Henry Winter -The Times Chief Football Writer – writes about Reposm
– The Game has a duty to help old heroes in times of trouble
It is one of the unmentioned scandals of modern football, a blemish on the game, heartbreaking for all who care about those who have given everything, who still serve so selflessly. It is the sight of former players, coaches and managers now working as scouts, heading into a ground, progress slowed by some old ligaments, others by the new onset of arthritis. They still hurry in. Some are lonely, on the breadline, even needing a roof over their heads. But they go.
It’s mad. Football is awash with wealth at the top and parched down the pyramid.
Many of those scouts, simply desperate to stay in the game, will receive expenses at best for their appraisal of promising players, maybe a voucher for a half-time beaker of tea, but they still go, drawn inexorably to the match.
Floodlights are a beacon, a siren for the soul. It’s what they know. It’s what they love.
They crave the sound of the crowd that formed the backing tune to their working lives, relishing the camaraderie of peers. The more sharp-witted fear the end game, life’s final whistle. This is why football should remember its riches and responsibilities and should act, protecting its older brethren.
Football is infatuated by the invincibles when it should never forget the vulnerables. I wish them well but it’s hard not to worry, especially with the less feted ones, lacking the celebrity, the C.V., the recognition, the club history, the backstory, the remuneration. All football men and women need looking after. An august generation is at risk.
Some cannot get to matches. They suffer the onset of dementia. Memories blur. Some are bereaved, struggling to live without the childhood sweetheart they met at school or a club dance, whom they wooed and wedded sharing the exhausting but joyous arc of parenting. Then the unspoken pain as offspring move on leaving them with an empty house, even emptier when the beloved partner moves on. Who looks after them then? Family? Football?
That is why the heart gets lifted at football’s plan to join forces with cricket and many other sports to build a rest home in Wimborne Minster, Dorset for former managers, coaches, players and scouts who have fallen on hard times.
Mike Soper, the former President of Surrey CCC, Sir John Major, the longstanding Chelsea fan and former Prime Minister, and David Pleat of the League Managers Association are involved in the plan through the Reposm Sporting Housing Trust to raise UKP2 million by 2021 for a block of flats. Sir Alec Ferguson and Muricio Pochettino have pledged their support. Longer term they want three properties.
Reposm provides”sheltered accommodation for professional sportspeople facing a bleak retirement”. It could be the erstwhile well-known cricketer, drained emotionally and financially by divorce, resorting to sleeping on a friend’s sofa. Or the footballing scout, a noted former player, left bereft without his wife, spiralling downwards, short of money and support. It will not be cheap, whether buying the property, funding the upkeep, medical attention and insurance. But football, sport, has a duty.
Some are already in homes. Take the much loved Jim Smith. He would not be eligible for the means-tested Reposm but his story is poignant. Those who have visited the 78 year old at an old people’s home in Oxford know he is well looked after by a loving family, by specialists in dementia, by good men like Steve McClaren and Pleat calling by. I’ll never forget interviewing him in 2001 in his office before he boarded Derby County’s early bus to Manchester United. Smith’s handyman had just been in to have a word, confiding that his wife had just had cancer diagnosed. Jim was all heart, offering compassion and time off. “And there was I thinking about 3 points,”Jim told me. “Things like that put football into perspective”.
And now football has to keep its ego in check, and remember its duty to Smith and his generation. Smith has the funds and family to look after him. Too many of his generation don’t. Those who worked down the leagues retired with little. Those planning this Wimborne accommodation mention that even the well-tended Smith inhabits a home with really only one fellow resident who can talk to him about football. They need conversation as well as medical attention. They need the game to remember them.
Football must never become no country for old men.