Striker Rob Hulse scored 20 goals in 51 games for Leeds United, including two against Reading on his debut. But what he does nowadays might surprise the Elland Road faithful.
Rob Hulse is out of the house by 7.15am these days; he gets changed at the hospital, starts to sort through the stations on different wards, checking which patients need seeing first.
Then he gets to work: he might help someone who has just had a new hip fitted, another a new knee, or a patient who is going through chemotherapy.
Some of them recognise him, from his 15 years as a professional footballer at nine clubs. Other times, his colleagues at Russells Hall Hospital, in Dudley, might tip them off that their physiotherapist was once Leeds United’s top scorer in the Championship.
Hulse works his way through each patient until midday, when he has a sandwich and a cup of tea in a hurried half-hour lunch-break, and is back at it again until 6pm.
“It’s a bit different from when I was a player, when you would usually get in at maybe half-nine and were at home for half-one,”
Hulse says, chuckling. A rite of passage Hulse, 38, had offers to join football clubs, and a cricket club, when he finished his physiotherapy degree, but not only is he a strong advocate of the NHS, he sees it as a rite of passage, a way to earn his stripes, to become a better clinician; he wanted the patient contact and to help people in need. ‘I’m proud to work for the NHS, I think it’s one of the greatest things we’ve ever achieved’ After qualifying last summer he started a four-month rotation. He spent four months on the oncology ward, assisting cancer patients, and is now on elective orthopaedics, sorting out joints and muscles and limbs, the things that make us work.
“Some people can’t even get up and go to the toilet themselves when I see them,” he says. “It’s particularly nice when you can help somebody who has been struggling for a while. If you can work with them, get them up over a period of a few days or a week and can progress to getting them on to the toilet properly, there’s nothing better than that.”
More ballet than football Hulse does not miss football. He hesitates for a moment when considering the question, but he explains that his wife, Antonia, is not interested in the game in the slightest, and his two girls – Lucy, nine, and Ella, eight – only know he used to play because children in the playground will occasionally mention it to them. “I watch more ballet than football nowadays,” Hulse says.
“Football was football. I left it at work. Life is as normal as it was, really. Things haven’t changed much apart from I don’t kick a ball anymore. Rob Hulse of Sheffield United celebrates scoring the opening goal with team mate Danny Webber (L) in 2006. Photo: Getty “I still look out for all my old clubs but I don’t watch it much anymore. Don’t get much time to watch the telly with two girls wanting to watch something else.” He will see if Leeds United are still on for promotion, how Sheffield United are doing, check that Derby are OK; treating them a little like his patients throughout the day. Loss of identity The psychological effects of retiring from football are often largely ignored by players until it is too late.
The lack of identity; the loss of what has defined them as a human being for so long; the fear of what next. Hulse describes life as a footballer as a little bubble and what’s outside can be a scary place. “You have to come to terms with losing yourself,” Hulse says. “You can no longer say you’re a professional footballer. All the studies around mental health and athletes who retire say it’s a grieving process. You’ve always worked for this and you suddenly have a loss of identity.
“It’s a huge thing, the mental health of sport and the internal and external pressures lads and girls are under. It’s about having a plan, having something other than being a sportsperson. There’s a very narrow focus and then it stops. Having something really helps.”
Continued education Hulse considers himself fortunate to have first considered life without football when he fractured his spine as an 18-year-old at Crewe Alexandra and was unsure if he would play again. He studied an A-level in psychology in case he did not make it, but went on to score hundreds of goals, win three promotions (two to the Premier League) and move to clubs for millions of pounds. “I spent a lot of time on the treatment table as a player!” he says. “I had some really good physiotherapists and medical teams who helped me. I had time to think about an exit strategy.” ‘The NHS is under huge pressure at the moment, but you can see people work really hard’ He credits the Professional Footballers’ Association for part-funding his part-time physiotherapy degree at Salford University and for their role in visiting clubs and letting players from a young age know more is out there. “Considering the amount of money going through football, the clubs have a duty of care to the players that isn’t being fulfilled,” Hulse adds.
“I was lucky, it was my choice when to retire, I decided enough is enough, I wanted to do something else, but loads of kids go through the system, almost make it, don’t quite, fall out. Where do they go? Or players will come to the end of their career and not have anything. There should be more help.”
Every day at work now Hulse sees the doctors and nurses and staff who carry the heavy weight of a broken system on their backs. He witnesses first-hand the real-life consequences of NHS staff shortages, years of underfunding and low morale, issues highlighted last month by doctors railing against the decision to strike off Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba for mistakes in the care of Jack Adcock – a case that has rocked the medical profession.
In 2011, Jack Adcock died of septic shock in Leicester Royal Infirmary after being admitted with sickness and vomiting. Bawa-Garba was initially suspended for 12 months until the General Medical Council appealed and were backed by High Court judges.
“There are amazing people in the NHS working hard,” Hulse says. “It is under huge pressure at the moment, but you can see people work really hard. Unfortunately, in my own opinion there is a deliberate, chronic, underfunding there to undermine its very existence. “It’s sad and wrong. It’s something that we as a nation should be really proud of and doing whatever we can to protect. I’m not saying it’s run as efficiently as it could be but more should be done to protect it; it’s a brilliant institution, for every family in the country the NHS at some point has had or will have a profound effect on them. “I’m proud to work for the NHS, I think it’s one of the greatest things we’ve ever achieved. I think it’s a basic human right regardless of your basic social-economic status, someone with more money shouldn’t have access to better care.”
This is not Hulse’s first experience of difficult times. At the end of his career he claims Queens Park Rangers did not want him and tried to force him out using unpleasant methods. “I was made to get changed in a cupboard, I trained with the kids, they kept me in and made me train twice a day, 9am to 4pm, they stopped me going to other clubs,” he recalls.
“I’d seen it done in football before when I was younger; the club want a player out, the player doesn’t want to go so the club make life difficult. I used to think the player was a bad egg, but when it happens to you, you realise there’s another side to it. It happens all the time.
“At the time it was a mental battle, me versus them. I considered myself a good pro, hard-working. It took my love of football completely. I resented it at the time. Now I see it as a blessing. I’ve got a new life, I’m happy. I’ve moved on and I love football again. It hasn’t ruined it forever but probably helped me move on as a person.”
It was a bitter end to a career he loved, but it doesn’t even cross Hulse’s mind when he leaves the house at 7.15am, gets changed at the hospital, sorts through the stations on different wards and checks which patients need seeing first.