Why I actually feel sorry for David James

As you may have seen in the news this week, former England goalkeeper David James has gone bankrupt, being forced to sell off a bunch of his memorabilia in order to keep his head above water. A quick browse on Twitter showed mostly scorn targeted at James for being able to throw away such a significant fortune. “Was he brushing his teeth with liquid gold?” asked one. “He never was any good at saving was he?” (har har) asked another.

But, despite his incredibly lavish former lifestyle I do actually feel sorry for him. James has played an incredible 536 games in the Premier League, a record only bettered by Ryan Giggs and Frank Lampard. He’s got more clean sheets than any other keeper in Premier League history – 173. Yet now here he is, flat broke and selling off his old football shirts to make ends meet. Just what went wrong?


I think the problem lies in the amount of money players – especially young players – are paid in the modern game. It seems a little counterintuitive for me to say that more money can make people go broke, but hear me out. From a very young age, players contracted to a Premier League club will be on a wage. If they’re under sixteen it may be only a few hundred quid a week – peanuts when you consider the average wage is £30,000. Whilst it may not seem like a lot, when you take it out of the context of the ridiculous world of football, to a kid who’s still at school a few hundred quid per week is an incredible amount of money.

Naturally, as you’d imagine, these kids will spend and spend and spend. After all, if they run out of money they’ve got another sweet paycheck coming in in a few days, and anyway they’re still living with their parents so it’s not like they’ll go hungry. They spend their wages on luxury items, phones, Beats headphones, Apple computers. They treat their families and friends to lavish gifts. This goes on for a couple of years, whilst the club’s coaching staff figure out whether or not they’re worth a punt in the first team. For many, the dream ends here. They get dropped by their club and either drop down the divisions, or end their career altogether.

The lucky few, however, will manage to either work their way through the ranks into the senior squad, or get poached by another team. They get put on a senior contract, which will be in the thousands. As mentioned before the average Premier League wage is £30,000 per week, but the best players will earn something closer to £250,000. Wayne Rooney, Manchester United and England captain, is the highest paid player in England, earning £300,000 a week.

So these kids who were once on a few hundred quid a week are now on thousands. With no school to distract them anymore, they throw themselves into improving their game. They get better, earning bumper contracts along the way. A big-money move to Manchester United, or Chelsea, or Arsenal soon follows much to the annoyance of their first club’s fans, but much to the delight of their bank balance. The phones and computers they bought whilst they were youngsters become Ferraris, £10,000 TVs, and mansions in the suburbs. They’ve always had such an abundance of money, they’ve never considered what life would be like without it. So they spend, and spend. Every week they get paid a fat paycheck, and everything seems fine. In fact, a player on the average salary of £30,000 per week earns more in one month than the Prime Minister does in a year.


After a few years, things start to decline. They hit their early thirties and their legs start to give out on them. The top four club they play for starts to realise they’re not cut out for this anymore, so they either sell, or the player retires. Suddenly a lot less money is coming in, if any at all. But these players just keep on spending because they have never known anything else. They don’t know the value of money, they don’t know how to build savings. They just spend.

Once a footballer’s career hits this decline stage, it can go a few ways. Some will try their hand at the ruthless, cutthroat world of football management. This is not for everyone though. The number of great players who’ve tried their hand at management and failed spectacularly is longer than the list of players who’ve made a success of it. The other popular option is punditry, which again many have a crack at but very few manage to forge long and successful careers out of it.

If this fails, or these two options don’t appeal, usually players will have to look outside of football. Thomas Gravesen is a notable success; the former Everton hard-man shrewdly put all of his football earnings into property, and now lives a life of comfortable retirement in the USA.

Thomas Gravesen
Thomas Gravesen

But Gravesen is definitely the exception, not the rule. A charity called XPro, which supports retired footballers, says that two in five of them are bankrupt 5 years after hanging up their boots for good. The reason you don’t hear about it too often is because most of them aren’t massively well known. David James played for England, Portsmouth, and Liverpool amongst many others over a long and illustrious career. He’s now bankrupt and slogging away in the Indian Super-League as player-manager of Kerala Blasters. The fact that it could happen to a player of his stature shows to what extent a footballer’s lavish lifestyle is built on sand.

So, yes, in their playing years footballers get a ridiculously extravagant lifestyle. But after they’ve finished playing, the fact that they’ve always had an abundance of money devalues it. They spend way over the odds, and in many cases like this one, they go flat broke.

Next time you hear about a footballer’s wages and scoff in anger, take a moment to think. Yes, they’ve got it easy right now, but wait until they’ve retired. Their life probably won’t be as idyllic as you think.

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