Shrewsbury Town full-back Mat Sadler is not quite ready to hang-up his boots just yet but is urging other players to do the “smart thing” by exploring future career aspirations while they are still playing.
Sadler has faced plenty of challenges since entering the professional game fifteen years ago at Birmingham City.
Once touted as a certainty for full England honours, he appeared alongside Wayne Rooney in the European Under-17 Championship in 2002 and was notably asked (by then Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce) to mark David Beckham at Old Trafford as a 17 year-old novice with a solitary Premier League appearance behind him.
Five operations on foot and ankle problems hampered his progression though. Despite helping the Blues regain their Premier League status he was sold to Watford in 2008 before making subsequent moves to Walsall, Crawley Town, Rotherham United and his current club Shrewsbury.
The fact that he is just one of five players, from that England U17 squad to still be playing professional football underlines his own longevity in a profession where the average tenure of a career is no more than 8 years.
Now 31 though, Sadler recognises that he must start to confront the “scary and daunting” prospect of a fate that befalls all players at one time or another. Retirement and transition.
“I’ve done the same job since I left school. It was all I was ever going to do. Twenty years on or whenever I finish, it’ll have been a long time doing one thing to then be starting afresh in a new career or another life. That transitional stage will be scary and daunting and things like this (event) will help to make that process a little easier.
“It’s the smart thing to do. I’m currently still playing and hope to have another good 6 or 7 years left but to have the advice and expertise of the people who have helped us here and are helping us in that transition to the next stage eases a little bit of the tension and some of the worry that time will bring.”
For some that concern is immediate. Michael Bennett who takes charge of the PFA’s player welfare department conceded that short-term contracts have become more prevalent, particularly outside The Premier League and Championship.
“Long term security often isn’t there in those (League One and Two) divisions,” stressed Bennett.
“Players are more likely to pick-up a contract for a year. Three and four year contracts, in most cases are a thing of the past.”
That issue has focussed the mind of Irish midfielder David McAllister. Released by Stevenage at the end of last season, the 27-year-old Dubliner is still confident that he has plenty to offer as a player but saw his chances of a new deal at The Lamex evaporate when he was side-lined by a series of knee injuries.
“I spent some days after my operation at home thinking; what am I going to do next, what am I going to do if this has come to the end and I can’t return from this injury?
“I was looking for a bit of direction and I contacted the PFA and they advised me to come on to this programme. I’ll come away (from this) with a lot more direction on which path I want to take.
“It’s difficult when all you’ve ever known from the age of 6 years-old is just playing and wanting to be a footballer. When you finally do make it you don’t really see the end coming. Things like an injury or getting a bit older and finding it tougher to get through a season makes you see that it’s not going to last forever.
“It’s difficult to accept but once you do it’s good because you can look forward to your next step.”
While Bennett is keen to see the Union maintain and strengthen their arrangements to support players in transition, he affirmed his belief that players have to start taking more responsibility for their own futures by acting sooner rather than later.
“The key to all this work is to get players to take control of their own futures,” he said.
“What we do here is get players to take responsibility for the next step, we’ll help along the way but we need players to buy-in to it.
“We work with an organisation called UK seminars which Tony Hunt heads-up. He gives a different perspective on what it’s like in the job market which I think players need because they’ve been in a football cocoon for the majority of their careers, where everything is done for them.
“We deal with emotional welfare, financial management and issues that players encounter. A lot of players go from earning vast amounts of money to earning fifty to seventy-five per cent less than what they are accustomed to. This brings pressure because it is not in keeping with the lifestyle they are used to. When that lifestyle is changed issues can arise. Depression, stress, anxiety and sometimes divorce comes into the equation so in financial terms we want players to take responsibility for their finances.
“A lot of agents seem to take responsibility for players but we want players to take that control back and ensure that they are looking after themselves properly. We’re trying to get players to think about the long term and think about a career path and opportunities that they will enjoy,” he added.