A pensioner shuffles around the perimeter of a west London playing field and Chris Ramsey drops to one knee. “Not everybody makes it, but I’d say a third of players get there on a second chance,” Ramsey concludes to his audience of a dozen attentive young men.
The message of hope is a welcome one for a group of now former academy footballers, attending a pilot residential training camp hosted by Behind the White Lines. The guest appearance by Ramsey, the former Swindon, Southend and Brighton full-back, follows that of the former Crystal Palace winger Yannick Bolasie a day before. Both were invited by the former England international Steven Caulker. BTWL is his brainchild, into which he has poured heart, soul, and money. “At 26, I found myself without a club,” he says when asked why. “I didn’t know where to go, who to turn to, who I was even. I had no identity. It took a long time for me to get my head around that.”
Caulker, now 31, was among the fortunate. His footballing CV – including more than 100 Premier League appearances, mainly with Tottenham, Cardiff and QPR – enabled him to rebuild in Turkey. “But for those who are 18, 19, with nothing behind them, where do they go?” he asks. The answer, frankly, is often nowhere, so Caulker wants to independently fill that void with multi-purpose, multi-faceted retreats. Retreats that cost the players nothing.
Overseeing daily training is David Webb, who has held senior footballing roles at Tottenham, Bournemouth and Östersund. Jacob Mellis – once of Chelsea – and the former Everton youth-team goalkeeper John O’Toole assist in preparations for a showcase fixture due to be attended by numerous scouts.
For some, it might offer a potential return to the professional game. But it may not. And that is “OK” because while Caulker will be delighted to facilitate second chances, BTWL starts and ends with people, not football.
Player care is evolving rapidly in the professional game, but aftercare lags. Yes, clubs are encouraged to take Crystal Palace’s lead and put together three-year post-release packages. But the resources are either simply not there or are not being funnelled in the right direction.
The result? Hundreds of young adults – boys, really – feeling lost every summer. For a few days at least, in the leafy surrounds of University of Roehampton (which generously supported the project by providing food and accommodation), BTWL has created a safe space for a small number of those individuals to be heard. To be validated and begin healing.
Because being released from an academy can be a trauma, all those present were told that the odds of a top-level career were heavily stacked against them. But, as one attender puts it, “you’ve got to have the confidence it is going to be you [who makes it]. You must dedicate all your focus to that – tunnel vision.”
And that inextricably links football to identity, with several players explaining that among their friends, communities, and families even, they simply exist as “a footballer”. From a young age, enquires as to personal wellbeing were superseded by questions about how football was going.
Release can therefore lead to feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment. But there is nowhere to process those emotions and the myriad others experienced. Quite the opposite in fact: football exists with its own cliche-laden jargon, much of it designed to suppress feelings. Phrases such as “you just get back up and get on with it”, “that’s football” and others with similar sentiments pepper the conversations with players at the camp.
Sue Parris, a freelance athlete welfare and education specialist, who previously spent eight years at Brighton, is with BTWL for the week: “I don’t think the football environment considers the power of language and how we use it,” she says. And the by-product is that to conform, players “strip away the ability to be real, to be themselves”.
Surely, though they do not even know what “being themselves” entails? “No,” agrees Parris. “But what they do know is how to pretend to be someone else. And a lot of them can see what is happening for them – but they cannot talk about it.”
Or at least they have not been able to previously. Parris offers her ear informally at any point during the week, as do all BTWL staff. And peer power is already apparent – 72 hours into the experience one player admits to a simple, yet revelatory, realisation. “Sometimes you think you’re alone but you’re really not,” he says. “When I’m talking to some of the boys, it feels like they are just taking my story and repeating it. We are going through the same things, whether that’s football or outside of football.”
And that is the final piece of the BTWL jigsaw: the week is designed to open minds to the possibility of there being something other than the game. Several companies, including a pair from the financial sector, visit to offer taster sessions. Prof Bari Malik delivers a presentation on entrepreneurship. At that, the group discovers several of them already have side hustles, with one hiring his car out to friends. And higher education at Roehampton is also a possibility.
What next? In some senses, Caulker is thinking big. He wants to scale up and was savvy enough to realise that a week in practice held more value than an idea on paper. He was right – before the first camp is over, several other venues have expressed interest in hosting. But in other ways, Caulker is focused on the small picture. “If just one of the lads takes something from the week it will be worth it,” he says.