At some point in our lives, most of us will have dreamt of playing sport professionally.
But few will ever consider just how fragile a profession it is. Between injury, loss of form and the simple inevitability of ageing, a career can end in the blink of an eye. There is so little job security that a member of the Trump administration would find it unsettling.
While a very small group of athletes earn such vast sums that they won’t need to work once their playing career is over, the majority will need to find a new job.
Some remain within their sport, be it through coaching, management or media work, but that is not an option for everyone. By choice or by necessity, many will have to enter the mainstream. For individuals who have breathed sport since childhood, this can be a tumultuous experience.
Looking to ease this transition is Life After Professional Sport – better known as LAPS – a recruitment company founded by professional footballer Robbie Simpson and industry expert Rob Steed. LAPS positions itself as the agency of choice for sports professionals looking to shift into a new line of work.
“We have two roles,” Rob explains. “One is going to sportspeople and saying: ‘You ought to think about this.’ For example, we’re doing a project with the Premier League at the moment where we present to anyone under the age of 23, encouraging them to think ahead.
“Our other role is going to businesses and trying to tell them that sportspeople make great employees.”
You can see Rob’s logic: athletes have vast experience of dedicating themselves to a sport and excelling at it. If you can substitute that sport for any given profession, you will have unearthed a model employee.
“We’ve been astonished by the range of things that people go into,” Rob continues. “One of my favourite things about LAPS is that we do video interviews with people who have made the transition. We’ve done PE teachers and recruitment consultants, but we’ve also spoken to zookeepers, firefighters and policemen.”
While mucking out the elephant enclosure might appeal to some, the financial services sector is more popular among former athletes. I meet Rob at a LAPS event hosted by St. James’s Place, a wealth management company whose academy provides a route into the sector. Speaking on their behalf are former Hull City defender Ryan France, a graduate of the academy; and Connor Essam, who plays for Dover Athletic in the National League and is currently undertaking the programme.
Ryan is not the typical ex-footballer. Rejected by Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, he went to university and attained a maths degree while also playing semi-pro.
He signed with fourth-tier Hull City after graduating and remained with the Tigers as they rose all the way to the Premier League. After leaving the club in 2009 he joined Sheffield United, but injury prevented him from establishing himself with the Blades and he retired in 2011, aged 30.
Despite his qualifications, Ryan still wasn’t prepared for life after sport.
“It was really difficult,” he says of the period after retiring. “I’d not done enough financial planning and I still didn’t know what I wanted to be. I did a few sales roles, set up my own massage therapy company, but I couldn’t see myself doing any of them for the next 20 minutes, never mind the next 20 years.”
A conversation with a neighbour eventually led him to the St. James’ Place academy and he now works as a professional wealth manager. Ryan comes across as hugely enthusiastic about his new role and is keen to stress that athletes need to plan for the future before their career is over.
Connor, a 26-year-old defender, is doing exactly that.
“I went down the traditional footballer’s route,” he explains. “I left school at 16 having just done my GCSEs, did an apprenticeship with Gillingham F.C. from 16 to 18 and then I signed my first pro contract.
“I turned 25 last July. I’d been playing League 1, League 2, National League; I’d made a decent living out of the game but not reached the top. I made a decision to start planning for the future before I needed it.”
In this respect, Connor is a rarity: most footballers – and many athletes in general – won’t consider a life outside their sport until they are confronted with it. He and Ryan offer different perspectives, but both emphasise the need to plan for the next phase before it arrives.
That’s what the attendees at the LAPS event are looking to do. Among them is Jamie Stephens, a 24-year-old professional footballer who has spent the past three seasons at Barnet. A goalkeeper, he won the club’s player of the year award in 2016 but recently left the Bees following their relegation from the Football League.