“When you speak to players, the biggest thing that they miss is the day-to-day, it’s the banter, it’s the mickey-taking, being around 20-odd lads that you train with, you socialise with,” explains Viv Anderson.
“I had somebody in who had retired last year and I asked him how many players’ numbers he had in his phone. He had four, but had been at seven or eight clubs. Four players! They lose contact.”
During his playing days Anderson was a European Cup winner, an England international and a Manchester United fan playing for the club of his childhood.
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But now he has taken on a far bigger and arguably more important role in a bid to keep abandoned former sportspeople off the scrapheap.
Anderson, the first black player ever to represent England in a full international, set up PlayOn Pro in 2017 after identifying a serious weakness in the way that former professionals were being treated once their careers had come to a close.
Whether it be down to financial issues, the law or simply excommunication, there are many ways in which former sports stars suddenly find themselves living very different lives when their relatively short time in the limelight ends.
“Seventy-five per cent of players who retire get divorced within the first year, and you’ve earned a lot of money but then half of it goes to the wife and the family, and you think ‘I’ve got to get a job, because I’ve done nothing else. I’ve been a footballer and had no formal education, what do I do? What am I qualified to do?’” Anderson tells Goal.
“Remember this is not just about footballers, it’s about sportspeople at an elite level. Gail Emms had been a badminton player since she was seven, she’d got a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics, came back and everybody’s saying ‘Come on this show, do this, do that’.
“Six months after the limelight’s gone, she couldn’t pay her mortgage because she had no formal education. She’d been a badminton player, she had strived to get a medal in the Olympics and she couldn’t do anything else.”
PlayOn Pro allows former elite sportspeople to link up with people who have been or remain in a similar situation, with various initiatives available to keep them active and get them back into the kind of environment in which they have become accustomed.
“People have dedicated their life to a sport and when the light goes off and the agent doesn’t want you because he’s on to the next shiny thing… what do you do?
“This is a place where they can go. It turns out to be a self-help group… ‘What happened to you?’ and ‘Who did you speak to?’ and ‘Could you give me the name of this person because I might be in some sort of difficulty’.
“There’s all sorts of things. If we can give them work, or give them an opportunity to speak to people who they’ve not seen for 20 years, this is an avenue that’s open to them.”
With PlayOn Pro, ex-athletes get the opportunity to take part in events all around the globe, with almost 400 ambassadors of countless nationalities now signed up. Anderson helps to organise everything from football matches to signing sessions and after-dinner speeches, anything to keep them occupied and feeling important again.
And the former Nottingham Forest, Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday star adds that supporters often forget how short a career in sport can be.
“Yes, of course they do. We do! I had to go to my local shop to get bread one time and at the front of the queue there was a guy in a vest, tracksuit bottoms and flip-flops, and he looked familiar. He goes to the front of the shop and buys two litres of wine, and I realise I know him. He couldn’t pick the bottles up so the boy behind the counter had to lift them up for him, and then he hobbles out of the shop.
“I went out and looked, and I realise I played against him in a cup final many, many years ago. That’s the state he’s got to, and nobody’s helped him at all.
“Now I’m not saying I can help everybody, I’m just saying there are people out there who need help. Five per cent of ex-players are in prison because they’ve fallen on hard times. If you earn £40,000 per week today, within five years you’ll likely be bankrupt. These are proper stats.
“I understand the normal general public go ‘Why should I feel sorry for somebody who’s earning £150,000 a week and have got themselves into this pickle?’ I understand that, but what do we do? Just leave them?
“All we’re trying to do is help others not to get into that position, because we’ve got current players on here as well, it’s not just about retired players, it’s current players as well because some of the things they’ll also use.
“I think it should be for everybody, I think it’s something the PFA should be involved in. I’ve been to see Gordon Taylor about it and he likes the idea but he wants to see it work, and I’ve said I’d like his help now because I won’t need him when it works.
“At the end of the day it’s something that every time you pick up the paper you think ‘Why hasn’t somebody done something for him’, because every day there’s something about somebody in the paper. There are a lot more than I ever thought.”
And for many sportspeople, the lack of day-to-day routine which comes with 20 or more years in professional competition makes for a lonely existence.
“Of course it is, and the sacrifices you have to make with family and so on. But listen, don’t feel sorry for them, it’s just that they need somewhere to go when it all stops.
“When I left Middlesbrough having been to three cup finals I’m thinking ‘Surely the phone will ring’. But the phone never rings. It goes for a week… the phone never rings. Two weeks… the phone never rang. And people go through that period thinking: ‘Surely someone that I played with at the top level wants my services’ and when the phone doesn’t ring you think: ‘What am I going to do now?’
“It’s hard. It’s hard to take that on board. You take stock and think: ‘What am I qualified to do? I’ve been a footballer or a tennis player or a jockey… What am I qualified to do?’ You’ve got to get a job. You’ve got children, a family.”
With PlayOn Pro, Anderson is hoping to turn the tide for those stepping away from the intense spotlight of a playing career and dealing with the very different experience of a long, lonely retirement.