MOST professional footballers are not nearly as rich as we think, a national study has found.
The popular image of the millionaire football superstar, such as Eric Cantona, hides the reality for many well-known players of earning little more than the average worker.
Many become "prisoners" of the game, unable to find a decent job elsewhere. Family life can be disrupted, with some footballers' wives feeling that club managers isolate them from their husbands.
Research by Craig Gurney, at Cardiff University's centre for housing management and development, shows that most of the 3,800 professional footballers in Britain earn about the average national professional wage. Only a few command salaries of six figures or more.
The problem is that relatively modestly paid footballers are in a highly mobile job, requiring frequent transfer between clubs. This happens throughout footballers' playing careers which may, on average, last only eight years.
The phenomenon has led to smaller clubs finding it difficult to recruit players from further afield, particularly if clubs in high-cost housing areas, such as London, want to buy a player from a low-cost region such as parts of northern England.
Dr Gurney said: "There is an assumption that players belong to a super-rich elite group, but this is not the case for the majority. In fact my research has revealed that quite well-known players often have real problems when it comes to managing the financial aspect of their personal lives.
"It is in the interests of footballers' employers to address these issues, but the fundamental problem is housing. More research is needed to assess the possibilities of clubs, especially in the lower divisions, acting as either individual or collective housing brokers."
Dr Gurney, who has written a paper called Footballers Coming Home: A Case Study of Housing Histories, Labour Market Histories and Propinquital Relationships of Male Professional Footballers, said that the average wage for a first division player is around Pounds 50,000. This falls to Pounds 26,000 for second division players and Pounds 21,000 for those in division three teams. Few figures are available for Premier League players, but sums of Pounds 50,000 a week have been bandied about by newspapers.
His research, which included interviews with several professional players, also exposed other socioeconomic problems associated with football. The short career span of professionals is responsible for a major difficulty.
One player told Dr Gurney: "At 28 your career could be finished. Your earning potential is nil, unless you've managed your career properly and provided yourself with an education or skill."
A Swindon Town supporter, Dr Gurney is interested in conducting further research into the apparent institutionalisation and infantilisation of professional footballers. He draws certain parallels between the game and the military, and even the prison system.
Young people often join professional football clubs immediately after leaving school. From then until they retire, players' lives are shaped by the game, with managers playing a dominant role. Managers, who are usually men, operate as beneficient patriarchs, but such exclusively male societies can cause friction.
One player's wife told Dr Gurney: "You're expected not to have a career or a life of your own. The manager isolates you, takes the players away to hotels at weekends and on holidays and the wives are never included."
The Professional Footballers' Association provides important support for footballers, but it may also infantilise players. The PFA provides a benevolent fund, accident insurance fund, further education and vocational training society and a cash benefit scheme.
Dr Gurney said that while the support provided by the PFA was crucial in helping players adjust to life after football, many wanted counselling and advice rather than retraining courses.
* see research papers