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The Ben Smith column: Preparing for life after football

Crawley Town midfielder Ben Smith continues his weekly column

When you get into your thirties as a professional footballer you have to accept that you are now nearer the end of your career than the start and have to plan for life after playing.

As you get older you face competition from young players who are willing to sign for substantially less wages than you could ever consider and can be potentially sold on at a profit for the club. I totally understand this and would do the same thing if I was manager.

It is strange as the circumstances go full circle. No doubt when I was in my late teens and early twenties I profited from being a young inexpensive player with potential. Now the boot is well and truly on the other foot.

For as long as I can remember I have only ever wanted to be a professional footballer. The only other job I can remember wanting to do was a removal man, pretty sure that isn’t for me now! So I have never aspired to do any other job.

This is the biggest problem I have. I like to have a goal and then to work towards it, unfortunately I don’t know what I want to do. I just know that whatever I do I want to enjoy it.

Passion

Nothing irritates me more than when I hear people say they hate their job. You spend a vast amount of your life doing your job so surely you need to have a passion for it and enjoy it?

I’m realistic enough to know I am unlikely to find a new career that I enjoy as much as football but I want to get as close to that as I can.

I have been associated with a professional club since I was ten years old and joined Arsenal at the age of 11. As I’m sure you can imagine playing for Arsenal gave me a lot of kudos with my school friends and led me to believe, in my youthful naivety, that I was going to be a superstar.

In my infinite wisdom I decided that this meant I didn’t have to try when taking my GCSE’s as footballing superstars didn’t need academic qualifications! I still achieved some decent results but they could and should have been so much better.

I joined Arsenal straight from school as an apprentice. Within about three months I realised my dreams of becoming a global superstar were a little far fetched.

Career

I was nowhere near the level required especially athletically. I still felt though that I was capable of making a career for myself within football at some level.

However this didn’t make me knuckle down with my college work. As part of your apprenticeship in those days you have a day release to study a GNVQ or in my case you went down the West End every Wednesday and wandered round the shops. Unsurprisingly I didn’t pass that GNVQ!

The inevitable happened and I was released from Arsenal and embarked on a nomadic career as a lower league journeyman. As the years went by I still didn’t show any appetite for gaining academic qualifications. However this started to change when I got into my mid twenties.

I bought my first house and realised that if things didn’t work out I could no longer go and live in the spare room in my dad’s house. At that point I decided to get a degree but before I could do that I had to go on an access course to get the required credits.

I hadn’t done any ‘school work’ for nearly ten years. On my first day the tutor asked us to write an introduction for an essay on any subject we liked. I sat there with a blank face and an even blanker piece of paper. I can’t have been the only person who felt like that as the next week only about half the class came back.

Back into the groove

However once I got back into the groove I started to find the work a little easier and completed the course. I then went on to study a degree part time in Business Management, this took four and a half years and even though I started the course in Shrewsbury and moved clubs twice to Weymouth and then Hereford I managed to finish the course.

I realised while doing this degree though that the behaviour that was acceptable in a football changing room wasn’t acceptable in the ‘real world’. I used to come out with some pretty tame quips which used to be received with a mixture of bewildered looks and silence! Well I thought they were funny!

I also realised that while I was regarded as being relatively intelligent around my peers at football that wasn’t the case at university although in saying that I think I surprised a few who bought into the stereotype that all footballers are thick.

The idea behind doing a business degree was that it was a pretty generic qualification. I figured that while working on the course I would find something that really interested me and specialise in that. Unfortunately that didn’t really happen. I didn’t mind doing the work but I wasn’t passionate about it.

Once I finished my degree I wanted to continue to learn but wasn’t sure if I could commit to something like a Masters so decided to start to learn Spanish. My main motivation for this was that I always thought it was cool when people could switch between different languages.

A genius or a liar

I read somewhere that you could become fluent in two years. So far I have been doing it for a year and whoever said you could be fluent in two years was either a genius or a liar. If they are the former then I can confirm that I am definitely not a genius!

If you had asked me four or five years ago if I had wanted to be a football coach I would have said no chance however, as I get older I can’t see me not being involved in football in some capacity so last year I started doing my coaching badges.

I passed my level 2 qualification quite comfortably and then started my level 3 this summer. I did a PFA run course and found it really challenging, none more so than when I had to coach Robbie Fowler in one of my sessions. Thankfully he is a really nice guy and humoured me.

I’ve been in plenty of training sessions where I’ve thought this is rubbish and I could do better but now I have a lot more respect for coaches. When the spotlight is on you it is a lot harder than you’d imagine.

After my initial lethargy for anything educational I think I have done as much as I can to prepare for my entrance into the real world.

Lifestyle 

I know a lot of players who have no formal qualifications and are expecting to continue the lifestyle they are accustomed too they will soon find out that four hundred games as a professional footballer doesn’t have much pull when going into a new profession.

If I had my time again I would definitely be a professional footballer although as I’m sure you’ve worked out by now I would do things a little differently.

It is quite daunting when you sit down and think about life after football. Lately I have been thinking about becoming a PE teacher.

I obviously have a degree but the educational providers keep telling me that as my degree is in business I must qualify as a Business teacher and then once I’ve qualified I can teach PE. Surely if you are going to teach PE then you should train as a PE teacher?

However it’s not for me to tell the educational authorities how to do their job so this could scupper my plans.

Shame as I think I could be a good teacher and I’d imagine my background could inspire the students, after all I doubt many of there teachers have played against Manchester United in front of seventy five thousand people. Shame, they obviously know best……


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