has helped. Ultimately I will want to get paid and earn money from these things and thankfully some of that is starting to come to fruition but I think a lot of it is about showing willingness and eagerness. I have not been coming home with a thick pay cheque but it’s amazing how good you feel about yourself when you are learning a new skill.
I have also really enjoyed being around people from other walks of life, people who have got different stories – not just the football lads. I don’t know if ‘ego’ is the right word but I suppose it’s about getting people in a different field to like me and knowing that I can be friends with them. There is a preconception about what a footballer is going to be like and I imagine people would be quite sceptical about whether I can go and be in front of a computer for a few hours, but I find it really, really enjoyable. I don’t know how long that will last! In hindsight, I wish I’d thought about this stage in my life 10 years ago.
I’ve been doing co-commentary and analysis for Swindon Town matches and Chelsea academy matches, which I really enjoy and that has given me a bit of a footing in the media. I always enjoyed giving good interviews when I was a player, I always gave them a line and showed an interest. I used to quiz the press guys and the local media about what they were doing, so I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of that myself. I’ve covered a few press conferences, interviewed some of the lads, done a few features, just going out and doing some reporting on grass roots football in the community.
I have also done a bit of presenting on the radio on matchdays – co-presenting because I haven’t learned how to drive a desk yet, which is one of my ambitions. I’ve done some magazine shows, interviewing people round the ground at Swindon and all of it is experience. I am learning how to edit my own stuff, how to use my voice, how to ask questions, how to structure a story and interview people. I’m literally learning everything, from the bottom, because if this is going to be a career for me that is the right way to go. Now I can go to people at a TV station, website or magazine and say, “This is what I’ve been doing for the past two years, this is my experience”, rather than sitting by the phone hoping something is going to materialise out of thin air.
There is certainly a feeling of pride in showing people that I am more than just a footballer, but I probably always had that in mind. While I was playing, I would overcompensate when meeting girls because, with the way football has gone over the last couple of decades, the majority of girls you meet if you’re a single lad either think you’re making it up or they want to run a mile. So, latterly, I always wanted to try and prove that I was a nice guy rather than a footballer.
If anything, in social terms, since I have finished playing I have found it a lot easier to chat to people when I meet them in the pub, for example. Now people will say, “Oh, were you a footballer?”; “Who did you play for?”; “Oh really?”; “What a nice guy!”
While you’re still playing, I think people have a tendency to be a little bit cautious or wary of you. Now, even if I meet friends of friends in a bar and they ask what I do, I just tell them, “I do a bit of media work now, but I used to play football for a living.”
When it happens like that, their eyes light up because it’s an interesting story, but the difference is they don’t seem to think you’re going to be an arse.
Sam Parkin was talking to Dominic Bliss