Welcome back to our tenth and final article. It’s been very pleasing to hear that coaches, players and people outside of the football industry have been enjoying the articles. Reading the true and honest insights of the players who have been through the professional game.

It’s my pleasure to finish the series off with a player I have known since I was thirteen. Someone who I was very close with throughout my professional career and had a great friendship with. The corner of constant banter in the changing room. Five years on we still catch up on social media and talk about the playing days. This week we hear from Carl Lawson. A brilliant technician of the game with a beautiful first touch, clever link play and a classy finish. In my opinion, if he was born in Europe or especially Spain, he would still be playing professional today. Let’s get into it.

Carl spent ten years at Sunderland AFC coming in at 12 years old, showing technical quality and the potential of becoming a professional footballer. Carl went on to progress through the academy system. Not the biggest or the strongest but someone who continued to improve his technical and tactical ability. Showing his skill to out-play and out think other opponents with his feet and brain. Carl began as a number 9 but then continued to learn his craft operating in wide areas and as a number 10. Adding more to his tactical toolbox.

When Carl turned 16, he was then offered his two-year scholarship from Sunderland. His hard work and sacrifice had paid off. He was now stepping into full-time football and the next chapter of his footballing life. As with most young footballers, the path to the professional game is a tough, gruelling journey with plenty of setbacks. In Carl’s first year as a scholar he suffered a broken foot in the opening game of the season away to Crystal Palace. This halted his development and all the hard work that had been put in place during pre-season. He came off at half time after sustaining the injury in the opening 10 minutes of the game. Not a typical on field hard man if you saw him, but he was tough.

Carl Lawson (Sunderland AFC U23's 2016)

This is a test of a player’s character and how they deal with the difficulty of being injured. Carl fought his way back to fitness and regained his place within the u18 squad. Showcasing his resilience as an individual.  

Carl continued to impress in his second year as a scholar being part of a league winning side in the 2011-2012 season. Again, it wasn’t without its tests as Carl suffered another terrible injury. This time it was his back and complications surrounding the nerve endings. This injury side lined Carl for months reducing his daily routine to treatment from the physiotherapists and a swim in the pool. As a fellow teammate of Carl, I witnessed how mentally taxing this was for him and how he couldn’t do anything besides rest and wait.

Once again Carl displayed a huge amount of mental toughness and perseverance. Coming through one of the toughest injuries of his career. Carl returned to the pitch and after a small grace period was back scoring and creating goals within a front three of George Honeyman and Mikael Mandron.

Carl then progressed into the u21’s team being a consistent performer within a team that had been together since they were 13 years old. One of the strongest reserve teams since the days of Jordan Henderson, Jack Colback, Conor Hourihane and Martyn Waghorn. Finishing in the top five for three years in a row. Competing against big budget clubs like Chelsea, Manunited and Manchester City. Carl continued to be a part of the reserve team for another 3 years, being involved in the transition to the u23’s league and receiving a number of appearances in the EFL cup for the club. Getting the opportunity to play with first team players in some top stadiums. Such as the Etihad, Old Trafford, Anfield and many more.

As we’ve heard in previous weeks, it’s very difficult to break into the first team and be given an opportunity. Especially when your contracted to a Premier League club. Carl had spent four years within the reserve team set-up, playing alongside and against some brilliant players. Unfortunately, like many others, he wasn’t going to get his chance. Carl’s contract wasn’t renewed in 2017 and this was his exit from professional football.

Carl described his reaction to the situation saying “It was an unusual feeling as I knew It was coming. I was one of the oldest players in the u23’s and I had been given no opportunities.” Carl found it very difficult to take in after dedicating his young life to the game, explaining how “it can all be taken away from you with a few decisions around a table.”

Carl went into more detail on the reason behind why he knew it was coming, explaining that in his final year with the club he was shut out and left to his own devices. With a small amount of game time it became a year of training waiting for the inevitable decision of the club. This had a serious mental impact on Carl, affecting his confidence as a player. With no guidance or support in securing Carl a potential loan move away from the club. He was stuck.

We discussed the difficult period after leaving a professional club and as Carl described it “being in limbo.” Carl went through a number of trials at clubs and was pushing to get his career back on track. He painted the picture of walking into a new dressing room, you don’t know them, they don’t know you and they don’t care. Most players will have experienced this feeling and how daunting it can be. Especially after leaving a club who you’ve been with for such a long period of time.

Carl didn’t receive a great deal of support from Sunderland besides a brief trial at Middlesbrough which didn’t work out. Following on from his last year with the club that was all that was offered after being with Sunderland for over 10 years. A common sentiment for most young players.

The biggest help for Carl was a man called Mark Jones, who offered Carl support, guidance and advice. We laughed as Carl said he has still never met Mark in person considering he was the only person who outstretched his hand to help. Mark secured Carl a trial at Grimsby which was successful and Carl was invited back. The possibility of a contract looked promising, hearing whispers of good news coming. However, football has a habit of kicking you when you’re down and just like that the manager was sacked and it all disappeared.  Another test of Carl’s strength.

Carl said he was never in any kind of denial about how things were going but more a question of his confidence and self-doubting himself as a player. Something that has been echoed through a number of the articles. Carl mentioned one of the most important things all young footballers should hear. “After a year of being out of the professional game it was time to start enjoying my football again. I was starting a fresh, regardless of the level.” Something I completely agree with. Young players who go through these experiences can be worn down and the love of actually playing football can be lost. Carl went on to say “pro football can be very tedious at times and in my opinion, there are more lows than highs.”

Carl found it difficult to accept that his dream and everything he had known for so long was fading away. Adding that in the end he felt like a piece of meat in the shop window and if no one was going to take a bite, then you were discarded. Basically, if you don’t have the connections to get you in the door, you aren’t going to survive this cut-throat industry and that is difficult to accept as a young player.

Carl was fortunate like others to have great support from his family and friends through this tough period, which most of us in these situations all fall back on. However, he was disappointed in the lack of support from Sunderland, his boyhood club and one he expected more from. Saying that he received more from a man who he never met in person.

Carl Lawson (Sunderland AFC U23's 2017)

Carl feels strongly that more needs to be done to provide players with a stepping stone into life after professional football. Adding that his life after professional football is still a work in progress four years on. Carl is currently working for Sunderland City Council. He said it was difficult to know where to go after football but knew he needed an income and a way of supporting himself and being able to enjoy life with his partner. It’s also allowed them to get on the property ladder and give them a good base for the future as a couple. Carl is keen to get involved with property development as it’s a perfect match with his girlfriend Charlie being an interior designer. He is also looking at the possibility of getting back into coaching and working with young players if the right opportunity presented itself.

Carl did commend the scholarship programme for what he learnt and the skills that were developed in that two-year period, which he has went on to use in the real world. He feels that it did help him become a better all-round person on and off the field and have a standing in the real working world. Many have commended the scholarship programme through these articles but have all said that more can be done. The question now is what more can we do to help these young players through a hugely difficult time in their life?

I asked Carl what he would say to young scholars now and he explained that “players think leaving a club like Sunderland is the worst thing that will ever happen to you, but you just have to dust yourself down and get on with it. I’ve had some fantastic experiences and played in some of the best stadiums in the country against top, top players. Gaining any experience in the game is something that will stay with you forever. Work hard, train yourself mentally and make the best out of a bad situation.”

A brilliant message from Carl and one that I believe is true. Any experience in the pro game is vital and no one can take that away from you. You have to learn how to utilise that experience and grow from that situation. It isn’t easy but one that is echoed through these 10 articles.

Carl had no regrets on his career personally but said that the injuries he sustained did blunt his opportunities and rate of progression as a player at times. However, that’s something Carl can’t control and as he said, you just have to get on with it. Carl went on to say that he gave it his all and was professional throughout his career on and off the field. It just didn’t work out, like so many others. Luck, the manager and timing all play a part in these situations and sometimes you are overlooked and it just doesn’t happen for you. This is a hard reality to come to terms with but one many players must understand as its more than likely going to happen to them.

Carl is still playing semi-professional football in the Northern Premier League for Consett AFC, my hometown. He is enjoying his football and is looking forward to a Vase Cup final at Wembley on May 3rd. Carl added “if you stick with football it can take you all over the place.” An important fact that you can still have success and reap rewards in football even if you’re not playing in the premier League. It’s about playing for as long as you can, enjoying the game and if you can, making a living from it at the same time.

Carl reminisced about our scholarship squad who progressed as professionals together and who have now all went off on their own path. From players playing in the Premier League all the way down to League 2. As well as players who have found success in other aspects of life and used their experiences as players to benefit them now in their new roles.

Carl Lawson (Sunderland AFC First Team 2014)

Carl left us with the brilliant memory of one pre-season friendly game against Hartlepool United under manager Gus Poyet. A manager who had no interest in giving a reserve team player an opportunity in the first team.

Carl described the night. “It was 0-0 the game needed a bit of life injected into it. Half time the first team came off, the reserve team on 11 for 11. We delivered fast flowing football, energetic football, the fans loved it. We won the game 3-0 and I scored the first goal in front of 5000 fans. It was an amazing night for me, the team and all of my family watching on.”

Thank you, Carl Lawson, for your humble and inspiring words. A journey of 10 years with some great players, friends and experiences that you can cherish forever like so many others.

Finally, thank you to all of our readers. I hope you have enjoyed this first series of Life After Professional Football. Reading the real and honest accounts of the players success, difficulties and battles with life after professional football. Stay tuned for series 2.

Thanks for reading.

Tom McNamee