Football opens its eyes to find there is life after playing
Professionalisation of the Women’s Super League changed the landscape and now players have to plan for what happens following the end of their careers. Katie Whyatt discovers that the help available is increasing
For Gill Coulthard, the first women’s footballer to reach 100 England caps, the opportunity to walk away from her job on a production line at an electronics factory to join a professional club in Europe was a risk she wasn’t prepared to take.
Coulthard had offers from Italy and Finland, but thought “if it went wrong I would be back with no job” – even if she admitted back in the mid-90s that “football has cost me a fortune”.
The professionalisation of football’s Women’s Super League in 2018 has provided a massive shift for a sport that previously required its players to pursue other careers.
While it is still not unheard of for players to juggle work and football outside the top flight, the landscape is changing. The likes of former Lionesses Alex Scott, enjoying a burgeoning television career, and Eniola Aluko, now a sporting director at Aston Villa Women, indicate increased opportunities for talent not only to stay in football but to move across to the ‘I said no to nothing and opened myself up to be vulnerable in a lot of situations’ men’s game too. But with salaries at some WSL clubs understood to be as low as £20,000, players must plan ahead.
“Very rarely do players [in the top flight] have other jobs or other sources of income,” says Arsenal midfielder Kim Little. “It’s even more important now to make sure players are kept in the game, if they want to be, after they stop playing. Not many women footballers make enough money to live off after retiring. It can be a positive for players, but also [for] club’s sponsors to have a progression plan.”
England’s record goalscorer, Kelly Smith, knew she would retire a year before stepping away in January 2017 – not only because Arsenal were moving towards a younger squad, but because she and her partner were about to begin IVF. “Body clock, ticking,” she says now, looking back.
One month later she fell pregnant with son Rocco. As an Arsenal academy coach, she was still tied to the club three evenings a week, “so I was still connected to those people, which I think probably made it a little bit easier. I also had a new focus in that my belly was getting bigger and I had that to look forward to.”
As the greatest-ever English player in the women’s game, Smith’s identity as a footballer has not been eroded but “stayed with me”, and barely a week goes by without ambassadorial duties, after-dinner speaking, media work or visits to schools. This is not the case for every player.
“I’m fortunate that my name has been sustainable and allows me to work,” she says, “rather than having a full-time job outside of football. There are players I played with: Kaz Walker, Gill Coulthard, who played in World Cups, European Championships. They’ve got such a vast amount of knowledge that it’s a shame that they’ve not kept in that pool.
“I guess the game just wasn’t there for them in terms of advancement, support and finances. I think my era was just the start of names that people recognise and know, so I think we’re still able to work within the game. Others don’t have that profile. The players within that circle know how good they are – it’s just the media, kids, don’t.”
For Little, now 30 and a former team-mate of Smith’s at Meadow
Park, the subject of life after retirement is one she is keen to play a leading role in to help the next generation of players.
After obtaining a Sports Studies degree at the University of Hertfordshire, and now studying for a business masters, Scotland’s vice-captain is working with Visa to launch the “Second Half ”, a programme to help make retirement easier for players in the future.
The England centurion Karen Carney, who hung up her boots after last summer’s World Cup in France, is also involved with the scheme and estimates that she spent two years planning for her retirement.
“I said no to nothing and opened myself up to be vulnerable in a lot of situations,” she says. A psychologist told her to explore avenues outside of sport so “your identity is not solely around football”, and she took the words to heart: a master’s degree in sports psychology, radio gigs with the BBC, meetings with former athletes.
“My former captain in America said to me: ‘Don’t let anyone take your retirement from you. Always have it in your own hands’. I wanted to control it as much as I could.
“The scariest thing is waking up and not having a purpose. It’s
actually petrifying. The thing that probably saved me is running.”
The 33-year-old, who scored 32 goals in 143 appearances, is running a marathon for the Darby Rimmer MND foundation and even now, where her punditry career sends her all over the country, running gives her routine.
On the microphone for BT and the BBC, her star is rising. “It suits me, because I don’t want to do coaching, but I love tactics and analysis.”
While coaching and punditry have become popular routes after ending their playing days, former Liverpool forward Cheryl Foster has found refereeing to provide the perfect sequel to her career.
“Leaving Doncaster Belles, I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “Playing was definitely my mojo. Refereeing has given me that spark.” It was while in Switzerland on camp with Wales, an FAW representative asked if anyone would like to become a referee. As her playing career wound down, Foster recalled the conversation and enrolled on a referees’ course.
Within a month, she was running the line at her first nonLeague game. She was nominated for a Fifa badge in 2015; and now, aged 39, she is on Uefa’s elite list, making her one of Europe’s top match officials.
“Effectively, refereeing retired me, because I still didn’t know whether I was going to continue playing,” Foster, who is also a secondary school PE teacher, says. “Hopefully now I’ve achieved what I have, former players know there are other pathways to do all the same things: travel, meet people, experience high-level games.”
Coulthard might have been risk-averse to step away from the production line in Castleford, but the next generation of players can take comfort in knowing that there can be opportunities and growing avenues when it is time to sign off from playing.
Karen Carney spent two years planning for her retirement
Kelly Smith is in demand as a speaker and football pundit
Cheryl Foster has moved from playing to refereeing
New world: Alex Scott is forging a career as a television pundit
Kim Little helps players prepare with the ‘Second Half’ programme