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Michael Allen’s fascinating journey as he swaps his boots for a shirt and tie

When all you have ever known – and lived for – is to play rugby, make tackles and score tries the world of work away from the pitch can seem a scary place.

Michael Allen had played rugby for as long as he can remember. He was one of the shining stars of Methodist College Belfast and after leaving school in June 2009 he joined the Ulster Academy. For the next eight seasons he played for his hometown club Ulster and later Edinburgh Rugby in the PRO12 league.

He represented Ireland at under-18 level and later the Emerging Ireland squad. With a new contract in the offering at the Scottish capital club and a first child on the way, life seemed to be on the up.

That was until a new coaching regime came to Edinburgh and with no contract extension his career was up in the air. His life in Edinburgh where he’d began to make a home was now in doubt and, at 26 years of age, Michael admits now that he was unsure about what the future would hold.

The choice – to stay in rugby and move his family to continue to play the sport he loved or take the inevitable step a post-rugby career eventually brings and work out what to do for the start of the rest of his life.

Fast forward nine months and he is now a qualified financial planner in Edinburgh graduating through the St. James’s Place Academy programme in Wealth Management. Thanks to the support he has been given by St. James’s Place, a highly successful FTSE 100 company, he swapped his boots for a shirt and tie and could not be happier.

“From an early age at school my dream, like most other kids, was to be a professional rugby player.  I was lucky enough to get that chance.” Michael explains. “It started with getting into the school first XV, winning the Schools Cup, then on to Ireland under-18s, the Ulster Academy and progressing to my first cap.

“I was really driven to succeed from my mid-teens and, as soon as one goal was ticked off I quickly refocused on the next. Back then the Ulster Academy was still growing and I was delighted to be a part of it.

“Around Christmas time of 2009 I started to train with the first team at Ulster.  It was amazing for me. I was just out of school and was in awe of the big name players I was training with – Rory Best, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace. You can imagine what a buzz this was for a 19-year-old!  I played a lot for the Ravens [Ulster A] and the next big aim was to play for the first team.”

Michael Allen Ulster

Two years later Michael was making his Ulster debut away to Leinster on Boxing Day 2011.The Ulster team that headed to Dublin that day featured a number of young bucks and in the centre, Michael was up against British Lion Gordon D’arcy and Irish international Fergus McFadden.

On the wing for the opposition was also Luke Fitzgerald, a man who represented Ireland 34 times and went on a Lions tour.

Michael recounted: “It was nerve wracking, but as a group of young guys we stuck in reasonably well and although we got beat [42-13] we put in a decent performance.

“I then had to wait a while for a regular run of games, but it came when new head coach Mark Anscombe arrived for the 2012/2013 season.  I got my break and played mostly on the wing and sometimes in the centre.  I was really enjoying my rugby. I became a bit of a jack of all trades, but there were so many good players there I wasdelighted to be involved. When you train hard all you want is to playweek in and week out and I owe a lot to Mark for giving me that chance.”

Representative honours came for Michael in the shape of two Emerging Ireland tours, one to Georgia in 2013 and then to Romania in 2014. After the end of the 2014/15 season Michael decided the time was right, after 48 caps for Ulster, that he would leave his home town club and get more experience further afield.

Michael Allen Ulster

“That was a big deal for me because all I had ever dreamed of was representing Ulster,” he said.

“I wanted to try and play in one position [outside centre] and I wanted to experience living away from home and the opportunity came along which was right opportunity at the right time!”

“Alan Solomons was the head coach at Edinburgh at the time and he made an approach for me and was keen for me to play at 13 so it seemed a great fit.

“The first six months were blighted with a shoulder injury that required surgery. It’s the last thing you want to happen joining a new club but thankfully after four months of rehab I was good to go again.

“I was really enjoying my rugby and started 14 or 15 games on the bounce before I came off the bench against Leinster [in a 30-23 defeat in Dublin in April 2016] and felt my shoulder slip out again.

Michael Allen Edinburgh

“I was gutted! Two operations on the same shoulder in my first season, but that’s rugby and I was back for the start of 2016/17 excited and ready to go.

“From December 2016 until February of 2017 all indications were that a contract extension would be forthcoming. I was happy at the club and wanted to stay.

“When you are young you are so focused on your own game that you don’t always notice that guys are moving on each summer, but as you get older and friends’ futures are in doubt it begins to hit home.

“And it certainly did for myself last March when I was told my contract at Edinburgh was not going to be renewed.

“I was really shocked, maybe naively I didn’t see it coming. As I mentioned, all the conversations between the club and my agent up until that point had been positive and it seemed like we would be getting things sorted, but that was not the case. It got to the point where I had to ask [then acting head coach Duncan Hodge] what was going on, the waiting became too much.

“He was completely honest with me and I respect him for that.He told me that there was no contract for me.By then it was too late to get myself set-up with another top level club for the next season as most squad slots had been filled.”

Michael Allen Edinburgh

With a pregnant wife expecting their first child at home, Michael admits that he didn’t know what was going to happen.They had made a big decision to move away from Northern Ireland nearly two years previously, set down roots in Edinburgh and now they would have to leave the city they had grown to love.

“I was at real crossroads; every rugby player knows their career is finite. My wife and I talked about what our possibilities were – to move somewhere else to play or stay in Edinburgh and retire.

“After a few lengthy conversations with my agent it was slim pickings in the PRO12 and English Premiership. There were a couple of options I could have pursued in the English Championship and in Pro D2 (League 2) in France. My wife loved the idea of spending her maternity leave in France, living in an idyllic French town enjoying the sunshine, but for me it would have meant bouncing around different clubs with inevitable further moves ahead.

“I was only 26 at the time and I didn’t know what else I could do because rugby had been all I had focused on and I knew that I was so naïve to life outside sport because I had been so sheltered from it up until then. I contacted Pamela Gilpin who is the Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA) representative for Ulster Rugby. As a player development manager it is her role to help guys transition from rugby into the working world. We got chatting and she was a great sounding board. I owe her a lot for taking the time to help me out, especially as I wasn’t an Ulster player any more.

“I also got in touch with Paul Rowley, a former rugby player whom I had met through a mutual friend. He had released himself from his contract at Ulster and had been left in a similar position to me before he had been successful on gaining a place in the St. James’s Place Academy programme here in Edinburgh.”

Shortly after chatting things over with Paul, Michael went to a St. James’s Place Academy open evening. There he saw the potential to embark on a whole new career away from the pitch.

Michael puts a lot of emphasis on the support of his wife, close friends and family who helped and supported him making the decision.

“My wife was saying ‘everything will be ok’, but I was really worrying because I didn’t know what direction things were going to take. Looking back now the support she gave me in that first month after being told I wouldn’t be staying at Edinburgh was amazing! She is an incredibly positive person and at four months pregnant was ready to move to a new city to allow me to keep playing. I wouldn’t have gone through this transition as well as I have without her and my family’s advice and encouragement.”

Michael Allen St. James's Place

The St. James’s Place Academy is run by the well-known wealth management company and provides an unrivalled development programme for individuals who have no previous experience of giving personal financial advice.

The Academy offers training, development and dedicated ongoing support helping people to start their own wealth management business and continue to build it into a successful practice.

“After interviews and a panel selection process I was asked to produce a business plan.  I had never written a business plan before and it was a daunting process as you can imagine! My CV had pretty much read rugby and little else!,” Michael said.

The Academy group helped integrate Michael into the world of work and he has nothing but praise for the staff and his Academy colleagues at St. James’s Place who he has worked with in Edinburgh in recent months.

“Those first six months at the Academy stage were tough, but very rewarding,” Michael continued, “I sat and passed five exams in five months. It was the first time I had put my mind to academia since school and although it was tough I really enjoyed it.  It has opened up a whole new chapter and has encouraged me to succeed in new goals I had never thought possible.

“My new role as a Financial Planner is to provide individuals and families with a detailed financial plan helping them understand their finances and to help achieve their future goals. I’m especially interested in helping guys like me manage their money and feel I have a solid foundation to do so now. I’m still learning every day, but I get a great sense of achievement and purpose coming to work.”

While he keeps his hand in rugby by playing in the club game in Scotland with Watsonians in the BT Premiership, he is enjoying being a dad and spending quality time with his wife and daughter.

He concludes: “It is great that I can still play the game at a more social level and concentrate on a more long-term career away from the pitch.It has been a roller coaster to get too this point, but one that I’m thoroughly enjoying.”

To contact Michael about any aspects of financial planning email:

Michael.Allen@sjpp.co.uk

To find out more about the St. James’s Place Academy visit:

www.sjpacademy.co.uk

To find out more about St. James’s Place visit:

www.sjp.co.uk

Michael Allen represents only St. James’s Place Wealth Management plc (which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority) for the purpose of advising solely on the group’s wealth management products and services, more details of which are set out on the group’s website at www.sjp.co.uk/products.