Steven Reid: 'When you finish with this game, or when the game finishes with you, you'll quickly be forgotten about'
Former Republic of Ireland midfielder Steven Reid reveals the unique mindset needed to survive in the Premier League and how injuries and personal traumas caused him deep anguish and many sleepless nights
I wake up in the middle of the night and stare into the darkness. I'm 27 years old and can't walk. My knee has just been operated on and for the next two months I have to put this machine called a CPM (Continuous Passive Motion) onto my leg. And it weighs me down, both physically and emotionally.
I'm scared. All my life, I've been a footballer and for the last 11 years it has been a job, not just a game I play with my mates. It pays well - very well - but as I lie in bed, I'm not thinking about the payslips I've received over the previous 11 years, but the ones that are going to stop any time now.
Footballers aren't allowed to feel this way. We never admit weakness, certainly not to each other. I've had friends who've gone through crises in their lives, break-ups with partners, financial troubles, the loss of a parent, a sick child.
I've seen them go through hell and then I've seen them walk through the door of a training ground with a smile on their face. I've heard their banter, looked at them as they've stepped into the middle of a dressing-room floor to tell some joke, or story, about a night out and watched their faces light up when they hear the laughter.
I've trained with them, watched them zip around a football pitch, cajoling a team-mate to 'give it more'. Anyone would think that person was the happiest man on earth. The truth is he's just the best actor in the world.
Later, maybe that day, maybe that week, we'd talk. "I'm f**ked, Reidy," he'd tell me. "I've lost most o' my money. I'm f**kin' broke."
If you weren't a footballer, you'd wonder how. You'd certainly not have sympathy. You'd think, 'you stupid fool. How can you earn a £1 million a year and end up broke'?
Well, it happens. Divorce happens. And in football, it happens a lot, especially when players finish their careers.
Bad investments happen. You walk into training one day and get introduced to this slick, well-dressed man with a welcoming smile and you're told, 'Steven, this is ######, he's a financial advisor. He's been looking after a couple of us'.
You are a young man. You left school at 16. You have no reason to distrust anyone because life has been good to you. All you've known is a loving family and people who care about you.
So you listen to this man speak. He says there is no risk, no fees involved and that all the investments will be sensible ones.
"All you have to do is sign here, Steven," I'm told.
Looking back now, it's frightening to think how naive I was, how I could invest so much of my money into something I knew absolutely nothing about and how a chancer I'd never met before could cost me a fortune.
"You have to think about your future," he says.
On this night, after an hour trying to get comfortable in bed, the future is all I'm thinking of. Kathleen (my wife) is woken. "You alright," she asks. "Can't sleep," I say. She looks up. I can see she's worried too.
She knows me inside out and knows how the game affects me. You play, you're happy. You win, you're happier. You lose a game on a Saturday and you are in mourning until the Tuesday and then you condition yourself to forget about what's past and look forward instead.
She knows how important football is to me because she was there, bags packed, excitedly waiting for a trip of a lifetime to Barbados in 2002 when my phone rang and Mick McCarthy told me that Mark Kennedy was injured and that he wanted to bring me to Japan instead.
"Yesssssssssssssssssssssssssssss," I shouted.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I'm going to the World Cup."
You see she's gutted. You give her a 'ah, you know' kind of hug but you're lost in your own selfish delight and promise her there'll be other holidays.
But neither of us are thinking about Barbados this night, instead about something a lot less sunny. Isla, our daughter is two. Harry, our boy, is on the way. Kathleen is pregnant and her husband isn't even able to toss and turn his way through a sleepless night because this machine he has got on his leg prevents him from moving.
"If you want to play Premier League football again, you have to wear it," Dr Steadman, my surgeon, told me.
So I put it on night after night for two months and every night I lie there thinking about how my career could potentially be over and every night I shed a tear.
We have costs. We've had an unbelievable lifestyle for a few years but now we're looking at a long, long future and I've got to do something to make ends meet. She knows when I'm hurting. She knows I don't go to Blackburn's games anymore because of what happened two Saturdays ago, when I had to leave the dressing-room because the lads were hyped up for their game with Chelsea and I was so depressed because of this injury that I felt my mood could drag them down.
So I stood out in the tunnel on my crutches and was asked 23 times when I was coming back and I gave 23 identical answers. "I don't know." The 23 questioners gave 23 shrugs and walked on to talk to someone else and there and then, the penny dropped. When you finish with this game, or this game finishes with you, you'll quickly be forgotten about.
There'll always be another player for a club to spend money on, a manager to select, a fan to stop and talk to.
We lost 2-0 that day and five or six supporters turned to me and shouted. "You're getting paid for doing nothing." I could barely look them in the eye.
When I look back on those days and nights now, I know it was a big turning point in my life. I knew then my career was on borrowed time. Yes, my knee got better. Yes, I played again. I earned for another seven years.
But this was the night when I realised your career doesn't last forever, that time passes, that you get older, you get hurt, you get bought, you get sold, that one day it will all come to an end and that if you don't have a plan for when that day comes, then, to borrow my friend's words, 'you're f**ked'.
I started my coaching badges that summer and have been doing them ever since. This year, I've got my first job, Steve Clarke's first-team coach at Reading. It's a welcome to the real world. There has been one day off since we started on June 23, just one day when I have seen the kids.
But it's good for me. I miss my family but I am selfishly loving my new job. It intrigues me. It is my first year since 1996 when I have not been getting myself ready for pre-season, the first year since 2002 when the start of the Premier League seasons means absolutely nothing to me.
For once, I'm not looking at the fixtures, seeing it's Old Trafford in October, Stamford Bridge in December, Anfield in May. I'm not caring about who Chelsea have signed, who Arsenal have released. I'm thinking about Brentford, Rotherham and the MK Dons.
I know a point will come - probably in the middle of a match - when I will get up from the dug-out and think, 'do you know, I'd love to be involved out there?' And I know another day will come when I will get called into an office and told the job is no longer mine.
That's football. That's management. You know the deal when you sign up to do it.
And it's what I want. More importantly, it's what I need. I remember those sleepless nights when the future was something that scared me. I have seen fellas fall apart when their career has ended, the ones who hadn't made plans. I'm aware of their problems, marital ones, alcohol issues, drug issues, depression.
That night seven years ago, reality bit. I knew I had to do something. I had to make plans. Each year since has seen my wages decrease and my cloth cut to suit. We've looked to the future, Kathleen and I. We've seen it's a long way from 34 to old age. I got myself ready for the day when I was no longer a footballer.
Do I miss the prospect of walking out at Old Trafford and hearing that noise, seeing those fans, getting that feeling when you do something good, getting that respect when you play well, hearing thousands of people sing your name?
No. Not any more. Time moves on and so have I.