The Last Word: How to stay off football's scrap heap

Every year players are forced into a game of chicken to grab another season's security

Pressure is a relative term in the la-la land of the Premier League. Some sensitive souls struggle to get themselves into the right frame of mind to play when their eight-figure contracts have less than two years to run.

Look beyond the mechanics of maintaining a millionaire's lifestyle, and the absurdities of unconditional support, and the landscape of professional football changes. The difference between the haves and have-nots is becoming positively Dickensian.

It has always been a game of brutal contrasts and brittle personalities. Now, as austerity bites, players play, unpaid, for short-term contracts. There are too many tales of pre-season triallists asking to sleep in the dressing room, or a groundsman's hut, for them all to be apocryphal.

In 10 days' time, 460 players will have the option of signing on the dole. Their severance package from former clubs, one month's salary, will be exhausted. Lives are on hold, because, in the language of the HR industry, they are ''disengaged''.

Ben Smith is among those looking for work through the medium of the transfer directory operated by the PFA, the players' union. At 33 he is going through the formalities of the long goodbye from a game that has been central to his life since he joined Arsenal at the age of 11.

He's a self-confessed journeyman, whose career has been sustained in the small print for 16 years, double the average span. He ended last season watching from the stands at Accrington as his Crawley teammates secured a second successive promotion. His release, after an unfulfilling loan spell at Aldershot, was instant, inevitable.

Security has been consistently elusive. Smith signed professional forms at Arsenal on the same day as Denis Bergkamp, but quickly realised his limitations. He made a single substitute's appearance for Reading before finding his niche in central midfield for Yeovil, Southend, Shrewsbury, Weymouth and Hereford.

Initially, the freedom to move was intoxicating. He signed one-year contracts in the summer, and began to worry about the mortgage the following February. It became increasingly difficult to rationalise the strain on his partner, who was forced to sacrifice her friendships, and job satisfaction, for him.

He signed his longest contract, for two-and-a-half years, while captain at Weymouth. Within two weeks he was on the move again, after the entire first-team squad was placed on the transfer list. The money had run out.

Over the past three seasons, since he turned 30, Smith's wages have dropped by more than 60 per cent. He has a good reputation, and accepts football's ageist tendencies. Anyone over 30 must fight the perception his legs have "gone".

In reflective moments, managers admit to exploiting the situation by habitually lying about their budget. They offer £100 a week less during contract renewal negotiations because they calculate, correctly, that a player does not want to uproot his family.

It's nothing personal – they simply detach themselves from the consequences of their decisions.

Smith is not resentful. He studied part-time for a business management degree, and has long-term coaching ambitions. Voluntary work he did at his former school has resulted in the offer of a probationary three-month period as a trainee teacher.

He is seeking to continue playing part-time, and has been training with the Conference club Braintree. He looks around and sees players of a similar age attempting to buy time. Many take painkillers before each training session, and routinely underplay injuries or illness.

In essence, unemployed players are engaged in what Smith terms ''a giant game of chicken''. They are holding out for what they believe they are worth. Managers are determined not to blink first.

Both sides know that eventually, the player will crack, and accept what's on offer.

If he doesn't, there are others who will happily wear a dead man's boots.

Here are my three to raise a cheer

If gold medals were awarded for pessimism, Team GB would be home and hosed.

The weather will do its worst. Transport will be a nightmare. Spectators will be Tasered if they eat chips without IOC-approved fish.

The prospect of Tom Daley, diving's answer to Justin Bieber, triggering a hormonal tsunami is too terrifying to contemplate. And yet…

These will be my seventh Games. Each has proved the doubters wrong, provided indelible freeze-frame images of human drama and achievement. Fight against Olympian hypocrisy and commercialism by all means. But do not forget the athletes.

Here are three Britons who will win gold, if there is any justice in the world. The rower Katherine Grainger won silver in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. At 36, she has her last chance, in the double sculls with Anna Watkins.

The kayaker Tim Brabant is a classic Olympian, who invades our consciousness once every four years. He has sacrificed his medical career, and overcome debilitating injury, to defend his K1 1,000m title.

Sarah Stevenson has had her body in bits for longer than she dare admit. Her sport, taekwondo, does not deserve her dignity and dedication.

All three have everything on the line. It's time to share their dream.

The 39th step

Here's the 39th game, with a difference: stage a mid-season all-star break. Pit a Premier League select against La Liga equivalents, in Qatar in January. Share the TV money with the clubs, and the principle of rest will be quietly forgotten.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Life and Style
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone