Alan Tonge is an ex professional footballer who has represented both Manchester United and Exeter City. He sadly had to retire at the young age of 24 owing to a serious back injury. Alan is now a Lecturer at the Manchester College and also a PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University.
Interestingly, Alan also lays claim to being Sir Alex Ferguson’s 1st signing for United having signed schoolboy terms with them at around the same time the Scot took charge in 1986.
You can follow Alan on twitter @Alan_Tonge.
What is your earliest footballing memory?
I was lucky enough to be born into a footballing family. My dad was a useful player (Bury/Oldham reserve level) and I can remember kicking a ball from a very young age. I can still recollect some of the balls! (colour, patterns, feel, etc) There are plenty of photos within family albums of me dribbling with a football. The early years photos contain a ball and football kit in nearly every one!
How would you describe yourself as a player?
Probably more steady than highly skilled! I saw myself as more of a team player, as opposed to being individualistic. A guaranteed 7 or 8 out of 10 every week, as opposed to one 10 out of 10 followed by three 5 out of 10’s!
Who do you believe is the most underrated player in the Premier League right now?
Well, up until recently probably Michael Carrick. He has had an excellent season this time around and more and more external observers have sat up and taken notice.
In Gary Neville’s autobiography he describes how Youth players were ‘welcomed’ to the club by the professionals in let’s say an interesting manner. Anything like that happen to you? Any stand out instances?
The majority of football clubs would have some sort of initiation task, usually around the Christmas party. You’d have to get up in front of the first team professionals and management and either tell a joke or sing a song. This might sound like a straightforward task, but believe you me it was terrifying!
How intense is training at the youth level? Is the focus greater on technical aspects,or physical aspects? Is there an emphasis on tactics?
It is very intense and very, very competitive. Even though it’s a team game, it can be very selfish and in many aspects a dog eat dog world! There are a range of skills you need to consistently work on. Obviously the physical side and getting yourself supremely fit is key, but there are so many external distractions too. It’s about dealing with the success, but having and developing a real sense of grounding as well. Develop the skills and develop the person!
At a club the size of United, do the coaches still give you enough time and attention as an individual?
Yes. All of the players will have elements of their game to consistently work on. There are things like fatigue assessments and “readiness to train” questionnaires that the players will be required to complete on a daily basis. You are dealing with a highly tuned athlete (much fitter than they used to be) so needs and wants have to be considered accordingly.
How important is it for footballers to have a life outside of football? Your career was unfortunately cut short by injury. So do you think even young footballers should plan for the future?
Very, very important. Obviously, you want to progress and develop your career, but family and (quality) friends are crucial. It’s important to have interests outside football so your identity doesn’t rest on being a player 24/7! If your identity is 24/7 football, exiting the game is much harder and issues (that you may have hid behind in football) can sometimes come to the fore. You are quickly forgotten once it is time to retire/ hang your boots up and are very fortunate if you get a full career (e.g. retire at 35/36). Many players, especially in the lower echelons will have to find another job/trade and make a transition into the “real world”.
You’ve researched imagery in professional football. What exactly do you mean by that? So when we imagine ourselves scoring a penalty, is it more than just idle thought?
Imagery is also known as “visualisation” and involves thinking of a skill or an act before you physically do it. The best ‘imagers’ involve all the senses within their mental pictures (e.g. movement, smell, noise, taste, and sound). Like physical skills and fitness, imagery needs consistent practice and refinement, so you can improve and tailor it to suit your profile. Everyone has the capacity to image and everybody can use it to suit their needs (e.g. control anxiety or develop confidence). My research found that high level players (e.g. Premier League or Championship) who employ imagery have significantly developed imagery skills and use this psychological skill at many times throughout their working week.
As fans we focus on the physical or on-pitch aspect of football. How important is the mental side?
There are so many external distractions now. As a result of that, the mental side is getting bigger and psychologists are now finding their way into clubs to aid and increase performance (e.g. Dr Steve Peters is working with Liverpool, Dr Mark Nesti has worked with Bolton, Newcastle, and Hull and Bill Beswick has worked with Man Utd, Middlesborough, and England). It’s all about completeness and if you can find a 1% improvement somewhere, then that could be the difference between winning and losing.
Do you look at young players nowadays and think they’ve got it all a bit too early? It’s surely not easy to stay grounded when you’re all over the papers and on a sizable salary at just 18 years old?
I think young scholars have it a lot easier now, which can damage the transition if they don’t make it as professional players. I’m not suggesting going back to cleaning boots, toilets or sweeping out dressing rooms, but some discomfort and anxiety alongside their development is not necessarily a bad thing.
Who do you think has been the best signing of the season?
Robin Van Persie. A great addition and certainly had a major impact on us (United, obviously) winning the title.
One present day player you would love to play with?
Lionel Messi. I’d tackle, work hard, give him the ball and sit back and enjoy!
And finally, do you hope to work in football in the future?
Yep, I am currently doing a PhD at Liverpool John Moores University and with my previous experiences of the trade and the culture, I hope to work with younger players in the future developing their psychological skills and aid them to progress within this fantastic game of ours.