Do families have to sacrifice too much for football?
Written by Simon Austin — February 3, 2022
TOWARDS the end of the outstanding documentary, ‘Bobby Robson, More Than A Manager’, there are clips from a selection of his home videos.
We see footage of Robson’s three young sons playing football in the garden, going into school hand in hand and sitting with their mum, Elsie, during a holiday. What stands out most of all, however, is the absence of Robson himself, which was a source of some sadness for the legendary manager in his later years.
“Are there any times when I don’t like Bobby Robson?” he asks in one interview. “I spent maybe too much time at the club when I should have been home a bit earlier.
“I feel I have been removed from my family and I didn’t give my family the time that most husbands do.”
In the film, Robson's son Mark admits: “Dad was immersed in it. We didn’t see him much, if at all. He didn’t want to be separated but he was. That was a shame. Lots of people say to me, ‘What was it like to talk to your Dad about certain players or matches?’ And I say, ‘I never did. Literally never did.’”
This is an interesting and poignant section, because we don’t usually get to hear about the impact that high-profile and demanding jobs can have on family life.
SACRIFICE, SUCCESS (AND SELFISHNESS?)
In an interview with The Sunday Times last November, Sir Ian Botham - perhaps the greatest English cricketer of them all - admitted there can be a fine line between success and selfishness for top sportspeople.
“If Kath (his wife) was sat here now, she’d say, ‘Pretty average father, never there, always away and when he did see the kids all he did was spoil them and make it harder for me.’
“If you want to be the best in anything, you have to make sacrifices and that means the word selfishness comes into it.”
In an interview with the same newspaper a month earlier, Olympic gold medallist Adam Peaty had acknowledged the same thing.
“If you want to be the best, you have to put yourself first,” he said. “You need to put yourself in a position where you can dominate every single day and that is of course selfish.”
The candour and honesty of both men was to be admired, as this isn't a subject that's often discussed or acknowledged. And the issue of personal-professional balance applies not only to top sportspeople, but to coaches, managers and practitioners as well.
In a revealing piece with The Coaches Voice in January 2020, Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers opened up about the sacrifices he and his family had made at the start of his coaching career.
“Later on, when I finished playing, I realised that to get into full-time coaching, to get where I wanted to be, I needed to have my qualifications,” the Northern Irishman explained.
“Early on I had to have a regular job. I worked for the John Lewis Partnership out in Bracknell, for a period of nearly four years, in the warehouse and office space.
“At times in the week I was doing six in the morning to six at night. I would be going out after that to do my coaching and doing various courses to be the best I could be at coaching.”
'THE SACRIFICE OF THE FAMILY IS FAR TOO GREAT’
Last year an interesting piece of research was published about the work patterns and profiles of coaches in Academy football. It had been led by Steve Guinan, Senior Coach Developer at the Football Association, and surveyed 43 Academy Heads of Coaching and 87 coaches (from all phases).
One of the revelations was that almost a third (32.6%) of respondents worked more than 51 hours per week. More than a third (34.7%) earned £20k to £25k per year and 14.3% earned less than £15k. Perhaps it was little wonder that 57.5% of the respondents were single and 47.7% didn’t have children.
For the coaches and practitioners who work at senior level, the scrutiny and stresses can be even greater.
When Chris Rush stepped down as Blackburn Rovers’ Head of Performance in January 2021, he wrote on LinkedIn (with admirable openness and honesty): "My decision is purely based on wanting to prioritise family life over my professional life. The life of a support staff member in football requires 60+ hour work weeks, 11 months a year, weekends away from the family, and missed life events.
“These are the sacrifices necessary when pursuing high performance. I have lived this life happily for 15 years and have been rewarded with some fantastic experiences and memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. However, I feel that now the sacrifice of the family is far too great.”
Speaking on The Lowdown Podcast a few months later, after he’d left football, Rush said: “I’m not going to miss any family events any more. I am going to the lad’s cricket training session. If Blackburn were away I am pretty sure I’d have missed that.”
He has since returned to the game with Manchester United Women, where the working hours will allow him more time with his family than his job at Blackburn did.
Often coaches and practitioners working at senior level live apart from their families, because they realise that their jobs are precarious and could be short-lived. The average tenure of a manager in pro football in England is 14 months and often their staff will go with them when they're axed.
'BEING PRESENT FOR MY KIDS’
Life’s a balance and 'success' has many facets. Finding a balance between the personal and professional can be difficult though - especially the higher up the foodchain you go.
Russell Martin, now manager of Swansea, told the TGG Podcast that being 'present' for his family was still a priority despite his demanding job.
“When I was going through my coaching badges and talking to people I thought, 'It can’t be too hard to get a balance.’ But it is,” he said.
“Being a manager is so full on, so intense. It’s not only the players, it’s everything around it - talking to the people above you on the Board, the directors, the chairman, your staff, your colleagues.
"If you want to be successful it takes a lot of hard work, but I never want to be that guy who doesn’t have any balance or isn’t present with their kids.
“It’s something I’ve worked really hard on over the last few months especially. Sunday is our one real full day off during the week, so I’ve started leaving my phone in a drawer when we’re going out to kids’ football or to the beach and dealing with it later on when the kids are in bed.
“Before you know it they’re going to be grown up and I don’t want to look back on it with any regrets. I genuinely believe that when we get to the end the most important thing we’ll look back on are connections and relationships.
“To sacrifice that would be pretty short term and sad. I’m all in with the football, but when it’s time to switch off it’s time to switch off.”
Two years ago Brighton set up a psychology and wellbeing department - because they believe the two factors are inextricably linked. Sarah Murray, Senior Performance Psychologist with Brighton Women’s team, told TGG: “It is about creating an environment where people feel safe and we learn who they are behind the badge they wear. How much do we know about them, their life and their story?”
Hopefully this approach becomes more commonplace and there's recognition that people, even top players and managers, are three-dimensional and that their success depends on many factors, not only what they achieve on the pitch.