Ex-Mildenhall Town footballer Tom Youngs tells of battle with MS
It was a trip to the optician that signalled the end of Tom Youngs’ rollercoaster career as a footballer… and heralded the beginning of something much more scary than a game with a ball. He’d made the appointment after struggling to see his computer screen at work. The ophthalmologist was puzzled, though, as there seemed to be nothing wrong.
“I had just failed miserably to identify, with my left eye, any of the letters – even the biggest ones – on an eye chart a few feet away. My eye certainly didn’t seem perfectly healthy,” Tom recalls, drily.
It led to a hospital referral, and on to a doctor who diagnosed optic neuritis. Come back in a month, and in the meantime read up about it on the internet, he advised.
In his new book, Tom chronicles what happened. “I called my wife on the way back to the office and within seconds her smartphone informed us that optic neuritis is often a presenting sign of multiple sclerosis, the central nervous system disorder.
“As Chelle reeled off a bunch of other MS symptoms, a further one caught my attention. ‘Lhermitte’s sign,’ she said, ‘is an electrical sensation that shoots down the back and into the limbs.’
“That was the clincher. Pretty much every time I’d got out of my chair at work in recent months, I had experienced what felt like an electric shock coursing down my back and sides. I’d put it down to sleeping in an awkward position, but now it seemed clear what was actually going on.”
Tom knew his wife was worried. “Like me, she didn’t really know what MS was, so her mind was racing through possible outcomes, mistaking it – in the heat of the moment – for everything from Motor Neurone Disease to brain tumours. All with our two-week-old second daughter awaiting a nappy change on the floor of the living room.”
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Scans later showed small lesions in his brain. “I thought I was done with hospital shocks three years before,” Tom admits, “when prominent hip specialist Sam Parsons laid bare the reasons that I was struggling to regain mobility after a heavy fall on the pitch. ‘These x-rays look more like I would expect from someone in their seventies,’ he said as he outlined the severity of my advanced osteo-arthritis. ‘If you get past 40 without coming back for a double hip replacement, I’ll buy you a pint.’ I was 32.”
A lumbar puncture provided further evidence of probable MS, and a fresh scan showed more lesions. It was a firm diagnosis, but the experts couldn’t give any clear idea of what lay ahead.
MS causes the immune system to attack the nervous system.
Tom’s visual problems had eased, but his legs or feet would sometimes go to sleep if he spent too long in one position, and could stay numb for some time. There would be chronic itching. Sometimes his legs would buckle, “as if someone was twanging the nerves behind my knees, and I also developed a nasty habit of tripping when walking up stairs.
“As MS is so enigmatic, though, it’s difficult to say categorically that it caused all, or indeed any, of these symptoms... That was the most difficult thing with the diagnosis, the not knowing. The doctor had seen patients who were confined to a wheelchair, but also some whose symptoms had barely developed beyond the first attack. What my path would be, he could not say.
“I read about a man who lived for 13 years after his diagnosis with almost no ill effects, then within two months was struggling to walk and unable to work. The prospect of that sudden deterioration from healthy to drastically impaired was – and remains – frightening.” Tiredness was a big problem. Tom would sometimes drop off in the early evening or afternoon, “or even while reading my little girls a bedtime story”. As the 2013/14 football season came to an end, his role as assistant manager at hometown club Mildenhall Town was leaving him drained.
“With work and family commitments non-negotiable, I just had too much on my plate… Football had to go.”
Tom had 18 years in the adult game – including 10 as a full-time professional with clubs such as Cambridge United.
It’s all chronicled in his thoroughly-readable book What Dreams Are (Not Quite) Made Of – the triumphs and tears, the nomadic lifestyle involving hotels and rented homes, the self-doubt and injuries, the managers he clicked with and those he didn’t.
Subtitled No fame, no fortune, just football… and Multiple Sclerosis it’s trying to answer the question What’s life like as a professional footballer? – “the one most asked of me whenever I meet somebody new” – and partly to foster more openness and understanding about MS.
Tom wasn’t a stereotypical footballer, if such a thing exists – Cambridge fans used to chant “Tom Youngs has got A-levels”, while his dressing-room nicknames included The Professor – and his insight into life in the third and fourth tiers of English soccer is illuminating.
He explains how “bookish, nerdy liberal” was not a natural fit in this blokey environment – “for much of those ten years I did feel somewhat like an undercover agent trying to avoid being unmasked in a world for which I was unsuited”.
He did do enough to fit in, and got on really well with many colleagues in many of the dressing-rooms he shared, but “laddish” he wasn’t. “I’m not into cars. Or driving them fast. I don’t like golf. Or bragging about my sexual conquests (even if I’d had any to brag about).”
He detested, whenever they arose, instances of homophobia – often justified as “just a bit of banter” – and racial prejudice. “I’m sure I wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with some of the social aspects of dressing room life. And like the others, I just ignored what I didn’t enjoy, dodged the conversations I didn’t want to be a part of, and focused on the main event.”
It was three weeks before Christmas, 1986, when Tom asked for a Tottenham shirt. “In my first seven and a half years, I had shown next to no interest in football. Or pretty much any sport for that matter.” His dad, who played for Mildenhall Cricket Club, was shocked and delighted!
Tom’s first live game was the 1987 FA Cup Final, shedding tears as Spurs lost 3-2 to Coventry. He began to play in “scrappy lunchtime kickabouts” at Great Heath Primary School in Mildenhall, went on to join a local under-nine team, attended open trials at Cambridge United, and a Football Association “monitoring” session alongside young hopefuls such as Ipswich’s Kieron Dyer.
Sadly, dad developed pancreatic cancer and died in 1992. In the September of the following year, Tom signed schoolboy forms on the Cambridge United pitch.
Heady days. His full youth team debut was against West Ham, who included Rio Ferdinand. He’d go on to play for England 81 times, and was even on a different planet back then. “Not at all daunting for me, then, as a short, skinny 16-year-old about to play two years above his age group for the first time,” muses Tom. The attacker would, though, go on to catch the eye of Cambridge manager Roy McFarland. A provisional place at university was put on hold when Cambridge dangled a professional contract. Tom signed for two years: £135 a week for the first year, rising to £175.
To cut a long story short, his senior career at the Abbey Stadium stretched from 1997 to 2003, seeing him make more than 150 appearances in amber and black and scoring more than 40 goals.
A “largely wonderful six years” came to an end following disgruntlement over the details of a contract extension. So on, in a £45,000 or so transfer, to Division Two strugglers Northampton, who’d encountered turbulence but dreamed of brighter days.
The Cobblers offered £60,000 a year, nearly double the deal on offer at Cambridge, but it was really the small-print shenanigans that led him to go, rather than the money.
The highlights during the Northampton years was marriage to Chelle and buying their first home. The lowlights were long and frustrating spells of injury and chances not taken. And, despite more than 25 appearances, no goals.
Tom went on loan to Leyton Orient in 2005… and scored on his debut. But he wasn’t really what the manager was looking for and, after less than a dozen appearances, found himself a free agent.
The book makes it clear how the life of a pro footballer isn’t all peaches and cream. The next move, towards Manchester, saw a hotel become home for nearly a month, while the couple sorted out somewhere to rent. Down south, their house was on the market.
The initial six-month deal at Bury saw more injuries and frustration as he fell down the pecking order, but there was a contract extension (and a pay cut from £40,000 a year to about £34,000). Some lows; some good moments; and then it was “thanks, but we need to make changes”. Such is football.
Looking back, he wishes he could have played at higher levels, but acknowledges he ultimately wasn’t good enough. “The game moved on so much in terms of physicality and athleticism in the early years of my career, I was left behind, and I wasn’t technically outstanding enough to compensate for my deficiencies.
“It wasn’t for lack of effort, attitude or application, though. I was a dedicated professional, so I’m at peace with what I was and was not able to achieve in the game.”
There was a short spell with Stafford, before the couple came back to Suffolk. Chelle got her old job back at RAF Lakenheath and Tom went to non-League Cambridge City on £220 a week… only to have his stay wrecked by injury.
The football roundabout continued to turn, in jerky fashion. St Albans City. Mildenhall Town. Norwich United. Newmarket Town.
“By July, 2010, I was seriously contemplating giving up football altogether.” Then new Mildenhall manager Christian Appleford asked him to be player/assistant manager. Life as a semi-pro was fun, and Tom played in more than 30 games. “Football was making me happy again.” Outside soccer, though, not so bright. Tom had earlier added a string to his bow with a degree in sports writing at Staffordshire University, but found that a love
of writing did not translate into a love of journalism. He could not switch off.
“I was suffering anxiety and panic attacks and a cloud grew above me. I phoned Chelle at work one day to talk about something completely unrelated, but broke down. She – pregnant with our first child and in no need of such drama – rushed home to support me.
“I phoned my very understanding boss at Non-League Today, Dave Watters. He recognised my symptoms as similar to a friend of his who was battling depression, so wanted to help any way he could. He agreed to shrink my workload but keep me on board. I resolved to keep playing football, at least for the time being, to bring in a bit of money while I pondered my next move… I was craving a nine-to-five existence, something reliable to pay the bills but that could be set aside more easily at the end of the day.”
He studied accountancy, passed exams, and got a temporary job at Bury St Edmunds brewer Greene King that rapidly turned into a permanent contract. And then, in his second season at Mildenhall, that “fateful fall” on his hip brought the end of his playing days, though he stayed on the touchline.
“For a good few months, having lost the release of playing, I was an angry little man,” he admits. Feeling pathetic, he resolved to count to 10 whenever he felt rage bubbling up. hen came the MS diagnosis that completed his break from soccer.
“Even since stepping away from football, I get very tired,” he says. “My visual issues have remained constant, leading to bouts of disorientation and exacerbating my feelings of fatigue. I’ve become acutely susceptible to Uhtoff’s phenomenon, a complication of MS whereby increased body temperature worsens symptoms, particularly vision, as the damaged optic nerve cannot handle it.
“Even just walking on a warm day, or having hot soup for lunch, can make my eyesight go completely haywire. I have to keep my showers short and can’t have a bath or I’ll feel lousy for some time afterwards.”
He says: “I still feel on top of my MS at the moment... I haven’t been too keen to talk about it with people, mainly because the words ‘multiple sclerosis’ sound horrific when said aloud, and drive extreme reactions… But I realised it’s important to be open about it, to raise awareness and prevent those over-reactions.”
With “a wonderful family and friends”, he feels lucky. “I’m not going to let MS get in the way of that, if I can help it.” There’s a nice extract in the book. “One of my stock lines in job interviews, when they ask what I’m like under pressure, is: ‘Well, I’m used to an environment where one mistake can lead to a few thousand people calling you every name under the sun at deafening volume’ – football – ‘so I hope I can handle whatever this job can throw at me.’ And I hope I can be more than a match for anything MS may have in store.”
• What Dreams Are (Not Quite) Made Of is published by Vertical Editions at £14.99 (or probably a bit cheaper via www.verticaleditions com)