The question Danny Loader must answer over the next two months is a daunting one. Far more daunting than the typical questions most 19-year-olds have to face. It goes beyond where he wants to live or how much he might earn and stretches all the way, ultimately, to what he wants to be.
Loader, a talented forward at Reading, is at a crossroads. Three years ago, he was a member of the England under-17 squad that won that age group’s World Cup. He was a striker on a team that included a cadre of players now established as domestic, or even global, stars: Manchester City’s Phil Foden, Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho.
Last year, Loader came close to joining them in elite soccer: He might have signed for Wolves, making the step to the Premier League. The deal, though, could not quite be agreed upon. He stayed at Reading, in the second-tier Championship, the club where he has spent all but the earliest part of his nascent career. In June, when his contract there expires, he will be able to walk away to a new club.
He has known for some time that this summer would be a pivotal one. For a while, it even seemed it would be an exciting one. Loader has spent the last few months consulting his family, particularly his brothers, on his next move. His faith, he said, has helped him stay calm throughout.
“There were different routes, different choices that had come up,” he said. “I hadn’t made a concrete decision.” He was happy to go wherever felt right, at home or abroad. His only criterion was that, after a frustrating final season at Reading, he wanted “to go somewhere I can play.”
The stakes, though, were high. Get it right, find a club that suited him, and he would blossom. Get it wrong, and he risked losing ground, losing time. “It’s a huge decision,” he said.
That was before the pandemic, before the shutdown, before soccer was consumed by possibly the greatest crisis it has faced. All of a sudden, Loader, at 19, must now determine what his future looks like at a time when soccer itself has no idea.
He is not alone. On June 30 — the date when most contracts in European soccer expire — hundreds, if not thousands, of players will be out of work. For those who have spent years among the elite, earning lucrative salaries and burnishing glittering reputations, that is hardly a troubling prospect. They can afford a month or two off. Their names alone guarantee suitors.
For the vast majority, though, it leaves only questions. Not all are as sweeping as the ones Loader must confront, of course. In many cases, the anxieties and the issues are familiar to many of us, professional athletes or not. Some might almost seem mundane. That does not diminish their importance.
Jak Alnwick’s career is a little more defined. At 26, he does not have the upside of a rising star like Loader, but he feels he has finally established himself as a goalkeeper in England’s third tier after a year on loan at Blackpool from the Scottish club Rangers. His career, until this point, has been peripatetic, with spells across the north of England, as well as a couple of seasons in Glasgow.
Now, though, Alnwick wants to put down roots. With a contract that expires on May 30, he has been able to talk to clubs outside Scotland since January. He and his representatives, the agency World in Motion, had been fielding inquiries, as well as holding talks with Blackpool over a permanent move. “It was all early stages,” he said.
He wanted not only somewhere he felt comfortable, but ideally, somewhere not too far from Newcastle, his hometown. He and his wife were planning to buy a house, “somewhere we could always return to.”
“But the banks aren’t happy about giving mortgages with six months left on your contract,” he said. He needed not just a sense of permanence, but physical proof of it.
The shutdown has stopped all of those conversations. “Clubs can’t commit because they don’t know the state of their finances,” Alnwick said. “There are a lot that might be in financial trouble because they have not had the gate receipts. You don’t really know where you stand. It’s not a nice position to be in.”
He is not, by his own admission, “much of a worrier.” His situation is slightly more complicated than it might have been — his contract with Rangers ends with the Scottish season, so it is not entirely clear what would happen if England chose to play on into June or July — but he feels fortunate compared with the millions of nonathletes who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, and more assured than he might have been had he not “got so many games behind me.”
His older brother, Ben, is equally relaxed. Once of Sunderland and Tottenham, Ben Alnwick has been out of contract since leaving financially-stricken Bolton in December. He fielded a few offers once he became a free agent, but most were too far afield for him to contemplate. He had two young children then; a third arrived in April.
“Football has been the last thing on my mind,” he said of the last few weeks. He is 33 now, and has been around the block enough times to know that it “tends to take care of itself.”
“Things fall into place,” he said. “Once it all starts up again, there will be openings.”
Weighing those opportunities, ultimately, is the choice players always have to make as their contracts run down: whether to stick or when to twist. That so many have to do so at a time of global uncertainty in the sport makes what is inevitably a stressful decision one of intense pressure.
The players who find themselves forced to confront it, though, wonder if there may be a silver lining, if the uncertainty may — in a way — be to their advantage. The fact that he is out of contract, Jak Alnwick said, may make him more attractive to clubs searching for ways to save money. “Clubs that might have spent £500,000 or £1 million on a goalkeeper may now prefer not to do that,” he said.
For many, though, there comes a point where the risk outweighs the reward. Declan Rudd’s contract at Preston North End, in England’s second tier, was set to expire this summer, too. He was happy there. He described the club as “run perfectly” and his teammates as the best, tightest-knit squad he has encountered.
He had been talking with the club, on and off, for a year or so about an extension. There did not seem to be any rush. Rudd needed to discuss his plans with his family — his daughter is nearing school age — and he wanted his next move to be a long-term one. “It’s that parents’ mind-set,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to tell her in a couple of years she was moving schools and leaving all of her friends behind.”
There were speculative inquiries from other clubs; he wore them lightly. “Interest is only interest, no more,” he said. Now, the shutdown has given him time to consider his situation at length. Preston made clear, for all the financial uncertainty, that its offer of a three-year deal still stood.
“That means a lot,” he said. “To have the club want you and for them to offer that length of contract shows a commitment.” In the middle of April, with no end to the shutdown in sight, he contacted his agent and told him to agree to the offer. The paperwork was mailed to him; he signed it, and sent it back. “This situation probably sped it up,” he said.
What it showed, most clearly, was the thing he valued above anything else, the only thing that the vast majority of players who face an uncertain future at an uncertain time really want. “They offered me security,” Rudd said. Sometimes, no matter how deep or how grand the questions, all anyone really wants is an answer.