“YOU can think you’re the best player in the world but one tackle and you’re gone.”
Alan Young, now 30, sits opposite me in his Oxfordshire office, recounting how in his early 20s he had to make the decision to step away from the only industry he ever knew and start his life all over again.
Young – a prodigious talent nurtured by the Swindon Town youth system in the 1990s – was tipped for great things with club and country as a youngster. He played in the same England representative age-group side as Jermaine Jenas, Jermaine Pennant and Stewart Downing, training for a period with Celtic and was courted by Arsenal but now, in what would have been his prime, he is chatting with the Advertiser on a Wednesday lunchtime before packing up his work and hitting the golf course.
He tells the story a fledgling footballer will rarely compensate for – career-ending injury at a young age – and how, with a tight-knit support network around him, he was able to steer clear of the depths of despair many other players and managers have lurched into down the years.
Young came through the Centre of Excellence at the County Ground, joining at under 11 level and working with the likes of Phil Cannon and Tommy Wheeldon before being awarded an apprenticeship.
Then, out of the blue in September 2000, he got promoted.
“The manager at the time was Colin Todd and Andy King was his assistant. Halfway through the season there was a game at Luton and I got called in and asked to travel with the first team and I thought that was fantastic,” says Young, evidently enjoying the opportunity to reminisce.
“They announced the team an hour before the game and I was on the bench and that was a dream come true, as you can imagine. My parents took the trip up thinking I’d be in the stands.
“I was on the bench thinking it was good but five or 10 minutes into the second half I got a call to warm up and then I was on. I think I’d left school four or five months before. It was a really quick transition. That was the start of it. I got a lot of press, purely because of being a boy coming through.”
Young quickly settled into life in the first-team ranks, though he was used mainly as a substitute, and he scored his first goal in a 4-1 victory over Ilkeston in the FA Cup second round. Then, towards the end of the season, his career took yet another turn as he was sent to train with Celtic ahead of a possible move to the Scottish giants – the makeweight in a deal to even up a sum owed for the purchase of Chris Hay in 1997.
“I was the sacrificial lamb who got sent up to Celtic Park,” he recites, with glee. “It was an amazing experience. I trained with (Henrik) Larsson, (Mark) Viduka; Kenny Dalglish was manager and I stayed with him. I was living in a hotel but I stayed with him and it was the most amazing experience ever.
“They were looking to sign me but Swindon found the money, which was a bit of a shame. They had a player – Shaun Maloney – who was the same kind of player as me, so I went back to Swindon and carried on my career there.”
Young went on to serve under several manager at the County Ground, as Todd, King and Roy Evans came and went.
“I was playing in the first team, doing okay, coming off the bench and a few clubs were interested,” he says.
It wasn’t just any old club, however. Arsenal had shown an interest. Young’s career seemed to be really taking flight. But then he suffered the injury which would curtail his involvement in the professional game.
“I was on the bench a few times and there was a reserve game, a behind-closed-doors game arranged with a couple of trialists playing,” he says. “It was up at Wanborough and there was a 34-year-old Scottish centre-half there who was on trial, coming to the end of his career. I think I made him look a little bit silly in the first half and maybe took the mick when I shouldn’t have done.
“In the second half he kicked me six foot up in the air and my ankle ligaments tore, it dislocated, it was just a mess. I think I had two or three operations on it.”
Young was out for over a year.
“It was just a killer,” he recounts.
When he came back, still well before his prime, he thought he had a real shot of restoring his stock in local and wider circles. But even a full pre-season couldn’t prepare him for his next setback, which occurred on the club’s tour to Devon.
“In the first game, within the first five minutes, I was on the floor. The operation I’d had hadn’t worked so it had gone back to square one. When you’re out for a year and you finally get back, only to break down within five minutes it’s heart-breaking.”
Young had another operation. He tells me that in his heart of hearts he realised he couldn’t continue as a professional four months before he actually hung up his boots. But he struggled to accept the truth.
“I knew I couldn’t carry on with it. I knew I’d lost that yard of pace. Where the ball was over the top and before the defenders wouldn’t have seen me, now not only were they catching me they were kicking me again.”
A decision had to be made. Young sat down with King to discuss his future. Bristol Rovers and Kidderminster Harriers had both tabled short-term deals but, given what he could previously have achieved and how he felt physically, the player had a different idea in mind.
“I knew I was young enough to get out of football at that time,” he says. “I knew I could build a career doing something else. I felt it was right to get out now and do something different, which was really difficult.”
“You go to school and all you want to do is be a footballer. You go to the careers officer and say ‘I want to be a footballer’. The hardest thing for me was being injured – being around the players day in and day out and everything is about the Saturday. That was really difficult.
“I think I probably knew in my own head I couldn’t be at the level I wanted to be at but it was heart-breaking. Everything you’ve always known, everything you’ve always thought about is gone. It’s a nightmare. I took six months out to get my head round things, doing things I couldn’t do. Suddenly money runs out and then I thought ‘this is a disaster’.”
Young credits his family for how well he got through his experience. Those nearest and dearest to him rallied round the 20-something starting out in life for a second time.
“I think I was very lucky because I have a very strong family and I was quite good at hiding it when I was in the club,” he says, echoing the words of Vincent Pericard when it comes to keeping weakness out of view in professional sport. “I trained very hard but it’s heart-breaking. You don’t let yourself think about it because if you do you get down and you don’t want to go to the gym, you don’t want to try.
“I’m quite a positive person but it’s as hard as you can get. The best way you can describe it is if it’s somebody doing a driving job and they break their leg, or if it’s somebody who is a typist and break both their arms. It’s everything you know gone but probably even worse because I didn’t have anything else to fall back on.
“It’s not like I had a family business or a trade. There was nothing. It’s a standing start. I was very lucky with what happened.”
Young spoke to his parents in an effort to figure out a route in life away from football. His father was in financial services and suggested that might be an option and Young, despite knowing little about it, felt it worth a shot.
He found General Motors in Bracknell, far enough detached from Swindon to prevent him from being recognised at his every turn but close enough to home to allow him to feel comfortable.
“I couldn’t have thought of anything worse than staying in Swindon because people would have come up and said ‘you were rubbish’. Things like that. I was in the call centre and then I found the next layer,” he says.
“You get your head around not being a footballer but then you have to get your head around everything else with what not being a footballer brings.
“Suddenly you’re working nine to half-five, having an hour for lunch, working Monday to Friday.
“That’s the hardest thing in an office world after football. It’s a killer.”
Now, having been through what he has, Young is keen for young footballers to understand that the path to glory is neither straight nor straightforward. He feels academies must to as much as they can to give players the chance to lay the foundations for Plan B – just in case.
“When you score in front of 25,000 people, you can’t replicate that. That’s why I think people go to drink, drugs and other issues. You can’t replicate that feeling,” he says.
“I always thought, even though I only played for Swindon, because I played for England, because I was up at Celtic, because I was 17 playing in the first team, because there was talk of Arsenal, that I was just going to go step, step, step and then it’s the Premier League and you’re there.
“You do get carried away and you don’t think.
“The academy plays such an important part because you can think you’re the best player in the world but one tackle and you’re gone.
“It’s about spinning a plate.”
Now, Young is enjoying a successful career heading a sale team which also includes former Town striker Giuliano Grazioli and ex-QPR man Chris Plummer. He’s happy, even when reflective.
“My argument with my family was that everyone was telling me I was the best and everyone was telling me I could do this and that.
“They were saying that it was just one tackle and I said ‘no, I can see it coming’ or ‘I’ll jump that tackle’. It sounds silly but that was how it was,” he says, “If I was a pro now, and stopping at 28 or 29, it would be a lot harder.
“The hardest thing is admitting it to yourself.
“It’s not going out in the press, it’s not telling your missus, it’s not telling your family; it’s telling yourself that that’s that.”