Fatherhood in Football: The paternity leave taboo and impact on career if players choose to take time out

Norwich’s Ben Gibson and Blackburn’s Sam Smzodics discuss becoming dads and how taking paternity leave, a topic rarely discussed in men’s football, could impact career; watch Norwich vs Leeds in Championship play-off this Sunday, live on Sky from 11.30am

Image: Ben Gibson and Sam Smzodics discuss how they balance fatherhood in football

Fuelled by four black coffees after only three hours sleep, Blackburn striker Sam Szmodics hot-footed it from the labour ward to Ewood Park merely hours after the birth of his second-born back in February.

His rapid dash from hospital to pitch to line-up against Norwich for their Championship contest was heralded by fans on social media and the striker was given a particular mention from his manager John Eustace in the post-match after their 1-1 draw.

“I think it’s important that we give a special message to Sammie Szmodics too,” he said. “His wife gave birth this morning, he was in the hospital at 2am last night, didn’t get any sleep. He turned up at 2pm for kick-off and said he was ready. His performance today was awesome.”

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Szmodics is not the first footballer to play a match only hours after witnessing the arrival of a newborn – and he won’t be the last.

Stories of getting helicopters from hospital wards to fly across the country for a match (think Leeds’ Dan James in 2021 and Norwich’s Russell Martin in 2015) make for great tales, yet also raise the question as to why paternity leave is rarely taken or discussed in elite men’s football?

“It is a taboo topic,” Norwich defender Ben Gibson tells Sky Sports reflecting on his own experience in our Fatherhood In Football series.

“It’s something that players are just expected to get on with and be back in training the next day or two.”

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Speaking on Fatherhood in Football, Norwich City’s Ben Gibson opens up about how supportive his club were throughout the premature birth of his second child

Clubs can and do approve parental leave at the request of players. Yet in the dog-eat-dog business of football, professional players would do so fearing what impact it could have on their place in their team.

“You’re constantly fighting in football. Whether that’s to win your place or keep your place,” Gibson, whose Norwich team will take on Leeds in the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final at Carrow Road on Sunday live on Sky Sports Football from 11.30am.

“What if your team has gone on a really successful run while you’ve been on your paternity leave? Then you might not find yourself back into the team, it could take a while.

“As long as everything is ok [with the birth], your partner is OK, baby and family are all OK and they have support, there’s no reason why you can’t get back into it. Mine was a little more complex but I do often think what it would be like if it was the other way round because I’m not sure my partner would’ve wanted me rushing straight off from the hospital! Every situation is different.”

The PFA also said leave would vary from player to player with a spokesperson telling Sky Sports: “The decision to take paternity leave will vary from player to player depending on their unique personal circumstances. However, it is important for players to know that they have a statutory right to take a period of paid paternity leave if they wish to do so.”

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Speaking on Fatherhood in Football, Blackburn Rovers’ Sammie Szmodics shares why he chose to play a match just hours after the birth of his child

Szmodics, who went up against Gibson that day hours after the birth of daughter, Nellie, discussed the knock-on effect missing a game can have as he reflected on the arrival of his first born, Winter, when he was at Peterborough.

“The birth was a bit more traumatic and she [Winter] was in hospital for the first week. I decided I wasn’t going to leave her side and I would have done the same with Nellie [his second daughter] if there had been any problems,” Szmodics, who finished as the Championship top goalscorer with 27 goals, including two on the final day of the season at champions Leicester.

“Football is the least important thing when it comes to family and giving birth,” he added. “I was at Peterborough in the Championship at the time and we needed to win games and I missed a great game at Derby.

“I watched it while we were in hospital and it was tough because you want to be involved in these games. You do think you’re going to lose your place, which is what football is all about. If you’re absent for a game, someone can come in, do well and score and you will lose your place but you can’t really worry about that when it comes to childbirth or things out of your control.”

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Smzodics scored twice on the final day of the season at Leicester

‘Wagner put me and my family before him and his job’

That family-first message was one that Gibson equally stressed when discussing the own traumatic arrival of his second child, Mylie, who was almost three months premature and spent 44 days in the intensive care unit at Norwich Hospital in December.

“I should’ve travelled with the team and was fit and available on Boxing Day which would’ve meant leaving on Christmas Day and being in a hotel overnight,” Gibson said.

“I didn’t really feel ready to leave the family at that point and I was just really worried about my partner. The manager [David Wagner] pulled me aside and I’d been toing and fro-ing about whether to see him all week and luckily he made the decision for me, which I think is always the best way for that scenario to play out.

“He said ‘look, I’ve been thinking about things and I think you should stay at home with your family, I don’t think it’s right to take you away’. I’ll never ever forget how he was with me, that will stick with me for a very, very long time. He put me and my family before him and his job.”

That support stretched throughout the club, with the head chef baking cakes for Gibson to take into the hospital on Christmas Day, other members of staff offering to help look after their young son, who had recently turned one, and being asked “100 times a day” how the family were doing.

Meanwhile, it was head of first-team operations, Jonny Martin, who was first on hand to deliver news to Gibson straight off the pitch after Norwich’s New Year’s Day clash with Southampton that he needed to urgently call his partner.

Mylie had stopped breathing on numerous occasions throughout the game and his partner, Ashley, did not want to call and disturb Gibson mid-match.

“I’ve always said to my partner, look any doubts, any issues at all, even if it’s the smallest thing, our family is much more important than any job and that’s the same for anyone,” Gibson said. “I know it might not always be what the football fans want to hear, and I do obviously really care about the club and the football, but my family will always be first over anything.”

It is only now with Mylie happy and healthy at home that Gibson can reflect on what was a traumatic few weeks but also highlight how football provided an outlet and sense of ‘normality’, a distraction while his daughter was fighting for her life.

“You don’t know how long your baby is going to be in hospital for, so you have to try and find some sort of normality. She [Mylie] could have been in there for months. Some babies unfortunately are in intensive care for months and months. We were there for 44 days, you have to find a sense of normality.”

That sense of familiarity and routine is equally what drove Szmodics on when he made his quickfire dash for Blackburn earlier this season.

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“I was at the hospital from 2am in the morning. I’d had about three hours kip but luckily the baby arrived happy and healthy. After it had calmed down, your emotions are through the roof,” the Republic of Ireland striker said.

“On the way from the hospital to the game, I remember ringing my agent and him laughing and looking back, it was a crazy decision. The first couple of minutes of the match I was sprinting and realised that I was playing on adrenaline because I was absolutely exhausted.”

It’s the old saying that football is meant to be more important than life and death – but when it comes to family, there’s almost an exception.

Watch Norwich vs Leeds in Championship play-off semi-final first leg this Sunday live on Sky Sports Football from 11.30am.

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