Having tussled for possession with the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Gerard Pique down the years, Tom Youngs is now preparing to fight against the potential debilitating multiple sclerosis. Here, Liam Apicella spoke with the former Cambridge United and Mildenhall Town footballer as his autobiography hits the shelves.
Tom Youngs is no stranger to a battle.
After joining the youth ranks at Cambridge United aged 10, he had to overcome numerous obstacles - including concerns over his lack of physical presence, bad luck at crucial times with injuries and contract disputes - to carve out a Football League career of 275 appearances and 56 goals.
There was also the death of his father - a popular and well-known man in and around Mildenhall with strong connections to the town’s cricket club - from pancreatic cancer, which left a teenage Youngs to enter stoic mode, remaining strong and keeping a stiff upper lip for his younger brother and mother.
Later, he would at times be the butt of the jokes in the dressing room. Rather than being the stereotypical footballer that boasted of his sexual conquests, drove fast cars or wore the latest clothes, Youngs instead was viewed as somewhat of a classroom swat, earning him the nickname ‘statto’.
But, now retired and working as an accountant in the Bury St Edmunds-based offices of Greene King, Youngs is facing up to his biggest fight to date.
Yet, while the 36-year-old has been able to clear more than his fair share of hurdles, on this occasion he is well aware that this is a particular contest he cannot win.
That is because the current Barton Mills resident has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a lifelong autoimmune disease that can affect the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide-range of symptoms that include potentially serious problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation and balance.
It means that an uncertain future lies ahead for Youngs, who has two young daughters with wife Chelle.
But, with a footballing background behind him, he feels ready to meet the disease that affects over 100,000 people in the United Kingdom head on.
“It’s not like a competitor that you can understand or judge yourself against very easily,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say I am competing against MS because there is nothing I can do as such.
“You just have to see how things pan out and deal with them as best as possible. I am always quite a positive person anyway.
“People don’t tend to associate football with how it prepares you mentally.
“I was at Cambridge from the age of 10 and every few months you’re having to fight for your place, compete with other people to try to be better than them to secure yourself a contract. You have to have a fair bit of resilience to do that.
“Even the lads that do not make it all the way, they will still have had to deal with all of that to get to a certain level. If they are released at 15 or 16, that is still a good five or six years in the building where they have to be mentally tough. Football can be a positive force in your life if you have gone through those battles.
“Whatever you end up doing, you have gone through the process of needing to be better than others, as well as getting criticised. It helps to toughen you up mentally.”
The condition manifested itself in February 2013 when Youngs was serving as assistant manager to Christian Appleford at his hometown club, Mildenhall Town.
Playing away at Gorleston, the Hall’s Allicion Blake marked his debut with a goal, except that Youngs did not see the ex-Bury Town frontman get off the mark.
His vision had started to deteriorate and while it took numerous visits to ophthalmologists and neurologists — such is the complexity of MS — an official diagnosis was made 16 months after that match on the Norfolk coast, although with the power of Google, Youngs had long been certain of what was troubling him.
Naturally a private person, he kept the news of the illness under wraps for some time, only sharing it with close family and friends.
But, sensing that the time was right, Youngs — a qualified journalist — has written his autobiography, in which he opens up about the physical and mental ramifications of MS, as well as detailing his stint in the professional game.
“When I was first reading up after my diagnosis, there are some people that live for years without barely another symptom after they have been diagnosed,” added the ex-Leyton Orient, Northampton Town and Bury man.
“Then, all of a sudden it is almost like a switch goes off and they become very poorly really quickly. They stop being able to walk, stop being able to work — all kinds of things. That is the unsettling part of it and why it is right to speak out now.
“I want people to hopefully understand MS a bit more from the book, so that if they know anyone who develops it, they don’t have to be scared to talk about it.
“From the football side of it, I’ve always loved talking about it. I wanted to get it out there what life in the game was like for me. I hope people will be interested in what I have to say.”
n ‘What Dreams Are (Not Quite) Made Of – No fame, no fortune, just football…and Multiple Sclerosis’, by Tom Youngs, can be purchased from all good book outlets, or from the publishers Vertical Editions.