A former professional footballer speaks about his anxieties in an insecure working environment, shattering some stereotypes of professional football.The most popular image of professional football is one of fun and the idea of having turned a hobby into a profession that provides an income. While this may be true for the top players and the top leagues, lower down the football pyramide the image is bleak and best described as precarious.
In an article published recently in the journal Work, Employment and Society, the author Martin Roderick has interviewed James Schumacker, a former professional footballer in England. Schumacker is a pseudonym of a former player who has enjoyed some success in English football. In two interviews with Martin Roderick, who is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Applied Social Sciences, Schumacker spoke of his experiences as a professional and the highs and lows and many many concerns he has had during his 17 year career.
His career began at 17 or 18 when he signed his first professional contract with the Railwaymen. It was at this time when he met many people who would give him advice as to what to do or how to be a good athlete. He was proud ‘being a professional footballer’ as for him it meant that he would be a professional ‘every waking minute.’ Of course, he expected ‘to play well’ and continues that it has affected him when he did not. He confessed that it has got to a stage where the ‘job got too important’ that it controlled his life and determined what to eat, where to go out. He spoke of the emotional roller-coaster that went from ‘You’re great’ to ‘you’re terrible’ in the matter of just three days, 50 times a year, for 10 years.
When he speaks of his team mates, it is a quite revealing section. The competition for places in the squad and the starting XI was relentless, therefore thoughts such as ‘I’m better than him’ or ‘he’s after my spot’ or ‘I’ve got to be better than him’ suddenly appeared natural to him and others and of course it has had an effect on the relationship with his team mates. He got involved in arguments with other team members when he was younger just ‘to get the best out of other people.’
Wasn’t football supposed to be a team sport? Wasn’t there a mantra ’11 friends thou shalt be?’ It turns out professional football is very much the opposite, and it becomes clear when considering the circumstances at most lower league clubs. The average contract length is one season with the tendency of declining basic salaries but high performance related bonuses. The average weekly salary is £4000 in the Championship, in League One £1700 and League Two £1400 according to Goddard and Sloane (2014). Footballers are thus on the intersection between their work which is physically demanding yet unstable and mostly fixed-term and the idea of identity that is often stressed by the club and supporters. The working conditions which are at best described as precarious have an impact on the career trajectory, the workplace identity and material security. Suddenly every statement, every badge kissing after scoring a goal appear in a whole different light. It is therefore important to understand that professional football is first and foremost work, hard work. Anything else is just ornamental attachment.
For a footballer all that matters is to play because ‘if they play well and I’m not in the team, I’m going to be out of the team again.’ Although it is unrealistic to play every three days over season it is nonetheless as if ‘your identity has been taken from you’ Schumacker recalled.
The whole week comes down to the team sheet.
That is probably the essence of a playing career below the limelight of the Premier League. It highlights the pressure of making the team: ‘If you’re in, it’s about staying in which is a challenge in itself.’ If not, the fall out of being dropped can have severe consequences.
The second half is dedicated to dealing with finding a new club almost every year and the approaching end of the career. A lot depends on the manager liking a player or not and the player performing consistently well. Once released by Crewe, Schumacker went to Northampton after trials at Charlton and Gillingham where he had to pay for his hotel and undergo a two week trial without pay. He was destroyed by the thought of playing in Gillingham, having to commute 250 miles each time. There is no support for such situations when families are separated, the pressure is high and everything else is insecure.
All the club concern themselves with is your on-pitch performance, and it feels like all the rest is for you to deal with. At Morecambe he began to realize that he was just a commodity: ‘player turnover is huge.’ He mentioned the recession of 2008/09 and that it has had a big impact on football by citing the size of the squads, the money and contract length ‘have all just come crashing down.’
Even in pain a player seems to be too proud to be taken off on a stretcher. When his collarbone was broken Schumacker’s daughters were watching and he refused to lie down but to walk off instead. Injuries are nasty things and can define a career. How it must feel when you have just got back and to be out again within a split second. It is at that moment when he realizes that the end of his career is approaching.
When his wife approached him and asked why it was so difficult to let go, he realized that she simply could not understand, could not fathom the amount of investment he has put into his football career. Yet, at the end of his playing days he admitted that ‘this time is lost, just lost. This is a harsh statement it seems but it bears some truth as a playing career brings no guarantee for a successful time as a retired player: ‘You must start from the bottom again’. Schumacker did that. Towards the end of his career Schumacker began to study for a Sport Science degree and when he hung up his boots to call it a day he graduated with a first class honours. There he came across the research of Dr. Roderick and thus the conversation began.
The article is a strong reminder that professional football is only a stage built to entertain and amuse, to provide stuff for discussion, research and banter. Yet behind this stage the life is harsh, the pressure immense. The next time we see a player kissing the badge when he scored or making a reassuring statement we have to bear in mind that the world of professional football is an insecure one and not always leads to a better life.