From the Forest to the City...
UEFA B License Coach, Diversity/Equality Mentor
Resourcing Advisor at Deloitte LLP
Previous Club's include: Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Stirling University FC
As a youngster, I was fortunate enough to begin the dream of becoming a professional footballer. Initially starting out at Notts County, I moved across the River Trent to Nottingham Forest, where my subsequent time within professional sport would be spent, before moving across the northern border into the Scottish footballing pyramid.
Hundreds of boys each year leave full time education to pursue a career in professional football with clubs across the country. And this is where the ‘football bubble’ really began for me. I was training and playing full time, while my mates where at college, off travelling or doing their A-levels. I became a regular in the youth and reserve team, and my career was really kicking on, and really starting to feel the life of a professional athlete.I was competing on a daily basis with team mates, and against top players across the country. I was also dealing with high pressure and scrutiny every day, from peers, fans, coaching staff and most significantly myself. But I loved it. All this pressure and challenge is what I thrived in. I felt like I was finally living my dream.
It All Started to Change…
I was always pretty lucky with injury growing up, apart from the odd muscle strain, my development never stood still, being fit and evolving physically at a good pace. But a cold October Saturday afternoon against Leeds United, everything I knew changed. The bubble of football life as I knew it was to take a drastic change of course. That afternoon I was the victim of a late, high, mis-timed challenge that sent me to the operating room with a double leg fracture (thankfully the shock took over and I couldn't feel the pain!). But all of a sudden everything changed, and this would turn out to be the start of the end of my time within professional sport.
I was so determined to get back to the heights I was building towards, I was in the gym every day, twice a day and had a great physio team helping me get back to fitness. But suddenly from playing and training every day, to rehabilitation, I had lots of spare time on my hands which I didn’t know what to do with. With guidance from family, friends and the club, I took up some extra time to complete a BTEC National Diploma. I almost did this to ‘keep people happy,’ in my head I would just go back to what I knew as normality, back to training and playing.
Unfortunately, as hard as I tried, things were going against me. Players who were behind me in their development soon started to flourish in my absence. Management was constantly changing, which left me being surplus to requirements whilst on the injury table, and most prominent of all, physically despite going through a full rehabilitation programme, I never felt the same. I had lost my sharpness, lost some of the pace I had, and I was constantly playing through pain. I knew deep within that I wasn't right. I often tried to cover over the pain, and pretend to coaches and physio's that I was fine, and i would take painkillers daily just so I could train. But in truth, I often went home after a match, or a double training session in tears, and hardly being able to walk. I knew, putting these together when competing in professional football, and it is always going to be an uphill battle.
Going from one of the brightest young talents at the club, to being surplus to requirements in the space of 18 months, was hard to take. Mentally I really struggled. I became a frustrated, angry, almost a desperate figure. I wanted to succeed so much, but without a true support network within the game, I constantly bottled up my feelings. I fell away from team selection, and began to feel like an outsider to the squad. Absolutely no worse feeling. I had so much anger, stress and frustration building up, I didn’t quite know how to channel it. I began questioning if I could still play football? Was it all actually worth it? What if I had another long term injury? I started to seriously think about alternative careers. At the time this was a diseased like thought, but later I would find it to be exactly what I needed to think, have a back-up plan, have alternative options, and have interests in other walks of life, and prepare for the possibility of leaving the sport.
With so many thoughts nagging me constantly, I wanted to speak to people, but who could I turn to….I couldn’t go to coaches/backroom staff. A player with all of these concerns and thoughts, would instantly be seen as mentally weak by coaching staff. Every second as a young player you are being watched, judged and subsequently always feeling the pressure to show no weakness. This in their eyes would be seen as a weakness for sure. At the time, it felt like thoughts of failure.
I could speak to family and friends to an extent, but no one could relate to my situation, no one could feel the daily pressures. So as much as they would try, their advice and support wasn’t always with a full understanding of what I was going through. It really was a feeling of being in this alone. And I know, there are players all over the country who go through the same things, have the same thoughts on a daily basis and probably like me, bottle everything up. There wasn’t anything like The-Transition-Phase to support me, that could understand my exact circumstances and situation, and help provide honest and meaningful advice and support. I needed something or someone to help me understand that thinking about another career path outside of professional sport was not a bad thought, it wasn't me failing, but instead it was inquisitive, not the thinking of someone who lost.
Eventually my time had come up….I couldn’t get back to my physical peak, and the pain was unfortunately too much to play through. At this level, you need to be at 100% in both mind and body to be able to compete, which I wasn't, so I was already giving people a head start. As my contract was nearing its last few months, it would have been a miracle to be offered a new contract at the club, and truthfully I doubt I would have signed one. I left the club due to the injury, but still determined to prove people wrong, and prove my body wrong, that I could get back to my peak levels.
Despite leaving on a low note, some of the people at the club where great with me.
Moving to the Snow and Back into Education….
I left Nottingham to continue pursuing my playing career in Scotland….It was when I moved here that I eventually parted from full time football. Physically, as hard as I tried and pleaded, I was in too much pain to compete on a daily basis. As heart-breaking as it seemed at the time, I made the conscious choice to use my diploma and get myself into university.
Right enough, I was still technically good enough to play at a decent level, and I was next awarded an athletic scholarship at the University of Stirling. I was one of a number of players coming from the professional game, to play for the University in the Scottish non-league system whilst completing a degree as part of the contract.
Enrolling on a sport and business course, never did I think I would enjoy it as much as I did. The scholarship scheme meant that there was a core group of young men in similar situations, young former professionals who left their clubs for a variety of reasons, which definitely helped. I knew then that I wasn’t the only lad in this situation, and we all helped each other’s transition from professional sport into education a lot easier.
Whilst continuing to play at a semi-professional level, I graduated with a second class upper, which was a great achievement, but left me thinking....what next? And I know I wasn't the only one in this situation. Other than the PFA, there wasn’t anyone, or anything out there that athletes, current or former, in this situation could truly turn to for guidance. I did my research, looked into going in to the sport industry, but having been an athlete, I wasn’t ready to go back into professional sport as someone behind the scenes.
I looked into graduate schemes, at big corporations, working abroad, and lots of different things. There was a common theme, companies big or small, all were putting a lot of focus on recruiting people with the ‘right competencies.’ These where common across the board. They all wanted people who were competitive, a team player, could dealing with high pressure with resilient and more. I kept thinking to myself, I feel like I have these, all of these I had learned to show almost as second nature from my time as an athlete. So I thought, why not, let’s see if people would take me seriously.
It was difficult, without any training or guidance, I was applying, going to interviews and assessment days against academically strong graduates from all across the country. But I kept thinking, I have something quite different to these. I have a story to tell, and it became a question of whether employers could see the relation between competencies in a their businesses, with those from a professional sporting arena. It was a little disheartening at first, I think mainly due to my approach, and I was getting a lot of rejection through online tests and first stage interviews. I had all the ideas in my head, I knew I had the competencies and behaviours these firms were looking for, but clearly I just didn't know how to articulate them in the right way. I know other graduates could relate to recreational sport, internships and very strong academics as examples, and probably had professional work experience that was related to what company's would look for. But in my mind there was no way they had dealt with all the pressures, challenges and made the sacrifices I had made on a daily basis within professional sport. I just didn’t know how to translate all of this experience into a business context.
The Chance Came…
Some say things happen for a reason, and I am a great advocate for that. I tried my hand at applying for lots of different things, in media, B2B, sales, even project management, but I almost stumbled across recruitment. I had spoken to a few people about this avenue, some mixed reviews to say the least, but things that kept coming up where words like competitive, self-starter, resilience, dealing with pressure. All as mentioned I had in abundance. So I thought I’d give it a go, and I haven’t looked back since.
I was fortunate enough to land a role with one of the best names across the UK for HR recruitment, Digby Morgan. I knew throughout the process that they would be a good fit. They often spoke about being competitive, wanting to win, lots of traits that came naturally to me. Even the CEO in my final interview spoke mostly about my time as a professional sportsmen and how he saw these traits as vital to being successful in this industry. This is exactly why I feel I was hired, not my academic qualities, but because of my competencies above all.
I spent close to a year here, performing as I do in most things, better than expectations would suggest. I was so grateful for Digby Morgan giving me the opportunity. I was working with some of the biggest companies in the world, learning so much on the job, making pretty decent money for a graduate, and I had the chance to move to London, where the opportunities are almost endless!
It wasn’t until I started settling in that I understood how much importance companies put on hiring a diverse workforce, employees with strong competencies, and generally how important people were to a company. My day job was helping people find jobs at all levels at some of the world’s biggest brands. It was a great insight to how companies think, and what profiles they really want in their businesses. The job itself, was great. It was almost like running your own business. I had my own clients, and it had great financial incentives. Similar to my time in professional sport, the harder you worked, the bigger the rewards were. I was in a high performing team, where we would not only work within team objectives but also compete against each other. Again this was exactly what I was used to. Constantly working to deadlines, trying to meet expectations and get results, with high pressure, but in truth, I was used to dealing with a lot more pressure and scrutiny in professional sport, so I was able to thrive.
The Opportunities Keep Coming…
It was a very tough decision, leaving the company that gave me my first chance, who shared my understanding of competencies and behaviours, that allowed me to work with global brands, and that invested a lot of time in my learning. But I had the opportunity to move to one of the world’s biggest media and communications groups, in Havas Media Group, before joining Deloitte, one of the world's leading professional service firms.
Firstly at Havas and now Deloitte, I am working as a specialist in talent. What does this mean? The answer is lots of things!....But essentially, I help recruit the best talent to the firm across the UK. Not only this, I am very much an ambassador for the brand here in the UK, trying to increase brand reach, better the stance in the market and build the businesses reputation.
Yes I was fortunate to get this role, which continues to help me grow and develop. But I think I made a lot of my own luck. Yes it was my skills as a recruiter and my experience from Digby Morgan and Havas that Deloitte liked. But in London alone, there are thousands of people who are better educated, more qualified and probably more experienced than me in this field. I believe that the reason I was given this opportunity, like my chance at Digby Morgan, was because of my story, my skill set, and my competencies that really does give me something different to offer.
Looking back, yes my degree had some influence, but not anywhere close to the behaviours, competencies and the journey I come with. I have learned that this is a massive differentiator to other young graduates who don't have the type of experience I have had built from professional sport. Other graduates or young professionals haven’t necessarily lived under such high pressures and volatility on a daily basis, with the constant scrutiny to perform at a high level. A constant hunger for success and a drive to beat your opponent. They may not have that story to tell...It wasn't until recently that I actually understood the importance of these traits. How they can really have an impact on a team, a business, a brand and provide real diversity.
I'm a great believer in things happening for a reason, and what will be, will be. My long term destiny wasn't as a professional athlete, and neither will it be for a lot of people. Since leaving professional sport, my role has been to recruit the best talent in various industries. So I understand what businesses look for, what they need, and what their focus is when bringing people on-board. Subsequently, I am now in a great position to utilise my growing network, and the knowledge of my role, to help people with similar backgrounds, equip themselves for a new career and find great opportunities. To help pool a diverse talent network that derives from the increasingly predictable employee base.
It has been through my own experiences, that I have learnt how to translate my background and make it relevant from elite sport to commercial business. Just take a look at some of the brands I now work with and for, and you will see how exciting things can be outside of sport. I no longer see myself as failing, which is what I did for a long time having left football. I now see myself as being successful, and enjoying new environments, where people have a genuine interest in my background, with football still playing a massive part of my life.
I Still Love the Game...
I continue to maintain my interest in professional football and still feel I have a lot to offer the sport. I am now a UEFA B Licence coach, which has taken me to clubs all over Europe, including FC Porto Ajax, Villarreal and Feyenoord. I even had a stint coaching in the States! Football remains a big part of my life, I am Head Coach for Charlton Athletic Womens Reserve Team, and Manager for Kings College London University FC. This is something I am keen to continue, it is a great way to take a break from my work and still be heavily involved at high level sport.
Also, as one of very few British Asians to have been involved in the sport, I continue to work within BME communities to help increase participation. I have also worked alongside initiatives within The PFA and charities such as Show Racism The Red Card, to help tackle the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion within todays sport.
In truth, it took a while to get over the fact that I was not going to be a professional athlete any more. But as time has gone on, I have experienced so much, and now I understand there is so much out there to take advantage of outside of sport. Whether it is by choice, or not, a life outside of professional sport can be just as rewarding, just as challenging and just as much fun! And at the moment, I am loving every minute of it.
A Final Message…
I have been fortunate enough to experience professional sport as an athlete, university as a student and now commercial business. I have found that my success within the latter, has not just come from my academic background or technical skill set, but largely from the competencies I bring that are a by-product of time in professional sport. People within business, be it team members, clients or a wider network, have taken a genuine interest in me and my story, and how I have transferred my skill set. This is what they have bought into, and this is what I believe truly makes me stand out from other people at my level…Not just my ability to do the job.
It was largely my background that helped me get my first role in the big city. I was seen as someone who is a self-starter, someone who overcomes challenge, thrives in adversity, is not afraid of the unknown, and wants to compete with people and is eager to learn. Maybe most significantly, people remember me, and maybe this is because I have a very different background to most people. Markets are so competitive that ‘standing out from the crowd’ is becoming more important, but also more difficult. People I have come across do this through personality, confidence and the ability to provide an outstanding service/product. People always ask you….’so tell me a bit about you.’ My thinking is, what a great opportunity this is to impress them with a unique background that no one else in the room can draw upon…..if I am pitching against competition, I want to be remembered. I want people to think he used to be a professional footballer, what passion, guts and ambition he has to be able to be successful in this market now. And ultimately, this is the feeling, statement and message I think this initiative represents.
It can be difficult for people who have not been involved in professional sport to understand the pressures, and the behaviours you need to succeed. This is the biggest challenge, to give them an insight into the scrutiny, the challenges and the volatility of professional sport, which no doubt can equip athletes to deal with challenge in all walks of life.