How Robbie Simpson turned difficult days into a positive with the creation of Life After Professional Sport
Robbie Simpson faced a stark reality seven years ago.
Hankering after one last shot at the Championship after leaving Oldham in the summer of 2013, he turned down contract offers from clubs in League One and Two.
As injury impacted a trial at Blackburn Rovers and the months ticked by with no offers as budgets had been spent until January, the striker was left facing the prospect of the end of his professional football career, aged just 28.
It is a scenario that many footballers could be facing this summer as club finances across the football pyramid are impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
But the result of the low point facing Simpson all those years ago may, in a roundabout way, turn out to be a salvation for some of those – estimated to be as many as 1,400 – facing the same predicament now as the upshot was the creation of Life After Professional Sport, also known as LAPS.
“I had good savings behind me, but it’s amazing how quickly they dwindle when there is no income and you’re still living that lifestyle,” says Simpson. I was probably suffering mentally, anxiety, and I soon realised that could well have been the end of my football career.
“I had always wanted to go back to the Championship, and that was what I had my heart set on that summer. That was a kick in the teeth, but to then have League One and League Two clubs essentially say they didn’t want me any more and their budget gone, that was an even bigger kick in the teeth.
“Even though I had got everything behind me in what you would class as a fall-back option in terms of my education and degree, all I ever wanted to be was a footballer.
“I was 28 at the time, and I wasn’t ready for that to be the end of my football career. I wanted to play until I was 35, and that was what I always had in my head.
“For that realisation that literally your football career can end before you know it, before you want it to, and you’re really not in control of your future whatsoever, that was big and really tough.”
Panic had sent in.
Simpson had life plans that had to be put on hold. He had been getting ready to propose and move closer to relatives in order to start a family.
With no income, no offers on the table, none likely either, Simpson was weighing up having to find another career, but he did not know how to go about doing that.
“It was horrible, a really horrible place to be,” he says.
“Your career is only as long as your contract, in football especially.
“I know with the Olympians, your career is only as long as the four-year cycle programme that you’ve got, and your funding can soon get cut and you’re not allowed to be an athlete any more.
“Aside from doing your best on the pitch and performing, essentially you’ve got no control over your future – and that’s a scary place to be.”
It is a frank assessment of life as a professional sports person, and what makes Simpson’s case even more compelling is that he was probably set up better than most.
He was not a product of football’s academy system, instead playing for Cambridge City and then going to Loughborough University to do sports science and maths – he was still studying when he got his first professional contract at Cambridge United, and signed for Coventry City following his graduation.
Even then, entering the job market was a daunting prospect.
“I hadn’t written a CV since I was 16, and all the things that go with trying to find a new career from being a sports person it really dawned on me how tough it is, mentally and financially,” says Simpson.
Going onto the PFA website, there were more than 300 players on their ‘transfer list’ as unattached and looking for clubs.
It heightened the feelings of anxiety about savings dwindling and struggling to find a new career.
“I thought ‘if I’m struggling with my educational background and the fact I was quite good with my finances, what must these 300 other lads be feeling?’,” says Simpson.
“I was fairly certain that 90 per cent of them wouldn’t be as well equipped to handle the situation. It got me thinking and ignited a passion within me that there wasn’t enough support for that type of situation and players.”
Simpson did sign a two-month contract with Leyton Orient and that led to a further seven years as a pro – at the Abbey Stadium, Exeter City and MK Dons – but the seed had been sown. Using his Loughborough connections, he spoke to cricketers, rugby players and athletes who had gone on to become professionals to get their feelings about the support available regarding post-career opportunities. The sentiments were shared – it was very worrying.
It set the wheels in motion as while the likes of the PFA, Professional Cricketers’ Association, Rugby Players’ Association, UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport offer transition tools such as CV writing, interview techniques and funding for courses, Simpson wanted to create a tool for a route into employment.
He felt it was the biggest void in terms of what was available – when he was without a club he was told to set up a LinkedIn profile and to connect with people that way.
Simpson re-signed for Cambridge United in 2014, and had already established contact with U’s fan Rob Steed, an internal recruiter by trade.
“We had a long chat about what I had been through, all my feelings and the research I had been doing,” said Simpson.
“I asked him why the interest and he had three separate clients within a week of each other asking him to recruit a sports person.”
It came from the success of an Olympic rower being employed to a sales role who, within six months, had been promoted twice and smashed all sales records.
“They said it was all the attributes from his sport that made him so good – his drive, his determination, his competitiveness, how quickly he learns, how easy he is to coach, his resilience when things don’t go his way,” says Simpson.
“All of those things sports people naturally have, this Olympic rower transferred into his new career and was a huge success.
“It was a lightbulb moment for me meeting Rob and hearing him say this. It was like a match made in heaven really, so we put our heads together and came up with LAPS.”
The company, of which Simpson is managing director and Steed is the CEO, offers many facilities. The website sections include courses, CV writing and building, case studies, a job board, a franchise page, details on what to expect in more than 200 careers, including salary information and qualifications required.
Their staff include former Newcastle United player Adam Campbell and former England women’s rugby player Hannah Gallagher, former boxer and Coventry star Leon McKenzie does workshop delivery and Olympic silver medalist Gail Emms is an associate.
And LAPS’ work to bridge the gulf between a career in sport and life in a ‘normal’ workplace could be about to become even more important.
Echoing many areas of society currently, there are acute concerns on what impact the pandemic will have on the finances in sport.
It has been reflected by the number of people joining LAPS since lockdown. At the start of March, they had 3,000 members and now have nearly 3,700, with roughly 50 joining a week.
“My situation back in 2013 is going to be the same for lots of sports people this summer,” says Simpson.
“They [footballers ] might think they’ve had a good season, they might think they want to move up, but if you’re out of contract this summer I think most players will find it really tough. They’re not going to get what they want, put it that way.
“No-one is going to get what they want if they’re out of contract.”
Simpson has found his own new life after professional sport.
He does not draw any money out of LAPS – describing it as a “passion project” – and after leaving Milton Keynes Dons last season, has become a financial adviser.
It was a natural fit as he had always been mathematically inclined.
“Whenever anyone asked me the question ‘if you weren’t a footballer what would you be?’ I would always answer financial adviser. I’ve done both,” says Simpson.
“I wanted another year at MK Dons, I’m not going to lie, but looking back now and given the current circumstances, it was a good time to stop playing last summer.
“It’s just enabled me to take control of my future for the next 30 years until I properly retire.
“I don’t think I could have written my script any better.
“I loved every minute of university, I loved being a professional footballer and, I know it’s only been a few months, but I’m absolutely loving what I’m doing now, especially tying it in with what I’m doing at Chelmsford and what I’m doing at LAPS.”
That is the other key point, Simpson is not finished with football.
Having joined Chelmsford City in the National League South as a semi-pro last summer, by January he wasinterim player-manager. He has since been appointed to the role on a permanent basis.
The club is setting up an academy, and Simpson has a central role in putting things in place.
“It’s something I’m really passionate about, creating a pathway for these young lads either into our first team and beyond or into university, whilst maybe still playing for our first team and beyond,” he says. “Giving them every chance in every aspect of life is really important to me, and I’m glad Chelmsford have bought into that vision and we’ve got a really good thing going there I believe.”
From those difficult times seven years ago, Simpson is now doing all he can, in so many aspects, to make sure others do not have to go through the same emotions.
Read moreCambridge United
More by this authorMark Taylor
This website and its associated newspaper are members of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO)