The PFA: Adapting To Change
The Professional Footballers Association (PFA), the union for all current and former footballers and scholars in the Premier League, the FA Women’s Super League and the English Football Leagues has undergone a huge amount of change in the last year that is seeing it deliver a stronger focus on the needs of today’s players. fcbusiness spoke to CEO Maheta Molango to find out how they’re adapting to the new challenges players face today.
The PFA has undergone a huge amount of change recently. How is this helping to adapt to the needs of its members?
What we have seen is there is a clear trend in players becoming more aware of the environment that they are involved in. There’s now a generation of players that are seeing the bigger picture, who understand their role in society but equally are much more aware of the some of the needs they have – they are much more aware that it’s absolutely fine to not always be fine.
They are open to seeking support and we hope to strengthen our position as an independent, non-conflicted sounding board for players. We are not here to tell them what to do; we are here to give them the tools to make informed decisions and take ownership of their careers.
What work is the PFA doing to adapt to those changes and provide those tools to players?
The first thing is to acknowledge that we are here for them, to put the players back at the centre of the discussion and that we understand what they really want. We have undergone a wide consultation process. It not us setting the agenda, we want them to tell us what they want us to help them with.
We cover 55,000 people and we only have 65 staff. One of the takeaways from the consultation was that the PFA does a really good job and is very much valued by the people that use the service but the big problem we have is our ratio of staff. We are covering a wide range of issues but because we cover both active as well as retired professionals and that makes this union very special. So we need to adapt to the reality that we do cover a lot of people and we need to enhance our presence to ensure we provide the right level of services to our members.
Are your members aware of the scope of the PFA’s work?
Maybe 18 months ago, you would have players, most likely at the top end, say: ‘if I’m a millionaire and I play in the Premier League why do I need to join the union?’.
I think the last 18 months has shown them that they cannot sort certain stuff on their own irrespective of how much many they earn. There are certain issues that need to be addressed collectively or else you never get a solution.
For example, things like fixture congestion, financial fair play, online abuse – I could go on and on. There are a number of issues that require the need to be acted upon collectively or being present at the right table to influence the debate in the present and the future. This is why we’re seeing a level of commitment that is unprecedented from players across the board. They understand it more because it affects them directly. They now understand what the union can do for them and the strength of collective thinking.
What is the PFA’s current membership criteria?
We have 2500 active professional players and we have 1500 scholars. You join the PFA when you become a scholar at the age of 16 and prior to that we have what is called a Youth Advisory Service which provides advice to young kids joining academies.
One of our main goals is to enhance those services because you have two critical moments in your career – when you start and when you finish. Typically, in-between that you have people care for you, you have visibility, yes you may have struggles but the defining moments are when you start and when you finish.
The choices that players make when they start will define their career – not just on the pitch but off it too. Who is their agent, what level of education should they pursue, what kind of contract will it be they first sign?
Those elements are very important and we want to strengthen our Youth Advisory Service to make sure that the players make the right choices at the beginning which then will save us work down the line trying to correct situations that may have been wrong from day one.
Do clubs have a good understanding of the services you provide players?
I am a Trustee of the LFE (League Football Education) which is the institution that prepares education programmes for kids between 16 and 18 years old in the EFL. The PFA has a direct input into the training programmes that they receive but equally we work closely with the clubs to try and support players. What we are finding is that it is important to make the differentiation between who has the duty of care towards the players, which is the club, and who is best placed to deliver services, which is the PFA.
We are not conflicted because there are a number of situations where a player may doubt the advice they are receiving has the best interests of them or the club at heart. The club defends the interests of the club, that’s what they are there to do but it is our duty to make sure the best interests of the players are represented. We have no financial interest in this which separates us from other parties that do in certain situations. We know this because we have been there.
What is the PFA’s relationship like with agents?
It would be wrong to put everyone in the same basket but there are some very good agents and there are some who are very difficult to deal with. The view is that the right types of agents are those who are well qualified and experienced and add value to the player. We need to make sure those are not isolated cases, but there’s still lots of room for improvement in this area.
Is that something that the PFA can advise a player around?
What we are is a sound, independent point of contact for the players where they can ask any question at all and receive an honest and candid answer. That is the role we want to strengthen as we go forward because a lot of the time players are surrounded by people who don’t have their best interests at heart, they often just tell them what they want to hear. Sometimes they need to be told the reality of a situation, but sometimes that can be painful.
In the case of the young players you need to tell them the realities and the facts about their career. The statistics say that most will not make it. The most likely scenario for many players is that they will not become a professional. So our role is to make sure studying is their plan A and then plan B will be they become a professional.
I can understand why a club doesn’t want to say that to a player because they don’t want to kill the dream but it is our duty and we want to play a bigger role in telling them the truth and the truth is they will not make it and if they do it will be an exception to the rule.
Are you finding more players are accepting of that situation and are looking towards education and further study to enhance their careers should they not make it?
Yes, I think we have an unbelievable generation of players in terms of their self-awareness; they are smart and well informed. You have players like Bukayo Saka who is an A level student, Jordan Henderson , Marcus Rashford – those are players who really care, are good people and who understand the football pyramid.
What I find remarkable about the current England squad is the fact that some of those lads have been through the pyramid and they understand that one day you can be down and the next you are up and this has made our job easier because of that understanding. They know what it means to struggle in football and then make it all the way to the top. It is an unbelievable generation of players.
There is a growing body of professionals who are coming into football specifically to look after player care separate from the management and coaching teams. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it is good, but two things need to happen. It’s a fairly new strand of work and I think there is a lack of training because what does player care entail? And what type of training and certification is available?
One avenue we have got to explore is can the PFA be the certifying entity that recognises a person as a fit and proper practitioner in player care. We need to have more rigour and we need to have more qualifications and a certification process as happens in other countries. The PFA should be that certifying entity because that is what we do, we care for the players.
At the same time there also needs to be a discussion around conflicts of interests because as much as you care for the players, you are paid by the club and in a number of situations the interests of the player and those of the club may not be aligned so there is always this concern from a player’s perspective.
Mental health is also a hugely important area of focus. What is the PFA doing in this area?
We have an in-house team of counsellors – a mental well-being department. What we have seen is that Covid has exacerbated the situation around mental well-being and has made people feel more comfortable about speaking up which is good. What we have found is that there are two extreme strands of help; light support or rehab – there’s a big space in-between that needs to be filled for a number of people who need that ongoing support.
We spend so much time, money and resource on the physical part of the game where the most important part is your head. The difference between an average player and a top player is the ability to withstand the blows of life and football and have resilience, stability and decision-making capabilities. So we plan to expand those services because we have learned that there is this need for ongoing mental well-being support for players. They don’t have to wait until they are sick because of their mental well-being before they act.
Does there need to be a wider understanding of how important a player’s mental well-being is – among fans for instance?
I think it’s about changing the narrative. For too long is been ‘look at those players running around being lucky to play football, why should they complain?’ The reality is that 4 million people play football in this country and only 3500 make it.
The reality is people will pay £20 – £30 to watch a League 2 game, football generates money and I think it’s only fair that the people who generate that money receive the biggest part of that. But we need to explain why those guys get paid what they do and explain that where as my career as a lawyer will last for 30 years, their career on average will last for 8 years.
We need to change the narrative around money because money does not solve mental well-being issues. Sometimes it increases them because they have high visibility and are more exposed and hence any mistakes resonate much louder than those that don’t have that visibility. We need to show the players are human beings, yes they are fortunate to be where they are but that is the result of hard work, of sacrifices and of having an ability that most people don’t have.
How does the PFA work with players making a transition to retirement?
We try to tell players the truth and the reality that the system will use them up until they are no longer fit for purpose, when someone younger and cooler will come along and replace them. That’s how it works and irrespective of how many titles you have won once you stop playing the phone goes silent and we see that across the board.
Our message to players is that instead of them being used by the system, use it to their advantage. Use the opportunity to think about the next step, to meet people and talk about business ideas and use the time to get additional training. One of our ideas is to create a PFA Business School which will educate players and give them the tools to succeed in life after football.
We believe that some of the skills they learn intrinsically on the pitch; decision-making under pressure, resilience, discipline, teamwork – those are skills people in normal jobs would kill for. These are invaluable. If you couple those with strong academic and vocational training they will be unbeatable in the workplace and we want to make players aware of that.
What is the outlook for the PFA?
We are very proud of the legacy of the PFA, it’s a strong union and I have played in many different countries and there is no union which is like it because of its influence, how it looks after so many people both active and not active and the fact that any change that affects the players can be vetoed by the PFA.
Now there is a need for us to continue to modernise, there is a need for us to evolve with the times and that is what we are doing. We are respecting our legacy and building on that and adapting the PFA with the new requirements of today’s society.
One of our goals is to influence governance models, not just in football but beyond that because football is a reflection of society and I think the role of employees has changed. The days of employees just being told what to do is over, the younger generation wants to be part of the decision-making process, they are committed and they want to work for institutions that have the same values as them.
Clubs need to understand that if they don’t bring the players on board they will have a problem. Modern day society is about values, purpose and it’s about feeling part of the bigger conversation. This is an opportunity for the PFA to have a strong joint player initiative to try and drive change.