What is player care in football, and why does it matter?
Player care touches every element of football — the boardroom, dressing room, treatment room, pitch, transfers, travel, nights out, nights in, and the hopes, dreams and despair of all those involved.
Specialists have to spin multiple plates. Those caring for the wellbeing of players are often one person armies with little back-up.
Dealing with crises and picking up the pieces is an integral part of the job, but player care professionals at football clubs tend to find themselves asked to deal with everything from frivolous day-to-day requests to compromising situations and potentially life-changing moments.
A player once asked their player care professional to signal from the bench during a game if his wife went into labour. The proposal — which was not entertained — would have seen the player feign injury to come off and go to the birth.
Two more consultants discuss spotting the signs of a potential suicide and intervening; in doing so, they changed the course of players’ lives.
This is arguably the most important behind-the-scenes role at a club, but is rarely acknowledged publicly. So The Athletic spoke to those at the coalface to throw light on what the implementation of player care actually entails.
Player care professionals generally have responsibility for many of the non-sporting and non-medical aspects of a player’s time at a club.
All Premier League and English Football League (EFL) academies must have at least one player care professional. At first-team level it is not mandatory but is still commonplace, with some clubs having established specific player care departments. Yet, despite the range of responsibilities the job entails, staffing remains modest.
Last season, 10 Premier League clubs — half the division — had just one person in charge of player care.
“It’s a lot of reliance on a single person and the fact that clubs are growing and still have single points of failure on something so important shows that the industry is not yet mature enough,” says Hugo Scheckter, a leading player care consultant and advisor to clubs in the UK and Europe. “It’s a massive risk to those clubs and the individuals involved.
“Modern player care is different to the old fashioned player liaison role of 20 years ago, and allows me to say ‘No’. But my big phrase is always ‘No… but’. Which is a, ‘No I can’t do that for you, but here’s a solution that we’re happy to help you with’. I’m not simply a yes man.”
Ever wondered what we mean by the term ‘Player Care’? At the @PlayerCareGroup we’ve put together a handy explainer video. https://t.co/XLA40pAdts
— Hugo Scheckter (@HugoScheckter) May 2, 2022
Scheckter — who held player care roles at Southampton and West Ham United, and is now football consultant at Brentford — divides player care into three targeted areas: operational player care, personal developmental care and welfare.
Within that he has identified 18 elements which, if addressed, constitute effective player care: from offering assistance and guidance around transfers to providing support on everything from timekeeping to public appearances, safeguarding to mental health, onboarding to match logistics. The player care professional is effectively there to provide the players, and their immediate families, with the best possible environment in which to work.
Over the years, the more mundane aspects of the job have inevitably been punctuated with plenty of “wacky” requests from players. “You have to judge whether they are being divas or precious,” he says. “But, at the same time, you are always aiming to understand where they’re coming from.” However difficult that can be.
“A Dutch player asked me one Christmas if I could get a Zwarte Piet (a person wearing blackface who gives out sweets to well-behaved children). This was a headline waiting to happen if we paid someone to wear blackface. I told him this wasn’t going to happen and reasons why.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to legislate for what happens. While at West Ham, Scheckter had to deal with the aftermath of Michail Antonio crashing his Lamborghini into a house on Christmas Day while dressed as a snowman. Thankfully, no one was injured in the incident.
“I see player care — especially in a crisis situation — as like being a quarterback,” he says. “You see the problem in front of you, look at all the options and you pick the best one, give it a throw and hope the catch is made. It’s important to be a calm presence and you rely on having a really good network of experts that you trust.”
Learning from mistakes that occur and educating others is key. Scheckter left West Ham after Kurt Zouma made the headlines for kicking his cat, and started working for Brentford after Ivan Toney had been charged by the Football Association for breaching betting rules.
“When the Zouma video came out, people said (what Zouma did) should have been prevented,” says Scheckter. “But I know for a fact that, prior to that, if I’d demanded time from a manager to talk to the team about animal protection, it’s likely it wouldn’t have been entertained. Now I imagine people would do that, and also do work about being aware of who is filming you and where they are putting it.”
Zouma was ordered to carry out 180 hours of community service and banned from keeping cats for five years (Photo: Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images)
Scheckter says 80 per cent of first-team player care is support and 20 per cent is education. In academies that ratio is flipped when formal education still features. In first-team environments he regularly holds casual discussions about a variety of topics.
“There was a secret gay footballer account on social media and it turned out to be a good way to discuss sexuality,” says Scheckter. “I’m openly gay so can talk about my experience, ask and answer questions. What do you think? Have you ever played with a gay player, either closeted or not? How would you react? We have really good conversations that are informal.”
The educational aspect of the role sees player care professionals tackling a range of challenging issues.
They look at drug, alcohol and other addictions, and deliver equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training. High-profile cases involving footballers being involved in sexual assault, grooming and domestic violence cases have seen consent training introduced at clubs.
“When you’re brought up in football, it’s a toxic, misogynistic, male environment, where women are not always considered as valuable as men,” says Sue Parris, a former head of player care, education and welfare at Brighton. “You have a responsibility to treat everyone with respect, so you have to look at what consensual sex is and, if someone has had too much to drink, then informed consent is not possible.
“It’s important to discuss topics without them being embarrassed, giggly or belligerent. You can address all those cliched phrases, like, ‘Well she shouldn’t wear clothes like that’.”
Parris is an independent advisor and believes “old school” attitudes are still prevalent in the game. “A coach recently said to one of my clients, in front of all his team-mates, ‘What’s up? Do you want me to go to the corner shop and get some Tampax?’. I was shocked, and that was in front of a 17-year-old. I’m still sceptical about how far we’ve come.
“What emerged recently around Dele Alli is a sad indictment of where we are in relation to understanding emotional welfare in football. We could have lost Dele from the sport. He was not given any compassion, understanding or empathy when he was staring back at the trauma he had buried from his childhood. Instead pundits, commentators, journalists and fans abused him too at the point when his trauma resurfaced.
“Yes, no one necessarily knew any detail about what he was dealing with, but very few were willing to look beyond the behaviour they saw and offer to hear or see him instead of his performance. In light of what is now known his performances have been extraordinary.”
Forget what Dele might have become – his achievements are remarkable given everything he went through
“Why would you not be hurt by this? No empathy, no compassion, no checking in… not even any apparent concern for mitigating the risk of what that person might do or say.
“We were alerted to a planned suicide by a team-mate who spotted the signs via our training. It led to us making an intervention which changed the course of that player’s life.”
Dr Michele Di Mascio, who spent just under seven years at Sunderland with a little over three as the club’s head of player care, echoes those sentiments. “I’ve experienced suicide ideation and to help put those individuals on the road to recovery and succeed in other areas is the biggest achievement of my life,” he says. “There are a lot of important things that happen in player care.”
Di Mascio spent seven years at Sunderland (Photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)
The 2021 Sheldon Report into non-recent child sexual abuse in football followed a series of paedophile cases in football, bringing modern-day safeguarding protocols into sharper focus.
“We aim to make the environment (at clubs) as safe and inclusive as possible,” says Dan Harris, who has held coaching and development roles at Celtic, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City and Coventry City. “We are duty bound to learn from some of the horrible things that have happened. We need to work tirelessly to make sure it doesn’t happen and provide a safe environment where people have the confidence to speak up.”
This is where signposting comes in.
“It’s very important that people in player care roles — unless they’ve got qualifications in counselling or psychology — are not diagnosing and going above their station,” says Scheckter. “We don’t try and diagnose, saying that person’s depressed or that person has got bulimia because he has lost weight. It might just be that his microwave is broken or he can’t cook.
“I look for changes in behaviour. Is someone quieter, louder, more nervous than usual? I would then either speak to them or someone close to them to see if they’ve noticed the same thing. At Brentford we may then refer to Michael Caulfield (our psychologist) or an external person, depending what it is.”
Relationship building — especially with parents or guardians of youngsters — is of paramount importance even when everything appears normal. “Brentford are really positive in the way that Thomas Frank (manager) and Phil Giles (director of football) and all the senior leadership really care about the person,” says Scheckter. “We have regular meetings talking about players as people.”
Frank, right, with the Brentford owner Matthew Benham (Photo: Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)
Di Maschio encourages help for youngsters thrust into first-team action at an early age. “We look at Jude Bellingham and it has worked (he made his senior debut at 16). But how many others (will do the same) and fall away age 19, 20 or 21? If there’s quicker than normal progression you try to make sure they’re equipped with the tools to deal with pressure and build the relationship so they can talk if there are issues.”
Premier League and EFL clubs are advised to offer support to players released from academies for three seasons.
“It’s the person before the player,” says Lloyd Griffin, head of academy player care at League Two side Newport County. “Optimising them as human beings is really important to help them contribute positively to society with skills like confidence and communication.
“Our programme looks at the potential risks people are exposed to — drink, drugs, violence and knife crime. They’re all elements that you have to factor in off the field. So I’ve a huge awareness of welfare. I try to read body language and see if there are inconsistencies, checking in with them to create an environment where they feel they can open up and be comfortable.”
There are practical aspects to the player care offered by clubs.
Before Scheckter started at Brentford in December 2022, it took two to three months on average for a player signed by the club to secure a new house. When Kevin Schade signed from Freiburg in January, that process had been cut to 21 days.
“It’s not only about saving money on hotels — it means the player is able to hit the ground running,” says Scheckter. “The positive feedback from agents, families and players is because there’s buy-in and resourcing from the very top of the club.”
Which is not always the case. Clubs may need convincing of the importance of funding a player care department beyond just one person. “
Scheckter cites an example of a £10million ($12.7m) player leaving a club after 12 months for a 40 to 50 per cent discount after failing to settle. He says a player care department of three people could be funded for approximately 30 seasons at the cost of that £5-6million hit.
Conventional businesses often invest three per cent of their total spending on asset maintenance and upkeep. Applied to the Premier League — whose clubs spent £1.9billion ($2.4billion) on players in 2022 — that would mean £57million being spent on player care.
Some teams have developed player care departments, but with the average salary of a Premier League head of player care around £75,000, clubs could employ three people at that level and it would still only cost £4.5million across all 20 clubs. As it is, salaries for some player care officials are closer to £30,000.
“I don’t see finances being a block at the moment,” says Harris. “You can trace a timeline.
“Initially there’s a sense of denial, then realisation that early adopters are gaining a competitive advantage, or that it is the right thing to do. Then a wave builds as clubs realise they need to do something or will get left behind.”
Scheckter set up The Player Care Group, which has trained 250 people and now have 70 working in football, while carrying out audits on club’s provisions. Being responsible for players and accountable to the club presents challenges.
“That club versus player balance is so important because, if you’re too far on the club side, you’re seen as a spy. If you’re too far on the player side, you’re seen as a doormat,” says Scheckter. “You need to be approachable but not overawed by the players. And to remember it’s not always just them who needs care.
Scheckter speaking at a Player Care Group event (Photo: The Player Care Group)
“Very early in my career, I went to player’s house and his wife was furious that we’d not helped her enough. So we very quickly introduced her to a local network. It was a reminder that things like this might destabilise the player and he might end up leaving after one season for a quarter of what he signed for.
“We need to make sure that, when anybody signs, their most important person — partner, mum, dad, mate, brother or even dog — is cared for too.”
If you would like to talk to someone having read this article, you can call the Samaritans in the UK free any time, from any phone, on 116 123. Click here to contact them from the US. Young Minds also provides support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis: Text YM to 85258.
(Top photo: iStock. Designed by Sam Richardson)