“I looked at my phone, all of a sudden, I’d got loads of notifications on Twitter. ‘All the best’ — lots of messages like that. It was really strange. But then I saw the reason why all these messages were being sent.” Said Devonte Redmond, formerly of Manchester United, speaking to The Athletic.
“There was a list of all the lads that United had let go. It had been posted on Twitter and it was the official ‘retained and released’ list. That was how I found out.”
You may not think it, but June is a hectic month in professional football. Leagues have finished, cup finals and play-offs have been played, yet there is pressure mounting on players from another direction – for some it will be almost unbearable.
The third Saturday in May is when EFL and Premier League clubs must file their lists of retained and released players. Players know for certain if they have a contract for next season, or if they must look for a new club, it’s a moment of reckoning for many players.
Not only must players hastily search for a new contract, there’s also the painful process of leaving their old club. There are numerous difficulties facing players as they prepare to move on, navigating awkward press-release timing; disentangling themselves from WhatsApp ‘banter’ groups; not getting the chance to say goodbye to friends in the form of trusted coaches, for whom this is also brutal.
“The most difficult part is telling somebody that’s given his all, and maybe fallen short, or maybe had a long injury, that his career with us is over.”
Football is big business, there’s no place of comfort for those out of work and many are left thinking ‘Am I good enough?’, ‘Will I ever play professionally again?’, ‘How am I going to manage moving my family again?’.
Linvoy Primus and Peter Browne are both ex-professional players working on the elite team at Christians in Sport. Both have walked alongside footballers and rugby players facing the challenges that go hand-in-hand with being released. So, what do they say to those in this season? What comfort does God’s word have for them?
“When I ask a player what they’re currently finding hard, contract negotiations are usually the second or third thing they mention.” Linvoy says, “come February or March it’s really bearing on players’ minds, almost as much as their form on the pitch or their relationship with the manager.”
“I regularly come across two kinds of players, the first is the one saying, ‘what am I going to do now?’ - they’re especially worried about the future, whether they’ll play professionally again, whether they’ll have to uproot their family and move to a foreign club. Meanwhile, they’re wrestling with a sense of rejection or injustice, questioning their form. The second is the player who is so confident in their own ability that they’re happy to let their contract expire assuming other clubs will be queuing up with offers.”
“In both situations I try to help players see that it’s OK to not have control because God is with them, He is in control, and He is not surprised by the circumstances they face. I often turn to Matthew 14, where Jesus walks on water out to the disciples in the middle of a storm. Earlier on in the chapter Jesus sends them out in the boat, knowing full well the trials they were about to face. For the Christian player facing uncertainty, I want to help them to see God knows the trials they’re facing and will lead them through these times. It might mean accepting that your ability is not self-willed and giving up your sense of control, or trusting God when you feel helpless, but, in both cases, He works for the good of those who love Him, that is a certainty wherever they end up.”
Peter Browne reflects on the pressure there is on players’ identity as they search for new clubs. “I’ve been alongside several players facing contract negotiations, rugby is not quite the same as football – there’s less money involved and fewer restrictions on transfers, but players go through similar challenges. With rugby particularly, injury often has a bearing on selection and contracts being renewed each season. Professional sport is business and, as a player, you’re the commodity – your value is entirely based on your ability to perform.”
“It’s important to preach a received identity to yourself, to keep reminding yourself that you are loved unconditionally, and will always be, even if your injuries or form mean you have to find a new club or consider stepping away from the sport. Ephesians 2:8-10 is a great reminder of this, focusing on the fact that we are created by God and given gifts to serve Him. Furthermore, we depend entirely on His grace for salvation. So, I often turn to that passage to encourage players that they are safe and secure in Christ!”
Linvoy encourages players to take time to develop spiritual disciplines as they face big moments of transition. “The first thing for me is to reassure players because it is a tough thing to manage, particularly for those who have a family that depend on them. If I can help them practically through contacts, then I will, but primarily I want to encourage players to draw near to God as they face this. I’ll ask players what they can do to help fix their eyes on Jesus at this time. I’ve seen players really develop their prayer life or become more dedicated to reading God’s word as they’ve faced these struggles.
None of these things make the situation change by magic, but they’re the right grounding to face the problem. Players that do this, in my experience, approach the challenge before them, and future challenges, with a calmer mindset, as they are assured of the fact that the Lord is walking with them.“
Similarly, Peter reflected that fellowship with other believers is a great support, but it can be particularly hard for professional players as they move frequently, particularly if they have a degree of fame. “When a player has to move it’s important for them to have consistency. As I meet one-to-one with players, I often encourage them to get connected into church but that can be difficult. My primary aim with players in this situation is to help them to know they are loved unconditionally, no matter what they do on the pitch, or wherever they are moving to.”
The world of professional sport offers little comfort to players amid contract negotiations despite this being an incredibly testing time. Clubs, agents and staff generally place a higher value on performance than mental health and wellbeing. Yet, for the Christian player, they can know that they matter, and are loved unconditionally independent of their performance. This why we walk alongside elite sportspeople, through one-to-ones and group Bible studies, to support them to enjoy their relationship with Christ, and to lean on Him as they face testing times. If this is you then get in touch with the elite team via firstname.lastname@example.org - we’d love to support you.
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