David Preece: What is a footballer who doesn’t play football?

Former England striker Dion Dublin.
Former England striker Dion Dublin.
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Regular readers of this column, if there is such a thing, will know that from time to time I discuss the difficulties I’ve faced in my retirement from football.

The void left in your identity as a person isn’t filled overnight and if it is, it’s usually with something that at best delays what you inevitably have to deal with, or at worst leads to total self-destruction.

SAFC coverage in association with John Hogg

SAFC coverage in association with John Hogg

There have been times when I’ve stared at myself inside a mirror and asked myself why I couldn’t just flick a switch inside my head and sever all contact with the past but it just hasn’t been possible.

Going straight into coaching and then the media side of football has kept me tethered to the game but I guess that’s my own choice.

A Danish mate of mine Thomas Raun, who I played with at Silkeborg, is now a master carpenter and can fashion some of the most beautifully-designed furniture you’ve ever seen.

Jealousy turns my blood green when I look at the pictures he posts of his work, mostly because I struggled to change the handle on the downstairs toilet door last week but also because he has his top off in most of the pictures and he still looks like the protagonist of a Diet Coke advert.

For me, though, it seems whilst football is close by, its familiarity is comforting – which can be a double-edged sword when you are trying to cope without it.

A few of my mates who have just entered their thirties – the period in your life when you first give serious consideration to the after-life - asked me what retirement is like. Surely it can’t be that bad?

My first answer is always that I imagine it to be a lot easier to deal with if you are financially secure and the absence of football isn’t exaggerated by money worries. It’s a semi-serious answer, knowing full well the emotional hardship of retirement can have a massive effect on anyone regardless how much money they have in the bank.

My second answer is different and told with a straighter face and a heavier tone.

I tell them to imagine your playing career is like climbing a cliff face that has been greased at the base.

It’s almost impossible to get further than a few metres up the cliff but if you do, every step up demands great focus as you struggle to hold on.

Some only reach so far and stay stuck at the same spot, while others reach the very top; yet the chance to admire the view is fleeting for all.

Those who look around too much are overtaken by more ambitious climbers and their progress hits traffic.

But what comes to every single one of those climbers, no matter how far up the cliff face they get or how long they have been clambering up, is that they all have to face the moment when it’s their time to get off the cliff.

A rare few make it to the very top and are allowed the freedom to do as they please.

Then there are those who haven’t quite reached the peak but got high enough to use the parachute they could afford to invest in, thereby assuring a softer landing.

And let’s not forgot those climbers who didn’t have the right equipment, physical and mental strength, talent, or who just plotted a more slippery path than others.

They, although they didn’t have far to fall, will always carry the disappointment of not making it further.

That only leaves those climbers who make their way up and down the cliff face for their full allotted time, desperately trying to find the best footholds until the final whistle blows and they’re ejected from it.

Suddenly the cliff face becomes as smooth as marble and there’s nothing left to hold onto.

Your grip is lost, your feet have nothing below them and now you’re falling. The wind rushes all around you. That moment ... that very moment is exactly what retirement feels like.

A helpless, alien feeling that no amount of flailing will stop. Fighting against the feeling only leads to fatigue. You just have too wait until you hit the bottom or you’re lucky enough to hit a branch or two on the way down to cling on to.

Sometimes there’s the added Acme anvil dropped on your head for good measure too but the swelling goes own eventually. A very Wile E Coyote description, I’ll give you that, but I’m telling you all of this because I hit one of those branches this week.

When I’m working in London, I stay with my mate James and last week when he came home from playing his Thursday night football he said: “You’ll like this. There were a few kids, about 18, playing with us tonight. One of them was a Sunderland fan. His dad is from Sunderland and even though he grew up in London he supports them.

“So I told him my mate Preecey is from Sunderland and is at my place now and he said ‘What? David Preece? The journalist? He’s brilliant him. What’s he doing at your house?’

“I told him you were babysitting for me and that’s how you supplement your income from writing - by looking after my son.”

Now, first of all there’s a small humblebrag of someone saying nice things about me in there.

That’s lovely but that’s not what this is about. It’s that this young lad said ‘journalist’, not goalkeeper or ex-goalkeeper. Journalist. And that struck something inside me. It wasn’t the praise, it was the disconnection from the person I once was to the one I am now.

It felt like a branch. A sturdy branch with strong enough roots to bear the grasp of my arthritis-ridden fingers.

What is a footballer who doesn’t play football? Not just a nobody but nothing at all. That’s how it can feel until you’re something else.

There’s a deeper conversation about self-worth to be had here but I’m running out of space, but it felt epiphanic. Not on a grand scale, just progress.

It wasn’t about arriving at a destination or the end of a journey but almost five years after my final competitive appearance, it at least feels like I’ve stopped falling at the pace I was.

After five years of falling, maybe I’m just getting more used to the feeling of free-fall. Only time will tell.

One final thing. Yes, I was babysitting James’s son, Billy - I have to pay my board somehow. It’s either that or leave him a big bar of mint Aero in the fridge when I’m gone.