Alan does not shirk from discussing the harsh realities of life as a young footballer in those days. The agony of working so hard at his game, switching from midfield to full-back to show versatility, only to be told face-to-face by Sir Alex that he “lacked a yard of pace”, which was the primary reason he was being released. Having to go and train after the bombshell news, with tears streaming down his face, and Paul Ince criticising him for having a heavy touch, was something that really hit home.

“Your whole body just sinks and crumples in on itself, like a boxer who’s just suffered a devastating knockout they didn’t see coming,” he writes. “In an instant, my world had come crashing down. I honestly wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

One recurring theme is also that he feels he never truly expressed his true footballing self, rather adapting to circumstance and the demands of the team.

Tonge reflects that having the likes of ex-England international Anderson, Denis Irwin, Lee Martin, Clayton Blackmore and Ince for competition made his task a Herculean one and there can be no shame in not quite fulfilling his dream. The resilience he showed in moving south to join Exeter City to kickstart his career is commendable and yet he had to suffer the heartbreaking news that a spinal injury would end his time as a professional footballer at the tender age of 22.

He admits to mental health struggles, alcohol problems and a battle to recover and, yet, he refocused and, in 2022, obtained a PhD, still working in sports and using his expertise. Dr Alan Tonge’s message to his two children is: “How you both remember me as a person is this – from a fight I couldn’t win, I got back up again.”


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