ITWM chats with Eddie Oshodi, the graduate of the Watford academy who’s chosen to hang up his boots at the age of 23.
When former Hornet Eddie Oshodi decided to retire from football this year, just a couple of weeks past his 23rd birthday, it took many people by surprise.
Since joining former coach Dave Hockaday at Conference side Forest Green Rovers following his release from Watford in 2011, Oshodi had been a fixture at the club nestled in the Cotswolds and on the hunt for promotion to the Football League.
Over the course of 125 appearences in the heart of the Rovers defence he had established himself as one of the most solid defenders outside the league, and many thought that it was just a matter of time before he made the step back up, with or without the club. Just last year he had a trial at Brentford and had previously been linked with a move to Millwall.
Then, on 2 February 2015, he announced that he was leaving the professional game.
Eddie explains: “The summer just past (2014) I realised how short and precarious life is, so I put together a list. A list of things I wanted from life.
“I had to accomplish tasks to get them because most of those things on my list money could not buy. So now I was thinking about how to develop myself further as person, and this included football. On this list I had things I wanted to accomplish by Christmas: some I did achieve, and some I didn’t.
“When I came back to the list at Christmas to assess my progress, I had no satisfaction. I felt as if I was taking the long way around to my desired happiness and from that I knew it was time for a change.”
Alongside this realisation that he was spreading himself too thin, he understood he needed to evaluate his place in the game.
“[It’s not] that I can’t play football alongside the work, it is just that I feel I cannot eat football, sleep football and play football as you are to do as a professional in the lower divisions of football while trying to make it to the promised land of the Premier League, where you finally get the financial reward from playing at the best level.
For me the Premier League is so far in the distance that I can’t keep giving football my all to no avail, when I can do other things and play out of love and with freedom at a level that suits me without committing it all.”
Football has always been at the forefront of Eddie’s life. At the age of five he started playing for a club called Harrow St Mary’s. Eager to join in, but without a side in his age group, he joined his elder brother’s side, two age groups up. When the time came for official 11-a-side fixtures when the rest of the team turned 11, Eddie was too young to take part.
“I was heart-broken. I remember crying to my mum”, says Eddie. His coach, Roy Moore (not the founder of the 1881 Watford supporters’ group), who had treated Eddie “like a son”, took him to various clubs around London, and it was at Watford, in current Community Director Rob Smith’s u10s, that he stuck.
As he moved through the ranks he encountered coaches who would go on become household names, at least around certain parts of the country: Hockaday ran the u18s during Eddie’s first years at the academy, and he was coached by Mark Warburton (u13s and u18s) and Sean Dyche (u16s), both now managers of repute at the top of the English game.
His development at Watford earned him an international call-up, first with the England u16s and then as part of the u17 squad that went to the 2009 European U-17 Championship. Alongside the likes of Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey he faced Mario Götze’s Germany and Stefan de Vrij’s Netherlands.
Back at Watford, as a 16-year-old he was given a place on the bench for a cup game against West Ham by Aidy Boothroyd, a professional contract by Brendan Rodgers at 17 and then a taste of Championship football by Malky Mackay as he made his debut as a second half substitute in a 3-2 defeat to Coventry.
But is this all too much for a teenager? Does it force them to grow up too quickly? Watching a 17-year old make their debut for your club is wonderful for a fan, but do we ever think of the impact it might have on them?
“No. Boys need to grow in to men one day, so why not sooner with the right guidance? But some players aren’t showing themselves in the brightest light; love it or hate it footballers are role models and should show maturity when needs be.”
But does the quest to become a professional footballer capture talented youngsters to the detriment of their development? Do they get swept away with the dream?
“No, because it’s a dream that is possible for any child in any part of the world to achieve.
“But it’s a sport that only rewards its elite generously. So in some aspects sometimes the differences of high profile Premier League players and low-profile lower league players should be made clear.
“I think the statement getting ‘swept away’ is a bit of an overstatement, but I also understand some of these young boys out there need the right guidance.”
The right guidance, however, is essential. Though Eddie has no problem with young footballers following their dreams, he feels that there is not enough done to help those in the sport to set themselves up for life outside the game once their careers end.
“Honestly I do not think there is enough being done by The Football Association to help player’s cope with life when the protection of the football bubble eventually burst.
“Today players as young as 14 years old are being told that they are going to sign professional deals. How can you expect these young boys to focus on anything else apart from football? This is why many football players suffer from depression, alcoholism and OCD syndromes to name a few.
“With many of my fellow players, all they know is football because it teaches so much. But the retirement age is 65 and you can only guess at what age your body will stop doing what it used to. Building blocks need to be put in to place to help players coming out of football whatever age, become active working members of their respected communities.”
And it was this lack of opportunity to develop that led to Eddie deciding to walk away from the game.
“Football can bring you your wildest dreams at any moment. Professional football is all about wanting to better yourself, to play for the best club in the best leagues to win the highest honours but when this interrupts you from being the best ‘you’, when is it time to make a change? When is it time for it to be less about you and more about everything else that matters most to you?”
“My approach to football has not changed but my approach to life has very much changed. The way society is moving forward I cannot help but change my approach to life. I do not want to be the one stuck behind.
“I have not fallen out of love with the game, I still lose control when I see moments of brilliance on the pitch. But playing in the professional game I have taken a dislike to the approach the game has taken in regards to its identity.
“Football is now played as a percentage game in the lower leagues. Minimising risk is the stance many clubs are taking and this takes away from the creativity that will be shown on the green grasses up and down the country. And sadly players who do not fit this system are merely thrown away to fend for themselves.”
Now, Eddie has a chance to chase his other passions. His immediate future will focus on “giving back to those young people out there who have to learn the hard way because of circumstance or bad choices.”
He is already organising a charity match for the summer dedicated to the memory of Alex Stephens, a former teammate in the Watford academy who died suddenly last summer at the age of 21. It’s a project he’s working on alongside Dale Bennett, another former Hornet currently at Forest Green.
“Dale and I have been putting in the work after hours, and I mean after the hours we are done and away from the training facilities. It takes a lot of time to put together an event, especially in our situation where we were travelling four hours total round trip, 130-odd miles each way).“
They’re not the first Watford academy products to turn their hands to charity, The Marvin Sordell Foundation was created by the young striker to support groups working against human trafficking.
“As young professionals at Watford it was all about the impact the club had on the community.
“This was what was instilled into us from young ages, Watford was always about finding young talent in the local or surrounding boroughs to hopefully make not only good footballers but great men too like Luther Blissett.
“Marvin is a big influence on me. I am thankful to have him as a close friend; it’s extremely important in life to try and surround yourself with the right people.”
Now he’s made the brave move to leave the game, the career he’d dreamed of since he could walk.
Is there a chance he could return to professional football somewhere down the line?
“I am a firm believer in the saying ‘never say never’. I am a firm believer in faith. I don’t believe in coincidences. I myself can control and shape my world that surrounds me.
Sean Dyche used to always say to me ‘control the controllables’. So I cannot say whether or not there will be a return to the professional game for me, as now I have taken the decision to step away from the game for many reasons.
But I love the game dearly and I would be lying if I say I’m not going to miss waking up on a Saturday morning for game day, knowing it’s time to go to work. But now I can fill my Saturday mornings with things that bring me joy and not headache from not knowing whether or not you will be in the starting eleven for the afternoon kick-off.”
But there is no doubt in Eddie’s mind that football has made him a better person, and what moment stands out in his career:
“My best footballing memory by far was my Watford debut: being only 17 and coming on in such an intense, raw experience – I can never forget it.
“Football has taught me many lessons, but the biggest thing it’s giving me is the will to never give in.”
Follow Eddie Oshodi on Twitter here and keep an eye out for news about the Alex Stephens match this Summer.