guest post from Chris Hargreaves
When asked to write a post for the LAPS Blog, I would normally go to my default of having a good laugh about stories or situations I’ve come across over my career in the game and do not fear! This post will hopefully contain some of the above but I have a message, an experience, I suppose a tale that many ex-sportsmen and women have told and will tell, when their playing careers come to an end.
Having played for twenty-odd years for a number of clubs, the ‘hundred foot’ brick wall was fast approaching, the realisation that I would have to do ‘something’ else other than trying to kick a football around. I was already coaching, as many aspiring managers do towards the end of their playing days, taking Exeter City U16’s on cold Tuesday and Thursday evenings, with long treks somewhere on a Sunday on a rusty old minibus with no fuel in it, full of 18 lads singing, talking, and farting at an international level.
Our family had settled in Exeter, the children were happy and my wife was relieved that we wouldn’t be upping sticks and starting a new adventure in yet another city or town in the UK. I had also worked hard to give myself a chance of regular media work; writing articles, offering to do presenting or punditry, learning the ropes, getting in a bit of work that would prove very handy over the next few years.
Fast forward from those early coaching days and having worked with Eddie Howe and Jason Tindall at AFC Bournemouth where we found ourselves suddenly promoted to the Championship I perhaps, and perhaps is an understatement of biblical proportions, hastily decided to take a manager’s job at Torquay United. This was a club where a couple of years earlier as a player I had lifted the trophy on the steps at Wembley as Captain, a trophy which meant the club was promoted back to the football league. Another former club Northampton Town had shown an interest in me becoming their manager, but having had the interview and with the club still deliberating over a few names, I chose Torquay. When I was told during the first week there was no usable training ground and no money promised, I knew it would be tough and boy it proved to be that. I went grey in the first month.
To stop a fair amount of emotional pain and for fear of my wife giving me the death stare – as I currently write this in bed with my second coffee and a list of Sunday ‘dad’ jobs as long as her ‘don’t get me anything……Christmas list’ – I will skip over my time there and say that I arrived at a situation where a consortium had taken over the football club and were giving me an ultimatum:
“Your assistant is being sacked, your GK coach is being sacked, the academy has to go, and you are to take a 20 percent pay cut.”
Looking back, it was obviously a dire situation but the fact that I wholeheartedly didn’t trust them was the big problem, certainly not the money. Of course I had made mistakes as a young manager but I still firmly believed I had the tools to be successful. What transpired is that I walked out of the building on that day, following advice from the League Managers Association, walking away from a manager’s job on a mixture of principles, panic and maybe a bit of stubbornness. In football should you ever walk away from the job no matter how untenable it is? I’m not sure.
I found myself on garden leave. Yes my garden was immaculate, much to the disdain of my next door neighbour Jon whose garden was a bit on the slopey side, as was his face every time he looked over the fence to have a chat and see me measuring my lines. This is where the story starts, believe it or not.
I was so angry at the ‘world of football’. I was shocked and staggered that the club had done this to me and I wanted out, not just out of the club, but out of the sport. One thing remained constant though; I needed work, I needed money. Without telling anyone apart from my family and my good friend Paul whose support and humour kept me focused on this next journey, I spent the next 6 months immersing myself in the world of medical sales, bizarre but true. Paul had a well-paid job in the medical industry and constantly told me that my personality and ability to remember things and present to people were great transferable skills that would lend themselves brilliantly to the industry. I revised like a madman, I shadowed people who knew ‘a lot more about a lot more’ than me and I took the exams I needed to.
I had no car at the time, the consortium having swapped my club car with an X-reg battered Astra. Was it on purpose? Of course it was but I picked up that car with my son without batting an eyelid on that day. The wing mirror fell off when I shut the door and I looked at my son, we both smiled, a mixture of loyalty and irony shared.
Soon carless, I biked 15 miles on daily round trips to the library to take online exams and to learn. I couldn’t learn at home with three children climbing the walls and wanting blood, with my wife looking at me as if I had gone mad. I’ll get to the point but I had some dark days, some days of loneliness, of fear and doubt. I presented to recruitment companies to even get on client lists, it was minimum degree level entry for these jobs. But lo and behold I interviewed, I presented well, I held my nerve, I learnt the products and I was offered a job. A job outside of football for the first time since I was 17. I always remember the day in a hotel reception when a guy called Chad told me I had the job. Blind panic ensued.
I was given a company card and a company car. I wore a suit and I drove to hospitals and doctor’s surgeries to meet with health care professionals and tell them about how good our drug was and how it could help their patients. Knowing the product and knowing what you were talking about were vital. This was not a job for the fainthearted.
Incredibly I then got another job in medical devices with a better car, a better card, a better salary and a better suit. A working-class lad earning good money doing something other than football. I was proud of myself.
I had also become the chief scout for Bristol Rovers and I was working for BT Sport as a pundit and I kept most of the medical role pretty quiet. I know it sounds crazy but I didn’t want the ‘stigma’ of being in a non-football role. I suppose I was a bit embarrassed and this is part of the message.
I should have been celebrating this from the rooftops! I had achieved what at the time seemed impossible, you needed a degree just to get listed with recruitment companies. No experience, no idea and yet I did the groundwork, I made the contacts, I proved to myself and others that I was competent. I was embarrassed because I suppose I had built up a bit of a personality in the area and I would occasionally get recognised going into hospitals and doctors surgeries. I didn’t have the heart to tell them what I was doing. I had been a football manager 6 months earlier. I would often say, “Yes I am just seeing the doctor,” or would pretend I that I had already been seen and would jump back in my car. They must have thought I was one heck of a hypochondriac.
This is the message: YOU can do it, YOU have the skills to change your course if you want to and be proud it of it, be very proud.
The only problem with any of the above? I didn’t love it.
I love football. I ended up taking a job back in football. My wife and my mate Paul who had helped me so much thought I was crazy, but I was happy. I was happy I had proved to myself that I will always be able to provide for my family without the ‘need’ for football and I am happy to be able to tell the story. I hope to help others believe in themselves. My football redemption has happened in the last year, demons have been exorcised, and my mindset remains the same.
Be relentless, and be determined in everything you do.
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