I fell out of love with football after Manchester United release and now I'm looking to help

Michael Lea and Wes Morgan.
Former Manchester United defender Michael Lea pictured with Leicester City legend Wes Morgan. -Credit:Supplied

The end of any football career can be daunting and for many, acclimatising to life without the structure and routine of a professional sport is difficult. In recent years, there have been a rise in cases of footballers slipping into wrong habits or fading into obscurity after struggling to come to terms with being an ex-professional.

Michael Lea, 36, joined Manchester United at the age of 11 after a stint with rivals Liverpool. However, his journey at Old Trafford came to an end in 2008 but fortunately for the defender, who had the capability to play left-back and centre-back, he managed to avoid slipping out of the game by signing for Scunthorpe United in League One.

However, his journey through professional sport was a difficult one - managing appearances and before long, questions arose for Lea whether there was life outside of football.

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The struggles in the professional game for Lea are echoed throughout the sport. Where there are success stories like Kobbie Mainoo, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden and Kyle Walker, they make up just a small percentage of players to cut it at the elite level.

Many forge a career in the Championship and further down the Football League pyramids but for some, they fail to carve out a professional career altogether.

After a move to Scunthorpe didn’t work out as initially planned, with a failed move for the player in Lea’s position consigning him to back-up, problems continued at Chester City who were expelled by the Football Association, following relegation to the National League.

“I felt like I was wanted there, I signed on the premise that the player I would be replacing was going to sign for Leeds - that never happened, it fell through,” the 36-year-old told the MEN as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. "I felt like I was second-choice, they were a great group of lads, successful, went to Wembley twice that year and got promoted.

"I only signed one-year with an option but didn’t get offered an extension in the summer. I then signed for Chester City after they got relegated to the National League as they were still full-time, played plenty of games there but that was the season where there was issues with payments and they ended up being expelled from the league and being wound up.

"That was a very difficult time, I don’t think I was paid for eight weeks, maybe longer, the PFA supported us through that, that was probably the first time I used the PFA’s services for support.”

He added: "I got to the point where the option of staying at Chester was taken away because there was no club or contract, I was owed money and I was thinking, ‘what do I do next year? Where do I go from here?’ I’d probably say that season, after the first couple of months with managerial changes and everything, I was not enjoying football one bit.

"I wasn’t enjoying being in that environment, it made me think, ‘is this what I really want to do? Can I do something better? Can I combine football with something else? Do I want to be playing League Two or National League and be a good player but don’t want to try anything.

"At that point, the realisation that I’m playing football for a living, playing full-time, it’s great but it was the realisation that is this going to be the highest I play? Am I going to get better than this?

"Or is there something else I can be doing, then you tie in not being paid, more points deductions, takeovers, it got to a point where I thought, ‘there’s got to be something more than this’. A footballers career can be finite anyway, it could’ve been over a couple of years after so it felt like an opportunity to make that change.”

Lea made the decision at 22 to apply for Salford University where he later earned a First Class BSC in Sports Science and Performance.

He said: "So I applied to university in that March for September, I’d go and play part-time but do a degree and take it from there.

"In one way, the decision was made for me and the opportunity had been thrown to me as opposed to making a decision at the end of the season. I was in the frame of mind that I was done with pursuing the highest level, I was happy to just play and be better at something else."

The footballing journey didn’t entirely end there as Lea would go on to enjoy spells as a semi-professional footballer, with the likes of Colwyn Bay. For a transition out of football, it was about as seamless as it could’ve been but for so many, it isn’t the case.

Michael Lea clashes with Manchester City's Ishmael Miller at Old Trafford in 2007
Michael Lea clashes with Man City's Ishmael Miller at Old Trafford in 2007 -Credit:Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

A Stoke City fan growing up, it was still an immense honour for Lea to adorn the red shirt with the red devil upon his chest.

Growing up in Greater Manchester, Leigh to be specific, Lea saw Sir Alex Ferguson’s side famously lift the treble - completing it on a famous night in Barcelona against Bayern Munich.

Originally on the books at Liverpool, the defender made the switch to their North West rivals and played alongside Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson, Frazier Campbell and shared living accommodation with Ryan Shawcross, with Danny Simpson and Barcelona icon, Gerard Pique, in the year group above Lea.

“The talent at the club was amazing, they were winning the Premier League every other year, the Champions League so it was fantastic to be around and you felt integrated into that,” says Lea. “Everyone was eating together, first-team, reserves, youth team and used the same facilities so you felt apart of that bigger team.”

The 36-year-old played through the age groups before making his mark in the reserves. An injury initially curtailed his hopes of staking his claim for a first-team place. Lea returned and enjoyed a strong campaign as he earned himself a nomination for the Player of the Season - signing a one-year extension with United.

He made the decision to join Antwerp on loan under iconic manager Warren Joyce, in a different move in United’s relationship with the Belgian club. Lea said: "You want to be involved in the first-team training, which a lot of us were, playing reserve games still and you’re thinking, ‘can I go on loan or do something different?’

"Then the opportunity at Antwerp came up. Myself and Craig Cathcart went across, in all honesty, it wasn’t that common for English lads to go over, we had a connection with Antwerp which is why we were sent over there.

"It was like, ‘do I want to stay over here and have a loan in the Football League which is what every English player wanted to do or do I go over there and try something new.’

"I went on loan at the start of the season, came back at Christmas knowing my contract was due to finish at the end of the season. I sat down with the boss and I knew that conversation was going to happen where I wasn’t going to get another contract in June."

The landscape at Old Trafford, at the time, saw an embarrassment of riches in the left side of defence with Brazilian brothers Fabio and Rafael entering the fray at the Theatre of Dreams.

He said: "It wasn’t a surprise, I knew I probably wasn’t at the level I needed to be in order to get another contract and they brought in players in my position like the brothers Fabio and Rafael, John O’Shea was still there, Patrice Evra and various other players who were my senior.

"Being realistic I wasn’t expecting to get another contract, I was disappointed because I’d been there so long it is a tough feeling. I decided to stay in Manchester, play reserves and try get in the shop window.

"It wasn’t so much me concerned about it, I thought I’d find somewhere else to play but it’s the pressure of telling people - you feel like you’ve let a lot of people down, especially your family because they’ve devoted so much time since you were 11 taking you to Manchester or the Cliff three times a week. I think that was the worse thing."

After earning his degree, Lea went on to work for the NHS and the private healthcare sector with a view to returning to football in any capacity.

He eventually sought the avenue back into working within the sport when he took up a position at the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). The 36-year-old leads the triaging system towards injuries and provides physical support to players.

In May, the PFA launched RECONNECT, led by Lea, looking to provide retired members with a fitness network in hubs across some of the country’s leading universities and sports facilities - such as Leeds Beckett, Liverpool John Moores, Salford and Hull.

The initiative was developed with a view to help ex-players maintain a fitness after hanging up their boots and provide a chance to continue, as well as, develop social connections with fellow former professionals.

Wes Morgan and Jermaine Beckford have endorsed the project. Lea believes the RECONNECT initiative is the perfect opportunity to help players struggling post-retirement, he said: “The programme is especially for players who have just retired and know they’re not going to be playing football next year, they want to transition into a different role.

"This gives them the opportunity to have that structured exercise and social mix with members in the same situation as them, or just retired a few seasons ago.

"It’s a way to get that changing room feel back and collaboration being led by professional coaches, if you’re looking at players who are out of contract, still looking to stay in the game, we have camps.

"It’s aimed for players who are retired and we don’t want to fall into players using it as an exercise session to keep fit while they’re looking to get back into football, we’re trying to keep it for members who have retired and trying to transition into a different role.

"It’s an initiative in place to support members transitioning out of football and to offer structure with professional-led sessions for members of all abilities and genders," Lea continued. "It’s about reconnecting with members who are in a similar position, have played the game, and understand that it can be difficult if you’ve not got that structure in place.

"Everybody knows everybody but you don’t necessarily see them, you’ve got teammates you speak to but don’t see them and discuss whatever it might be.

"The social aspect is a key thing but also the physical aspect to get the best out of it, exercise and mental health and the benefits are clear to see. There’s plenty of things we can bolt onto this, we’ve just launched but this is only the start of it, we’re trying to get members interested."