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Football is all-in-all a wonderful game, but those involved face tests of mental strength that are alien in most other industries. Not many have experienced the full force of mentally-challenging scenarios like Alan Tonge.
For 364 days of the year, I primarily cover sporting news for Express Sport. But on this special day, December 25, I explore the dream-worthy highs and harrowing lows of Tonge’s eventful career as a footballer and beyond.
On January 13, 1987, Sir Alex Ferguson a the teenage midfielder his first signing since becoming Manchester United manager two months prior – his name was Alan Tonge.
That’s if you include apprentices, with Viv Anderson the first addition in the men’s team later that year.
Speaking exclusively to Express Sport, Tonge recalled his profile as a player and the traits by which Ferguson was potentially enticed.
He said: “I was quite solid, had a decent shot on me, a good passer and enjoyed a strong tackle as well.
“I don’t think I would have survived in the modern game because I liked to get stuck in, and I think if you get stuck in these days, there’s a chance you’ll be giving a foul away.
Alan Tonge was technically Sir Alex Ferguson’s first Man Utd signing.
“I think back then you used to play on all sorts of pitches, pitches that didn’t have much grass on them, and you could really get stuck in and do plenty of slide tackles.
“But these days you play on bowling greens every week – tackling is an art form that has seemed to have died away.”
Tonge signed for the club as the group of young players coined ‘Fergie’s Fledgings’ made the jump into Ferguson’s first team, including Lee Martin, Tony Gill and David Gill.
And the 49-year-old provided insight into what Ferguson looked to do with United’s youth culture in his early years, before the fame of the Class of ’92.
“United have always had that identity,” Tonge explained, visibly reminiscing about the time he was in the boots of today’s youthful prospects.
“They kicked it all off in the 1950s with the Busby Babes, who won the FA Youth Cup for quite a few years on the run, and I think there has always been that identity to try and bring through your own players.
“The most famous ones were obviously the Class of ’92, but Manchester United have had some very famous youth teams over the years.
“There was a particular crop in the early 1980s that reeled in a lot of good players like Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside, so they have always tried to bring players through.
“I think when Fergie [Sir Alex Ferguson] arrived in 1986, part of his aim was to try and get the club moving again.
“The real challenge was trying to win the title again because they had gone 20-odd years without it, so it was turning into a monkey on [the club’s] back, as it were.
“What he did was he tried to get the youth culture moving again, and there was the first little batch called Fergie’s Fledglings that broke through and then following that, the Class of ’92’ broke through.
“Right into the modern day there has always been the view that if you’re good enough, you’ll get into United’s first-team.”
And Ferguson gave Tonge the impression that he was good enough after his role in a 2-1 reserves win over Manchester City to pip them to the Lancashire League Division One title by one point.
A 17-year-old Ryan Giggs lined up alongside him and netted the winner and after full-time, Ferguson, partnered by then-assistant Archie Knox, was addressed the champions in the dressing room.
The pair had been watching for potential first-team candidates, and the Scottish boss singled 19-year-old Tonge out for praise.
Alan Tonge joined Man Utd two months after Sir Alex Ferguson.
He was unsurprisingly on top of the world as his senior debut for the club supported throughout his family beckoned.
But just days later, Tonge’s world collapsed onto him as he learned football’s unforgiving nature the hard way.
He had been contacted to go to Ferguson’s office at The Cliffe training ground, with his dream of representing the men’s team undoubtedly in the back of his mind. This was it, surely? No. Not at all.
‘We’re going to have to let you go, son’. The words all Academy footballers will have nightmares about to this day.
Tonge believes he was unfortunate with timing, given he left the Red Devils one year before Giggs took the football world by storm alongside other young prodigies like Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and David Beckham.
He continued: “To me, it’s all about timing, and sometimes in life, your chance can arrive at your door, but it might not be the right time.
“I think because Fergie had only been there for a few years when I arrived, he was still getting the club moving.
“If you think about it, he came in 1986 and didn’t win his first trophy until 1990, so I think what he did in that spell, although he gave Fergie’s Fledglings a little try, it was more senior professionals like Viv Anderson or Mal Donaghy or Jim Leighton.
“They tended to put a few of them in before the young people because in order to build something, you’ve got to get the foundation down first, and I think we came quite close in the FA Youth Cup.
“We got to the quarter-finals and semi-finals, so I often think to myself if we’d have won the cup in that year, you never know. History could’ve been different, but I think it’s called destiny – that’s the way I look at it.”
Alan Tonge (back row, far left) pictured with legendary Man Utd youth coach Eric Harrison (front row
Six months later, Tonge took the plunge and signed for Exeter City but found it difficult to adapt, making just 19 appearances across two seasons.
And in 1994, the Bolton-born star experienced the second and fatal tragedy of his young footballing career. At the advice of physios after issues with the bottom of his spine, Tonge was forced to retire from football at the age of 24.
From being in dreamland to suffering a major blow/delay to his dream being taken away from him far too soon. A brutal end to a once-promising career trajectory.
And Tonge has cited the suddenness of many decisions in football as to why so many young players with similar fates to him face demons that are often too overbearing to defeat.
“I think it’s because there are so many shocks to the system. All of these little things are getting thrown into your path each time as your profile gets bigger,” Tonge added.
“If you think about a typical footballer, he’s got to come through an apprenticeship, and then he’s got to try and get into a first-team squad, then he’s got to get into the first team, then he’s got to stay in the first team.
“Sometimes, when it comes to the culture of [England], we tend to build people up to knock them down, we’ll put people onto a pedestal and then try and knock them off it. So there’s all of that to contend with, and there are injuries to contend with.”
“If you want to be a top player in the Premier League, you’re [potentially] going to have to go on loan spells, that’s been proven with lads like [Jesse] Lingard and Harry Kane.
“Again, that’s a shock to the system because you’ll be living in a hotel for three months.
“So there’s all of these little things that have got to be experienced and learned on the way as you go on your journey from a young player to a professional player.
Alan Tonge played his final Man Utd game at Platt Lane, Man City’s former training ground.
“Some people deal with these better than others, some people struggle with them, but I think one area where a lot of people do struggle is when they come out of the game when they’re finished.
“They’ve had this identity of being a player since they were really young, it’s not there anymore and they find that adjustment particularly hard.”
Tonge, now an Ambassador for Mental Health FA, is passionate about addressing the issue in football.
He believes we can make significant steps by educating not just fans and outsiders but managers who don’t understand the subject as well as they should when considering the welfare of their players.
Tonge also suggested clubs should look into recruiting mental health specialists to research the matter, with finances, especially in the Premier League, ever-rising despite the ongoing pandemic.
He reaffirmed what we had discussed before the interview commenced: “I think it’s getting more people educated.
“I’ve heard football managers saying they don’t really understand depression or mental health issues, so I think it’s that awareness that needs to get better.
“I think the PFA are doing a really good job on that. People are becoming more aware and are thinking that there is somewhere to turn to.
“What I’d like to see is rather than the PFA doing something, is the clubs doing more as well. Maybe a few more educated people in clubs going forward.
“Maybe even employing researchers for a research department as the monies get higher and higher. That might be something that happens in the near future.”
Tonge decided the unfortunate end to his football career wouldn’t define him, so he returned to University, achieving a BSc in Sports Science in 2003 and his PGCE in 2004 at The Uni of Bolton.
He then spent four years working towards an MPhil in Sports Psychology at Liverpool John Moores, before securing a PhD in 2019 for ‘exploring critical moments, identity and meaning amongst professional football players’.
Tonge has been a sports lecturer for over 18 years, currently in Football Research at UCFB in Manchester.
You will also occasionally find him co-commentating on his former clubs, United and Exeter, for the BBC.
He concluded: “[The jump to education] wasn’t planned. It was a bit of a shock to the system because I had played football since I was a young lad.
Alan Tonge is currently a Lecturer in Football Research at UCFB.
“I played in different schoolboy teams, town teams, Sunday teams and got picked up by United at 14. I was there until I was 19, so quite a long time, but that was the dream.
“Having to go through United and then down to Exeter City to try and keep my professional career alive, and then having to retire injured at 24 was a bit of a shock to the system.
“It was a difficult time. I got lost for a few years and didn’t really know what I wanted to do and didn’t really want to go back into football because of the shock – it’s like an army veteran coming home and then going back to war.
“After a few years of being lost, I decided to go back to University and did a Degree in Sports Science, and then it took off from there.
“I got the educational bug and did a Masters Degree, a PGCE teacher training qualification and completed my PhD in an area that I’m quite passionate about; player health and wellbeing and mental health care.”
Remember that you’re not alone if you’re struggling over the festive period. Alan’s story is a perfect example of an individual who suffered through the lowest of lows but has used his experiences to become an inspiration for many.
If you’re feeling extremely anxious, having panic attacks or flashbacks, feeling suicidal or self-harming, or having an episode of hypomania, mania or psychosis, please don’t hesitate to contact one of the numerous mental health crisis services available HERE.
At the time of writing, since the Omicron Covid-19 variant was first detected in the UK on November 27, seven people (average age 83) have died from related causes. There have been 239 recorded male suicide deaths in the same period, with 70% involving individuals aged between 25 and 44.
The glitz and glamour of Christmas often overshadow a dark time of year for too many people, especially in the Covid-infested world we live in today. In and out of sports, the stigma surrounding mental health must end.