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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Women's Sport Monthly -

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

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