Becoming a Christian helped ex-Stag Bobby Hassell fill the void left by retiring from playing – a void which leads some players down a spiral slope to depression and addiction.
Former Mansfield Town defender Hassell, 36, who returns to his former club Mansfield Town for tomorrow’s (Sunday) charity match (3pm), is now part of Faith & Football – an organisation which sees ex-professional footballers reach out to help those struggling to come to terms with no longer being a star name.
He explained: “There is a group of footballers, Linvoy Primus, Bruce Dyer, Darren Moore included, who are Christians called Faith & Football. We meet up regularly and a lot of ex-players come along.
“There are a lot of ex-players struggling with alcohol and drugs or gambling addiction. Some get in trouble with the law when they stop playing as they are so lost and depressed they don’t know where to turn.”
Explaining his own journey, he said: “I didn’t become a Christian until I was 29 years old.
“It didn’t have an influence on the early part of my footballing career, but it certainly played a big part in the latter stages of my career when I had quite a few problems with managers etc.
“Just through my popularity at the club a new manager came in and tried to make life quite difficult. My faith played a massive part then.
“It continues to play a very big part. There are a lot of footballers struggle after their playing days with depression and they don’t know what to do. But my identity is now in my faith and in Christ and not in football.
“It has also given me a chance to get into the community in Barnsley.
“By the time I became a Christian all the sports science had kicked in. We had some really good people at Barnsley who have gone on to work at Manchester United’s sports science department so I was quite fortunate to work with some great people.”
Hassell recalled how he first found religion.
“We had a club pastor at Barnsley Football Club who when I first went to the club gave out bibles to everyone,” he said.
“I was 23 at the time and, out of respect, I kept that while the rest of the lads chucked them in the bin.
“I left it in my bedroom and eventually I just got to a point in life where I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve and I was still feeling quite empty inside.
“At 29 I picked up the bible and just started reading it and I said to God in a genuine prayer on my bed – if you are real then reveal yourself to me.
“It was a series of things after that over six months that led me to believe in Jesus, the Gospels and the reality that we all need a saviour. Six months after that I made the commitment to follow Christ and it has been a continual path ever since. It’s been a great thing.”
Now as head of recruitment at Barnsley’s academy, he is always happy to share his beliefs if the youngsters want to listen.
“Faith’s not for everyone – I understand that. The gospel message is there for the world and either people accept it or people reject it.
“If they ask me I just tell them my story. Football is a great life and it fills you with great pleasures. But as soon as you’ve stopped no one will want to know you and then your identity is gone.
“That is what a lot of players struggle with – their identity. They are treated as gods really when they playing. But when you’ve stopped people don’t want to know you any more. That stardom goes.
“I try to tell them get your identity in who you are. Be happy with who you are as a person and do your best in football.
“If they ask me about faith I am quite open to share, I will share it with anyone. But I don’t push it down people’s throats.
“I am always there if they need advice or help.”
He added: “My message to young players – and old players I speak to who struggle after they finish – is trying to tell them there is more to life than football.
“If we’re lucky we’re here for 80/90 years, so I try to push them towards eternity and our identity in that sense when they have stopped playing.
“You have to put your faith and and trust in something else other than a football. Some reject the message.”
With ex-Stags legend Kevin Bird now suffering from dementia, a special charity game at the One Call Stadium this Sunday (3pm) will see Kevin Bird’s Mansfield Town Legends & Guests take on the Once Upon a Smile team of soap stars and other celebrity names in aid of Once Upon a Smile and the Alzheimer’s Society.
Tickets for the Phil Walker-organised game are priced adults £5, children and concessions £3 and a family ticket (two adults, two children) £12.