Should football’s governing bodies provide a duty of care?

Having a pop at a professional footballer is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, you’d have more chance of finding someone who thinks Bob Diamond was actually deserving of his £20m bonus from Barclays than you would a person who is sympathetic to a footballers plight. Nevertheless, are footballers offered enough care and support after they’ve hung up their boots?

The big white elephant in the room when this topic rears its head is of course, Paul Gascoigne, a tortured soul if ever there was one. Football was his release, his form of escape, but not a week goes by now without pictures emerging of him in some state or other, or some other ‘wacky’ story about the former England international.

It’s preying on the weak, that’s all it is – here is clearly a man struggling with some well-documented mental health issues, beset by past troubles of alcohol and drug addiction and a known sufferer of depression, yet it seems as if he’s treated as little more than the new Kerry Katona for quick and easy copy. It’s shameful, but do we dislike seeing him in such a state because of the impact it has on us, or is it really out of genuine concern?

Nobody wants to see a childhood hero in such a state. Reports of Gascoigne getting his life back on track have been doing the rounds for as long as I can remember, so something is clearly amiss. Is it simply that the support structure isn’t there? Should the PFA be doing more to help?

Once you become a professional footballer, you are of course looked after by the PFA, but they appear to wash their hands of you once you have retired. Technically, it is the ‘Professional Footballers Association’ so with finite resources and an ever-increasing body of members to look after, you can forgive them to an extent for focusing on the needs of the present as opposed to the troubles of the past, but surely some form of halfway house has to be there to make the transition into ‘normal’ every day life less bumpy.

Footballers go from a climate of chumminess, where everything is spoonfed for you, to nothing. The camaraderie is clearly there and by and large it seems a pretty enjoyable job to have for the most part, but they are thrown by the wayside somewhat once they’re no longer of any use to the profession. In no other industry aside from professional sport is a person virtually retired once they reach the age of 40, left on the scrape heap to twiddle their thumbs for another 30 years or so.

Like I said earlier, many will not sympathise with the struggles of a former pro, they’ve had their cake and they’ve eaten it and then some. The mess is of their own making, but struggles aren’t strictly the reserve of retired footballers, with Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Matthew Etherington and Adrian Mutu all suffering from various forms of addition, whether it be gambling, alcohol or drug-related while they were still playing.

Mario Balotelli is often made out to be this zany character, which completely ignores that the majority of stuff written about him isn’t a) true at all or b) actually a complete non-story. The lack of context is startling, it completely ignores the difficult upbringing he had when his parents had to request foster care for him because their living conditions were so poor. But sure, he does crazy stuff sometimes, so let’s all laugh at him.

Former Blackburn centre-half Colin Hendry was declared bankrupt in June 2010, a year after his wife died of an infection caused by cosmetic surgery. The root cause of his gambling addiction is of course intertwined with the difficulty of his home life, since she was first taken ill in 2002. Rumours persisted in late March that Steve Kean was set to offer him a coaching position at the club as he sought to protect himself from the fans’ ire with the return of a club legend, but no such move materialised and he last worked in football in 2008 as manager of Scottish club Clyde, which he had to resign from to take care of his wife. A desperately sad story.

Football does not owe you a living, but it should owe you a duty of care, for a time after you leave the game at least. There are various ways to make a quick buck once you retire, with many (although some of them really shouldn’t be) taking to a media career, while others stay involved in the game through coaching and management. But it’s those that slip through the net and that do none of the above where the problems are likely to arise.

It’s not practical to ‘look after’ and keep monitoring players long after they’ve quit the game, but the sheer amount of stigma’s associated with the sport need looking at. Things like depression and whether a person is gay or not are still hugely taboo subjects and it’s clear that while these players are still playing, that they don’t feel comfortable enough to talk openly about their problems and preferences with either their team-mates or their club and more needs to be done to address this in the future.

Being mentally prepared for the next stage of your life is a bigger cause for concern than most will let on, and without the right support structure around you, it’s simply a recipe for disaster. This isn’t a preachy diatribe aimed at sympathy for those that squander their talent due to ill-advised and poorly thought out decisions, but rather a call to arms for more to be done to help those less adjusted to the rigours of modern life. Football can be a release, but once it lets you go, it can be an awfully lonely place out there all by yourself.

You can follow me on Twitter @JamesMcManus1