Beyond the Ball | Chris McCready

chris mccready, manchester united

Chris McCready is a former professional football player who has recently completed a Ph.D. and currently works as a Player Care assistant at Manchester United. With support from the PFA Charity, Chris started his academic journey towards the end of his playing career and based his research around the relationship between football, identity and personal development. These studies have shaped the work he carries out with the Manchester United academy players. We caught up with Chris to find out why he feels deciding to pursue further education was one of the best decisions he has ever made. 

Hi Chris, why did you choose to pursue an academic education?

I stayed in touch with Oshor Williams from the PFA after taking a few A-levels as a scholar at Crewe Alexandra, but I thought focusing on my football would be the best way to get me where I needed to be career-wise. There was always something in the back of my mind that said ‘there’s more to you than football,’ and that voice kept getting louder the older I got. When it became evident I was going to need to do something else when I stopped playing, a good friend of mine helped me find a course about science and football at John Moores University, and I knew that was where I needed to be. 

What did you enjoy most about studying?

Going back into adult education was the best decision I’ve ever made. It opened up my mind to different ideas and I met new people that challenged me to think differently. It was amazing. I graduated in 2014 with First Class Honours, which was pretty cool. I still don’t feel that well educated or clever to be honest, so it’s always been a challenge for me to navigate that. I didn’t go into university thinking I would become a doctor, but on my very first day, I got lost and was wandering down a corridor where every door had a nameplate that said ‘Doctor’ and I found that quite inspiring, thinking, ‘that could be me.’ 

What made you pursue a Ph.D.?

In a way, I had stumbled into my PhD, and truthfully there were times I thought it was the worst decision I ever made because it was so difficult. I probably would’ve kept playing if I was offered a new contract, but when I graduated, my time at Morecombe came to an end. I didn’t want to drop leagues, so it just felt like it was over. After some tears and soul searching, I called it a day in my career as a football player. Then John Moore’s offered me some funding to do some research, which turned into funding for a Ph.D.

What is your research about? 

My Ph.D. explores identity and personal development as a journey through football, based on the idea that there is more to all of us than the job we do. I believe that having a broader identity is good for mental wellbeing and makes us better at work. Plus, we know all footballers are going to become ex-footballers at some point, so if they only have this narrow identity, what’s the cost of that further down the line? I try to bring the idea of a broader identity to young footballers much earlier. I’ve found if you can get players to understand that developing yourself can be beneficial for your football career and your life in the future, then it’s easier to get them thinking more broadly while they're playing. 

What do you think about people who say footballers should only focus on playing?

Footballers usually finish training around 3pm, so if we don't fill the free time they have productively, there are many things they can do that are very unproductive for their careers. It's very interesting when people say you should only focus on football, and I always use Vincent Kompany as an example. The year Manchester City won the league, he graduated with an MBA in business - he used that outside interest to fuel his mind and help him perform on the pitch. I'm not against focusing on your career at all, but I would argue in any pressurised job, having some ideas outside of your career could actually help you perform better. You're able to come back to work refreshed, and you're dealing with the pressure that comes with professional football better because there's more to who you are than being a player. 

Want some advice?

The PFA Charity provides support to current and former professional footballers that are interested in taking an accredited course. To find out more about what pathways might be right for you, get in touch with our Education department.