Unexpectedly one day James Aspinall, a teenage goalkeeper at Bolton Wanderers, got the call every young footballer dreams of; an invite to join an England training camp. Less than two years later though he was forced to resort to social media, to tout for work after being released by Wigan Athletic. It was not how he had envisaged his career would go but James was desperate, getting no help once he was cut loose from the professional game.
That led to him having suicidal thoughts: “It was really a thought of do I want to be here? Do I want to carry on? What have I got left? If I can’t do football, what am I good at?”
James says the desperation came from what turned out to be unrealistic expectations. “It’s all I’ve ever focused on, since being a small child, it was like everybody’s dream growing up, you want to be a footballer, you will be a footballer, then as soon as you get a sniff of it, you’re in the window.
"It’s the feeling of rejection, you get cast to one side and you just feel, I can’t explain it, it’s like not a will to live.”
He believes football in general and clubs in particular should take greater responsibility. ”There’s a lot clubs can do maybe to put in a follow-up programme, because I was told, ‘we’ll keep in contact with you, we’ll see how you’re doing, there is a support network around you, we’re here for you’.
"But I didn’t really receive any of that. They just kind of assumed, you know what, it’s James, it’s fine, he’s lively, he’s a presence on the training ground.”
James is far from alone in plummeting into a dark place after being released from his dream job.
ITV News has carried out an exclusive survey with a large number of footballers axed from the top 92 league clubs last season. The results should serve as a warning to those that run the professional game.
It reveals that nearly three quarters of more than 100 who replied said they were not given enough support by the clubs that let them go.
Almost 90% of players said they had experienced depression or anxiety since being released and more than half said they would not recommend their former club to other players.
felt they were not given enough support by the club that released them
players who felt anxious or depressed since being released
In response to our survey, one former academy player said: “People should be treated like people, not like assets to a business.”
Another told us: “It’s scary when football is your whole life and then it’s taken away from you.”
And one suggested a potential solution to what is clearly a worrying issue: “The whole system should be changed to give players more options away from football after being released.”
Former England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, who has campaigned to highlight the lack of support for footballers when it comes to mental health issues, called the findings “upsetting and disturbing.”
He told ITV News: “Every club has got a duty of care to help players after they’ve played for the club, whether that’s for a year they’ve played for them or ten years, so there’s a lot more that can be done but it’s got to start from the clubs for me. Individual clubs have got to look after their own.”
Kirkland says the process must start when the player is at the club. “We can always, always do more, we’ve got to listen to players, listen to former players that’ve been through the situation.
"What helped them? What didn’t help them? But it’s the aftercare that we need and also the education during when they’re playing at a club, weekly or every couple of weeks, mental health sessions counsellors come in to talk to them or places on the outside for players to go and talk to because it’s a build-up process because we know that a lot of players won’t make the step up.”
Responding to James’ particular experience, Wigan Athletic said the club places “significant emphasis on preparing our players – especially those under the age of 23 – for the challenges a career in football may present and also for life after football, whether that be after a lengthy career in the game or if a player’s career doesn’t progress beyond a certain stage.”
They also said they keep in contact with former players of all ages who have been released and will certainly be “reaching out” to James again “to offer further support.”
While the English Football League (EFL) did not want to respond to our findings they did point out “there are substantial provisions in place and a substantial amount of work undertaken to try to prepare players for the time when they exit the elite football environment.”
The Premier League highlighted the work it was doing on the issue: "We have a really robust database of players three-to-five years post scholarship and are working with clubs and the PFA to track those who are now slightly older and seeing where they are.”
They added that a new initiative of an “Academy Alumni” is being set up at each club which they hope will be a more effective way to track players and offer support.
The Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) accepted more could be done. A spokesman said the organisation has all the tools at its disposal to help former players and continually urges all clubs to send them details of released players, but admitted some clubs are better than others at doing that.
Perhaps suggesting there are many players out there, like James Aspinall, who are slipping through the safety net.
If you or someone you know if struggling with your mental health, you can get help here:
Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year, by calling 116 123. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at email@example.com
Rethink Mental Illness offer practical advice and information for anyone affected by mental health problems on a wide range of topics including treatment, support and care. Phone 0300 5000 927 (Mon-Fri 9.30am-4pm) or visit rethink.org