‘It’s very tough… you think of chucking in the towel’: The trials and tribulations of a free agent once the season’s begun

Hundreds of professional footballers in England are released each summer and left facing an uncertain future. An annual battle ensues to find a new club and impress them enough to earn a contract. But there are only so many places available and some players will inevitably miss out.

At Premier League level, the process is simplified for household names with proven reputations, well-connected agents and a sizeable fortune to fall back on. But lower down the pyramid, the situation is rather more precarious.

Jamie Sendles-White is one such player who is still without a club a month into the season. After holding off from joining an academy until the age of 15, he spent six years at Queens Park Rangers before being let go in June 2015. He’s since gone on to play for Hamilton Academical, Swindon Town, Leyton Orient and St. Albans City.

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A 24-year-old centre-back with international experience for Northern Ireland’s various youth teams, Sendles-White still hasn’t been immune to the struggle that so many endure. Used to being part of a boisterous dressing room, the long hours of training alone, with no resolution in sight, can take its toll.

“You do get times when you’re slogging it out in the gym on your own, or you’re at the park doing some ball work, where you think ‘This is getting very tough now,” the defender says.

“You think of chucking the towel in but I feel that, as a footballer, you have to have that inner strength where you say ‘I can’t give up here. This is all I’ve ever done, it’s all I’ve ever known and it’s all I’ve ever worked for my whole life.’

“To give up when it gets a bit tough would be silly. I’ve had that thought many times when I was injured, but you just have to have that inner strength and motivation to keep you going.”

Sendles-White knows only too well how ruthless football can be. He’s already been in this situation a couple of times before. The first was when he left QPR and assumed he would be readily picked up by another club. He admits to a certain level of naivety, but he was soon rudely awakened to the hard-nosed reality of the men’s game.

“Towards the end, when I knew I was leaving QPR, I’d been to a few clubs, just to train and see what else was out there. I found it very difficult, and to be honest I think that’s one thing that players find very hard. When they’ve left a big club – QPR or whoever – they think they’ll just stroll in somewhere else.

“I was exactly the same. I thought I was going to stroll in somewhere and get a contract and it would just be plain sailing, but I found it very hard.”

Eventually a friend on loan at Rangers informed Sendles-White that Hamilton were interested, and he signed a one-year deal. But after just seven appearances north of the border, he was back on the move. His contract was cancelled by mutual consent towards the end of the January transfer window, allowing him to explore other opportunities.

Sendles-White joined Swindon until the end of the season and became a regular in the heart of the defence as the Robins finished 16th in League One. His contract was extended for another year, and all was going well until what seemed like an innocuous injury changed everything in September 2016. Sendles-White had just nicked the ball away from Bury’s Tom Pope when a slight tug on his shoulder caused his left knee to give way. A ruptured anterior cruciate ligament meant more than a year on the sidelines and a demanding rehabilitation process.

“I felt like I was doing really well. I was playing pretty much every game, and I was on standby for the Northern Ireland senior squad, but then it all came crashing down. It was so out of the blue,” he says.

“You always see other people getting injured and you think it’s never going to happen to you, you’re never going to have a bad injury. But then it happens. Your whole life changes. It turns upside down. Pain doesn’t last forever, so I can grin and bear it, but the mental side of things was very tough.

“Obviously being out of contract at the end of the season, and the club not being behind me in the sense that they weren’t prepared to take up the option on [another year] for my peace of mind was difficult.

“But it was also the thought of ‘What if I don’t come back from this? What if I’m not the same when I come back?’ Because you get so much time on your own in the gym to think about that sort of thing. It takes over your mind for most of the day.”

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The manager, Luke Williams, his assistant and the Swindon players did their best to keep him involved in the group, but things took a turn for the worse when the club were relegated. Williams was sacked and Sendles-White was informed he wouldn’t be getting a new deal.

“I found out a week or two after the season finished but I sort of knew anyway,” he says. “Obviously it was a massive thing for the club going down and I wasn’t one of their priorities, which I completely understand.

“They wanted to rebuild the club. They had a complete clearout. They got a new manager in and it was the club’s decision to let me go. There are no hard feelings at all. I know how football works. It’s a cut-throat business.”

While still working his way back to full fitness last summer, Sendles-White signed for Leyton Orient in the National League and was gradually eased into the team. His first game back – a late substitute appearance in a 4-1 win over Guiseley – was a significant milestone, coming almost a year after he suffered the injury.

“It was just a feeling of massive relief at the fact I was back out there again when there were times where I wasn’t sure if I’d play football again,” he recalls. “It was only 10 or 15 minutes but it was massive for me.”

Unfortunately, Orient’s poor form strained the relationship between players and supporters, and things came to a head after a 2-1 loss to Ebbsfleet United made it 11 games without a win. Sendles-White was involved in an argument with a couple of fans that threatened to spill over. Although he apologised, the atmosphere was never quite the same again.

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“We were underachieving. We weren’t doing great as a team, and on a personal note I could have been doing more. I understand that. I just seemed to be getting a lot of abuse and some of it was quite horrible. It probably overstepped the mark on a few occasions.

“I completely hold my hands up; I shouldn’t have reacted in the way I did but everyone’s got their limits. We’re all human. If you say a certain thing to someone then they’re going to react. It was wrong of me. I shouldn’t have done it.

“That’s football. You’re going to get abuse, but I reacted to a couple of the fans, which I regret. I apologised and the club dealt with it accordingly. I don’t think it affected my relationship with the club, but a section of the fans certainly turned on me, rightly or wrongly.”

A red card against Chester 10 days later proved to be one of Sendles-White’s final acts in an Orient shirt. Justin Edinburgh arrived as manager and told the centre-back he wasn’t part of his plans and was free to move on.

Sendles-White’s contract was terminated in March so he could get some game time before the end of the season, which he did at St. Albans in the division below. That kept him ticking over until the summer, but the sort of offer he was looking for from higher up the pyramid has so far failed to materialise.

“It’s been very tough again,” he admits. “Not just for myself – I think there are a lot of very good players who still haven’t signed anywhere, which is surprising. I’ve made a lot of calls myself and there are a few people working for me at the minute to try to get me a club.

“There have obviously been clubs thinking about it, but they’ve probably got four or five other players in my position that they’re debating signing so it’s been a massive waiting game for me this summer. It’s very tough but I’ve just got to keep faith that eventually someone’s going to sign me.”

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Sendles-White has been able to call on the help of a few friends to try to drum up some interest, but he’s been operating without an agent since leaving QPR. Although he has contacts at quite a few clubs, it can be difficult to get a fair hearing from others. His current situation is forcing him to reconsider his scepticism towards agents having been burned before.

“I was about to sign with an agent just before I injured my knee,” he explains. “We basically had a gentleman’s agreement that I was going to go to the offices again and sign the papers, but when I did my knee about a week later they had no interest and didn’t really want to pick up the phone. Since then I’ve said I’m not going to rely on any agent, but now I think I’m in a situation where I definitely need one.”

The young defender has learned how fragile a football career can be, with players seen as little more than disposable commodities. As with so many other industries, who you know is almost as important as what you can do. Getting your foot in the door can be difficult, but Sendles-White was at least able to arrange a trial with former club Swindon.

“I met up with Phil Brown over the summer and explained my situation. He said that he’d be interested and I know a lot of the fans would like to have seen me back there. Even though I left over a year ago I still get a lot of support from them on social media, but it wasn’t meant to be. I think he’s looking for a slightly different type of centre-half to me, so no hard feelings and I wish the club all the best.”

As a ball-playing centre-back in a results-based and often risk-averse business, Sendles-White that he’s something of an acquired taste. He says he’s perfectly happy to mix in with the ugly side of the game too, but he understands that his natural instincts might make some managers nervous.

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Sendles-White has been forced to view things from the perspective of those coaches when appraising why initial interest hasn’t amounted to anything concrete. Some have lingering concerns about his previous injury and the incident with Leyton Orient supporters, but the 24-year-old insists he’s put both episodes well behind him. He also admits that watching the season start without him – the football world continuing to turn regardless – is a horrible experience.

“It’s very daunting because you don’t know where you’re going to be,” he says. “You’re confident in your own ability but you know what football’s like, so you just hope that you’re not one of those that get unlucky and end up on the scrapheap.

“But at the same time the only way through it is to remain positive and very confident in your own ability. If you don’t you’ll end up getting very down about it, and once that happens it makes it difficult to keep working hard and having that goal in sight.

“Obviously there are times when you get down about it over the summer but I’ve tried to focus on the positives, on keeping myself fit and in good shape so that when I’m called upon by a club I can go in and perform.”

There have been offers from Scandinavia and Asia, but Sendles-White isn’t keen on the upheaval at this stage of his career. He’s desperate to prove himself again in England and progress as high up the divisions as possible. While he’s content to go back in at National League level, he certainly isn’t lacking in confidence about how far he could go given the opportunity.

“Luck obviously plays a massive part but I genuinely don’t see why, if I was to get a chance, I couldn’t go to the top. In this game you have to be so self-confident and so headstrong that I’ve managed to think that if I was to get that chance, and that bit of luck you need to get to the top, I don’t see why I couldn’t.”

Because of his injury, and other complicating factors, Sendles-White doesn’t have the mileage expected of a player of his age. He’s hitherto made 60 competitive senior appearances, but still holds out an inextinguishable hope that there are many more to come.

The centre-back is content to be patient and wait for the right opportunity to come along, even to the extent that he hasn’t made any alternative plans. He doesn’t want to contemplate a future without football and thinks it would be detrimental to do so.

“I haven’t really even thought about it to be honest, just because my mind’s so set that I’m going to be getting a club,” he says. “That positive thinking has helped because I’ve put everything into keeping fit and getting ready for a club.

“It probably would be a wise thing to think about, but I feel like if I’m starting to think about getting other jobs, and finding other ways of getting some income, then I’m taking the focus away from what’s most important to me, which is getting back into the Football League.”

Millions of youngsters are sold the dream of becoming a professional footballer, but aside from the select few who make it to the top, the reality for the rest is often far removed from the glamorous and lucrative ideal.

Strife, despair and disappointment are all too common, but Sendles-White has no qualms about coming back for more. Not playing has made him realise quite how much he misses football and the dressing-room camaraderie that comes with it. He sees this as just another character-testing experience to overcome in a career that’s already had more than its fair share.

‘It’s very tough… you think of chucking in the towel’: The trials and tribulations of a free agent once the season’s begun
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