Playing the games was the easy bit...

After 18 years as a professional footballer, Graeme Le Saux retired this week. Here he explains why - and what he intends to do with the rest of his life
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The Independent Football

Why go now? That is the question people asked when I announced I was retiring. A combination of things made me feel it was all drawing to a natural end. It first dawned on me that retirement was an option at Christmas. I was 36, my contract was coming to an end and a series of persistent minor injuries were stopping me playing as regularly as I wanted to. Emotionally I wanted to carry on playing - but would I be doing so for the right reasons? Would I be doing so just to stay in the environment I'd been used to, been comfortable in, for 18 years?

Why go now? That is the question people asked when I announced I was retiring. A combination of things made me feel it was all drawing to a natural end. It first dawned on me that retirement was an option at Christmas. I was 36, my contract was coming to an end and a series of persistent minor injuries were stopping me playing as regularly as I wanted to. Emotionally I wanted to carry on playing - but would I be doing so for the right reasons? Would I be doing so just to stay in the environment I'd been used to, been comfortable in, for 18 years?

The reasons for calling it a day were more rational. As a footballer it is not just about the playing a match, that was the easy bit. Playing on Saturday was the enjoyment, the bit I felt very comfortable about, the problem was the rest of the professional package. It was taking longer to recover from games and the need for medical treatment meant I was having to adapt my training programme. That sometimes meant I missed out on training with the rest of the team. My preparation for games was being affected and I realised that would be ongoing.

Training is such a vital part of preparation for a game, you really do train to play. It tops up your ability, like sharpening a carving knife. You can get away with not doing it for a while, as long as you have reached a certain standard of fitness. I've done so for the last few months. But I knew I couldn't do it without having at least half a season under my belt. Eventually it would all catch up with me and I would hate that to happen. You have a pride in performance and the more subtle aspects of the game would be exposed.

There was also the health aspect. Professional sport is not good for you. It damages joints and if you get injuries on top you get arthritic joints. I've been fortunate. I've had one very bad ankle injury but otherwise I've been incredibly lucky with my fitness. I've worked hard at it and I've always been fit even compared to other players. That sustains you through various parts of your career, but I am 36.

In the last year my wife has noticed me struggling to get downstairs on a Sunday morning. I've two young children and football has been so good to me over the years I don't want to spoil it.

I'm also giving the majority of players I play against 10 years, and doing so in a position where that can make a big difference. Left-back and left midfield are physically demanding positions. I've always been known for getting forward and back - I can't play the game any other way, but that requires a huge amount of energy. I've still got that energy, but not for 90 minutes.

So it was a hard decision but I know it is the right one. I'd much rather people said to me "you should have carried on for another year", than say "you should have stopped last year". To carry on playing would be a year too far.

The next question, of course, is what next? One thing I've noticed is how many ex-players talk about being unable to find something to replace football. But in any walk of life you have various chapters and I'm not looking to replicate football. I don't think there is anything else that could give me the same buzz and sense of achievement. Even management is not the same as playing.

From my point of view what I have to do now is appreciate and enjoy what football gave me, but now do something else with the same energy and enthusiasm I gave to football without expecting the same results.

One thing I will be doing is media work: writing and broadcasting. I will be doing a regular column for The Independent and continuing to work with the BBC. That has ticked many of the same boxes as playing. There is teamwork involved, a live atmosphere, an adrenalin rush, if you're at a game you have the atmosphere from the crowd. There is also a big sense of achievement if you do a good show. That means saying the right things, not making too many Colemanballs, and calling things the right way.

Footballers tend to look ahead, to the next match, the next challenge. Retiring has given me my first chance to be reflective. I've never looked back at my career before. Retiring makes people reminisce and it is quite interesting. You realise as a player that your own professional history is not just a snapshot of your career and life within football, but also a snapshot of other people's lives because they have supported me in those times, good and bad.

I realised this when my wife organised a surprise party for me. She invited lots of professional and personal friends and the BBC put together a montage of highlights. It was incredibly emotional for me. And while I watched these moments throughout my career my friends thought about certain stages of their lives. It was like an out-of-body experience.

I felt unbelievably grateful. The montage was almost like receiving an award. I've always been pretty self-deprecating but it made me realise I wasn't a bad player. It brought some clarity to what I've been striving to achieve since I became a professional footballer. I scored more and better goals than I thought. I had worse haircuts than I thought. I did what I set out to do, I got as far as I could.

I've enjoyed it all, but now is the time to move on.

'My best goal? Well, I once chipped Peter Schmeichel'

Best games: The first time I thought, "I really can do this", was a game against Spurs in the League Cup at Stamford Bridge in January 1991. I was up against Terry Fenwick who was a well-respected international footballer. We drew 0-0 and I had one of my best games. It was due to be on TV so I rushed back to see it only to find the Gulf War had broken out and the programme was cancelled. I was devastated.

Then there was my first game for Blackburn against Liverpool [April 1993] when I was man of the match. A lot of Chelsea fans would say my best match was a 3-3 draw at Old Trafford against Man United [September 2000]. I cleared a ball off the line and put in a couple of crosses we scored from.

...And the worst: There's been a few lows as well. The most disappointing game, well, the worst two minutes because I didn't play that badly, was the World Cup match against Romania in 1998. Dan Petrescu ran all the way across the other side of the pitch and I followed him. He scored a strange, soft goal, and I was the nearest man. I got a bit of stick from away fans about it the following season. It was the first time I'd had stick for something to do with England.

Regrets: There's also been a few things I regret including the three red cards I received. There was the time at Chelsea I threw my shirt down after Ian Porterfield substituted me. Fortunately I had the chance to make up for it when I returned to Chelsea. Then there was the fight with David Batty in Moscow [November 1995]. I should never have let it happen. If it had happened in training it would have been soon over but it is still talked about.

Not being picked by Sven Goran Eriksson was also a low. I never did find out why. After being in the team for six years I thought I deserved some explanation.

But the worst moment of all was in late 1995 when I broke my ankle. I came round from surgery on the Sunday lunchtime. I was on my own in a hospital in Rochdale. I turned on the telly and the first thing I saw was the draw for Euro '96. I just burst into tears. The injury kept me out of Euro 2000 as well because by then it required surgery.

Best goal: Surprisingly, it's hard to pick just one - there's been a few good ones. My one England goal was a volley from the edge of the box against Brazil [June 1995]; I once chipped Peter Schmeichel (which I'll have to remind him) [January 1998]; there was a 30-yarder against Nottingham Forest [November 1995] and a half-volley against Arsenal from outside the box [March 1995].

Best opponent: Denmark's Brian Laudrup gave me a hard game [March 1994]. Maybe that was because it was my England debut but he was also a very good player.

Tip for the future: In the last four years I've seen Shaun Wright-Phillips progress to the point you know he has great potential. Playing against him he's made me feel 40-years-old but we've had tough matches in which we could come off with our heads held high, albeit with me breathing heavily.

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