Sue Smith - Technology enabling team spirit and banter to continue despite the shutdown

Just in case there are any Women’s Super League managers reading this, I have not officially retired from football!

SOMETHING MISSING: Footballer turned pundit Sue Smith still misses the dressing room banter.

I have not played a senior game since 2016, but I never came out and said the words.

I have played football since I could walk. I used to go to watch my brother play and when I was five I started playing for a boy’s team. I am still playing now. If my body would let me, I would play five-a-side every day of the week.

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But when it comes to competitive football, I still miss it massively – playing against the best players in the country or the world when I was playing for England, the dressing room, the team spirit that means you would do anything for your team-mates and even the routine.

EARLY RETIREMENT: Chris Basham of Sheffield United, left, says the closedown has given him some idea of what retirement from the game must be like.

I can recreate that team spirit a bit, as well as the highs and lows that come with a good day or a stinker, working for Soccer Saturday, but it is not the same.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many professional footballers have had some of those things taken away from them, but they have no idea for how long. Sheffield United’s Chris Basham and Oliver Norwood have both described this lay-off as an unwelcome glimpse into what retirement must be like, away from the dressing-room banter so many retired professionals highlight as the thing they miss the most.

When I injured my cruciate knee ligaments in 2012 deep down I knew my England career was over. By the time I got back into training, I had fallen behind my team-mates, many of whom had played at the Olympics that summer, but I could not bring myself to say I had retired from international football.

Maybe in the back of my mind there was a part of me hoping I could still live the dream of pulling on the Three Lions again.

IN IT TOGETHER: Players will be missing the day-to-day interaction of training and matches.

I was able to get back playing for Doncaster Rovers Belles, but after a few years I reached a similar point with them. I knew it was coming to an end.

I was quite fortunate I was starting to work in the media by then, and I was having to turn down quite a lot of work because I was playing. At some point I was going to have to make a decision but I still thought I had another year in me.

The tipping point for me was in 2016 when I lost my dad.

He had always been a massive part of my football life and maybe it was the jolt I needed.

I missed a lot of games and training sessions to help my mum when he was ill and it forced me to make a decision – should I try to have one last amazing season or just stop?

I decided to take a few months off.

Doncaster were really understanding, telling me if I wanted to come back great, but if not, they would understand. I cannot thank them enough.

I started to do more media work with Sky and the BBC, which made me still feel involved in the game in a different way. I kept getting calls from lower-league and even WSL clubs, asking if I wanted to train with them and have one last season, or in some cases not train at all, just play. I did not feel that was right.

It would not have been fair on players training all week only for me to take their place on the weekend and anyway, I am the sort of person who needs to fully commit to things.

The longer I was away from that playing environment, the more difficult it became to come back – so I never did.

Lots of retired players talk about how they miss the dressing-room camaraderie. Whenever I get together with some of my best friends who I played with for England in some cases roomed with on away trips it reminds me how much I miss it too.

It has only been about three weeks but I am already missing not being able to play five-aside. Some of my friends I play with are already talking about having a massive kick-about on the field as soon as this lockdown is over, and I am already looking forward to it.

I am one of those people who cannot walk past a football without kicking it.

The professionals will be going through the same emotions now, I am sure.

Nowadays the Professional Footballers’ Association do so much to prepare footballers for retirement with so many courses. I did not take it up, but the offer was always there of people I could speak to when I stopped playing.

Some of the girls I played with had babies as soon as they retired and that gave them another focus. I had my media work.

There is not much the players’ union could have done to prepare anyone for this lockdown, though, because it happened so quickly, it is so unprecedented, and we do not know how long it will last.

The players will be doing their best to tick over, but as a former footballer I know training becomes more difficult when you do not have a game to aim for.

They have to try to stay motivated so they are ready whenever the call comes to start up again.

Most of them have probably never trained on their own. Even when you are injured, you are normally working with physios, or the other injured players, and often working towards a target date for your return.

The players will be looking at all the talk about how things could start up again just like the rest of us.

The fitness coaches and sports scientists have a really important part to play.

They usually have a plan but until we have a return date, they will not know what phase players need to be in.

They have given the players a routine and they need to be creative with the training they come up with and keep the competitive juices flowing.

Some women’s teams have done their strength and conditioning sessions over video with everyone linking in. That means you can see what everyone else is doing and, being sportspeople, you will want to do better than them all.

Even for the players who cannot see each other training, they are sending data over daily in their WhatsApp groups, so they will want to cycle or run further or faster, or lift heavier weights, than their team-mates.

At least the technology means they can stay in touch with one another, but the players will be itching to get back into the dressing-room and out on the field, tackling and dribbling past one another.

The last thing they need is to take a break altogether. They need those routines and structures in their life.

They might not even realise it yet but trust me, they will miss it when it has gone.

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