At the age of 12 Kerrea Gilbert was scouted by his boyhood club Arsenal after impressing whilst playing for his local team in his home borough of Brent.
Like those amongst him at the north-London club, Gilbert proceeded to dedicate the next six years of his life to becoming a professional footballer before being one of the lucky few that earned a two-year contract at the age of 16.
“At the age I got my deal it was only a few of us, so I thought in terms of security there’s not really much to worry about for a few years. At that age you don’t really think about anything else but being a footballer, you’re too young and only see what’s in front of you.”
Two years later with Arsenal suffering numerous injuries to their defence Gilbert made his first-team debut aged 18 against Reading in the League Cup, followed by a Champions League appearance against Ajax. Arsenal’s injury problems continued and allowed the young defender to feature in a six-match run which included a notable performance against Cardiff City in the FA Cup, as well as contributing an assist to a Thierry Henry goal in the League Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic.
Yet after his initial impressive run, Gilbert fell injured and was subsequently loaned out that summer to Championship club Cardiff City. Over the course of the next four years he was loaned out to a series of clubs with mixed success due to ongoing injuries, before in 2008 being released by Arsenal at the age of 23.
Since leaving the Gunners, Gilbert has had extremely short spells with the likes of Yeovil Town, Shamrock Rovers and Maidenhead United.
The nature of his career is a common occurrence within the volatile profession, and while his achievements may not match up to the superstardom of those we affiliate with the game, it’s a success in its own right to reach the title of a professional footballer. Three years later, at the age of 26, Gilbert is building a future career path aside from football, despite emphasising that he will continue to chase after his dream as long as the opportunity is there.
The fallout of some footballers after the twilight of their careers has been much publicised, with stories of alcoholism, depression and debt some of the common demons that they are unable to shake. One only has to take a glance in the direction of Paul Gascoigne or perhaps most recently former Manchester City midfielder Michael Johnson to see the damage that can be done. Whilst it is often perceived that the common retired footballer has amassed a fortune, some have either not invested their money wisely or for the most part played at a level in which they have earned enough to simply live.
Although these players have been lucky enough to experience their dreams, they’re left in an equal predicament as young players who have had their careers drastically cut-short before they have even properly took off. With thousands of hopefuls dedicating a large part of their childhoods in search of making it as a professional footballer, those who don’t are often left short of vital qualifications, direction and self-belief.
Gilbert is now in the process of building an alternative career path outside of the game by gaining the necessary qualifications to become a personal trainer at Focus Fitness UK. Formed in 2011 by ex-professional football Gavin Heeroo and current Bolton Wanderers manager Dougie Freedman, the company looks to recruit ex-players and provide them with the necessary skills to run fitness sessions for city traders in central London.
Both Heeroo and Freedman are fully aware of the common pitfalls that are present to hopeful young players fiercely competing to ply their trade in the game and are determined to provide them with an alternate outlet.
“It’s important that these guys know that there is an exit route,” explains Heeroo. “Yes they haven’t made it as a pro but they do have skills, and they shouldn’t think they are on the scrap heap at 18-years-old. It might not be necessarily be the clubs fault but that’s just the way the business is.”
Every year football managers are faced with the task of selecting the very few successful candidates from their academies and burdened with shattering the dreams of many who have dedicated much of their childhoods chasing their dreams.
“At Bolton Wanderers Dougie [Freedman] has to select two or three 18-year-olds each year from a group of maybe 20 to 30 lads. That’s the harsh reality. We know that when some of these kids are released they are going to have to go back to some of the rougher and tougher boroughs of London and what happens after that? They try to maintain that kudos of being a footballer by any means, and that can end up being outside of the law.”
Adapting to life outside the game after enjoying such early success is something that Focus Fitness Manager Maria Sahbani believes is the toughest problem.
“I’ve met ex-players who at 21 have been out of the game for two years, and when I’ve asked what they’ve been doing with themselves they’ve just replied playing computer games.
“Underneath, the real issue is that having tasted brief success they’re too embarrassed and lacking in self-confidence to go out and find another job. In some cases this embarrassment can lead to depression, illness and even suicide.”
For many of the prospective students at Focus Fitness UK, having channelled the majority of their focus and determination into football, their educations naturally became an afterthought, and the course is purposely structured to support this through offering six-week long intense training.
“I don’t think some guys have the patience to sit in a classroom and learn for two years, and that’s through no fault of their own,” says Heeroo. “We try to find a solution to counter that and offer a scheme that is short but sharp and they come out the other side as a qualified personal trainer of a good calibre. We’ve had excellent feedback from clients who have told us our trainers do fantastically well.”
Whilst there is a perceived stigma attached to footballers earning absurdly high wages, for those who are playing at a semi-professional level in the lower leagues, the inability to financially support themselves due to low wages is a common occurrence.
“I think some of the boys want to have that title and kudos of being a footballer,” explains Maria Sahbani. “They will often take smaller salaries and wages to maintain that. The hours that they work prohibit them from working other jobs, and I believe therein lies the difficulty; they may be getting paid for the time they’re on the pitch and training, but the odds and sods that you have left don’t allow time for another job. “
The flexible nature of becoming a personal trainer not only gives these players an alternative income stream, but it allows them to keep chasing their goals of one day playing professionally, as well as providing them with another option when their playing days come to a close.
“I don’t think we will ever try and kill anyone’s dreams, stresses Heeroo, “We understand that it’s your passion, but we try and instil an understanding that you need something to fall back on. If you’re 21 we understand how important it is to have that dream of playing in front of big crowds and make it. What we would say to you is keep playing, and most importantly enjoy it, but eventually there will come a point where you need to look to the future because very few people in the industry can retire on their wages.”
“I will always have football,” emphasises Gilbert, taking a break on the third day of his course. “I think you have to have that belief that if you get stuck you have to try again. You have to have a belief to succeed in football, but I came to the point in my career where I had to start thinking about something different, I need qualifications for the future and that’s something which I didn’t consider when I was younger.”
By Greg Wickert
*Images courtesy of the author