Alfie Mawson, the Premier League defender retired at 29: ‘The doctor was brutal. He told me to never run again’

Alfie Mawson spent two seasons with Swansea City in the Premier League (Getty Images)
Alfie Mawson spent two seasons with Swansea City in the Premier League (Getty Images)

Alfie Mawson is full of stories from his “short but sweet” career which took in Wycombe, Barnsley, Swansea, England and a return to Wycombe, where he announced his retirement from football last month aged only 29. But a particular favourite is the day he moved to Wales.

Mawson was 22 at the time and giddy about joining a first Premier League club, but he wasn’t exactly sure where Swansea was. “I thought it’s closer to home [Reading] than Barnsley, so I’ll get to see family more,” he says. “But I’ll be honest, my geography of England, Wales and Scotland was horrific. I was thinking ‘it will be next to Cardiff won’t it, they’re big rivals’. We’re driving past Cardiff on the M4 and sat nav says we’re still an hour and 20 away, and I was like, what? I carried on driving and looked left and said, is that the sea? I was baffled.”

When he eventually got down there, Mawson came across a new challenge. Swansea’s training ground was on the Gower, a rugged rural peninsula. “Some mornings you’d be close to being late because sheep and cows would be walking in front of the car, and I’m thinking ‘you’re gonna get me fined here’. The accents took a bit of getting used to but we loved our time there, absolutely loved it.”

It’s a story which neatly sums up Mawson: open and genuine, modest and sometimes by his own admission a little naive (he spent £60k per year on injury insurance before discovering he was being fleeced for about 800 per cent over the going rate), who talks as if the most normal lad in the world was dropped into the glamorous, cut-throat world of elite football.

One moment he was playing non-league, then he looked around and he was a professional. Suddenly he was thrust into the Premier League, playing every weekend for Swansea against some of the best strikers in the world. His teammates used to tease him for being so enthusiastic and “high on life” – although in hindsight it may have been the effects of his sweet tooth. “I’d say yeah, who’d have thought I’d have been here? It’s great! It’s unreal. I’m still gonna be me, eating sweets all the time. But a lot of people can’t say they got there so however I got there, I was going to take it in.”

Alfie Mawson in action for England Under-21s (Getty)
Alfie Mawson in action for England Under-21s (Getty)

He scored a winning goal against Liverpool, received praise from all corners of the media and earned himself a place in the final England squad before the 2018 World Cup.

He describes training with the England senior team with a sense of awe – John Stones was “a baller”, Dele Alli was “absolute flames” and the standout was an “immense” Jack Wilshere – and he left the camp absolutely exhausted by the sheer intensity. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was hard, it was really foreign to me. I’d been with the U21s but the step up was massive.”

Gareth Southgate didn’t give Mawson a chance on the pitch and it would be the closest he ever got to fulfilling that dream. “I wish I’d got five seconds, 30 seconds, just to say ‘yeah, I played for England’.”

The journey there had been a “whirlwind” and no one envisaged it would end even faster than it began. After Swansea’s relegation, a move to newly promoted Fulham offered a fresh start in the Premier League, but his troublesome knee broke down. His manager Claudio Ranieri told the press it had happened when Mawson was taking off his boot in the dressing room, a catchy line which turned out to have been lost in translation. “He didn’t realise, he was just saying it, so he gave the press something to write and laugh about. But he was a true gentleman, a cool, nice old fella.”

After Fulham sacked Ranieri, Scott Parker took the reins and Mawson barely appeared again, instead spending time on loan at Bristol City, and he hints at a broken relationship. “I’m quite outspoken so if I don’t agree with certain things, I’ll voice my opinion. I’m not just going to sit around and do this or go against myself. I got comfortable with not being involved and not playing as much, which was annoying and sad, but there’s only so much you can do to put yourself forwards.”

He failed a medical at another Championship club who had concerns about the longevity of his knee, and so returned to Wycombe last summer knowing it could be the place where he saw out his career, but with no idea how soon that day would come.

The manager Gareth Ainsworth allowed Mawson to listen to his body, training one day a week and delivering outstanding League One performances on the weekend. But in January he was called to a face-to-face meeting by his knee surgeon to discuss his latest scan results, which immediately rang alarm bells in his mind. By now he had undergone six operations on his lateral meniscus, “the doorstop between bones which stops cartilage fraying”, and he could feel something was not right.

Football’s fantastic and I’ve loved it, but there are way worse things going on in the world than my bad knee

The doctor sat Mawson down and warned that what he was about to say wasn’t a recommendation or medical advice, but a harsh reality.

“He knew me and knew I didn’t want to be risking my health. I haven’t got kids yet but that was a big thing, I wanted to be playing around in the garden with them one day. He said you could maybe play a couple more games but you won’t be in any fit state after; it’s going to take one more little movement and you’ll be in big bother. He said I could show your knee to a hundred other knee surgeons and they’d say the same thing – that would be to retire.

“He was brutal. Originally when I went to meet him I was clinging on to a little bit of hope, some sort of injection to get me through to the summer and reassess. But I didn’t want him to lie. He knew me as a person, he knew what I was going through and what I wanted to feel like after football, and he made that decision crystal clear for me.”

Once you leave this room then please, his doctor said, never run again.

“It destroyed me to ultimately have to finish football,” he says. But he also retains a remarkable sense of perspective. He has enjoyed indulging his love of food. He has seen his parents more over the past two months than the previous 10 years. He wants to be a better uncle to his nephews, and a better brother to his sister, who is fighting cancer. “Football’s fantastic and I’ve loved it, but there are way worse things going on in the world than my bad knee.”

Mawson has not decided what’s next. He has been busying himself cycling and playing golf, two activities his knee can handle. His wife, Beth, wants to go travelling and after so many moves around the country for his career, he owes her that. “I’ll let my wife drag me around Asia or somewhere. It will be weird for me, a different experience, but one I’m looking forward to.”

When they are back, he will consider what comes next. “If I can help anyone that’s gone through what I’ve gone through, then I will.” But before that he wants to undertake a 10k challenge: eating 10,000 calories in 24 hours. He already has it mapped out: Nandos, Wagamamas, a 12-box of Krispy Kremes, with cans of Cokes in between. “I’m going to batter it.”