London- Football dressing rooms can be ruthless places. The social hierarchy is established, the wisecracks are often merciless and there aren’t many moments for introspection or worrying about what to do once your career finishes. Exeter City forward Robbie Simpson understands the culture but at the age of 32 he has realised that a change in tone could help his fellow athletes. Simpson, who has played in all four divisions below the Premier League, has set up Life After Professional Sport (LAPS), an organisation that aims to help former professional athletes find full-time work.
“In professional football, it is very difficult to show any vulnerability whatsoever, never mind in the dressing room. It’s a place with banter and bravado. All of that is great, but also people don’t want to show any fear or even talk about what will happen next after their careers are over, which needs to change. At League Two level, the reality is, after it’s over, you’re going to have to get a job almost straight away, so we need to start this conversation now and think of life after sport.”
Simpson is a relative rarity in football. He had balanced non-league football at Cambridge United with his sports science and mathematics degree until 2007, when he graduated and joined Championship club Coventry City as a full-time professional. Simpson made his competitive debut in the League Cup against Notts County. He came on as a substitute in the 73rd minute and scored in the 78th minute. But things were about to get even better.
After a handful of substitute performances in the Championship, Simpson made his first start for Coventry against Manchester United in the League Cup. A few days after his graduation ceremony he was lining up at Old Trafford against a central defensive pairing of Gerard Piqué and Jonny Evans. United would go on to win the Premier League and the Champions League that season, but they were knocked out of the League Cup by Coventry City.
“I think the whole of Loughborough University was there at that game,” remembers Simpson. “I had been balancing my studies with non-league football, the perfect compromise I thought. Then after a great season in non-league, I got the opportunity to sign with Coventry and eventually gain that first start at Old Trafford. It was just ridiculous having been a student not long before. My path to the full-time game wasn’t normal, but it did give me a good perspective of life outside the game.”
Simpson’s degree earned him the nickname “the student” at Coventry. “It always made me laugh, I was no different to any of these lads. But I found myself, at 22, being brought into these pseudo-intellectual debates in the dressing room to settle an argument because I had been to uni. I was also asked by these senior pros for advice on tax returns. It was all quite bemusing for a young guy.”
In Simpson’s experience, football clubs rarely offer pathways to employment after the final whistle has blown on their players’ careers. He commends the efforts of the Professional Footballers’ Association but thinks more could be done. “We work with a lot of different sports in LAPS and rugby particularly impresses me. Saracens, who are at the top of their game professionally, are also running day visits to the trading floor in the city to give players a taste of something else. We need to encourage that wider perspective across sports.”
Simpson has enjoyed a successful football career at clubs across the country, including Huddersfield Town, Oldham Athletic, Leyton Orient, Cambridge United and, currently, Exeter City. However, after one difficult summer four years ago when he was out of contract and looking for a club, he began to think about his future: could he get a job if his football career was over? He wasn’t fully convinced. His professional work experience was all in football and he started to wonder whether his skills had any value elsewhere.
“I had that fear one summer when I was out of contract that this could be it. I had dedicated the last number of years to professional football, but I was lucky in that I had a degree at least. What about the people who have left school at 16 with no qualifications to dedicate themselves to football? I knew that there were transferable skills available and after linking up with a friend who works in recruitment, we set up LAPS to create a vital resource.”
LAPS is an online tool available to former athletes who are searching for a career after the final whistle has blown on their careers. It contains a job board, networking opportunities, advice and case studies of former athletes who have moved into different lines of work. Simpson has spoken to hundreds of athletes since setting up LAPS. Many of them mental health issues and financial concerns and he wants to empower them.
“Not everyone can be an athlete and one of the things that makes them stand out in their profession is their commitment to a set goal. We want to inspire these men and women to think that there is absolutely a life after sport, and we are going to do everything we can to show them that there can be a fulfilling professional life after they’ve stopped as an athlete.”
Simpson is running LAPS while playing in League Two. Over the last few years he has seen positive changes in the attitudes of his colleagues. Eleven of his team-mates at Exeter City have either finished or are completing degree-level studies. Simpson’s former nickname “the student” makes little sense at his club these days and he is determined to help more athletes find productive careers after sport.
The Guardian Sport