FWA Student Football Writer of the Year – final three shortlists announced

The winners will be announced on 18 May and will receive their awards at the 75th FWA Footballer of the Year ceremony in London on 25 May.

After lengthy consideration, our panel of judges have narrowed down the submissions for the FWA Student Football Writer of the Year Awards to a final three in each category. This was not an easy job: the standard was exceptional. But, after much deliberation, these students, listed in alphabetical order, were the ones whose work the judges felt best fulfilled the criteria of originality, insight and delivery. 

FWA Vikki Orvice Award for Female Student Football Writer of the Year:

Lara Alsaid, De Montfort University, Leicester

Elana Shapiro, University of Newcastle

Adriana Wehrens, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

FWA/Kick It Out Award Unheard Voices Student Football Writer of the Year:

Shubi Arun, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

Julia Belas Trindade, University of Bristol

Morgan Ofori, Goldsmiths College, University of London

FWA High McIlvanney Male Student Football Writer of the Year:

Harry Robinson, University of Manchester

George Simms, News Associates, London

Dom Smith, News Associates, London

The winners will be announced on 18 May and will receive their awards at the 75th FWA Footballer of the Year ceremony in London on 25 May.

Here are their pieces. 

FWA Vikki Orvice Student Football Writer of the Year contenders:

Lara Alsaid, De Montfort University Leicester

It’s 8 am, a hungover Matt Piper, former Leicester City player, wakes up. He looks to the side and grabs the whiskey bottle on the table next to him and takes a shot. In joggers and a t-shirt, he walks into the kitchen and opens the pill cabinet, he takes a puff from the spliff he just rolled and finishes the whiskey with the mix of tablets in his hand. He walks out the door towards the graveyard near his house. With no socks or shoes, no keys or phone, he isn’t planning on returning. His mother finds Matt in a coma state on top of his grandad’s grave, that he has laid on ready to die.

Matt Piper, now 41, born and bred in Leicester, is currently living near Glenfield. He started at the Leicester Academy at eight years old and signed his first professional contract with Leicester City at 19 years old in year 2000. He had a promising career and was an impressive player with a bright future. He was 17 when he made his debut for the first team, they flew up to Newcastle on a private jet. “In that moment I knew that this is what I want to do.” he says, reminiscing about the experience. 

In August 2002, City sold him to Sunderland for £3.5 million. “Imagine being at your hometown club since eight years old, you dream of playing for the first team, you get there and then you get sold,” Matt says. He packed his whole life and career at City in one black bag, he put the bag in the boot of his car and in that moment, he became a Sunderland player. Matt´s career was cut short when he suffered injuries that made him go through rehab and had in total 19 knee operations before he retired from football completely at the age of 26.

It was hard for him to go from having a job that he was passionate about and loved, to having a 9-5 job that he didn’t love. This is where life got difficult for Matt. He became addicted to alcohol, weed and coke 18 months after retiring. He consumed 1,5 litre Whisky a day, it made him forget about his issues. He continued to live lavishly even though he wasn’t a footballer anymore and blew £450,000 in 25 months. 

Matt wanted to be an active dad that took his kids out to the playground, so he stopped the operations and retired. Retiring also affected his mental health. There came a point in his life where drinking was all he did and he wasn’t allowed to see his two children. One morning in 2009 Matt woke up hungover and depressed, feeling that he had lost everything he’s ever wanted: a football career and his kids. He wrapped a spliff, took a shot of whiskey and sank a cocktail of tablets. Barefoot in joggers and a t-shirt he walked out of his front door. He walked, with a knot in his stomach and heart palpitation, to the graveyard where his grandad was laid to rest. He laid on top of the grave and passed out, ready to die. His mother later found him in a coma state on top of the grave. His first memory when waking up at Leicester Royal Infirmary was of the two doctors arguing about sectioning him. Matt went to a rehab centre for athletes and lived there for eight weeks doing daily therapy sessions and seeing a councillor.

He grew up in Beaumont Leys, spending time with his friends, not caring about school, all they wanted to do was play football. “You become who you hang around with.” Matt says. When Matt was 16, he signed a contract with City, 12 of his friends didn’t receive a contract. “Ever since that age, I thought it would be important to have an academy that uses football as a carrot and focuses on education.” Matt says, explaining the concept of the Leicester based academy he built: Football and Sports diploma. Not having a purpose other than football was his biggest regret, that’s what he wants to provide for the kids at the academy. 

Today, Matt has restored all his relationships, his four kids live with him 3,5 days a week. “It gives me comfort to be reliable to my kids, my wife, the kids at the academy, that’s the best thing about me now,” he says.

It is weird for Matt to look back at the time when he wanted to take his own life to being where he is now.

“What I feel about this story is that that guy was not me.” Matt rounds up, understanding that the lowest point in his life was just a part of an inspiring journey.

Elana Shapiro, University of Newcastle

One of the many highlights of my time as a student has been playing football. “Social football” to be more precise. It tends to distinguish itself from “regular football” by the lack of running involved and how unbothered your teammates are when you inevitably lose. During my first and second years of university, it was a way to ensure that I absorbed some daylight over the weekends and allowed me to participate in an activity which wasn’t solely centred around booze.

When I moved to Berlin as an Erasmus student, I decided to play there too. A selection of teams were offered and I made sure to choose the one that had “recreational” in the title – I know my level. My teammates quickly became some of my closest friends in an unfamiliar city and their boundless support, humour, and warmth grew to be one of the greatest joys of the whole experience. Additionally, it was whilst training and playing for ‘DFC Kreuzberg’, I encountered that German which is not taught in a classroom. There is some Deutsch that truly does lend itself to a football pitch. Soon, I too was shouting, “Ah mein Gott” (transl. ‘OMG!’ *but with far more gravitas) whenever I made a mistake.

Then, the time came for me to return to Newcastle and complete my final year of studies. It felt right to give something back to the sport which had provided me with so much, so I applied to join the committee. I was awarded the monumental responsibility of 5-a-side officer: “Just make sure the bibs are out and let the girls do what they want”. Whilst I feared that I might not be able to balance such a high-pressure role alongside my degree, I knew that I couldn’t let the faithful 5-a-siders down and humbly accepted the honour.

Our first few months were excellent. The feats of the Lionesses at the Euros were transformative in accelerating the number of women and girls of all ages trying football and we were grateful recipients of their success. Our numbers grew and we enjoyed an environment which welcomed all abilities to practise their skills, encouraged by a close-knit community. Looking back, that initial period of 5-a-side seems such a simple and pleasant time.

But then, on an ordinary Monday morning, the Intramural Officer at Newcastle University informed us that our sessions were being replaced by a competitive 5-a-side league in collaboration with Northumbria University. Teams would be limited to nine players and there were six spaces available.

In the aftermath of this announcement, the most appropriate description of what took place would be ‘sister turning on sister’. Our once seemingly unbreakable unity was shattered as we split into smaller groups and chose our camps. Any uncommitted players were targeted by incisive, cleverly-devised marketing campaigns usually entailing the promise of a lift to the venue. I’m not proud to say that I took part in this, but my housemate-cum-co-captain does have a car after all.

Teams tried to increase both numbers and competitiveness by attending the intramural 11-a-side games. There, armed with clipboards and pens to take notes on those with potential, scouts would approach players in a manner that replicated the college recruiters featured in North American sports films, boasting the strengths of their programme and what generous benefits they could offer. Frankly, it was immoral. And it just so happened to be an activity in which I excelled.

It reached a point where my team, Spice Goals (initially Goals Aloud but this was already taken), actually had too many players. And so, the tactical trading ensued. For example, on a certain night we might be playing a weaker opponent. However, we knew another team (‘Team A’, let’s say) had a challenging game that week against our most dangerous rivals (‘Team B’). Since we could only have four substitutes anyway, and we desperately wanted our rivals to lose, we lent a couple of our strongest players to ‘Team A’ to assist our cause. As a result, we now sit proudly at the top of the table. To quote the legendary Johan Cruyff, “In the tactical area, I think I just have more than most others.”

We are still only a short way through the league and actions become more wildly conniving by the week. My weekends are now spent seeking our next star player by launching footballs at unsuspecting women on Northumberland Street to test their touch. In further attempts to strengthen our hand, we’ve reached out to the likes of Leah Williamson, Alessia Russo and Keira Walsh but are yet to receive a response. So on that note, if you are based anywhere remotely near the North East and can play football, please do get in touch – terms and compensation are open to negotiations.

Adriana Wehrens, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

A search for the term “women’s football boots” on the internet will return a variety of images featuring football footwear in mostly shades of pink or white colour schemes which actually are just men’s boots made more approachable for women.

When you scroll further down, you will find one shoe that is not like the others.

“We make women’s sports performance footwear, filling the gap for team sports footwear that just doesn’t really exist at the moment,” said Laura Youngson, CEO and Co-Founder of startup company Ida Sports who offer products specifically designed and engineered for women.

The “pink it and shrink it’ method” is not enough anymore. With the call for equality in women’s sports getting louder, more areas are identified as not having the same awareness for women as they have for men.

The idea for founding the startup came to Youngson in a process of walking into sports stores and finding only football boots for men and kids.

A four-time World Record holder, Youngson enjoys breaking barriers. In 2017, she played the highest ever women’s football game on top of Mount Kilimanjaro together with members of the United States and Canadian women’s national team. Even amongst the pros, she realised that they were wearing both men’s and children’s boots too.

Despite the growth in the game and obvious anatomical differences, Youngson did not detect any progress in the development of women’s-specific boots.

Therefore, she decided to become part of the change: “We need to understand that women aren’t small men. We’ve got very different physiology, different foot shape. We should be wearing what is made for us.”

What started with the release of only one soccer boot in 2020 has grown into a diverse selection of boots for different surfaces.

Today, Ida is offering their products to customers from the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom, with increasing inquiries from Europe.

Since the beginning, Youngson has tested the boots by herself to achieve the best possible comfort and results. Additionally, Ida Sports has gained about 70 brand ambassadors supporting the company by giving feedback.

Her ultimate goal for the boots is for players to not have to think about them while playing. It should function as merely an extension of the body.

Looking at differences in anatomy, women tend to have narrower heels and higher arches in the midfoot, calling for more support in this particular area. On top of that, the surface-to-boot connection is different due to women having wider hips. The boots from Ida Sports are designed to minimise these problems and improve performance.

The reason why women are entitled to their own boots does not stop with only comfort, but also dives into injury risk by wearing the wrong footwear.

Unfortunately, the research — as in many other aspects of women’s football — has been neglected by those working in the industry. The research we do have indicates that football boots could indeed have an impact on injuries.

“Everything from the stud geometry to the playing surface conditions, the player wearing the boot, plays a huge role in risk for injury”, stated Kevin Krieger, head of research at Turfcoach, a startup company specialising in football pitch data collection and the surface’s influence on players and football boots. “Longer studs typically seen in men’s football boots will provide higher linear traction, but the greater rotational traction that comes with it can lead to an increased injury risk.”

According to Dr. Katrine Kryger, who specialises in football boot research, the percentage of the boot covered by studs is much higher for women wearing smaller boots. “Especially with non-contact injuries like ACL, it’s a mechanism where you get stuck in the ground trying to turn while the foot’s not moving.”

With the Women’s World Cup this summer Youngson wants to use that momentum to further promote the company that was “birthed” in Australia, where one part of the tournament will take place.

The long-term goal is to cater to a broad range of women wanting to play football. From amateurs to professionals – Youngson wants everyone to feel seen.

By taking a closer look at the Ida Sports boots, you notice the wave pattern that is also the logo of the brand. And the wave is swelling.

“It’s still building,” Youngson said. “We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of women having collective action to change the conditions under which we play sport.

FWA/Kick It Out Unheard Voices Student Football Writer of the Year contenders:

Shubi Arun, St Mary’s University, Twickenham

There’s an extraordinary scene in episode three of the Netflix series FIFA Uncovered, in which Hassan Al Thawadi, the CEO of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid, wipes away a tear recalling the backlash in the aftermath of Qatar being awarded the hosting rights to the tournament.

Al Thawadi talks about the “serious bout of depression” he went through because of the media furore but, to the cynic, Al Thawadi’s tears may feel as genuine as Matt Hancock’s on Good Morning Britain. Far from evoking pathos, playing the victim card in the face of astounding corruption charges and inquests into Qatar’s human-rights records does feel slightly pathetic.

This was, after all, a man who after years of stubbornly denying labourer deaths during the construction of stadiums, admitted that as many as 500 workmen had died in an interview conducted during the World Cup.

It’s why it’s surprising to hear Miles Coleman, the producer of FIFA Uncovered, say he “liked Hassan a hell of a lot”.

“When I met him in London, he was in a T-shirt and jeans and we just shot the shit for an hour. I read that he’s a Liverpool fan and they’d just lost and I shook his hand, sat down and went ‘You guys were shit on the weekend’ and he laughed,” says Coleman.

It’s a striking contrast to the Al Thawadi we’ve become accustomed to and Coleman notes how he transforms when he’s in Qatar.

“He was a fascinating guy. He’s a football fan, he gets it, he knows it but he also knows what he can and can’t say in a Qatari context. He was the son of an ambassador and he just has being an ambassador in his blood. He’s got a personal sense and then he switches on his public persona,” Coleman says.

Therein lies the secret sauce of what makes FIFA Uncovered so engrossing. It’s emphatic in its messaging around the systemic failures of the organisation yet empathetic in its portrayal of the perpetrators.

“We’re not here to judge, this is not a ‘gotcha’,” Coleman says. “We are not going to reveal hidden footage and say ‘aha, you’re bastards, we knew it all along’.

“Our approach in FIFA to everyone was this is your platform. Say your piece. If you want to tell us about your career and how wonderful it is, great. If you want to tell us about your recipe for homemade banana bread, we don’t care. This is your platform. We really meant that, we were very sincere about it”.

Sepp Blatter, the notorious former FIFA chief dubbed the “best politician in the history of politicians” by Coleman, is unsurprisingly captivating when placed in front of the camera. You understand how he’s charmed his way to hold on to power for 17 years and remained defiant in the face of overwhelming corruption charges.

“He’s got that sparkle in his eye and an ability to switch things around. And as interviewers, what amazed me was that he knew how to give us just a little bit. So we walked out of that interview going ‘great we got what we needed, we got even more, we’re so good’. And then you watch it back and you realise that he did it again,” says Coleman.

FIFA has become entrenched with corruption to such an extent that it’s come to be accepted as a part of the game. The series shakes the average football fan out of that stupor and shows them why they need to care about FIFA’s nefariousness. The objective of the show is to engage yes, but also to enrage.

“If not everyone understands the financial intricacies but leave with a strong emotion you have done your job. I really like it when people come out to me and say “I watched your show and it made me angry”. When people say ‘It was really fun’ I think shit, we haven’t done our job”.

Prior to this series, Coleman’s last football project was This is Football, a six-part docu series that makes you believe it is still a beautiful game. But, making FIFA Uncovered filled Coleman with a sense of hopelessness. One of things that depressed him most was his meeting with Gianni Infantino.

“I don’t see a man who truly loves football. I see a man who wants to be a politician and some sort of world leader and if Tiddlywinks became more popular than football tomorrow, he’d run world Tiddlywinks,” he says.

It’s why he believes it’s imperative to do a follow up on FIFA Uncovered. Infantino features fleetingly in the series and deserves his chance in the spotlight.

Miles Coleman wants to make you angry again.

Julia Belas Trindade, University of Bristol

Football is a great tool to connect people, get in touch with old friends and have fun. That perhaps is not telling you anything new but it is what MissKix experience in their weekly training sessions. The team based in Brighton is predominantly composed of lesbian women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who are finally fulfilling their dreams of being part of a club.

“We didn’t have that opportunity when we were younger, so we’re very appreciative of making the most of it now,” says Andy Cook, one of the founding members. She went to the first MissKix session back in 2016 and is still showing off her skills with the group six years later. Even though some members have left and others joined, Cook feels the connection with her teammates – current and former – goes beyond football.

“The stories of discrimination and difficulties that people have faced in their upbringing bond us,” she says. “There is also the struggle to reach a sense of positive identity, a sense of belonging, and live in the way we want to live. To feel OK about ourselves without internalising that stigma, that homophobia.”

Clare Brunet, one of the first members, got the ball rolling by getting in touch with friends from the LGBTQ+ community and was able to get 16 women to have a kickaround in an unlit park behind someone’s house. Years later, the development is there for everyone to see: they rent a pitch for training sessions, have a coach to help improve their performance and are affiliated to the local Southern Combination Premier Division club AFC Varndeanians.

And everyone seems to be in agreement: being a MissKix member feels like being part of a family. The players share what is going on in their lives with teammates, they are able to feel happiness and celebrate the achievements of their companions and those close to them, as well as supporting them during difficult times. MissKix’s eldest player, Jac Langham, 63, has cancer and is living in a hospice. Though she is not featuring on the pitch she is still part of the team.

“Something the team has done for us is create a really strong connection,” Cook says. “It’s been much more than playing football, much more than the sport. There is something about being in a team that gives us a sense of family and belonging.”

After drills and a game, having a pint is a great way to catch up. “Although some of us had a really core groups of friends, the football team are the people we see, really reliably, regularly, every week,” she adds. “It’s become something much more meaningful in the sense of belonging and a support network.”

On the pitch, however, things can get quite competitive and they need to be careful about injuries. “I think that sometimes we overestimate our ability,” Cook laughs. “When you’re playing, you tend to get very involved and just go for it. I forget that I’m 58, then I take a tumble and it hurts.”

That is why the team decided they’re only joining veteran tournaments from now on. “There have been times in the past when we played younger teams, and obviously, they are much fitter and stronger than us,” Cook says. “My partner broke her leg in a tournament going for a tackle. So now we try to play teams that we are matched in terms of age and ability.”

The MissKix members decided to tell their stories in a book – Jumpers for Goalposts: The Making of the MissKix Women’s Football Team – to show how the game changed their lives. One example is Tina Johnson, Cook’s partner, who was kicked out of the army because of her sexuality. Even though she missed out on sporting opportunities in the armed forces, being part of MissKix gave her a new chance.

“I know that people are generally surprised at our ages but I hope we are an inspiration for younger people,” Cook says. “It’s so important to keep going for as long as you can, and I think the more you do, the fitter and better you feel.”

Morgan Ofori, Goldsmiths College, University of London

Positivity tends to be the prevailing feeling around clubs before a cup final. There is plenty of it at Newcastle and Manchester United before Sunday’s Carabao Cup showdown. Eddie Howe’s “intensity is our identity” motto has won him admirers on Tyneside and beyond, and Erik ten Hag has overseen the reawakening of Old Trafford’s sleeping giant. But their trip to Wembley will be made against a backdrop of protest and discontent, too.

Ownership is the cause of that. Since October 2021 Newcastle have been majority-owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, making the club’s revival harder to swallow for some fans and many more outsiders. Unhappiness at the Glazer family’s stewardship of Manchester United is longstanding and now comes the possibility the club will end up in hands of a Qatari sheikh.

The protest group NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing delivered a letter to Howe’s office last weekend on behalf of the brother of a man at risk of torture and execution in Saudi Arabia. “If Eddie Howe, the fans and local politicians don’t say anything about human rights before the final, I think it’s a terrible look,” says the group member John Hird.

He points out that Newcastle fans have been singing “sack the board” on and off at St James’ Park since the 1970s, less than 10 years after the most recent trophy win of 1969 and believes this regime should get the same treatment. Hird condemns the hypocrisy of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct Stadium and Wonga sponsorships being unpopular with supporters but there being less outrage over deals made by the current ownership, including with a Saudi e-commerce platform, “because of the implications” of what their wealth could bring.

Plenty of Newcastle fans hold a different view. The founder of the True Faith fanzine and podcast, Michael Martin, believes the club “has never been more united”. Martin points to investment in the club’s infrastructure and support for worthy causes such as food banks in the area as a catalyst.

Although he has sympathy for the view that ownership must be fan-centred, Martin, a former board member of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, doubts it is a realistic option. He does not believe the club is being used by the Saudis to launder the country’s reputation. “Britain has historic links with Saudi Arabia,” he says. “I’m uneasy with the idea that Newcastle United, the least expensive thing on their portfolio, is a big sports washing vehicle.”

Martin says investment from the Gulf is something that we all need to get used to. “If you want your football club to compete at the top then you do have no choice but to have an owner with a public investment fund.”

At Manchester United questions over potential new ownership have sprung up since the Glazer family put the club up for sale last November. Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, the chairman of QIB, a Qatari bank, and Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the chairman of the petrochemicals company Ineos, have entered the bidding for the club.

The prospect of a Qatari buyer has sparked particular concern among some supporters. The LGBTQ+ fan-­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­club the Rainbow Devils raised “deep concern” regarding interest from a nation where same-sex relationships are criminalised, and the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) said in an open letter backed by 150 fan groups worldwide that any owner must respect “the rights of all people, particularly women and the LGBTQ+ community”.

MUST also argued there were questions of “sporting integrity” to be addressed given that Ratcliffe owns the Ligue 1 club Nice and Qatar Sports Investments owns Paris Saint-Germain. Thani is bidding as a private individual via his Nine Two Foundation.

MUST’s CEO, Duncan Drasdo, believes that at the heart of any bid must be collaboration with fans. “MUST’s vision has always been that supporters have a significant ownership stake in the club we love. So, our ask to any new owner is simple: have a clear plan to get United back to the top; invest in the team, the club, and the stadium; and work with fans as real partners and co-owners.” If only it were that simple.

Ratcliffe is the person of choice for Scott Saunders, a lifelong Manchester United fan and managing editor of the football news platform Saunders does not want the club to be in the conversation when questions over human rights are being asked and says: “I don’t think United need a wealthy benefactor. They need someone that will come in and not bleed the club dry like the current owners have. The Glazers have only been good for themselves. United in an ideal situation get an owner that clears the debt and uses revenue to operate.”

And what about the action that will take place at Wembley? “We’ve got a great chance of winning, but we are slight underdogs,” Martin says. “I take umbrage with the fact that six years [the length of Manchester United’s trophy drought] is a long time. Blink of an eye for me, that!” Saunders says the quiet confidence of Ten Hag could be enough to get United over the line.

Only one set of fans will end up celebrating but both will know that, at their club, what happens on the pitch is only part of the narrative.

FWA Hugh McIlvanney Male Student Football Writer of the Year contenders:

Harry Robinson, University of Manchester

“I still wince now,” says 85-year-old Ted Roberts. “I wince when I see them head the ball.”

Ted is the grandson of Manchester United’s first great trophy-lifting captain, Charlie Roberts, and he is right to wince.

“My grandfather died with the usual footballers’ plague: heading the brick. He was dead at 56.”

Over 500 ex-players are now suffering from football-related brain injuries. When Ted was aged one, his grandfather told a reporter at Manchester’s Royal Infirmary, “I have been almost like the living dead for the last two years.”

The cause?

“They have found a growth at the back of my skull which has developed as a result of heading heavy balls so often.”

A seven-and-a-half-hour operation followed to free Charlie from chronic dizziness and headaches. The ex-centre-half initially refused the advice but accepted it once day-to-day life became a struggle.

“A month in here and a few weeks’ holiday,” he said, “then I will be able to go and see United play again.”

Or not. Charlie died, aged 56, on 7 August 1939. Recognition of what his grandson calls “the footballers’ plague” has grown exponentially in the past decade, but football’s preeminent institutions, particularly the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), have been slow to act.

“It was there, in print, in 1939,” reflects Ted.

It is grimly ironic that Charlie died from such a scenario. 22 years earlier, he had co-founded the PFA’s predecessor, the Players’ Union, inspired by the death of teammate Tommy Blackstock, a 25-year-old Scot who collapsed and died after heading the ball in April 1907.

The PFA recognised Charlie’s crucial role in 2015, paying £30,000 at auction to secure his FA Cup Final shirt, a sum £30,000 greater than that spent investigating football’s link to neurodegenerative disease. The same was true the following year, and in 2017 too, when Charlie’s induction into their Hall of Fame overlooked his probable cause of death. In 2018, they finally dedicated £125,000 to research.

A remarkable eight decades separated Charlie’s demise and that donation, creating a chasm between the PFA and those it was founded to serve. Scything attacks have recently been made on the organisation by relatives of another United great, World Cup winner Nobby Stiles.

Distinctly unhelpful is the murky separation of the PFA and the Players’ Foundation, found to have undertaken actions “against the Charity’s best interests” and mismanaged accounts. This year, Head For Change’s symbolic donations of £3,000 to provide respite care for three families highlighted the dearth of support felt. The PFA has taken steps forward but their Brain and Support departments admit that their highly-beneficial work is “a struggle.”

“It’s frightening how many footballers are poorly,” an insider says, “and there’s all this football politics going on.”

Two years ago, the PFA asked sporting bodies to create an independent care fund to support dementia-suffering ex-players. A subsequent meeting in London in late March, determining each body’s contribution, was undermined when the FA withdrew on legal advice.

Critics will argue that dementia affects nearly one million non-footballers across the United Kingdom, but studies have deemed ex-players between 1.5 (Karolinska Institute, 2019) and 3.5 times (Dr Willie Stewart, 2019) more likely to develop dementia than the general population, though these studies are not exhaustive because the science is at an early stage.

As Charlie Roberts was the first title-winning United captain, England’s greatest living legend Sir Bobby Charlton bore aloft a first European crown in 1968. In 2020, his family announced his dementia diagnosis. Despite close relations with the Stiles family, relatives have been loath to commit themselves to similar criticisms because it remains impossible to determine whether football has caused dementia until a brain is thoroughly examined after death. Nevertheless, scientific studies have so far harmoniously concluded that footballers are at greater risk.

An FA trial to remove deliberate heading in U12 matches is ongoing. A ‘concussion substitute’ has been implemented, but the International Football Advisory Board recently rejected a trial of temporary concussion subs, which the PFA’s Head of Brain Health, Dr Adam White, labelled “extremely disappointing.”

Legendary United midfielder Paddy Crerand remembers his friend Nobby Stiles with a chuckle, or three. He daydreams of clipping a ball through for Charlton. He thinks preventative action is a “certainty” to happen soon.

“They might as well do these things now. We knew nothing about it in my day and it did a great deal of damage to players. We certainly know about it today.”

Progress is always slow, some suggest, but when football deems it beneficial to act fast, it does. There is a lesson to be learnt from the plight of Charlie Roberts and Manchester United legends 80 years on. When the warnings come, they must be listened to; if the evidence is strong, they must be heeded. To ignore them is to ignore the fate of our former footballing legends, to ignore their family’s tears as grandad rings again to say, ‘I’ve forgotten where I parked my car’, or forgets their name. Football can do better than that.

George Simms, News Associates, London

“You would try to juggle everything on your own, but it’s like trying to stay afloat in the deep end.

“That’s what my f***ing football career was like. I would get in, swim the fastest couple of lengths ever, but then I couldn’t get out of the pool and I couldn’t touch the bottom. It was only a matter of time before I sank.”

Ricky Miller is upset. He’s angry about what could’ve been, devastated he’s never quite been understood or appreciated. He’s learning about himself but worried it’s too late. He’s desperate to ensure his story is not repeated by future generations.

Still the record goalscorer in a National League season (40 goals in 2016-17 for Dover), the 33-year-old striker counts Peterborough, Luton and Mansfield among his 22 clubs.

He also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental condition often characterised by hyperactivity and an inability to control concentration. ADHD itself is not inherently debilitating, but it is when given insufficient support, or in cases like Miller’s, actively punished. As with most neurodivergent people, the issue is not so much their brain as society’s failure to cater for it.

Within football, ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions like autism, dyslexia or Tourette’s remain somewhere between desperately misunderstood and wilfully ignored.

Although it is becoming more widely discussed and diagnosed, no active Premier League player has ever publicly discussed their ADHD, despite four players receiving therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for drugs commonly used to treat it between 2015-2020.

One example is ex-Manchester United prodigy Ravel Morrison, whose diagnosis was revealed in 2011 court transcripts. These also exposed that the club forced him to stop taking his medication. The behavioural problems often associated with his unfulfilled potential can be directly linked to his unmedicated and unsupported ADHD.

To Miller, football’s unwillingness to understand his mind has limited a career defined by euphoric highs and destructive lows. At his four professional clubs, rather than receiving the support he needed, he was ostracised and eventually sold. After his record-breaking 2016-17 season, he earned a move to Peterborough, but was quickly loaned out without scoring a goal.

“At professional clubs, I’d be the best player for two months, then I’d start thinking everyone hates me,” Miller told me. “It was a horrible, slow process, coming in with anxiety every day. You’re too proud to ask for help or show people how scared you are.

“The more you try and hide it, the more you single yourself out, become an outcast. It was the same every time. Slowly but surely, I felt I wasn’t worthy to be there.”

Research suggests that anywhere between 15 and 25 per cent of the population are neurodivergent. Logic dictates the same should be true among professional footballers.

Yet Miller being among the first few current or former pros to openly discuss their diagnoses demonstrates that either the sport is failing to support neurodivergent people, or they are disproportionately terrible at football. Which seems more likely?

“Both football and school are made for a certain type of person,” he explains. “If you don’t fit that criteria you get ostracised and punished. Then you’re hard on yourself, you think you’re such a bad egg because you can’t concentrate like a ‘normal’ person.”

Alcohol abuse and dependence are estimated to be three times higher for adults with ADHD than those without. Miller has struggled with alcoholism throughout his career.

“You start feeling isolated, so you drink to counteract how football’s making you feel,” he says. “You’ve gone into the changing room full of anxiety, so you have a couple of beers to feel happy.

“But that’s a false happiness and then it’s worse the next day. That becomes a cycle, affects your fitness. Then it snowballs. It’s a gradual breakdown of your character, your confidence.”

Miller’s boundless energy is what made him a professional footballer. His goals were borne of running, harrying, pressing, pushing defenders for 90 minutes and beyond.

“You’ve constantly got so much going on in your head, it pushes you to do more and more,” he says. “I could push myself to limits other people couldn’t – they don’t have the energy.”

This highlights something players often disregard – their ADHD is often what makes them a brilliant footballer. It is associated with heightened creativity, energy and even superior concentration when the mind is stimulated.

Cardiff City forward Kaitlyn Morgan-Hemmens was diagnosed with ADHD aged eight. Now 20, she tells me: “With ADHD, you have this drive. If you’re fully focused on something, nothing else matters. I don’t think, I just do. In football, that’s a good thing.”

The ADHD brain craves enjoyment and excitement, things football can undoubtedly provide. People with ADHD thrive when they feel supported and appreciated. Football must do more to allow that to happen.

Dom Smith, News Associates London

Megaphone in hand and with his trouser legs tucked inside his jade socks, Ben Jones is as excitable as he is prompt.

 “I arrived an hour early for our interview so I got the loudspeaker out and proclaimed the message for a bit,” he says jovially.

 If you ever attend football matches in London, chances are you have stared curiously at the 47-year-old, preaching the Bible as you filtered past him towards the stadium. If John Motson was the voice of football, Ben Jones is the voice of God at the football.

 Jones, who cuts an awkward figure, lives alone in his Finchley flat. He balances his days between preaching the Pentecostal faith, administering his late father’s estate in California, and studying a PhD in electrical engineering at Queen Mary University of London.

 Jones has been football’s foremost evangelist for two decades, preaching at what he calls “the big four” stadiums: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham.

 “I have also been to Fulham in times past, but Craven Cottage is smaller so I’ve given up,” he admits, perking up when I tell him they’ve expanded the Riverside Stand. Fulham is suddenly back on the cards.

 “Wembley is one of my favourite places to proclaim the message. As you come out of the tube station, on the left there is a good place for me to position myself.

 “Waterloo Station too, but I have to be careful because the authorities can move me on. I don’t know the specifics of what the law says. I’m quite ignorant on that actually. Usually if they ask me to move, I go quiet for a while and then keep going.

 “I studied mathematics and physics at Oxford University,” Jones says, a sternness clouding over his face. “It didn’t go well for me at all. Bad stuff happened in my life when I was a student there. I ended up getting involved in a lot of occult practices, like the Ouija board.

 “I don’t have a lady friend or wife or children, but I did come back to a close spiritual relationship with Jesus in the year 1997. That helped me come away from the occult and towards God.”

 Football fans don’t always act with a generosity of spirit, but Jones has developed a thick skin.

 “At Arsenal I was once relating Jesus Christ’s message to being on the great football pitch of life — the need to be on his team,” Jones recounts. “Let Jesus be our personal team captain. And God is the referee: he gives us the yellow card, the warning in life.

 “I had those cards in my hand and one Arsenal fan grabbed them and threw them all in the air. I had to pick them up. Someone near me started running after him. A few minutes later the police had him in a really uncomfortable headlock, and they said ‘he’s come to apologise.’

 “Sometimes they yell some obscene things down [the megaphone]. I try to quickly switch it off. I’ve been nervous. You can sense whether the crowd are in a rowdy mood. It’s good that these events are quite heavily policed.

 “It is important not to let it get to you,” he reflects. “I can put up with the insults and the heckling comments. I’ve taken the occasional slap or punch. I learned Kung-Fu moves as a child, but thankfully I never actually had to use them.”

 While most opposition to Jones’s methods is purely born of alcoholic means, some dissent is slightly more fundamental.

 “At West Ham there’s a Christian who goes to games. At least three times, he has said: ‘That’s the worst, most ineffective form of evangelism’ as he walks past. I accept quite a few Church people don’t agree with this style. I say there are different ways of getting the message across. This is a way.”

 Does the football preacher actually like football?

 “I have watched the World Cup but the past one in Qatar I didn’t,” he admits. “Part of the reason is I don’t have a TV in my flat. Well, there is a TV — but it would need a day to get it plugged in and I probably couldn’t even do it myself.”

 Jones lives a simple, stripped-back life. It may feel apt to consider ways in which the football world could learn from his self-discipline. Instead, he ponders what he can learn from football fans.

 “When you watch a football match you really see the passion. As Christians, we can challenge ourselves: are we as passionate about serving God as football fans are about their team?”

 Perhaps in essence, football fans and theists like Jones are much the same. They have hopes and dreams and, to quote Clive Tyldesley (and the Bible), desires to “reach the Promised Land.”

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