Robertson, second from left, celebrates Grimsby’s National League play-off final win at Wembley in May
Published 30/07/16, The Times.
“I will get straight to the point, because I’m sure you’ll just want to know,” the gaffer said after we exchanged nervous pleasantries, shook hands and sat down on either side of his desk. It can’t be easy for managers, throwing careers, futures and livelihoods into the unknown, but it’s not easy on my side of the desk either. “I’m not going to be offering you another contract Gregor, and I’ll tell you why . . .”
Injuries, age, slowing legs — the plan was to replace me with a younger model. You appreciate honesty in a manager; it’s not always like that. After another handshake and well wishes for the future, I left the office and told the next lad waiting in line — pale, stoney-faced look of apprehension hidden behind a nervous smile — that he was up next. Fifteen-minute windows. That’s how it goes. And very often, that’s how it ends.
When the curtain finally comes down on a career as a footballer, the cold reality for most is that “retirement” is a decision made for you, not by you. No emotional, fond farewell on the pitch in front of thousands of rapturous, adoring fans, kids in tow, team-mates applauding in a guard of honour, tearful family beckoning you towards the tunnel as you wave goodbye for one last time and walk off into the shadows. No, those romantic spectacles are rare. For most, the curtain falls with rejection on contract decision day followed by a summer spent looking at a painfully quiet phone.
Of course, there are always shades of grey in these stories. I could have played for another year, making a 200-mile round trip each day to play non-League football for £20,000 a year, a quarter of which would have been guzzled just fuelling the two-hour journey. I could have played part-time for a little less, a route many take in the transitory period between the end of one profession and the beginning of another. No matter how much your pride might suffer in dropping down to a rung of the football ladder where you play against teams you’ve never heard of, with the commitments that everybody has, sometimes there isn’t a choice.
There are also those whose love of the game simply conquers all, who play on until a ripe old age at any level and for any reward. Injuries put paid to that for me. A broken leg and ruptured achilles tendon in a dark two-year period, starting in 2009, was the beginning of a difficult relationship with my body. Even without that, the fact is that some hold up better than others to the rigours of the game. The daily pounding on the joints and gradual toughening and tightening of the muscles mean it’s not much fun when your legs no longer move as quickly as your mind.
When it does end, what comes next is a difficult subject for any footballer, no matter what level they’ve played at. The PFA is a fantastic union, encouraging and subsidising further education for its members and running courses in a range of fields from coaching to business management. Not everyone takes advantage though, nor do many want to contemplate the inevitable day when football will end. I count myself fortunate that, since graduating with a degree in sports journalism from Staffordshire University, I’ve developed a growing interest in writing the words you see before you. Football has always been my biggest passion in life and now I want to write about that passion and the people and stories behind it. For me, the time to hang up my boots feels right.
My football career might not have turned out quite as I had dreamt it would, but one thing I know is that it ended well. Last season I played in the National League play-off final at Wembley and was part of the team who got Grimsby Town promoted back to the Football League, banishing the memory of the previous year’s agonising penalty shoot-out defeat by Bristol Rovers in the same final, and ending the Mariners’ six-year exile from the League.
Looking back on that day in the glorious north London sunshine, what stands out is something which perhaps frames as well as anything the highs and lows that come with being a footballer in the lower leagues. The elation, and relief, when the final whistle finally blew was like nothing I had experienced on a football pitch. Knowing just how much it meant to everyone made it a moment of pure and unbridled joy. But within seconds, once I’d picked myself up off my knees, broken away from the jubilant huddle of my team-mates and paused for a brief moment of reflection, a seed of doubt entered my mind and a question began to hover like a small grey cloud shading the brightness of those celebrations. Standing on the Wembley turf, with my contract about to expire, I thought: will I still be here next year to enjoy this? For myself, and 12 others, the answer was no.
Pre-season is probably the most dreaded part of being a footballer. But after long days in the sunshine pushing your body to its limits, there is something hugely satisfying when you return home each evening, having worked hard; every day for five or six weeks dedicated to getting into the best physical condition you can. Nothing drives you on like competing against 20 team-mates, and trying to impress the manager and coaches in every training drill, gym session or match. It’s hard — horrible at times — but it feels good, too.
After 15 years as a professional footballer, and with the new season only a couple of weeks away, it is beginning to dawn that the competitive, physical and mental courage you must call on to play football is one thing, among many, that is going to be very hard to replace. There will be one or two silver linings, though, of course. I’ll miss the nervous tension of a match day, the butterflies in the belly that transform into adrenaline as soon as you walk out of the tunnel. But I’m glad I won’t need to knock back any more anti-inflammatory tablets to get myself out there, with the griping stomach pains they inflict after a match.
I’ll miss the roar of the crowd, the moments of fervour only football can provide, and the relish and relief that comes with earning those three points. I won’t miss the depression of defeat, and neither will my girlfriend, I’m sure, who very often bore its brunt.
I’ll miss getting out of bed on a Sunday morning with that exhausted, burning, ache in my muscles. But I’m glad I can now get up without hobbling and cracking like an old man until my joints are warm enough to bend!
I’ll miss the structure that football provides, the strict schedule and way of life that I’ve become so accustomed to. But now I have more freedom to do the things I could not before, and maybe even have a beer or two on a Friday night.
I’ll miss the jokes and laughter that every single day in football brought, my team-mates — the lads — many who have become friends. I won’t miss the endless travelling, and what seems like half a lifetime spent on a coach.
Playing football for a living has been all- consuming. When you win, life is good, when you lose, life is bad. I’m looking forward to what I hope might be a slightly smoother passage now. But I realise that may be misguided, because I don’t think anything will ever replace those wins.
Gregor Robertson played 375 games for Nottingham Forest, Scotland Under-21, Rotherham United, Chesterfield, Crewe Alexandra, Northampton Town and Grimsby Town.