The unemployed Premier League footballers organising kick-abouts in Cheshire

Inside the WhatsApp group for out-of-work Premier League winners
Inside the WhatsApp group for out-of-work Premier League winners

Far from Deadline Day’s clamour and glamour lies a subset of footballers operating out of the spotlight.

Forgotten but certainly not gone, some are contractless craving a professional return. Others are transitioning out of the game.

Twice weekly, the group meets to keep their collective feet in. Cheshire’s playing fields are peppered with football so most passers-by walk on. But prying would prove worthwhile.

Initially, Danny Simpson, a 2016 Premier League title winner with Leicester City, suggests a “mixed” standard. He quickly clarifies that most have “played at a decent level.” Finally, a list of names: Danny Drinkwater, Joleon Lescott, Nedum Onuoha, John O’Shea. Even Ravel Morrison has played. Decent is an understatement.

Naturally, this highly decorated bunch operate via WhatsApp. Nothing happens these days without a WhatsApp group. Stephen Ireland, formerly of Manchester City, Stoke and Aston Villa, handles the admin, although Simpson – who left Bristol City last March – cannot recall how he joined: “People realised I wasn’t playing, and I think if you’re out of contract, someone will end up trying to recruit you.”

Stephen Ireland - Inside the WhatsApp group for out-of-work Premier League winners - The Telegraph/Rii Schroer
Stephen Ireland - Inside the WhatsApp group for out-of-work Premier League winners - The Telegraph/Rii Schroer

Finding a club does not lead to forcible removal. Phil Bardsley, for example, has not “left the group” despite now being with Stockport County. “You get kicked out if you haven’t paid your loser’s fee, though!” Simpson adds.

Pitches are hired, referees too. Victors take bragging rights and losers cover costs. Pressed on location, Simpson’s grin widens: “Better keep that quiet, hadn’t I?”

While the group is social, it has serious undertones. The modern footballer is a disposable commodity. In-house player care is advancing, but having left the building, most must fend for themselves.

“I miss being around the lads every day,” Simpson tells Telegraph Sport from a coffee-cum-bike shop in Wilmslow. “I’ve not been quiet about that. I do miss walking out on a Saturday but mainly… well, if you’re around 20 lads every day for 20 years, that’s hard to replace.”

Once outside the circle, breaking back in becomes harder. Simpson has wintered with Drinkwater, the pair running their own sessions in a Knutsford field. But “it’s one thing being fit in terms of treadmill runs, box-to-box-sprints, but then there’s being football fit.”

Fortunately, Simpson sometimes trains with Leicester Under-23s. “Some of them probably watched me win the league as kids!” he jokes. “But not everyone has that option. Some leave their clubs messily, and some find it embarrassing to go back. We’re human at the end of the day.”

‘Waiting for your next opportunity can be tough’

Acutely aware of the issues, Simpson is trying to fill the void. He hopes – with PFA and Premier League support – to put on pre-season training camps for club-less professionals.

“Like St George’s Park, but not St George’s Park,” he begins. “One of the hardest things, I found, was when your mates go back to pre-season and you’re sitting on your own at home waiting for your phone to ring. Waiting for your next opportunity can be tough.

“This is somewhere where everyone can be together in the same boat, where lads have a similar footballing morning to when contracted. Then when they’re ready to get into a club, there would be data to show the fitness coach.”

And then there is the mental health aspect. Professional sport is akin to military service. Everything is regimented, ordered, required. Until suddenly it isn’t.

“I've always had my ‘demons’, so to speak, like most people,” he explains. “When you’re playing and you’re so busy – you’re training, you’ve got mates around you and games to focus on – you can put them to the back of your head. You don’t have time. You’re just riding this wave. When it all stops, that’s when you think.”

Danny Simpson - Inside the WhatsApp group for out-of-work Premier League winners - The Telegraph/Paul Cooper
Danny Simpson - Inside the WhatsApp group for out-of-work Premier League winners - The Telegraph/Paul Cooper

Simpson cites his 2019 departure from Leicester as a tipping point: “That's when it hit me.”  The tempo of his chatter slows. “They were my family, my home. That was when I really started to struggle with it. It was tough to even watch them when I first left. They were my boys. When you’ve enjoyed something so high with everyone – not just the players, the staff too – replacing that is very hard.

“And then you start drinking more. You think you’re fine but you’re not really. You’re pretending but you’re actually not happy. I was like ‘I’m one of the lads’ so I would put it on even more.” Often overplaying being ‘ok’ means the mind’s resting place is darker: “Yes, that was me. But that was only making things worse.”

Addiction is broached. “I think we’re all addicts,” Simpson suggests. “Coffee, drinks, drugs, phones. It doesn’t matter what it is – it’s knowing what you’re addicted to and recognising it. I know I’m all or nothing.”

‘If someone needs a right-back, I have to be ready’

Simpson’s headlines have not always been footballing.

In 2015, he was convicted of assaulting his ex-partner Stephanie Ward, mother of his elder daughter.  But she never gave a statement, did not attend court and has since expressly stated that there was no domestic violence in their relationship.

The pair’s relationship is now amicable as they co-parent their daughter Skye. It is Skye who keeps him going.

Simpson is in a happy place now. He has a routine. He no longer drinks. He has seen a therapist. “I remember my therapist saying you have a table with four legs. Each leg can be whatever category you want it to be – work, football, friends, family, relationships, alcohol, partying or whatever.

“If one leg is shorter than the others because it’s causing you a problem, the table will be rocking. The other three will all be affected. I’ll never forget that.

“But you don’t have a clue when you’re in it. It’s a journey mate. One that I’ve been on and am still on.”

Still on, after 428 appearances for 10 clubs? “I’m not retired.” The smile returns. “If someone needs a right-back, I have to be ready. Maybe that is my last hurrah.”

And with that Simpson is off for some afternoon Padel. Michael Vaughan was a recent opponent and he is eyeing up doubles against Manchester City pair Riyad Mahrez and Rodri. First though, a pit stop at home; a buzz has just confirmed his new trainers have landed.