In March 2017, long-time non-league player Paul Musgrove featured on here, shedding light on the lesser-reported struggles that a player outside of the professional game faces upon retirement. One year on, Paul is assistant manager at Stowmarket Town in the Thurlow Nunn Premier Division, as well as still sometimes turning out in midfield. He returns to provide his follow-up insight into a crucially important, if lesser-discussed, side of our non-league game.
Back in March 2017 I put my feelings out there about retirement of a non-league footballer. The reason I did that wasn’t for sympathy but because I had talked to many players my age on the non-league scene who had been through or had very similar issues and felt the same way. You hear of the high-profile footballers who have these issues but never the non-league footballer who may not get or be able to afford any kind of help. Is the help even there?
I had a long spell with Walsham le Willows FC and because I had always liked the idea of coaching and taken a couple of badges in my 20s, it seemed natural to step into that role when it became available at 31. I’d eventually settled down in my private life and was expecting my first child. I found myself playing out of position at times to help the team and I wasn’t doing myself justice. So at 33, I decided that my mind was made up to concentrate on coaching.
After being at Walsham on and off for 15 years, in November 2016, the team wasn’t performing as I thought it should be, so I found myself getting more and more uptight about it. After one game it came to me losing my head in the changing room, which I immediately knew wasn’t right and wasn’t me. I decided to walk away from the club while I could still hold my head high with the years of service. They are a great club with great people.
This is the period where I found it difficult, as in the first article I had written.
The phone rang one day from an ex-pro who is a friend of mine and he asked if I fancied watching a few games for him to give my opinion on lower-league players. I started to do this, which I really enjoyed. I must have watched 80 games of football in six months. This still wasn’t every week so there was still a big void. The phone then rang from Stowmarket Town from an ex-teammate asking if I fancied helping out as they needed a bit of experience at times. I thought ‘why not? I can get fit enough to tick over if I play in midfield.’ Basically, whoever called first in the week leading up to a Saturday I would either be scouting or playing again. Well sometimes the phone didn’t ring for either!
That’s when I found myself searching for a local team just to go and watch. I found myself talking to the (Stowmarket Town) manager Rick Andrews more and more about team tactics and set-ups. So the summer of the 2017/2018 season, the phone rang again – Rick asking would I be his assistant? Without too much hesitation I agreed. He sold me the project; a fresh start and new people I felt was exactly what I needed. I had realised the first time around that stepping from the player to coach role had happened without a time for reflection and stepping back to look in on the bigger picture. Taking time out watching games was the best thing that happened to me.
I appreciated the likes, sharing, comments and private messages of the article I wrote, but after the initial 24 hours, like many online articles, it was long forgotten.
So how can you help yourself? Is it a kind of addiction?
Routines in football are an OCD due to the repetitive nature of them over a period of time. This is without doubt an addiction.
The day-to-day life of a non-league player can be as demanding physically, and mentally maybe even more so than a pro in the game.
“Working all day long hours then you race to a game, mentally are you okay?”
Many people said to fill that time with the beautiful family you have, spend that quality time with them. I did this and to be honest, I didn’t miss the mid-week training or the mid-week rush to get to an away game. However, the preparation and phone calls and build up to games, I did miss. There was agony in me on a Saturday that made me feel aggravated and uptight. I would find any excuse to go and watch any local teams playing at home.
I asked myself was it the actual being out on the pitch I missed, or was it just being in the environment where you feel wanted, respected and have so much in common with others? Initially in my mind, it was the euphoria of playing and being a part of a team where you can give so much. When I stripped it back, it was the sense of belonging and the sense of purpose for something you’re meant to be good at.
Emotionally, it was a case of dealing with it in my head. I began to put it in a box and not let it take over at certain times. I started to train my brain through that period of time when I felt uptight and aggravated. Slowly, I began to recognise patterns and how to deal with that period. Positivity breeds positivity. That’s an obvious statement to make, but whatever walk of life you come from, if you can find that endorphin rush to release that pattern of behaviour, you’re half-way there.
Eventually I could start to talk about it to my partner. The understanding was there in abundance, however, when it’s an addiction, it’s an understanding that you only want to recognise with someone who has also been institutionalised from a young age – because you think they are the ones who will understand fully and you can then open up to them fully.
Luckily for me, I feel I have been able to shift this OCD repetitive routine and mindset battle. I have also been really lucky to have good people who have seen a value in my experience and got me back into football.
With the project at Stowmarket Town going well, there have been a couple of occasions where I’ve had to come on. I join in training now and again and my fitness is reasonable and the lads give good banter over it, as well as the supporters. For me, it’s about working with a really good manager and coaching team to try and achieve the club’s ambitions. I feel I am in a much better place now to deal with situations that are thrown in front of me.
What happens when I fall out of football again? Hopefully I am much better equipped to deal with the road ahead this time around.