Sporting Chance’s Athlete Engagement Manager Eddie Johnson on football players retiring from the game and coping with the advent of the new season.
It’s that time of year, albeit not exactly a normal year, when pre-season friendlies are done and dusted, and top-flight football is once more upon us. Players are adjusting to the realities of a new season, fans and owners hopeful that this year will be something out of the ordinary and everyone involved with football generally looking forward to the opening round of games with a sense of excitement and anticipation. However, for the group of men and women for whom the 20-21 season was their last as a professional player, feelings might be altogether different.
I was 28 and the second year into a new four-year contract over in the MLS for the Portland Timbers. We were warming up for a huge game against David Beckham’s LA Galaxy. A teammate and good friend of mine attempted a long-range pass. With me standing only three yards away. It hit me with full force in the face. The resulting blow had me withdrawn from the game with concussion. 11 days later and 15 minutes into an away game at Houston, I received another blow to the head and woke up in hospital. I was told I had a small bleed on the brain, a long road to recovery ahead of me and just a 50/50 chance of ever playing again.
After seven months of recovery, I was given the all clear to return to my club and I can still remember to this day, taking my seat on a plane to California for a pre-season camp in the sun. I could just as easily have been forced out of the game as not, as likely as heads or tails on the toss of a coin, but this time it had landed the right way up. I was back. Fast forward to day two of the camp and try to imagine, if this was a predictable Hollywood film, the scene the audience just knows is coming. Another blow to the head, another hospital visit and the beginning of arduous and hope-sapping tour of the States visiting every head injury specialist I could find. The feedback was, from each and every impeccably qualified medical professional, not good. I was told in no uncertain terms this was the end of my footballing career.
The reality of retirement did not sink in for me initially. It wasn’t until pre-season, a few months later, when the absence of the usual end of summer routine hit me like a bus, a routine I’d gone through for the last 14 years, in adolescence, in adulthood, in rain, in shine. I can’t say I’d looked forward to every pre-season during those 14 years, but that wasn’t the point. I’d braced myself for them and stepped into them on my own terms and now I didn’t have that choice, even though physically – up to the neck at least - I was just as capable of getting myself through those few weeks of intense training as I ever was. I remember being followed around by an awful feeling I should have been somewhere else, drinking in that new season excitement. Watching the season kick off laying prone on the sofa left me with an overriding feeling of being lost and detached. I felt there was nowhere to put my energy or frustration, and I would have given anything to go back to the pre-season that, earlier in my career, I would have happily exchanged just to slump on the sofa – the lung-bursting runs, the beep tests, the ‘doggies’ (short, sharp sprints that gave even seasoned professionals sleepless nights).
As time went on, the feeling that the ‘big comeback’ was just around the corner didn’t leave me. Except this wasn’t a Hollywood film and the comeback was never in my script. I used to feel waves of determination to get myself into shape and put myself back in the shop window, even if it only got as good as turning out for a non-league club. Every time that feeling came, the enthusiasm turned to anxiety and a fresh lack of self-belief enveloped me. I could tell myself in the mirror that I was better than this, that I could do this, but it had no substance, there just wasn’t any supporting evidence to back my words up. And if I didn’t have any belief that I could exist as a footballer, the job I’d been doing all my life, where was I going to find the belief that I could be good at something else, something I’d never done before at all? It’s a bit of a cliché, ‘football was all I knew’, but it was a cliché that felt as real to me as anything I’d ever felt before and it also felt that right then, football didn’t want to know me back.
Not being attached to a club, not having any teammates, not being paid to play football and no attention from fans (good or bad) left a huge hole. How would I fill it? How would I replace football? Searching for fulfilment elsewhere led to mistake after mistake within my life and my mental health deteriorated quite quickly.
Being at home for Christmas and being able to go away in the school holidays and at weekends with my partner were some of the plus sides to retirement. I was also able eat more (and more of what I wanted) and there wasn’t the pressure, both mental and physical, that came with the ups and downs of navigating yourself and your family through the average season. So, there was a sense of relief in some ways, and in others it felt like the stresses and worries I’d offloaded by getting out of the game were just replaced by a whole set of different and more frightening ones.
It took some brutal honesty from a close friend with the words “YOU WILL NEVER EVER GET PAID TO PLAY FOOTBALL EVER AGAIN!”. This message was delivered nine years after I finished playing. I had a wave of acceptance in this moment, and it has helped me progress ever since.
Overall, retirement from playing football after putting so much into it over the years was a challenge, acceptance being the hardest part of this. Regardless of all the planning I could have done (planning that players nowadays are very much encouraged to do), in hindsight, I still believe that the day you stop playing, you lose something that you will find very hard to replace. Thankfully I have come to learn the joy I can get from this so called ‘new life’ and with an altered perspective, shaped by the influence of friends, professional support and the passing of time, I can look back with pride at my career and enjoy what lies ahead of me for the first time in a long time.