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Alan Tonge Interview: Spinal Injury Nightmare to Football Psychologist

Alan Tonge was a player at Manchester United in the late 1980s, before Sir Alex Ferguson told him he wasn't good enough for United. He then moved to Exeter City and at the age of 24 his career was cut short by a brutal spine injury and he was forced to retire.

He has been a sports lecturer for the last 15 years. Recently, he has completed a survey of more than 200 footballers for his PhD about the emotional challenges that players face in their careers. For example, this could be being de-selected by a manager.

He has his own experience with these obstacles and now studies it so I thought there would be no better person to help us go behind the scenes and into the psyche of a football player and the mental challenges they face.

Josh: So could you just tell people where you grew up and your first football memories?

Alan: Yes, like a lot of the youngsters my first sort of football memory really comes down through my dad. I can remember playing in the garden quite a lot as a young person my dad was good enough to build me some nets. And I can remember spending a lot of great times and great memories playing football, and going to the field the local field that was there near where I lived.

Josh: And so you got that trial at Manchester United your boyhood Club. You must have been nervous man going for that trial?

Alan: I was on a team called Bolton Lads Club at the time and got invited to go and train in the school of excellence. And then I got invited for a trial over one Christmas period, I think it was something along the lines of the 28th of December until the 2nd of January. So I actually stayed in the halls of residence which was the digs back then over the new year. So which was again quite strange I don't know if that happened these days. But I did really well in the trial and it was one of that moments, some sports stars probably explain it as you probably as in a flow state, where everything seems very easy. And it wasn't a surprise at the end of the week when the youth development offer came up and said Manchester United would like to offer you something.

So yes absolutely over the moon I remember running home, and I went home that evening straight through the front door straight to my mom and dad ‘Man United have offered me to sign.’ So a great moment that you can recall a great clarity.

Josh: How were you treated in that academy environment? Did the the veterans in the club except you or did they kind of like have a you youngsters stay over here and we'll stay over here, what was it like?

Alan: Well the great thing back then is we trained at a place called The Cliff. I think United moved to Carrington in the late 90s. So the good thing about that is that everybody was in together. You had a few corridors with like a first-team dressing room and reserved team dressing room and youth team dressing room. And you all eat together in the same canteen as well, so there was kind of this sort of culture atmosphere created where you were amongst all of the first team players all of the time. And it wouldn't be uncommon for our training session to sort of run with a five a side competition, where you would have liked a couple of youth team players and a couple of first team players and a reserve team player all in one little five-a-side team. So the good thing about that from an experience perspective was you were training and playing with good professional players, right from entry into the sort of into the training situations.


Josh: And because you are kind of interacting with all of those older players, famously you had initiations back in the day something I always find interesting. And Nicky Butt has like a story of how he got locked in the hamper . Do you have any stories of that from yourself?

Alan: Well it was a different era back then it was a different culture it was a different world, and it was a quiet harsh experience really. It was quite a baptism of fire really and all of the apprentices had jobs to do. If those jobs weren't done to a satisfactory standard like cleaning showers, cleaning dressing rooms and making sure the gym is tidy there would be punishment for it. You would have to have something called a court case as it were back then, a group of people usually all of the apprentices had to make a judgement on you where you would have to do extra chores.

Josh: Did that ever happen to you?

Alan: I wasn't too bad on it to be honest but I think some of the situations, I don't know if you have seen Oliver Kay’s book, Forever Young about Adrian Docherty. I mean Oliver alludes to kind of the environment in there - I think Gary Neville's mentioned it as well- about the lads getting smeared in polish and having to run naked laps around the training ground and stuff like that. So it was kind of a bit of a strange world but I think somebody put a complaint in, and I think it was finished overnight.

And you have to say there seems to be quite a lot of bullying going on and things like that. So it was on one hand a good experience but on the other you are kind of fighting against a culture that really shouldn't have been there.

Josh: Of course, well you have a son that plays for an Oldham. I believe he is in the U-16 team, what conversation have you had around academy football with him?

Alan: Sure we have had conversation and all I say to my son is keep enjoying your football’, because I think once you lose that reason why you play in the first place I think that's when you sort of problem start. And we have also talked about plan Bs as well because his dad coming through the football experience knows that things can change very-very quickly in a football environment. It's very demanding. A lot of the environment is based on results.


Josh: So you are a young player and trying to make it out your boyhood club, United. And you are not really breaking into the first team - what are you thinking and feeling as you're trying to break into this top team?

Alan: I think the difficulty at the time, there were in front of me quite a lot of players - we used to call them utility players back in the day. So when I come into United I played as a centre half- my early experience’s were in the B team. In the first year that I played in the FA Youth Cup I was centre half. Then I kind of started transitioning to right fullback, maybe I lacked a bit of height.

So I played quite a lot of games at right back, started to get a few games in the reserves but the difficulties I faced was I had lads like Viv Anderson in front of me, he is a European Cup winner, the first black player to play for England, a fantastic full back. Then if he has got injured you might have got Clayton Blackmore who would fill in there. Clayton was a great little footballer, very underrated.


And if Clayton couldn't fill in you would have Lee Martin who played there he could play right and left back. Then Dennis Irwin arrives who can play right and left fall back so it's kind of your route to the first team is kind of not there, and maybe reflecting back on my career at the time I maybe should have put that little more work into maybe stand out.

For me 9 out of 10 is not enough for United to breakthrough, you have got to be 10 out of 10.

Had a little taste in pre-season friendlies. I played in a couple of games with the first-team, but I never managed to break that sort of difficult step. I think it's the most difficult step in the football club is from an under 23 or a reserved player into a first-team environment, and at that level I just felt short, slightly short.

Josh: And so I imagine at that time were you thinking I need a permanent move out and kind of what were the internal thought process like?

Alan: I think at the time I think when Sir Alex called me up to his office and said that there is no easy way to say this, ‘but we are going to have to move you out.’ I think that was like a bit of shock to the system to be fair.

Josh: And how old were you?

Alan: I was 19 then, let me think I was 19 in February and then I got told in sort of May or June so 19 in a few months or whatever. So at that time it was really difficult because you're kind of left in limbo, and because you have been associated with football for such a long time, you got back to your first question talking about playing in the garden, and part of my identity coming through all of that has been very-very strong on athletic identity because that's what you are striving to become.

I wasn't sort of striving to become something else. I wanted to be a footballer. So I think to have that difficult moment to deal with it at that time was a real shock to the system. And I think probably, a little bit disappointed really with how it panned out, I wasn't really helped maybe as much as I should have done to maybe find another club. I had to do a lot of that myself.

Josh: Can you kind of elaborate on that when you say that you didn't really get a lot of help?

Alan: It's difficult because at the end of the day it's like, unfortunately back in those days, it was kind of if somebody made a decision on your kind of felt the help just vanishes into a black hole. But yes unfortunately I think that although I pursued Sir Alex a little bit, ‘is anybody interest in any opportunities?’ He said to me that it's been a very-very difficult summer to arrange players going into different areas, but I don't know. Read into that what you will but at that moment it's kind of I had to start chasing. I was ringing managers. I spoke to I think it was Phil Neal at Bolton Wanderers, I went down for a trial there that didn't kind of workout. Then I think it was a neighbour who phoned somebody. So if you think of that in the modern day a neighbour phoning somebody for a trial for you it’s pretty diabolical really when you think about it.

Josh: But how did you handle it all psychologically that loss of identity?

Alan: It was very difficult at the time because it's kind of - its everything it's like a crushing blow for yourself but some of the reading that I have done, sometimes within this disappointment, tragedy and trauma comes opportunity. My neighbour knew that Alan Ball had sort of been born in the same area to me, he was brought up in Farmouth, and I lived in a place called Little Lee which is 5 or 10 minutes away. He phones Bally up because Bally was the manager at Exeter City at the time and said I have got a lad here who has got released by United. He said yes come down so I was heading 280 miles down the M5 to Exeter.

Josh: That is as far as you can get from Bolton really.

Alan: It was another shot to the system because although I have travelled a little bit with United and my family over the years, that was kind of my first experience living away from home.

But it brings you almost like a university student isn't it - it brings you on and it makes you grow up a little bit. So that experience at the time although difficult and sad and tragic because you are aspiring to be an United player. That's kind of the sort of thing that kind of didn't achieve, but it was an opportunity to resurrect my career and another professional football club which gave me the opportunity.

Josh: You got down to Exeter and you played a couple of seasons. And I just want to fast forward a little bit to the end of your playing career - your career was kind of cut short at the age of 24 by injuries specifically to your spine. Could you talk a little bit just about those injuries and what happened there?

Alan: Well what happened was I just start breaking into the first team at Exeter and managing to get a few games behind and managing to try and get my career off and running again. And I can remember I just started getting pins and needles in my legs and my feet, being a bit sort of maybe culturally stubborn at the time, it was all about ‘you have got to keep going you have got the crack on and that's how I think.’

I did keep playing with it for a while because ultimately I knew that my contract was coming up at the end of the season, and I thought well if I don't - I am thinking they will get rid of me again or I will be having to look for another club. But unfortunately after a couple weeks of that, I remember playing Swansea City away one evening.

And I said to my mate at the time I said I am struggling and I can't go to the manager, because he'd done his shape and he'd kind of got his tactics sorted out and all this sort of stuff. And I just thought to myself I have to try and crack on with it. I can remember in the dressing room. I don't know if they use it these days but it was a tube or something called deep heat, and it was a muscle injury treatment really.


And I just remember caking loads on my spine - later on when I sort of went to the surgery to talk about this, the doctor said that could have been one of the most ridiculous decisions you have ever made in your life because you were one tackle away from maybe severing your spinal nerves, because he said your discs had slipped that much. That was the issue.

Because my disc was out of shape or every time I was doing certain movements that's where the pins and needles were coming from, it was the discs touching on my spinal nerves that run all the way down into your back and into your feet.

So yes I was one tackle away from maybe I could have been in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. But because football identity was such a huge part of who I was at the time, I just sort of thinking I will be alright I will crack on with it, it must be some problem that I can get over.

They said to me that you need surgery straight away and he said your back is in a mess. When he opened me up the surgeons he said that it was one of the worst injuries he has ever seen or the worst conditions he has ever seen. And that was kind of another shock to the system because all of sudden now you are facing a very-very difficult return to full Fitness- especially at professional levels.

Josh: And what did you tell your parents, what did you tell your friends?

Alan: Well it's just a case of I had to have operations, and I think I lost quite a lot of weight. I didn't really look myself. The difficulty back then and it seems to be this cultural thing in football when you are injured long-term you don't feel part of it. You are not part of the match day squad and you are not part of the training. You just feel as though sometimes you are a bit of a spare part.

There is a lot of isolation and a lot of difficult times because you have to train on your own and get as fit as you can. Some lads will be able to relate to it who have had serious injuries. There is a lot of time in the gym working with the physio. There is a lot of swimming and things like that. So it's a really difficult thing to overcome a serious injury. So I was battling that for about a year-and-a-half and it come to the stage where I said to the manager and the physio I think I am not going to get back to full fitness again, not at the level that you have been at.

Josh: Not enough to be a professional footballer?

Alan: No and I had to look at myself and think ‘I think it's time to knock it on the head from a professional sense.’

Josh: And so your thoughts after that did you have an idea where you were going or what you would do?

Alan: Completely lost Josh complete lost. The one thing that probably saved me at the time was that I'd being quiet reasonably educated. So throughout my schooling United put me through one day a week at college where I achieved the BTEC National in sport a decent level. And then I had always been interested in academia. I picked up a few coaching awards and stuff like that on my journey, but it was another side to me that I never really explored. So after a year or two of kind of going through and arranging different jobs, you I was working as a supervisor in a warehouse doing some work for a company called TNT, and I was doing some driving for a company called White Arrow at the time.

So it got to a stage in my life where I thought ‘do I want to be driving vans until I'm 65?’ I am going to have to re-engage with my education again.

And I think from that decision which took a little bit of time to get to I kind of glad I made it and I have never really looked back since then. I am glad that that I went back to do a degree in sports science at the University of Bolton. That was a really-really good decision in my life.

Josh: And so can you just bring us up to speed, what are you doing right now?

Alan: Yes, I have been teaching for 15 years now so since I have got a degree in sports science. I've followed that with the teacher training qualification which was 12 months. It was 4 years to become a qualified teacher, 3 years of your degree and one year of your teacher training qualification.

From that I picked up a master's degree in philosophy so my interest was really around the psychological side of football players and kind of looking at some of the things that I have been through, and trying to sort of resonate with some of the lads in the environment at the moment and some of the challenges that they are going through. So that has led me into doing a PhD at the moment. We call them critical moment and how it affects your identity and some of the challenges that you go through in that world, and how to overcome it and how to try and deal with the shocks to the system as it were.

Josh: So it was inspired by your experiences in the game?


Alan: Sure, because my first study what I've done is I've wrote something called autoethnography. So I kind of charted my journey from a young player, the traditional steps that a lot of players take going into probably the biggest clubs around if not in the world. And then the difficulties of a sort of - we call it a deselection. You have been cut from the squad or you have been told you can go and look to do something else. Then into a sort of resurrection of a career again and managing to play first-team football a reasonable level. I got to about the level of League One at the time which is is decent. And then having to face a career injury and having to relook at your identity again and where you move on from there .


Josh: Well your research is on critical moments - and I think I have read on a Twitter reply that you had interviewed over 200 athletes, is that true?


Alan: Yes, that's right. What I have done is three studies, because I have always wanted to write a little bit of an autobiography and autoethnography. It may be of interest to some people and it may not, but it might identify points that psychologists can look at and think support should be going in there or we should do this better. Then from that I spoke to 6 ex-players so I did a little bit of an interview base piece of research for my second study. And just asking those lads what their experiences of the difficulties of the game was.


Some lads have to retire through injuries like I did. Some lads have had full careers, so I kind of pick some of the stuff out that we call it common themes in research that those lads were talking about. Which has led me into quite a bigger study that's been a survey. I sent a survey out to 212 players so I have got data there from 212 players that I am currently sort of analysing and picking the bones out of.

Maybe how best we could support some of these footballers as they make their way through the game. Even recently, it's absolutely alarming. You hear Danny Rose coming out with the Tottenham full back who said ‘I wouldn't even put my kids through that environment.’ so people looking from the outside into the Goldfish Bowl and you are thinking what an unbelievable life - but people maybe not been in that world. My research is to maybe shed a little bit more light on that. Let's get a little bit more closer to the truth and what happens in that difficult world.

Josh: Yes, well I am very interested in it as well which is why I am having these interviews with people like yourself because I am really interested in it. I want to get into a little bit of that research, obviously you are still in the preliminary stages and analysing all of the data you have collected, but what have you noticed so far?


Alan: Well there's lots of challenges and now like I've said one of the biggest things that players sort of deal with badly is when they get deselected. And that could be you have trained hard or the team goes up or the manager calls you in a meeting room and he reads your name out, and you are either not on the bench or you are not involved - what we have got to think about certainly at the levels.


There are 25 players in a premier league squad so ultimately every week there is going to be approximately about maybe 9 players who are not going to be involved. And that can be difficult because ultimately the players love what they do that's why they are in professional football. So to kind of face things like deselection I think it's a challenge and it's a shock.

And what you do? Do you go speak to the manager about it or do you speak to teammates about it? Do you go home and speak to parents about it what are the next steps for a player?

And I think maybe going into somebody within that environment maybe to offload a little bit, because I think some of the time that culture of professional football is we don't like revealing our true feelings, and our true self of fear of, he’s not always up for it or is too soft or is not mentally strong enough.


So there has got to be an out somewhere or else you carry that, you carry that with you and there is a danger of then you start losing your true self. I am not saying a lot of players do this but there is a tendency maybe for a bit of acting to creep in. I am super strong and I am in control of everything but it's nothing like that at all, but because the media would be all over it or there may be repercussion in the environment where manager might not think you are up for it.


I think sometimes to be a bit unique in that environment you have to be careful, because you will get something banter you get a little bit of the mick taken out of you if you are not careful. But I think it's about trying to find that strength to say well this is me and this is what I like, and this is what I enjoy but that's difficult when you are a young coming through.


Josh: Well of course and especially when everyone is poking holes at you and you are such a public position. And I was thinking on the way over here and I couldn't really think of a similar situation to the deselection, because in every other normal job that you have you don't do your job and then sit on the side-lines again and again. It's like if you were a trial lawyer and then you just literally never spoke for like 2 years. And not only that, the entire town knows it and all of your friends knows and I just couldn't think of an example. Can you think of any like more real life scenarios to compare it to?


Alan: Well the only real life scenario that I think probably people could resonate with is maybe coming out the military. You get a lot of lads who work as a team. But because it's such a unique environment that you are in, everything has got to be your uniform has got to be Immaculate and your fitness has got to be 100%. Your teamwork and skills have got to be absolutely rock solid, because you are potentially dealing with life and death in that scenario. And I think a lot of lads or girls who transition out of the army they find it very-very difficult for a period as well. ‘I am not sergeant major anymore or I am not squaddie anymore’ or ‘I am not this and I am not that.’


So I think moving out of that you hear a lot of things called PTSD and traumatic stress disorder and depression and anxiety from these guys, because ultimately that was probably their identity for 15 or 20 or 30 years, and then they're not that anymore and it's a difficult adjustment.

A lot of the players that I have spoken to they call it ‘the bubble.’ When you are in ‘the bubble’ everything is great - you don't have to worry about your finances I have spoken to one of the lads on my second study and he was telling me about he was getting two or three cars every year and it's not a bother, but when it's not there anymore it can be very-very difficult to adjust.

And I think what a lot of players, what the danger is for me again coming out of my research is players who have a substantial drop in salary. So if you have a look at the PFA data a lot of players who move on from maybe Championship to League Two or even League Two into Non-league, your wages can drop by about 50 to 75%.


Josh: And you don't feel like a different player it's not like oh wait all of a sudden yesterday I was this player and then today I am just no, it's just the view of you Has Changed by potentially one or two people, so yes it must be incredibly difficult.


Alan: And a big challenge there is for a lot of players is that the wages have dropped substantially but they still want the lifestyle. now without getting into the nuts and bolts of relationship or marriages that can be difficult as well if your partner is quite demanding, and they expect to be going to the best shops and the best restaurants. And again PFA data I think a lot of relationships are affected by transition. A high percent of players within 3-5 years after stopping playing, are in a relationship difficulty.


Josh: Oh yes I have spoken Viv Anderson about this because he works with player’s kind of post-retirement now and that's a big thing that he talks about. Is there anything in your findings that has surprised you?


Alan: There is quite a few bits and pieces on there. quite a lot of players I mean I give them some options like we call them the critical moments or you can say difficult challenges. Challenges that may bring anxiety to you. And the challenges are the sort of deselection that we spoke about, playing through Injuries media exposure and your career took off - moving challenging relationship with teammates and managers. So quite a high percentage tick these boxes. A high percentage from those moments said they felt as though they couldn't speak to anybody about them and it's ridiculous.


Josh: Couldn't speak because there wasn't anyone there or they were just internally, because like Marvin Sordell said like him talking about it in the newspaper was really difficult, I mean sometimes the biggest battle is within.


Alan: I asked them a question about this levels of support whether they feel they could speak to someone, and a high percent felt they could.

And then the flip question after that I asked them did they prefer to work the issue out themselves, and something like 88% of a sample of 212 players said that they did. I think one of the big issues for me personally is you don't know who to offload it to.

Some people might say I don't really want to tell my parents because I don't want them worrying, I don't want to tell my partner because I don't want them worrying or I don't really want to go to the manager because I don't want him thinking that I am not up for it in this environment. Sometimes the physio in the football clubs are the ones that get a lot offload but they are physiotherapists they are dealing with injuries and Rehab.

They are not really trained for issues around psychology, health psychology or mental health. So I know the PFA have been doing some fantastic work and they have had like a counselling hotline that players can ring for confidential information which is brilliant, but the first thing that struck me there from a critical perspective is why a player is having to go outside of the environment to speak to somebody. Why can't they go to somebody in the environment to speak about their issues.


Josh: I mean like why doesn't a team has a counsellor and independently paid, or why doesn't the PFA play for an independently paid one, to be within the locker room and kind of be present.


Alan: I think other sports embrace sport psychology a lot more than football does as of the moment. it's getting better and you get a lot of sports psychologist working in football club Josh but they tend to be with the development age groups, from sort of 9 when you go into Academy right to 18.

Josh: And it's more for performance not for counselling?

Alan: Performance-based absolutely. But we know that as well as performance there are other issues that I have picked up on in my research that maybe go around the players as well.

Josh: Yes, I mean if you are having really hard times off the field it's going to translate on the field, but I do want to ask something actually since we are on performance. You once said, “my research will have centralized in finding out what the players want, instead of what sport psychology providing what they think the players want.” Can you kind of elaborate on that?

Alan: I think what I mean by that is a lot of sports psychologist they may work with teams and groups, and they might say ‘alright we are going to do some goal settings today or we are going to do some work on imagery, like visualization or we are going to work on yourself talk like we're going to try and think about positive self-talk or negative self-talk’, but to me there are issues which are quite important but that's only a small part of the footballer’s lifestyle.


Now that quote there I think was sort of saying well there should be maybe more one to one stuff goes on. There may well be in there but what I am hearing or what I am getting back is kind of not a lot of - and I would sort of suggest it as maybe people who know the environment, people who know what footballers go through, people who can resonate with football players.


I think that's one of the biggest difficulties that maybe a sport psychologist faces and that's learning to adapt to the culture of football. So that's kind of what my point was making there. So it's all well and good going in and doing some work with a group of footballers, but that to me is like nice and easy. I mean my supervisor Dr. Mark Nesti has worked with Premier League players for 10 season with Newcastle United, Hull City and Bolton Wanderers.

And Mark has written a book psychology in football and he is one of the rare few people who have worked alongside first team players. And Mark always says that you do a lot of sports psychology do a lot of work with mental skills, but what he has found in his work is players have already got good mental skills. They don't need sport psychologist.

Josh: That's how they are already at the top.

Alan: Yes, we don't need sports psychologist to go in and start saying about goal setting and imagery and concentration skills, they have already got that. So maybe footballers are looking for something else which people like Mark has provided, but we need more of Mark's in those environment in my view.


Josh: Okay that makes a lot of sense. I do want to bring up one more issue before we get to some final general questions. I have a stat here with the PFA when it comes to welfare. 403 players saw support in 2017 which was up from 103 in 2016. You can interpret the numbers as there are more cases now than there used to be when you were playing - or you can just say the taboo or the stigma has been lessened in modern times. Do you think that mental health was as big of a problem in your days playing, or is it just or is it a more commonplace now?


Alan: Well I think mental health has always been there as an issue I think it was difficult back then, and like I said there was a culture created that was probably not the greatest of cultures. A lot of my mates are from that era as well- not just Premier League clubs all of the club- you hear it and you get an article every so often maybe or the newspapers about Marines getting treated badly or soldiers getting treated badly by its part of initiation and things like that.

So I think in those days I think it was difficult for players because the managers and coaches had a lot of power. I think if you transfer that into 30 years later into players coming through now, it's almost like not shifted 100%, but players have certainly got a lot more power than they used to have. And if they get any nonsense or any rubbish they could turn around and say to their agent I want to move on I want to get out of here.

Whereas back in our day’s kind of like you just have to take it and try and make sense of it and move on as best as you can. Again a lot of it maybe comes through my upbringing I was very fortunate to be brought up by very-very loving parents. And I think that stands you in good stead because at the end of the day things are wrong and it's almost like resisting that - I think some players have not got or didn't have the mental strength to resist it, and they got involved because I don't know maybe social acceptance or you are not part of the group or something like that.

But at the end of the day I was strong enough in my courage to say well that's not right what's going on there and I don't really want to get involved with that, but because the environment sometimes is a lot like say 15 Lads in your dressing room that's difficult to do that's not easy.


Josh: Before I let you go is there anything that you want to leave the audience with. Anything that you want them to take away from your life or from this interview?


Alan: No you picked up on it before Josh I think the main thing is it's not all downs and that's what I have try to do on my PhD as well. I had a lot of great times I have a lot of high times and maybe the tone of this podcast that we have done is kind of looking at critical moments and challenges in that environment - but a lot of brilliant times as well. But I think in football what the idea is you want more of the highs than the lows, but not many players get those. And going back to my research I ask one of early questions, did you achieve everything that you set out to in your career. And something like 77% or 78% of those 212 players said they didn't.

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