A year ago they were through the worst of pre-season training and looking forward to the real thing. Charlton's Andy Hunt, Steve Bould of Sunderland and Colin Calderwood of Nottingham Forest were among the better-known names who started, but did not finish, and were forced to acknowledge before the end of the season that because of injury or illness, they would be unable to begin another one.
They are by no means alone. Every year, the Professional Footballers' Association deals with a dozen or more similar cases, illustrating the truism that however glamorous the profession may appear, a career can be terminated at any time, often in a split-second – a point emphasised last week when Crystal Palace's Darren Pitcher failed in a court claim that an opponent had been negligent with the tackle from which his damaged knee never recovered. He now works in the building trade.
The official pensionable age for footballers is 35. In the case of those blessed with sporting longevity, it can be deferred until 40 or, for the odd sprightly goalkeeper, beyond that. Players forced to finish through injury can claim earlier, but cannot then return to play at the same level.
Brendon Batson, the PFA's deputy chief executive, who was himself forced to retire at 31, says: "In addition to the PFA scheme, we encourage players to take out their own pension. The clubs also insure them and get an insurance pay-out if a player has to retire, and we try to negotiate a percentage of what the club receive."
Hunt's case is a poignant one, not only because he had been on course for the most successful season of a an 11-year career, but on account of the unusual nature of its premature conclusion. A bout of glandular fever the previous season had not prevented him scoring more goals (24) than any other First Division player as Charlton eased to the championship. Scoring three times in the opening five Premiership matches reflected his team's confident start, until the first sign of something untoward occurred in a hard-earned victory over Tottenham at The Valley. Half-an-hour from the finish, Hunt was so tired he could barely move and, after being substituted, found his vision was blurred. Although feeling well enough to start the next two matches, he could not finish either; a goal against Coventry City on 30 September proved to be his last kick in professional football.
Post-viral fatigue syndrome (commonly known as ME) was eventually diagnosed and Hunt was told that it would be unwise to continue. "It becomes a tough decision, between your career and making sure you don't become ill again," he said. Always an independent spirit, the former Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion striker is now considering a new life abroad.
The moment that undermined Calderwood's career came in only his sixth game for Nottingham Forest, after being transferred from Aston Villa. A broken ankle away to Birmingham City at the end of the 1999-2000 season continued to cause him problems and after failing to regain full fitness during a period on loan at Notts County, he too was forced to face up to the need to find alternative employment.
Bould already has done: having never been sure what life after football would hold, he began doing some coaching, thoroughly enjoyed it and is about to take up a post with the Arsenal Academy. His final appearance was for 45 minutes as a Sunderland substitute against Manchester City last August, "which told me all I needed to know", in a game that City won 4-2. Hoping against hope, he went through an operation for arthritis of the toe, before admitting defeat. On his own admission, Bould has been "one of the lucky ones" in having kept going for 20 years with Stoke, Arsenal and Sunderland. He is full of praise for the PFA's efforts and is gracious enough to spare a thought for some of those who fell by the wayside: "I had friends at Stoke who finished through injury very early in their career, and it's hard for them, it's cruel. Their dream's gone."
At a time of year when all footballers can dream, it is worth sparing a thought for those whose dream is over.Reuse content