ON THE day I signed for Nottingham Forest, in February 2001, aged 17, Paul Hart, the academy director, explained that the moment I put pen to paper I would automatically become a life-long member of the PFA.
Indeed, Hart’s father Johnny, a former Manchester City forward of 16 years, had only recently had a hip replacement, he said, which had been paid for by the players’ union.
In every single season of my 14-year career in the Football League, the PFA visited my club to explain the services they offered, to encourage you to take advantage of them, to educate yourself, to plan for the day when playing football for a living would come to an end.
It took a year on the sidelines with a broken leg in my mid-20s to spur me into action but, at a time of spiralling tuition fees, I enrolled on a PFA-run degree in professional sports writing and broadcasting at Staffordshire University, to which I had to contribute just £1,500 – about one tenth of the sum covered by the PFA.
Put simply, without their guidance and financial support I would not be writing for this or any other publication today.
Like many players, I also studied for my UEFA B coaching licence, and additional modules that would allow me to coach in an academy – again, courses run, and heavily subsidised, by the PFA.
I attended a seminar they ran called ‘Making the Transition’, with the aim of preparing you for stepping into the working world. The PFA publicised the course among 4,000-plus current players, and tens of thousands of former players on their database. And do you know how many turned up? Eight.
Some of the reporting on the PFA during the past ten days – about its governance, its attempts to oust the chairman, Ben Purkiss, on the basis that he is a non-contract player at Walsall, after he raised the prospect of an independent review into the union, about Gordon Taylor’s four-decade stranglehold over the PFA – has been vital. Some of the reporting on the work done by the PFA, however, has been lost.
Now, to be clear, I am not in any way trying to absolve the PFA or Taylor of criticism. Taylor’s level of power and influence has long been unhealthy.
The board of trustees who control the PFA’s vast Premier League TV-fuelled wealth is a closed shop of his close allies. Taylor has flaunted PFA rules and Trade Union law by failing to hold an election for his position as CEO, and similarly for the nomination of Chris Powell and David Weir, who are supposed to be the only board members elected by the players. His £2.2 million salary last year cannot be justified in any walk of life never mind a trade union. And above all else, the PFA has failed to take a lead in tackling some of the game’s biggest issues, such as dementia research and mental health.
For too long they have been reactive rather than proactive. The wheels turn agonisingly slowly and it is time, as Purkiss said, for the PFA to evolve.
But trust me: without the PFA life after football for players – particularly in the lower leagues – would be a hell of a lot more challenging.
Granted, there is a generational divide in attitudes towards the union. Elderly former pros played in a time when the PFA’s reach was nothing like it is today, and have not had the same experience, which also has to be addressed.
But at the same time in the past week there have been stories of former players being refused funding for heart operations and such like, which sounds traumatic, but also very much like a job for the NHS.
A little perspective is needed. I saw Steve Sidwell, pictured, on Sky Sports the other night complaining that, when he retired in the summer, his only contact from the PFA was a text to ask if he no longer wanted to be on the PFA Transfer List.
“I’ve been really disappointed actually,” he said. It would be easy to counter that Sidwell has no doubt earned many millions during a long and successful career, but players at all levels face their own challenges when they hang up their boots.
But when the PFA has been there throughout your career, almost pleading with you to prepare for the inevitable, but unpredictable, day when your football career ends, there comes a point – especially as a 30-something adult – when you need to take a little bit of responsibility for yourself. And they are there still at the end of the phone.
How to get young men with a few quid in their pockets and a relentless focus on football to think about the future is the union’s enduring challenge. It’s not easy.
So let’s call out and investigate wrongdoing. Let’s demand that the PFA modernises, as it must.
But let’s paint the full picture: don’t overlook the help that has long been there for players such as myself.