OpinionJohn Aldridge

Footballers' final bows are tough to stomach

Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard
Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard

THE FINAL few years of a football career are like a slow death, counting down to the inevitable end of a dream that has been the most significant part of your life.

As Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard make their debuts with their new MLS clubs yesterday, I get the feeling that their presence in America is merely a bid to delay the looming prospect of retirement, which is devastating to deal with for every player.
Robbie Keane is experiencing something similar as he edges towards the end of his remarkable journey with the Ireland team and spends his final years on the field in MLS. 
It is easy to knock these great players for going to America and playing in a less competitive league, but I get why they are doing it. They don’t want their days as a footballer to end. None of us do.
You run away from it. You don’t think about the day when football is not at the top of your agenda. Then when it happens and you have no more training sessions, no more matches, the shock hits you like a thunderbolt. 
I remember going over for a few Ireland meet-ups at the end and I wasn’t even getting game when we were struggling – and had no one else to pick up front. I didn’t need to be told my time was up with the international team.
Yet, when the first Ireland squad after my retirement was announced, I had to get my head around the fact that I’d never pull on the green shirt again. For someone like Robbie, who has achieved so much for club and country, the sense of loss when it’s all over will take him by surprise.
I was fortunate to an extent, as I moved into a role as Tranmere player-coach and then as manager in the final years of my playing career, but I remember the day when I had left Tranmere and didn’t know whether I would ever go back into the game again. What the hell do you do next?
You might have 50 years of your life left to lead when you hang up your boots, and that’s a hell of a long time to fill when the one thing you are good at is not an option any more.
From the moment you realise from a young age that you are half decent at football, it’s all you want to do. When you make it, when you play at the very top, the pain of it all coming to an end is hard to deal with, and I speak from experience in that statement.
There is only so much golf you can play and, unless you have a family around you to keep you occupied, it is so easy to slide into depression and fall off the rails, as we have seen with plenty of top players down the years. Panic can set in and depression can follow.
It is not just the football you miss. The camaraderie in the dressing room and the fun you enjoy with team-mates is a massive part of a career in the game. I craved the banter with the lads as much as the matches when I was finished.
Modern day players are fortunate because they are walking away from football with a few million quid to spend on keeping themselves happy, which wasn’t always the case in my playing days and it certainly wasn’t the story for those who were at the top in the era before me.
Yet money is not everything and when you are sitting at home, the phone is not ringing any more and the adulation you have been familiar with for so long disappears, it’s bloody hard to come to terms with, I can tell you from experience.  
For me, the dream was to play for Liverpool and Ireland and, amazingly, I achieved both of those. I won the league title, I scored in an FA Cup final win at Wembley, I played in the World Cup and I met the Pope along the way! What a ride it was.
Then, all of a sudden, it’s over – and I believe that not enough is done for players when they make their final statement to the media to confirm they are taking on a new role as an ex-footballer.
The Professional Footballers’ Association should do more to help their members when they leave the sport, and I know of plenty who have struggled to cope.
My pal Jason McAteer is among those who found it difficult to accept his football days were over, and he is not alone. It is akin to a period of mourning and people don’t appreciate how tough it is.
The truth is, the glory days are already over for Keane, Gerrard and Lampard – and, however much money they, the day they kick their final ball in anger will be one of the worst days of their life. 
I know it was for me.