XPro is a British charitable organisation seeking financial and medical support for former professional footballers, many of whom now struggle with debilitating injuries and a lack of funds. Chief executive Geoff Scott is leading a research push that he hopes will change all that.
Ordinarily, members of the the soccer industry – a business awash with money – would garner little favour from the general public by lobbying a government for state money. But the situation is rather different when it comes to XPro, a group formed to represent the needs of retired professional soccer players in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The best estimates suggest that there are between 40,000 and 60,000 retired players in the countries; while more than a handful are able to live lavish lifestyles, the vast majority plied their trade in the lower leagues of British soccer, earning a relative pittance. Post playing, the facts are that many struggle to live, unable, in some cases, to take advantage of British government state benefits for prescribed industrial injuries. Enter XPro, which has a mandate to try and change what for many is a hugely unsatisfactory state of affairs.
XPro was incorporated in 1991, the brainchild of West Midlands businessman Bob Runham. It is today run by Geoff Scott who, as chief executive, is tasked with spreading the message of the company, its aims and objectives. “Bob basically had organised a function for the ‘Lisbon Lions’, the Glasgow Celtic European Cup winning team [of 1967],” the genial Scott explains, as he recalls Runham’s original motivation for founding the organisation. “For the function, he’d organised all the guys’ blazers and one of the players came up to him and told him that he didn’t have a pair of black shoes to go with his black blazer and flannels. Bob actually went out and bought him some shoes on the basis that the player couldn’t afford the shoes. When he came back from the event he questioned whether there was something people could do to help former players. He asked that question to Derek Dougan. Dougan’s response was that there were lots of former players out there who have either financial or medical problems.”
Together Runham and Dougan decided to form XPro, initially with the aim of, as Scott puts it, “looking after the health and welfare of former players.” He adds: “Of course without any funding that position could never happen as XPro did and does not have the wherewithal to look after the health and welfare of former players.”
Scott was elected chief executive of the organisation late in 2008, responsible for representing the interest of its current 13,000 membership. And he knows whereof he speaks. He turned out 176 times in the Football League during his playing days between 1977 and 1986, primarily at Midlands club Stoke City but also during stints at nearby Leicester City and Birmingham City amongst others. His experience of early injury-enforced retirement, however, is at the root of his passion for XPro and what it aims to achieve. “I snapped both cruciates in both my knees [in 1986] and in those days a cruciate injury was career-threatening; there was no way back from it. At 26, I was forced to retire and, when that happened, there was no support mechanism in place. Nobody came along and said ‘what are you going to do?’, and therefore I was left to my own devices. Fortunately I was able to do extremely well. I went to university and I gained a business degree and I’ve been in telecommunications for a number of years now.”
With a new career in place, he forgot about soccer. “I had not even watched a live game for 28 years,” he says, “but I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago and one of my old teammates heard about it and invited me to a game. I enquired about former teammates of mine and where they were, whether the team kept a record of where they were. It seemed as though the answer was ‘no’, which was extraordinary. It seemed up to the former player to keep in touch rather than football to keep in touch with the player. I got the impression that, unless you were really well known and played in a high profile team or at international level, pretty much nothing was done for the former player.
“I thought that was wrong really and, being in the commercial world for 20-odd years and having a passing interest in football, I knew of the money generated by players earning UK£100,000 a week or TV contracts being negotiated into the billions. And yet somebody couldn’t afford a pair of black shoes to go to an event? It was completely out of sync and something needed to be done. I think I’ve probably trod on a few people’s toes since I’ve evolved XPro in the last two years, and one or two people are not too keen on XPro because it upsets the status quo a little bit.”
On taking over the role – shortly after the untimely death of Dougan aged 69, in 2007 – Scott’s first move was to make the company a charitable organisation rather than a limited company. He then set about establishing XPro’s objectives moving forward. “The first aim was to create a national database of former players, on the basis that there isn’t one. All the statistics and documentation out there suggests that in the UK and Ireland alone there may be between 40,000 and 60,000 living former players. Each season, of course, that number is growing as players retire through injury or don’t get contracts renewed. The numbers are escalating, with more and more foreign players coming to the UK. First aim was to put together a database.”
It is extensive research projects that will, however, determine whether XPro can really make a difference to poverty-stricken former players. Scott is leading the organisation’s analysis of osteoarthritis, a debilitating condition affecting four out of five former players. “If we take the lower figure of 40,000 former players, that’s 32,000 with a debilitating condition which at some stage will impact on their quality of life. Although that many players will get osteoarthritis, it’s one of the few professions where osteoarthritis is not recognised by the UK government as a prescribed industrial disability. Therefore state benefits that are available to farmers, miners and everyone else are not available to former footballers. So the research programme is extremely important.”
XPro is working on the research in collaboration with the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham, one of Britain’s most renowned medical institutions, and the British government’s medical advisory council. “We’ve been working first to understand what type of research needs to be done and in fact what research would be acceptable to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council in order that the information is compelling enough for that particular condition to be recognised.” That process alone has taken nearly two years; the research itself is likely to take three. Says Scott: “That’s how long it will take to get all the information together to then present to the industrial advisory council, for them to consider whether that condition is a debilitating and a prescribed industrial disability.”
Initially the research will involve a survey of 20,000 former footballers and 20,000 members of the British public, underlining the kind of effort and resource it may take to fully convince the government that state benefits are worthwhile.
“In many cases, these state benefits will be life-changing,” Scott explains. “We’re not talking about the modern day player who is well remunerated. A lot of our members are people who played prior to the maximum wage being abolished so it’s pre-1960s, and in fact most players that played pre-1980 suffer financial hardship but in turn medical hardship as well. Then you’ve only got to start looking at cortisone injections. Most players, certainly when I played, played with cortisone injections because the appearance money or the bonus that former players got was more of a necessity than a bonus. They had to get the bonus to make up their salaries. If we only get 10,000 former players claiming benefits for osteoarthritis we’re talking about £50 million per annum going back into the pockets of former players. As has been proved, four out of five players get it – the figure is more likely to be three times that amount.”
Scott, however, freely admits to having found the reaction of British soccer’s key governing organisations to XPro’s mission as “quite disappointing”, though he quickly adds: “We’ve got ongoing negotiations with the Premier League who are supportive of what we’re trying to do, but all the other organisations, sad to say, have been less responsive. It may well be that what we’re doing should have been done some time ago and that’s why we’re potentially meeting some resistance.
“Football today generates an obscene amount of money and there’s no marketability in a former player. Somebody who’s 60 years of age is not going to sell shirts. Football is a marketing machine, it’s all about generating income but I think it’s rather sad that football itself has not really recognised the part of former players in getting football to where it is today. Without those former players football wouldn’t be what it is today.”
He admits that in an ideal world he would love to collaborate with Britain’s Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) but, so far, that reaction from the establishment has been disappointing. “In an ideal world XPro should be a department within the PFA that does this. We’ve had a number of discussions with the PFA, and sadly the PFA have a stance that they already are doing what we propose to do. The fact of the matter is that within ten months we’ve managed to generate just under 13,000 members. We are taking around 400 calls a month from people saying they’re in trouble. My reaction to the PFA’s claim that they are already doing what we do is: ‘if that’s the case, why are we getting 400 calls a month?’ Something can’t be right. I think perhaps the PFA are resistant towards us because we’re making strides and looking to do something specifically and in a proactive manner for former players.”
Further afield, however, reaction has been much more positive, particularly within the ranks of Fifa, world soccer’s governing body. Jiri Dvorak, who runs Fifa’s medical council F-Marc, is a big supporter of the osteoarthritis research. Scott says: “He has recognised what we’re looking to do and fully supports what we’re looking to do, so much so that Fifa want us to extend our research to other countries in Europe and to other parts of the body. That information will then assist other former players in Europe as well. We’re then going to extend that to other countries and other parts of the body, namely the back and spine. Fifa support our programme but they also offer financial support for the extended research, into the spine and other countries. It’s rather strange that Fifa are willing to help us financially and yet our own governing bodies seem to be dragging their feet.”
The osteoarthritis research is the first of three projects that XPro already has in outline plan form. The plan is to get each started once the previous research project is underway. Scott says: “Once we’re two third into the osteoarthritis research we’re looking to conduct research into the effects of cortisone injections, and when we’re two thirds into that we’ll look to conduct research into Alzheimer’s disease and the connection with heading the football. Research into the three main areas will be ongoing.”
He adds: “We’d like to be recognised in five years as being the organisation that assists former players in any area, be it financially, medical or welfare. We’d like to extend that into Europe at least. Realistically where will we be? If we can get a result on the osteoarthritis and make state benefits available to former players, that will be a major, major result and I think then that XPro’s profile will rise accordingly. We can then start moving on. At the moment people don’t know who we are, where we are or what we stand for but if we raise our profile I do believe that there are organisations out there that will say, ‘this is a worthwhile cause, we should support this.’”