The Non League Secret Manager - The Beautiful Game?

"Every day we read or hear about the glamorous side of football. I love the pointless newspaper reports comparing Gareth Bales plastic bag to Cristiano Ronaldo’s designer man bag, or how much Bale earns a minute and what he’s had for breakfast, but the reality for many lower league and non league footballers is the opposite.

Recently, I watched Clarke Carlisle’s excellent documentary on depression in football, and I have to be honest and say it had a profound effect on me as a manager. Over the last few weeks I have found myself thinking a lot about the mental side of the game and how we managers treat players.

Football has become a very cut throat industry, whether you are a manager or player, even in non league. Everyone I believe sets out to do their best, but the culture within non league has changed and has even started to reflect the Premier League. Many chairmen and supporters have adopted the belief that if a team doesn’t win games, then the manager will be sacked. This pressure on the manager will then filter down to players, and managers I believe will make knee jerk reactions such as releasing players and replacing them with panic signings. What many of us don’t realise is the effect of this can have on players, who for the most part don’t earn much from the game. Bear in mind too, these lads have day jobs and other real life responsibilities to look after.

The high turnover of players in non league in every club every season is staggering. There were some clubs last year who used over 60 players in the non leagues.

I believe we managers have a responsibility to our players off the pitch. If you are a manager reading this, can you honestly say that you know all of your players properly? Do you know their backgrounds, who they live with, are there parents still around, what is their day job and how stressful is it, their medical history, what their interests are, how many kids do they have? I could ask a hundred more questions really.

My point is this... we managers make decisions on players without taking the player into consideration. We may release a player in a panic because he has had a bad game, and as a result his attitude has stunk. However, shouldn’t we be asking why a player has behaved like that?

I know one such player who played for me some years ago. I left one club, and the manager who replaced me released this young lad for attitude problems. What my successor didn’t realise was that this young lad had huge problems at home due to family members dying. He didn’t know that, because he didn’t ask or probably even care about that player, who incidentally I believe could be playing at a very good level of football right now. That manager could have picked up the phone and asked me what he was like before perhaps? I actually tried to sign the lad again, but he didn’t want to come as he wanted to stay nearer his family, which also made sense. Since that club, this lad has played for two others where the managers constantly scream at the players, and this has had a worse effect on this lad. Football is his release from the real world, but because he has been continually screamed at and verbally abused, is it any wonder that this lad had to see a psychiatrist, and he was scared as he often heard voices in his head? When he needed football and those around him, I believe we turned our back on him.

The players who spend all their teen years playing for a pro club academy, only to be told at 18 they can leave, are another group of players who need our help. They get no help from the pro club, aside perhaps from a 45 minute game at an exit trial, and they come to our clubs, down on their luck. In this case I think we expect too much from them, and because they are below par we release them and they fall further down the chain, before eventually dropping out of the game completely because they are depressed and have given up, because no one helps them.

The question we must ask ourselves is why are they below par when they come to us? Well I think the answer is straight forward. For years they believed they were going to be a pro footballer and enjoy everything that goes with it, and when that is taken away it feels like the world has ended. I have seen players characters change when this happens, many go on the piss, put on weight and completely lose focus – in other words they do what they have to do to hide their pain. So, what do we managers tend to do? We kick them when they are down and send them further down.

So in my mind now, it is clear that I have a responsibility to really look after my players off the pitch, work with them, help them be better players and people, and if we need  to release one, why not go out of your way to help find him a new club, and make sure he is ok? We have a huge responsibility to these guys, remember they love the game and don’t earn much money. Some players’ dreams have been broken, so surely it would be far more satisfying to get them back to that level, rather than send them the other way?"