Welcome back everyone to week eight. Another diverse and intriguing story this week from someone who left his professional playing career nearly 20 years ago. Last week I got on a zoom call with Gareth Mordey and we discussed all things football, business and importantly life after professional football. Let’s get into it.
Gareth is a Sunderland fan through and through and spent the majority of his younger years surrounded by Sunderland AFC. He attended all first team and reserve team games home or away; his love for the club ran deep, as I’m sure it still does now. Gareth went on to be part of the old youth team programme with Sunderland. This was based at their old training site the ‘Charlie Hurley’, just down the road from the current facility the ‘Academy of Light.’
Gareth represented Sunderland’s youth team as captain within a team of internationals. He had a laugh while telling me this, as he wasn’t international. However, Gareth possessed leadership, grit, determination and desire. Qualities that would award him the armband within this international team. Unfortunately, Gareth explained that for whatever reason he didn’t make it to the next step and this is where his professional playing career came to an end. His beloved club and everything he had known as a young boy was done.
Gareth described the inexperience and lack of knowledge he had for non-league football. He was entrenched in Sunderland AFC and the dream of the premier league. Explaining that he wasn’t really given the guidance or the idea of representing a team like Gateshead. He mentioned playing one league game for Esh Winning, a non-league side in County Durham and the difficulty he found transferring into that environment. After being brought up around top coaches like Pop Robson, Steve Bould, Peter Reid and Ged McNamee.
Sunderland was a Premier League club at the time of Gareth’s release. It was very hard for Gareth to then accept advice from coaches in non-league football after his experiences at Sunderland AFC. Gareth explained this was a time where he was depressed and disenfranchised with football, describing it as a “football hangover.”
Gareth thought his lifeline to remain in football was becoming an agent, coining the old phrase it’s “all he knew.” 11 out of the 26 players in Gareth’s squad went on to play professional, majority of them his friends. Meaning he was still heavily involved in football and Sunderland AFC. He decided to dip his toe into the agency world, with a good pool of players to work with and represent. Gareth was making deals for professional players and managers at the age of 20, 6 months after being released by the club. Even after Sunderland player at the time, Niall Quinn, had said it wasn’t for him and he was from better stock than that. Gareth marched on and was enjoying this whirlwind experience in the agency world.
However, Gareth loved being on the pitch more than the board room and went about setting up his own private football academy. Something now, in 2021, we see every day on Instagram and on every piece of grass available to be rented. Gareth explained this was his first introduction with “excuse culture.” Saying that he came up with every excuse not to do it, as he was moving out of his comfort zone for the first time. Eventually confronted by his Gran, he got the £450 he needed to print the leaflets, rent the facilities and get his equipment sorted. Gareth did meet some push back, the noise of people calling it a baby-sitting service, how can you charge parents for that, it won’t work. Uttering a brilliant turn of words on our call, Gareth said “I’m bulletproof, I will make it work, I will make it good. I don’t care what they say.”
Roll on to week one and 400 kids attended Gareth’s private academy clutching £2.50 in their hands. Life was good Gareth expressed. He was making money, going out with the lads he had played with, helping them with their contracts. He was still involved in the game. He still thought he was a footballer.
However, things changed when Gareth had a meeting with a club regarding a player’s contract and transfer deal. Painting the picture that everyone who was anyone was in that room. He had known what went on as a player, but had never seen it behind closed doors and now he had. This was Gareth’s closure. He wanted out, he handed all his players over to his boss and he was done with being an agent. Just six months on after Niall Quinn had said it wasn’t for him.
In Gareth’s words it was “the second phase of the football hangover”, the depression of not being a footballer and now not a football agent. In his eyes this was another failure. Again, Gareth dusted himself off and began sending emails out across the world. One response came back to get on a call. An hour later Gareth was on the phone and 3 days later he was in Dubai. Gareth laughed saying “I had no money, my uncle paid for my flight. I landed with £50 and the taxi was £60”.
This began Gareth’s now 17-year career in Dubai. He puts it all down to hard work, dedication and being addicted to what you do. He went on to say that there wasn’t a great degree of infrastructure in Dubai for football. Mentioning that he just saw business in football before other people did, recognising the amount of football pitches that weren’t being used. Gareth began knocking on doors and paving the way for youth football coaching services in Dubai.
Six weeks in, Gareth still didn’t know how permanent his future was in Dubai. He was taking a trip home for Christmas and wasn’t coming back if he didn’t have a concrete offer from his boss. Fortunately, Gareth was rewarded for his hard work and bulletproof attitude. He was offered the academy managers position, an ambitious young man and not afraid to step up, he accepted. The academy then exploded going from 200 kids to 2000 in 8 months’ time. Bulletproof indeed, the failures of the past now in the rear-view mirror.
Gareth wanted more and in 2007, he had the opportunity to not just run a football academy but to run all sporting operations within schools all over Dubai. A huge opportunity and after one year the company had went from 2000 participants to 20,000 participants. Another massive accomplishment for Gareth. Not to say it wasn’t difficult, Gareth said that he just exploded and did everything he could to get the job done and make it happen.
Fast forward to 2010, Gareth had achieved his “next level” as he called it and became a managing director of ESM. This is where he was moving away from the pitch and putting his business head on. The ambition for himself to grow, push and continue to achieve was still bubbling within. Gareth was moving through the business gears and in 2014 had the opportunity to undertake a Masters in Sport & Directorship at Manchester Met.
This is where the grit, determination and desire of a captain comes out. Gareth travelled from Dubai to Manchester every 8 weeks for 5 days over the course of three years to achieve his Masters. The young man being released from Sunderland all those years ago with 3 GCSE’s, wouldn’t have thought he would have a Masters in Sport & Directorship.
A success story for many young players to see and understand that you can be successful without playing professional football. Yes, Gareth did do it in the time of less competition and a smaller amount of people seeking these jobs. Having said that, there was also not the support networks of today, the job options to remain in football and the education that even released players receive today.
After a brief period of consultancy work and taking the foot off the gas slightly to have some more family time. Gareth is now the chief executive officer of Infinite Sports (UAE), driving sport and business within academies and schools. As we chatted and talked about football and business, we shared the same sentiment that it’s all down to hard work, perseverance and as Gareth says, “being bulletproof.” As a young player moving out of the professional game you have to be willing to work hard, and dive in at the deep end. Moving out of that comfort zone.
As we discussed young footballers in elite academies, Gareth explained that he understands that you need to be addicted to football in order to forge a professional playing career. However, you also need to have the mental capacity to understand that there are other things in life besides football. All of the character traits that you learn and develop in that environment, such as determination, desire, focus, commitment and resilience can be transferred when you move into the real world.
Gareth added that he had a good family and support network through his dark days but mentioned his winning mentality and achieving his Masters was key in his success and the ability for him to continue moving up the levels.
I asked Gareth what he thinks needs to be done to help young players. He believes players need to talk more, get things off their chest and open up about the hard truths. He went on to say that ex-players and people who have been through it like himself need to do more. Mentioning the idea of building a forum of mentors for these young players moving out of the professional game.
Gareth only really has one regret and that was his love of football coaching and being on the field with the players. Now in his management focused role, he looks back on that time with fond memories but laughed and said “that’s a story for another day.” He has high hopes for the future and his career and is still loving the journey that he is on. Dropping in that he does miss the U.K. and watching a good football match.
I think Gareth’s story is a one of grit, resilience and no fear. His bulletproof mindset and winning mentality are something that all young players can look at and observe. He talked about how he used his experiences and didn’t shy away from hard work. He explained to me how he used his disappointment of being released when handling his new challenges in life. Saying that if “it’s a chairman, president, CEO, CFO or the board-room, I don’t care. I’ve had tougher times than this, I was released, my dreams were taken from me at 19. I can handle this.”
Thank you, Gareth Mordey, for your honest and inspiring account of Life After Professional Football. You grabbed it by both hands with a bulletproof mentality indeed. 17 Years in Dubai, arrived for 6 weeks.
Thanks for reading.