When the truth came out, Alfie Mawson didn’t want her covered in sugar. After a career blighted by a meniscus problem in his right knee, he just wanted the facts, and telling them straight. And so he did his surgery. He said, “I could show your knee to 100 other knee surgeons, and they’d all say the same thing: You need to retire,” Mawson recalls.
Just like that, Mawson’s career ended, at the age of 29.
His final game for Wycombe Wanderers was against Ipswich Town in League One a week before Christmas. There’s a nice consistency there; Wycombe was the club where he made his league debut as a youngster on loan, and last summer the team were ready to take him on again, injury history and all.
That is why he now sits here in Adams Park, asking questions he never wanted answered before his thirties–about his career in the past tense, his pain and his uncertain future.
Yesterday, Wycombe’s home game against Barnsley was dedicated to him as a celebration of his career. The idea of being the center of attention was not comfortable with Mawson. I got confused. “I don’t really like making a big deal, but it’s the Wycombe way,” he said. “It made sense that the end would be here.”
💙 “I don’t want any fuss.”
But it’s Wycombe’s way, Alf.# sponsors pic.twitter.com/8hbG248rE8
– Wycombe Wanderers (wwfcofficial) March 18, 2023
For the central defender, the lateral meniscus in the right knee shaped his career. He repaired it five times at Brentford, Swansea City and Fulham. Then he removed it. “It acts like a doorstop,” he explains, matter-of-factly. “It’s between your bones, and it stops the cartilage from irritating. It wears and tears every time you run it.” It became what is known as a grade 4 cartilage defect – where there is no cartilage left and there is bone-on-bone friction.
Retirement did not come entirely out of the blue. Deep down, Mawson knew his knee might eventually catch up to him, though not this quickly. Last summer, after leaving Fulham, the situation became more concrete. He failed a medical at an unnamed club. It was the first time this had happened, and it was a warning sign. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this won’t bode well,’” he recalls. “You hear about medical failures, but this is very rare.
“There was always skepticism. If I could give you my knee and you could feel it daily, you’d know something wasn’t right. I’ve felt that way for a long time. I knew it would be on the cards.”
“Once you tear any part of the meniscus, the blood flow never changes. So it never fully recovers, no matter who you are. Your career ended at Brentford, when you were 18,” my surgeon told me two months ago.
At the time, Mawson had just completed a successful development loan with non-league side Welling. At the time, he feared the initial knee injury would end his career hopes. So far join the job site. “I did it with Joe Maloney (a teammate at Brentford) – we thought we were going to be professional beekeepers,” he laughs. “We were mental. You have to start looking at things like that. Your contract is up and you just took a knee and you haven’t played any professional games. I had to be realistic.”
Maloney wouldn’t make it a pro, but Mawson would be living the dream. Two years later, he was playing in the Premier League with Swansea. “It was a whirlwind,” he says. “I wasn’t looking for the stars. I was just trying to do my best in every game. Things just fell into place.
“I remember going into the changing room and them They were looking at me, Wayne Rutledge and Kyle Naughton, and they were like, ‘You’re only in life, right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! It’s cool, you have to take this in’. I was still me. I eat sweets all the time. It was a roller coaster. However I got there, I was going to take it.”
He was deservedly there, becoming one of the best outfielders in the country. There was a call-up to the England national team in March 2018, which Mawson found to be an eye-opener, and he then made a big-money move to newly promoted Fulham that summer. But there was also another meniscus tear, suffered in the warm-up before the FA Cup match against Sheffield Wednesday in February. He missed selection for that year’s World Cup in Russia and will arrive at Fulham unfit to play following knee surgery at the end of the season.
Mawson was keen to miss the sign of being injured. “I I didn’t cut corners but accelerated the process when I should have said it felt a little worse, or I should have taken a couple of steps back to get ahead,” he admits.I didn’t take my days off, but you just want to play, you want to come back. I didn’t want to be that injured player and take so long to come back. But once that was done, the damage was there. She would keep coming back and she did.
“When you get injured, it’s recurring. I’ve been through the same rehab over and over. You’re just like,Oh my God, I have to do this once againIt gets to a point where it’s like, ‘Fuck this.'”
There is frustration over something that is difficult to deal with as a player. At Fulham, manager Claudio Ranieri told the press that one of Mawson’s meniscus tears occurred in January 2019 while putting on his boots. This led to ridicule.
“We were playing Huddersfield at home and I was sitting like this (legs apart),” Mawson recalled. “When you bend your leg, the part of the meniscus, the part that might be damaged, will get stuck between my two bones. I sat there with my shoes on, and I felt it while straightening my leg.
“It wasn’t because I was taking off or doing a shoe. I know it ended up like that, and I’m not going to go out and say anything different because I’m not bothered by what people think. Let them have it. It looks funny, whatever. It’s a little story. But it stuck between the bones.” I knew something was gone and then it came back to him that I was changing my shoes.Then he told the press.
“He was a character. For an older man, who probably had a lot of energy, I’ll give him that. He’ll go mad if he needs to, which he’s done many times. We took him, as you do. But he was a gentleman.”
That first season at Fulham was always difficult. The club had spent over £100m ($121m) on new players after securing their return to the Premier League and stitching it all together wouldn’t be practical as they were right back down. “He was, ‘You have bought for money, I was you They were bought for money … “There was pressure,” he recalls. “I remember a lot of boys getting their balls for the first time in the Premier League. I thought, ‘We’re new. We’ve got some great players, playing in different countries in the big leagues. But there’s no league like this one. It’s brutal.’
“Players from teams playing in Europe have moved to (face) Burnley at Morph Cool. You don’t want to. You look at these players when things aren’t going so well and they say, ‘Where am I?!’. It took a lot of adapting. people, including me.”
Mawson spent varying amounts of time at Fulham, but left after four years after helping to win two Premier League titles and the Premier League title. In his final season, he felt fitter than ever and only left the team under Marco Silva’s captaincy by Tosin Adarabioyo and Tim Ream.
“We had this conversation, the worker and I. I said, “They are unpossible.” I wasn’t a fool. I knew they were in first and he pulled me into his office and told me before the first game, ‘You did great. IIt was a tough decision but I will choose these two. respect that. I will not cry. I said, “Just know that if they mess up, I’ll be there.”
“My first starts were away at Coventry, and we were completely defeated (4-1 defeat). Everyone played shit. I Remember Dennis (Odoi) said to me afterwards, “Alfie, I’m sorry”. ‘Why are you sorry?’ “Because I know how hard you work to come back and we go and perform like this.” that’s life. I knew I was right off the team. The boys did not look back. As long as the boys win, I don’t care. Then we went up.
“(Silva) knew more about me as a person than as a player. We had good conversations off the field and I respect him a lot. He dealt with the players well. He never changed. He never panicked. He’s a good manager and everyone sees that. Give him a good set he can form, which he has, tIt’s no surprise that he’s getting results.”
Mawson made good friends at Fulham. Chief among them was Kevin McDonald. The two have a strong bond and McDonald has had his own trials. Last year, he underwent a kidney transplant and has since returned to playing. He joined Exeter City in January and the defensive midfielder started to score goals. “I told him, ‘You haven’t scored in eight years,’ and now it’s two by two,” Mawson laughs.
“Maybe he helped me without even knowing. I look at him playing and there’s a little bit of a sense of pride. Beth (Mawson’s partner) and I were a part of him training, getting him fit and eventually signing for Exeter. Despite that, he scored against Wycombe.” I told him not to do that again.”
MacDonald lived with Mawson in west London as he was rebuilding his fitness. There was mutual support and Mawson also relied on Beth and his best friend Charlie, as well as his mom and dad. It was difficult for them to convey the news of his retirement to them. THello, maybe they were more exposed than me because they lived football through me.”It was sad for me to tell them.”
He tries to maintain perspective, and he had to because there was more going on behind the scenes. “Old man Beth has had many battles with cancer, and he’s still here to say he’s winning that battle, which is pretty cool. Last Friday my sister, Leanne, had a biopsy. She had a lymph node removed from a vein by a robot. This is a proper fight.
I went to see my sister several times in the hospital. I got there that day and we were in the ICU and there were four people there, all with cancer. I looked at Beth and I walked out gold. She said: Don’t cry. I didn’t like it. I don’t like hospitals. It was selfish, because my sister was there and had just had surgery. It would be annoying to see us and it was.
“But that little moment…you know what’s going on in the world and when you go into a unit where there’s been four life-saving operations, and you see people struggling…it just hit me. I was a wreck but I had to be strong for Leanne – and feed her because hospital food is no good. You have to support each other and my family’s support is great.
“I have to be positive that people get bad hands in life, and I wasn’t. It puts things into perspective and I’m just glad they’re healthy. All I have is a bad knee.”
Mawson now has more time to spend with his family, and has seen his parents on a regular basis. Retirement itself, a few weeks later, has yet to begin. He enjoys the freedom of not having a training schedule, though he does push himself to go to the gym. “FAerobic play is for people who go to work, come home and then go to the gym, because I don’t have the drive for that right now,” he says. tThere was a bit of golf. “Hopefully I’m good enough to take that full time.”
He is not sure what will happen next. He speaks warmly of mentoring – young players at Fulham have noted his positive influence there. But first, Beth wants to travel, and he says Asia has been discussed. There are ideas about a family, too. “I didn’t want to risk my health[by playing on],” he says. “I haven’t had kids yet and that was a big thing for me. I want to be able to be athletic with them, to get moving with them. The little things, like playing in the park.”
In the short term, Mawson will adjust to retirement and deal with whatever lies ahead.
He has a saying that he has used throughout his career.
“They always fall forward,” he explains. “Because if you focus on things, you may miss out on other opportunities.”
(Top photo: Simon Galloway/PA Images via Getty Images)