This week I’ve been thinking about the sacrifices that are needed as a footballer to really make a good career in the game.
I was blessed to play as a full time professional in England for 15 years before I moved to the League of Ireland for a brief period with Dundalk - again as a full-time player before my move to Portadown in the Irish league six years ago.
Now the Irish League is commonly called a semi-professional league but there is no such thing as semi-professional in my eyes. If you get paid to play then you have signed a professional contract if you sign as an amateur then you don’t get paid. There is no contract in place that declares a player as half a professional. Therefore, I fully believe players should behave in a professional manner at all times and by doing that then a lot of sacrifices have to be made.
I was lucky that when I moved to Portadown my contract was sufficiently suitable to enable me to continue my routine that I had followed during my career in England with a few adjustments to training times to suit what I was doing with the rest of the team. Now training, and the hours that are spent at the training ground, that’s the easy part of being a professional player; the things that are the most difficult are the sacrifices that have to be made in order to continue performing at the peak level.
These sacrifices include having and maintaining a sensible diet pretty much all year round. That means when your wife, mum or whoever is in charge of the menu in the household fancies a Chinese takeaway on a Thursday or Friday night, which are the optimum days for preparation when leading to a Saturday game, the professional player has to have the willpower to say no and stick to the right food and drinks.
Many times during my playing career myself and Becci were invited out for a meal on a Friday night but there was no way I would take a chance on going out to eat a meal that I hadn’t full control over.
As a matter of interest, I’ve had the same meal on a Friday for probably 18 years, chicken pasta bake. I’m so much a creature of habit that if I made it and played well or scored the next day then I would continue to make it until such a stage where I didn’t play well and the baton would be passed to Becci. I’m sure she was delighted a year ago when I announced my retirement so she could order a takeout, but, lo and behold, George has taken over the mantle of having the same meal on a night before his games so the routine is now continuing in the Tipton household.
When I left home two days after my 16th birthday on 1st July 1996 little did I know that would be the last time I would really live at my hometown ever again and that’s been a hard sacrifice that I had to take to make a success out of my career. There is no professional club within an hour’s drive of Bangor so I had to give up all my school friendships as back in those days to stay in touch with people was by way of letter!
During a weekend visit home one year I met up with my friends and the talk got around to summer holidays.
Anyway, a few of the lads had booked a trip to Maguluf or one of them exotic destinations for 10 days and asked if I wanted to book on. “Of course,” I said, “what date are you going?” “Middle of July,” was the reply to which I said, unfortunately, I can’t go as I’ll be back in pre-season.
Now, to my mates who were either students or doing apprenticeships of one thing or another, they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just book a week off but that was the first of many, many times where I had to explain that any holidays or breaks had to be taken from the middle of May to the end of June.
This leads to numerous problems when living away from family and friends. Trying to organise a break away where everyone can go to a foreign place at the same time is nearly impossible when everybody else has to sacrifice their preference to suit the professional footballer’s calendar and I’m sure Becci would also have loved to go on holiday in middle of August when the weather is baking and there would have been more children off school.
Another problem I faced a few years ago was when my youngest brother Callum was getting married and due to his job could only get married over the Christmas and New Year period.
At this stage of my career I was playing at Ballymena and we were going OK in the league but had an Irish Cup tie on the same Saturday as his wedding and it was only three weeks to go until the League Cup final. As soon as Callum sent us the invitation I had to ring him to explain that Saturdays during the football season was a no-go and something I couldn’t do anything about.
I know many of you reading this will think I’m crazy and stupid to even contemplate not going to my own brother’s wedding but I hope and pray Callum and Jess realised that it was built into my psyche since the age of about nine that I had dedicated my whole life to being a footballer and the thought of missing a game wouldn’t even cross my mind. Since a really young age the birthday parties, christenings or any kind of celebrations of friends and family I didn’t attend because I had training or a game would be enough to fill a column by itself but it was all part of living the life of a professional footballer.
For the 20 years I’ve been with Becci I don’t think we’ve spent one of her birthdays together due to me being in the middle of pre-season and either being away on tour, playing a match or in the last few years I’ve been out at training.
For 15 years I trained every Christmas Day in preparation for Boxing Day games, trained New Year’ss Eve ahead of New Year’s Day games as well as playing or training on every order public holiday.
I’m not looking for sympathy for doing any of these things I’m just trying to highlight that being a professional footballer isn’t all about the multi-million pound moves or driving a Ferrari. Of course, if things work out and a player makes it to the very top then these things can happen but at the levels I played at the money was never going to set any player up for life but the same sacrifices have to be made from top to bottom.
As a manager now, I’m trying to install the same traits that I carried throughout my playing career onto my players.
I understand that as a predominantly part-time league, players have other jobs outside of the time we ask them to commit to, but I want to drill it into my players that when they sign for Warrenpoint Town they are committed to the training nights and every Saturday from August to May.
To some players this might be a different attitude to what they’ve previously encountered but for us to push on it’s what we need to get. So those players who want a night off for their wife’s birthday or a weekend away to celebrate a friends stag do will quickly find themselves left behind by the players who understand and are willing to undertake these sacrifices.
Typing this column has made me realise that the sacrifices a footballer makes are nothing compared to the sacrifices his family makes. They have to give up the meals out, parties on Friday nights, the spend Christmas mornings sat in the house waiting for dad to get home from training.
I truly thank my entire family for putting up with me for the last 30-plus years as I tried to live my dream of being the best professional footballer I could be and I hope you all now understand just some of the sacrifices we make.