“Football has given me a whole host of opportunities and skills from those five years I spent in the system.”
After joining Bristol Rovers at the age of 14, Josh Bailey’s rapid progress saw him become a permanent member of the Club’s Development Squad as a first-year scholar, while he also earned several opportunities to train with the first team.
However, his momentum was brought to a crashing halt when the promising defender suffered a severe knee injury during a work experience loan spell at Dorchester Town that would ultimately end his playing career.
“In a split second, I went from cloud nine to rock bottom,” Bailey reveals. “I ruptured my ACL, tore my MCL and my meniscus. I then had a really tough recovery process, with more injuries and setbacks.
“I was offered a pro contract after my injury, which was great to know that the Club had faith in me. About 10 or 11 months after my initial surgery, I got back to training and I was about a week away from playing my first game back, but my knee started hurting again and I had to take some more time off.
“It got worse and worse and eventually, after a couple of months seeing consultants and specialists, they recommended that I should stop playing.
“At 18, my life was built around playing football. When I got injured, I was still part of the group, but I was barely around my team-mates because I was in the gym and rehabbing and I didn’t want to watch them train or play matches because I was missing out on all that.
“I was injured in total for about two and a half years – a year and half with Rovers and then another year after that. It’s really difficult physically and mentally.”
Fortunately, the 21-year-old remained committed to his studies, achieving the highest possible grade profile of triple Distinction star on the BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma – equivalent to three A grades at A-Level – as well as studying an additional maths A-Level in his spare time.
Two and a half years on from being forced to step away from the game, Bailey is pursuing a completely new career pathway, using the qualifications he gained as a scholar to secure a place on the adult and mental health nursing undergraduate Master’s degree course at Exeter University.
“I realised that if there was a point where football didn’t work out or I stopped enjoying it or got injured, then I wanted something I could fall back on,” he explains.
“Football is very physically and socially demanding and I enjoyed being able to go home, open a textbook and immerse myself in something completely away from football.
“I’d done a lot of coaching with the pre-Academy age groups at Bristol Rovers and I think the Club assumed that I’d do my coaching badges, but it wasn’t something I saw myself doing as a career.
“Football is great, but it can consume your life and I wanted to do something different.”
Inspired by his own journey through adversity, Bailey was keen to learn more about emotional and physical wellbeing with a view to being able to help others.
“I wouldn’t say I was ever depressed, but I was definitely in a difficult place,” he admits. “A few months after my injury, my girlfriend of almost four years broke up with me, so everything that was stable in my life was suddenly flipped upside down.
“Luckily, I had great friends, a great family and a faith that provided security, while I was also able to throw myself into my maths A-Level. Some of my team-mates who were out for a few months struggled a lot more than me because they had nothing without football.
“Now, I’m learning about the links between physical and mental health and about breaking the stigma of mental health. I’ve learned about the privilege that I had within football – I was very naïve to a lot of what happens in the world outside of the football bubble.
“My course is split between adult nursing and mental health nursing, so by the end, I’ll be dual qualified. Ultimately, I think I want to end up working in mental health, maybe with teenagers and young adults, although I’m also contemplating the possibility of studying medicine and working in psychiatry. I’m only two years into a four-year course, so I’ve got plenty of time to work that out.”
Bailey believes that although his mindset and interests may appear to be unique, his success moving away from football is something that can be replicated by anyone that has come through the Academy system.
“I was very much a B/C student throughout school,” he recalls. “When I joined Rovers, my parents said that if my grades dropped, they’d pull me away from football. That meant I had it ingrained in my head that I really needed to work hard.
“I decided to surround myself with the smart people in my class and learned so much from them. I actually ended up enjoying learning, whether it was reading books or solving maths puzzles or studying science.
“I don’t think I’m any different to a lot of other Academy players, I just chose to dedicate more time to learning and found it interesting. From that, I became an A-grade student, which was not the result my mum thought I’d achieve at all!
“It certainly didn’t affect my football either. If anything, that mindset to learn and get better directly translated to my approach to football. I was confident in myself to be a bit different from the rest of the group, and that meant I could be more of a leader on the pitch because I wasn’t worried about what other people would think.”
For many Academy players, the thought of further education and returning to the classroom environment can be quite daunting, but Bailey insists that traits learned in a football setting directly transfer to life at university.
“Obviously, in an Academy, you develop your football skills and that’s great, but that’s just a portion of the overall experience and what I gained from my time at a Club,” he affirms.
“I think a lot of players are unsure how they’d adapt to university but, in my opinion, footballers are well prepared for it. A lot of young people haven’t necessarily been pushed and challenged in the same way that Academy players have.
“Going into further education and then onto the real world, you need to be able to handle criticism and be self-reflective, work individually and in a team, be self-motivated and competitive, and you learn all those skills in an Academy.
“Some people struggle with that and that’s why the Academy system isn’t for everyone, but if you love that challenge and have that drive to be better, you’ll thrive and the skills that you learn help massively when you move into the next phase of your life.
“I’m grateful for my time at Bristol Rovers; the skills I developed and experiences I had there have guided me towards a new career path that I’m excited about.”