Wives and partners of professional footballers are to be formally involved for the first time in how the national game supports its players after a three-year partnership was agreed with the Professional Footballers' Association.
The LifeStyled Club, which already provides advice and friendship to a 600-strong community of members, is now working with the official players' union to help families on common issues ranging from mental wellbeing and education to preparing for life after football.
The average football career lasts only eight years and players are more likely to experience bankruptcy, marriage breakdown and mental health or addiction problems than the wider population. There is a strong feeling that players’ wives and partners have long been subjected to a counterproductive "seen and not heard" attitude from within the industry despite their vast influence on a player's wellbeing and the huge sacrifices that families make in support of a football life.
The LifeStyled Club is an online hub which was formed in 2015 by Helen Drury and Maggie Devine-Inman, the wives of former Peterborough United team-mates Adam Drury and Niall Inman.
It has grown hugely over the past six years and its community now includes wives and partners from across the pyramid, such as Michèle De Bruyne, who is married to Manchester City midfielder Kevin, Becky Vardy, who is married to Leicester City striker Jamie, and Megan Davison, who is England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford's fiancé. There's no fee to join but applicants are carefully vetted to protect the integrity and privacy of the community. There are podcasts, newsletters and an Instagram page as well as advice on accessing professional services.
Helen and Maggie have found that the players' partners, who are often teenagers when they are thrust into the football industry, experienced common challenges and were frequently left isolated and unsupported.
A third of all football marriages break down within a year of a player's retirement and one of the LifeStyled Club members, Gillian Quinn, whose husband Niall played for Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland, is currently researching the subject for a PhD at Dublin City University.
The PFA began working informally with Helen and Maggie to help maintain contact with families during the first Covid-19 lockdown but have now formalised that partnership under new PFA chief executive Maheta Molango.
"He really believes that the wives and partners are a huge anchor and part of a players' mentality and performance," said Maggie. "There was a perception that this community would just be interested in make-up and fashion which is part of the stereotype that we were up against when we started the website.
“The narrative of footballers' wives is very dated and plays a huge role in devaluing the wives and partners of footballers. We knew the importance of creating an empowering safe space where they could share their experiences and find valuable resources about education, mental health and wellbeing.”
Helen, whose husband Adam played more than 500 games for Peterborough, Norwich City, Leeds United and Bradford between 1995 and 2014, says that the reality of a football life is often very different from the perception.
"It was a wonderful life, and he was doing something he dreamt of, but what goes on behind the scenes was not always plain sailing," she said. "Uncertainty is one of the biggest anxieties. One bad game, one manager or one injury can change your whole trajectory.
"Some players live between six month contracts with a young family. A lot of members move their children's schools 10 or 15 times. That can place a huge pressure on a young couple. At no point are we looking for sympathy, just a little bit of understanding. There are groups for everything. Why shouldn’t the wives and partners of footballers have a community where they feel safe and can learn?"
‘We managed to dodge the bullet – many of our friends didn’t’
Gillian Quinn, wife of Niall, is now researching the first PhD across any sport into the correlation between retirement and marital breakdowns
It is a set of statistics that you almost have to read twice to fully digest: one third of footballers get divorced within 12 months of retiring.
Wider research is suggesting that this figure rises beyond 70 per cent within three years. That would make eight out of a starting XI.
Gillian and Niall Quinn will celebrate 30 years of marriage next year but openly admit that they were almost added to those grim statistics after he left Sunderland in 2002.
And, as Gillian then also noticed that marriages were toppling like dominoes among other recently retired players, a seed was planted in her head. She took an Open University degree in psychology and, under the supervision of Dublin City University, is now researching the first PhD across any sport into the correlation between retirement and marital breakdowns.
"Niall would come home and be saying, 'I met such-and-such player'. I'd go, 'how is his wife?' and he'd say, 'They've broken up'. It was a really common theme. I thought, 'What's going on here?' I thought back to the issues Niall and I had.
"We both feel so lucky that somehow we managed to dodge that bullet but so many of our friends didn't. I wanted to find out the reasons and try to help others."
For Maggie Devine-Inman and Helen Drury, the founders of the LifeStyled Club for the wives and partners of professional players, this sort of work represents "everything we are". Their community now has 600 members, including Gillian, and the importance of planning for life after football is constantly emphasised.
"We feel we can help with the horrible statistics," said Helen. "The majority of footballers will have to work when they finish playing. The ones who can afford not to work will still need a purpose. It's crucial to think about life after football while you are playing and while you are in a good mindset. There are things that can affect families catastrophically and we don't believe that there are enough messages out there."
To this end, they have agreed to a formal partnership with the Professional Footballers' Association. "Helen and Maggie have created a unique support network," said chief executive Maheta Molango . "Many of the challenges in professional football, such as short-term contracts, career-ending injuries, retirement and mental health pressures, don't just affect those on the pitch. These factors also impact families and loved ones."
Gillian has already begun interviewing couples and, although she does not want to prejudge her findings ahead of completing a 120,000 word dissertation, common trends are emerging that chime with her own experience.
She was working as a model in Ireland when she met Quinn shortly after the 1990 World Cup. Having initially joined an agency in Manchester, maintaining her career became increasingly difficult once they moved to Sunderland ahead of what was an abrupt end to his playing days.
"None of us had any idea that it would present major issues for us," she says. "I didn't know he was struggling – that he was missing his team-mates, that camaraderie, the training, the routine. The players are basically institutionalised.
"It's a really common theme that players and wives didn't talk about expectations. I think it stems from the stoicism among players of not saying if they are having any issues."
Quinn reached the point whereby he struggled even to get out of bed but he was ultimately able to rediscover his purpose when he returned to Sunderland as chairman in 2006.
"The number of players who can retire at 35 or 36 and never have to work again are minimal," says Gillian. "They have to get a job – it's important from a financial and psychological perspective. And join a gym – you have been exercising all your life and your brain needs those neurochemicals."
Former players, however, can become embarrassed in social situations if they have not quickly moved on to something else impressive. Never mind that they have often just given the rest of the working world a 20-year head start. Gillian hopes there can be a greater level of all-round kindness, awareness and acceptance. "You are never going to find something that replaces the buzz of playing," she says. "People need to look back and say, 'wasn't that amazing'. But you have to start preparing as early as possible."
There is research that actually demonstrates a correlation between enhanced confidence and performance among those players who have already actively started planning for a life after football.
"The problem tends to creep in a year before they retire – the player starts to get anxious and nervous, he knows what is happening and is trying to cling on – it's like a slow death," she says.
"One of the biggest issues is identity. 'What am I if I'm not a footballer?' They can start to feel useless and invisible."
Simply raising awareness, says Gillian, is also critical. "When you tell the players about the statistics, they are, 'What?' They haven't got a clue and you think, 'Why aren't they hearing this?' There can be a huge amount of regret and it is tragic. But look around your dressing room. Which of you will be divorced within three years? What are you going to do to not be one of those eight? Divorce is not preventable in every case but you hope to give them a better chance and a nudge in the right direction."
It is also why Helen and Maggie created their platform in 2015 and which, judging both by the growth of the community and feedback since, is already positively changing lives.
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