Footballers going cheap: Picking up the pieces of broken dreams
At the end of every season hundreds of players are discarded by their clubs to face an uncertain future. Glenn Moore reports on how the rejected cope with spending the summer waiting by the phone
Andrei Voronin, Mark Viduka, Steve Sidwell, Geovanni. It is amazing what you can pick up for nothing these days. Except, as every manager knows, these free transfers are not free at all, not when they are commanding wages approaching £100,000 a week.
Look a little lower down the leagues, though, and there are footballers going cheap. These are players whose availability has nothing to do with Marc Bosman; they are the rejected, the old-fashioned "free transfer" . The cull comes every year. At the end of last season around 750 players, from naïve youngsters to cynical old pros, were "released". The list featured eight former England internationals, including Robbie Fowler, Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole. All found new clubs. Another notable name, Jerzy Dudek, is now warming the bench at Real Madrid.
So much for the famous few, what of the masses? The Professional' Association keeps a register of available players. This list numbered 196 yesterday. It suggests nearly a quarter of the released will not find work within the game. Football may be the dream career for so many young boys, but it is also a brutal industry.
In June The Independent spoke to one of the casualties, Rhys Weston. A former pupil at the FA School of Excellence, Weston played for Arsenal, was capped by Wales, and made more than 200 appearances for Cardiff City. That is more than most aspiring footballers will ever achieve, but his dream had soured. When we met he was an out-of-work 26-year-old footballer wondering about his future, having been released by Port Vale. "It does make you take stock a little bit," he said then. "You know you won't play football for ever, but normally you don't think about the future until you get to 30."
Weston's concern was multiplied by family commitments. In his quest for work he had spent seven of the previous 12 months living away from home, in addition his stepson, Connor, was about to start senior school.
"If only I had another profession to fall back on, the way I've been feeling about football the last six months, I'd jack it in," he said. " The first thing I will initiate when I get a contract is a business management course. I don't want to be looking over my shoulder again, nicking a year here, a year there, trying to drag it out as long as possible.
"It's not desperation stakes yet but, if it comes to the end of July and I'm still going down the gym on my own every day, maybe then it will be time to start panicking."
Fortunately for Weston it did not come to that. In July he was given a one-year contract by Walsall and is now their right-back. His love for the game has been rekindled – he spent Sunday, his day off, watching Aston Villa v Chelsea at Villa Park with his son.
It was the start of a big week. On Monday the family moved up from Cardiff; yesterday Connor started his new school. "Kay [his wife] and I had a long discussion. It is not healthy living apart for another year," said Weston. "We're renting for six months to see how it goes. I've been told if we're doing OK, and I'm doing OK, there will be a contract review at Christmas.
"This is a good location, geographically. We can get to a lot of clubs in an hour, and if things don't go well we won't need to move again, or change school."
And what about that business management course? "I sent off the enrolment form on Monday. Classes start later this month. They are Monday and Wednesday nights, so I might have to miss a few because of matches, but I intend to give it a go."
The day after Weston was at Villa Park, John Ward was there. As manager of Cheltenham Ward relies on free transfers to build a team, so he was watching Villa's reserves play Fulham's reserves.
"It was not for this season, most of the lads are too young, but there are boys you want to be aware of in case they don't progress," said Ward yesterday. "Martin O'Neill and Lawrie Sanchez [respectively managers of Villa and Fulham] have both brought in a lot of players so it will be difficult for these lads to get a first-team place. Some of them will be released and we may be able to pick them up.
"I say to them, 'We can't pay you the thousands you might want, but I can offer you the second chance'. We tell them we won't stand in their way if an opportunity comes to progress – we've sold three players to Championship clubs in the last six months.
"Michael Townsend is an example. He was released by Wolves and came to us. He's now 21 and he's played 85 times in our first team as a centre-half. That's a difficult position for a young player and I doubt he would have played that many games at a higher level. Now he's at the stage where Championship clubs will look at him and think, 'He's not bad'. Being released is a big blow psychologically for these lads," added Ward. " Townsend was a Midlands lad, Wolves were his team. You have to lift him mentally. The first six months he did not play for us, we just worked with him on the training ground.
"He's now confident, he knows what he can do. You need patience and I'm fortunate here in that the board are happy to give me time to develop players."
Ward knows the pressure of being "freed". It happened to him. " I left Lincoln for Watford when I was 28. Two years later they said to me, 'That's it'. It was a blow. I thought I'd get another year. I was married with three kids, we'd moved down from Lincoln, which was my home town. We then had to move again. As well as the professional aspect it has an effect on your family. I'm always aware of that when talking to players."
It is the youngsters, those with stars in their eyes but insufficient gold dust in their boots, who suffer most. "Five out of six players who come into the game at 16 are out of it at 21," said Gordon Taylor, the PFA's chief executive. "That's an 85 per cent fallout rate which is not a good take-up for any industry.
"Steve Coppell once described [club youth systems] to me as 'like turtles laying eggs on the beach – they lay dozens because they know most of them are not going to make it'.
"Lads come in with such high hopes. The PFA works to educate them, and try and offer them further education, but when a kid has been dreaming of being the next David Beckham it is a big thing to accept there is a new life he can make outside football."
So spare a thought for those who find themselves rejected, especially those released by a League One club such as Cheltenham.
"There's not many places to go after us," admits Ward. "We try and find them other work in football, like a good non-League club. It is about the person as well as the player."
'It's been a good move for me. I'm playing'
For some footballers a free transfer, and the change of environment it brings, can rejuvenate a career. Julian Gray, once a promising youngster with Arsenal and Crystal Palace, had drifted out of favour at Birmingham City, making only two starts as they won promotion last season. This summer he joined Coventry City under his old Palace manager, Iain Dowie, and now is an ever-present with the Championship leaders.
"It's been a really good move for me," said Gray yesterday. " Now I'm playing, week in, week out, whereas last season I just didn't play that much football at all. It was very hard to train all week and then not feature on a Saturday, travelling to the games and not being part of them. I'd had enough of doing that."
Gray, 27, added: "Steve Bruce [Birmingham City's manager] offered to take up the option to extend my contract, which was good to hear, but if I hadn't played when the team was in the Championship the chances of playing in the Premier League were even less. I'm ambitious and I'm not going to achieve those ambitions if I don't play.
"Some people said, 'You are giving up the chance to be part of a P remier League club', but that wasn't the point, for me. They also say that I must be pleased to have been involved in a promotion team but, although I was in the squad, I don't really feel I made a contribution. It was a relief to leave in the end.
"I believe in my own ability, so it wasn't really a case of worrying whether or not another club would want me. Clubs know what I'm capable of doing and I had a lot of offers. I took my time about making the right decision and spent most of the summer considering them. I wanted to make sure I went to the right place. If I had joined a League One club, then it wouldn't have bothered me if I knew I would enjoy playing there.
It wasn't until the second week of pre-season that I made my decision.
"Not having to move was a bonus. Coventry is just 20 minutes down the road and I didn't have much upheaval, but the main reason I moved was Iain Dowie."
Where are they now? The Premier League's released players
If no club is shown, player is still available:
Ryan Garry (24 years old, now at Bournemouth), Arturo Lupoli (20, Fiorentina)
Lee Hendrie (30, Sheffield Utd), Robert Olejnik (20, Falkirk), Jlloyd Samuel (26, Bolton), Stephen Henderson (19, Bristol City), Eric Djemba-Djemba (26), Didier Agathe (32)
Julian Gray (27, Coventry), Bruno N'Gotty (36, Leicester), Matthew Birley (21), Nick Wright (31)
Michael Gray (33, Wolves), Andy Todd (32, Derby County), Keith Barker (21), Bryan Hodge (19)
Michael Roddy (18, Lincoln), Henrik Pedersen (32, Hull), Chris Howarth (21, Carlisle), Blazej Augustyn (19, Legia Warsaw), Quinton Fortune (30), Cesar Martin (30), David Thompson (29), Sam Ashton (21)
Geremi (28, Newcastle), Magnus Hedman (34), Juan Sebastian Veron (32)
Paul Peschisolido (36, Luton), Richard Jackson (27, Luton), Paul Boertien (28, Walsall), Steve Cann (19, Rotherham), Lionel Ainsworth (19, Hereford), Lee Grant (24, Sheffield Wednesday), Seth Johnson (28)
Scott Phelan (19, Bradford), Richard Wright (29, West Ham), Alan Kearney (19, Waterford United), Alessandro Pistone (32)
Matty Collins (21, Swansea), Mark Crossley (38, Oldham), Tomasz Radzinski (33, Xanthi), Mark Pembridge (36, now coach), Ahmad Elrich (26)
Jerzy Dudek (34, Real Madrid), Robbie Fowler (32, Cardiff), Boudewijn Zenden (31, Marseilles)
Trevor Sinclair (34, Cardiff), Stephen Jordan (25, Burnley), Nicky Weaver (28, Charlton), Hatem Trabelsi (30)
No released players
Abel Xavier (34, LA Galaxy), Stuart Parnaby (25, Birmingham), Danny Graham (22, Carlisle), David Knight (20, Swansea), Malcolm Christie (28)
Liam Atkin (20, Carlisle), Antoine Sibierski (33, Wigan), Titus Bramble (26, Wigan), Craig Moore (31, Queensland Roar), Olivier Bernard (27), Pavel Srnicek (39), Kazenga Lua Lua (16), Kris Gate (22), Lee Clark (34, now reserve coach)
Andrew Cole (35, Sunderland), Andy Griffin (28, Derby), Jason Pearce (19, Bournemouth), Svetoslav Todorov (29, Charlton), Frank Songo'o (20)
No released players
Tommy Miller (28, Ipswich), William Mocquet (24),
Kenny Cunningham (36), Andy Welsh (23), Tobias Hysen (25)
Charlie Lee (20, Peterborough), Rob Burch (22, Sheffield Wednesday)
WEST HAM UNITED
Teddy Sheringham (41, Colchester), Roy Carroll (29, Rangers), Shaun Newton (32, Leicester City), Yaniv Katan (26, Maccabi Haifa)
David Unsworth (33, Burnley), Arjen de Zeeuw (37, Coventry), Matt Jackson (35, Watford), John Filan (37, Sydney FC), Andy Webster (25), Joey Waterhouse (18), David Owens (18)