Former Burnley and AFC Wimbledon youngster, Richard Pingling, has revealed how he struggled to adjust to life in non-league football with Croydon FC following his release from the professional game.
However, his release from the professional game means that he now finds himself playing in the Southern Counties East Football League, in step six of the English football pyramid.
Pingling initially struggled with the disappointment of not receiving a new contract and being told that he was not good enough at the time to be playing first-team football or even sticking around in the academy setup.
He said: “When I got released, I was hard on myself. I didn’t want to play.
“I started eating a lot more, got overweight and couldn’t move anymore football-wise.”
His life may have continued to spiral were it not for a significant change in his life that gave him the motivation to pursue his dreams once more.
Pingling explained: “I had a young daughter – she’s two now – so my focus was mainly on being able to support her.
“I didn’t want to be the sort of person who could not run around with their daughter, so I got myself back into shape and it really helped me progress in football but also become a better person.
“The message I would send to her is: whatever you want to do, stick at it, give it your all and just never give up.”
Nowadays, protecting the mental health of players is a particular focus for elite football clubs; however, Pingling feels that the struggles of those released from the professional game often go unnoticed.
He said: “I would consider myself a thick-skinned person, someone who does not have to deal with the severe side of depression and stuff like that.
“Despite this, I don’t feel there was enough help coming out of the setups within the academies.”
Pingling may not have returned to competitive football at all were it not for Croydon FC’s manager Liam Giles, who enticed him back with the idea of playing once again alongside his friends at the club.
Giles, who has known Pingling since he was 15, before he went to Burnley, recognised his weight gain prior to Croydon’s 2019 pre-season as a sign that he could use a helping hand.
Giles explained: “When these lads get released from pro clubs, they are in a bit of a bad place. They feel almost as if their dream of being a pro is over.
“He was in that bracket where he just seemed to have given up on it.”
Keen for Pingling to fulfil his potential, Giles soon moved him on to Horley Town, whose manager he knows well from his own playing days there.
Giles added: “I thought it would be a better fit for him, as he was just going through the motions for us.
“Although he was scoring, he wasn’t doing what I believed he could. He had a lot more to offer.”
Pingling agrees with this assessment, with his transition to non-league football presenting a lot of new challenges.
Pingling explained: “Non-league shows you a different side of football. It makes you appreciate the ball a lot more.
“Academy setups are amazing, but they have money put into them. In non-league, you have one or two good pitches, but it’s dog eat dog, you have to fight it out.”
Difficulties extend beyond just the pitch, with Pingling also forced to juggle full-time work alongside his dream to return to playing professional football.
He said: “It’s hard. For me, working a regular job is the hardest thing to do.
“I get to games after work, so I’m always tired, but if I’m going to get to where I want to be, I know nothing will be easy.
“I’m 100% committed, I want to get back to the top and be a professional again.”
This desire brought him back to Croydon and back to the man who kickstarted his footballing rehabilitation years earlier.
Giles welcomed him with open arms, impressed by his conditioning, which was a stark contrast to that of the man he had sent away.
Giles said: “He must have lost maybe two stone, was as fit as a fiddle and won the bleep test.
“He was head and shoulders above everyone else fitness-wise.”
Pingling attributes these fitness levels to the coronavirus pandemic, which he says allowed him to focus on improving himself, as he had little else to do.
Pingling said: “I feel like I’ve been living on a different planet, it’s been so surreal.
“I tried to use Covid as a period to get my head back together so that, when we came back, I was able to show why I should be where I want to be.”
And that he has.
15 goals have come in just 20 appearances in all competitions, including nine in the league.
Pingling’s form has helped Croydon to fifth in the Southern Counties East Football League after 16 games; a solid return for a side bidding to earn promotion back to step five in the first full season following their relegation in 2018/19.
However, such is his form, that Croydon are unlikely to be able to retain the services of Pingling for the remainder of the campaign.
Giles said: “I’m hoping we’ll have him until Christmas but we won’t be able to keep him much longer than that.
“In non-league, there’s a lot of money being thrown about and we don’t have the finances to keep up with the sides that are two or three levels above us.
“Ultimately, he has a young family, so if the right offer is there financially, he may be gone sooner than we’d like – it’s only a matter of time.”
When he does go, he’ll go with his manager, and long-term friend’s best wishes, who feels that this time around, he may finally fulfil those long-held dreams.
Giles said: “A million percent [he can get back to his best], there’s no doubting his ability and that’s something that I’ve been drilling into him for the last three years. It’s not over.
“I feel that he could fit into a lot of National League South sides; technically he’s got it all, so it’s just a matter of someone giving him that chance again.”
Featured Image Credit: Croydongas