Co-owner of Salford City Football Club, Gary Neville, advises that footballers should start looking at what they can do off the pitch if they want to aid their mental health during this unprecedented time.
And in sync with Mental Health Awareness Week, Neville, who is also co-founder of University Academy 92 (UA92), warns that players, especially those competing in the English Football League, should consider studying for a qualification to give themselves a separate mental focus from the uncertainty of the future of football as we know it.
The former Manchester United defender founding UA92 with other members of the Red Devils’ iconic Class of ’92 and Lancaster University, and the higher education institution opened its doors to students in September 2019.
Neville said: “The current situation with COVID-19 is making many players feel vulnerable. If their entire sense of self is based on their career as a footballer, then any change to that puts players at risk of mental health issues.
“Higher education is a real possibility for players. By gaining a degree or other qualification, they can build their mental resilience by developing an identity off the pitch.
“We are seeing increased interest from elite athletes at UA92 because we are well set-up to cater for their particular lifestyles. UA92 has recently been recognised by Sport England as being an athlete-friendly place to study. Unlike most other higher education institutions, our students study in either the morning or afternoon, so athletes have the other part of their day for training.”
Based at Old Trafford, UA92 offers degrees in accounting and finance, business, computer science, media and sport and students receive their degrees from Lancaster University.
Jonathan Ustabasi, 26, living in Sale, is a semi-professional footballer for Stalybridge Celtic and is studying for a degree in Sports and Exercise Science at UA92 at the same time.
Experience in playing league football in Turkey and Macedonia, Ustabasi said: “Although I love my career in football, it’s important for me to feel like I have a plan B off the pitch.
“It means if I couldn’t play, whether through injury or whatever else, I would have something else to keep me going mentally. And in the future, financially too.
“So I started studying for a degree.
“At UA92 I have a regular schedule, so I know my classes are in the morning.
“It’s made it possible to train at Stalybridge later in the day meaning I can study and continue my footballing career.
“In future, on the pitch I want to play at the highest level I can in the UK. Playing for Stalybridge and being awarded the fans’ Player of the Season has been a good start.
“Off the pitch, when I complete my degree at UA92 I’d like to work in coaching, physiotherapy, or performance analysis.”