It’s the first of a series of interviews with football’s early retirers…
As Norwich City striker Alex Notman jumped to block a free-kick in the East Anglian derby, little did he know it would be his last action as a professional footballer. Mark Venus’ strike hit him on the foot and twisted his ankle, leaving the Scot in pain, but he had suffered similar injuries before so was anticipating a three week lay-off as he hobbled off the pitch.
Notman had moved to Carrow Road in 2000 for a fee of £250,000 from Manchester United where he came through the club’s youth ranks and made one League Cup appearance in a defeat to Spurs. Things had not been smooth for Notman at Norwich, with the striker scoring just once in 54 appearances for the club, but the majority were off the bench and Notman admits: “I do not believe the Norwich fans got to see the best of me by a long way.”
He was just finding his feet in the first team when tragedy struck.
The ankle failed to recover from the blow, forcing Notman to see a specialist who removed some bone from his ankle, but this did not rectify the problem and further surgery was planned in Sheffield.
“I knew there was a problem when I came around from the operation and the surgeon said he would leave it to my physio to let me know how it went,” Notman said. “He advised that my ankle would not be able to stand up to training every day and playing multiple times a week, but I may be able to get away with playing part-time.
“He also said if I did continue, then I would have a very high chance of getting arthritis in my ankle. It was obviously a lot to take in and it pretty much happened overnight, but I still wanted to try and get back playing.”
Notman worked hard to get back to fitness but was never pain-free, even though he did manage to feature once for the reserves before being forced to retire in 2003 aged just 23.
“It was out of my hands in the end really, I had been told by an ankle specialist that my ankle wouldn’t stand up to training day in and day out and playing multiple times a week, so there was no way the club were going to offer me a new deal and and I wasn’t able to play pain-free in the end, so I had no choice but to call it a day.”
Accepting his career had ended was tough but there were complications for Notman as his one reserve team appearance as he desperately tried to play again meant his insurance was null and void, leaving him without a pay-out for his injury. Notman admits it was a frustrating experience as he considered how to survive financially outside of the game.
“I had paid all my premiums and thought that I was covered, but there was a clause in there, that if you play a competitive game 12 months after the injury that you are claiming on, then it becomes void. My agent had set everything up and I was not aware of this, and to make it worse, the game I played was a reserve game six days after the year was up!
“I was asked by the insurance company to list every game I had played after my injury, which I ran past my agent and the underwriters and they still did not advise me of this clause, and I found out that they didn’t even know that clause was in there! I was advised to make a claim against my agent, but it would have taken another few years and there was no guarantee that I would have won, so I had to let it go.”
Notman had only known football and he could not even be around the sport for an agonising period, struggling to even sit and watch a game. He would eventually return to non-league football to play for King’s Lynn and Boston United but his heart was never in it.
“It was difficult to take as I was pretty much told overnight that my professional career was over. I am a pretty positive person and had to accept that I couldn’t play anymore, but I never knew how much it had actually affected me until I went back to watch a Norwich game a couple of weeks after it happened. I had to leave at half time; I literally could not sit there and watch it, as I felt I should of been out there playing instead of sitting in the stands. It was two years before I went back to watch another game.”
Norwich paid up the final few months of his contract but Notman was left to consider what to do with the rest of his life in a new career, without any help from the Professional Footballers Association. The Scot was offered a route into the oil industry, which he decided to take.
“It was really difficult, as being a professional footballer was all I ever wanted to do and pretty much all I knew. I wasn’t stupid at school, but I left at 15 to go straight to Manchester United as an apprentice. I started to go down the coaching route, but it was never really something that I wanted to do long term. I was offered a job within the oil and gas industry and I decided to go for it.
“I am now a project engineer working as a contractor, still within the oil and gas industry. I have been doing this for the last ten years now, it’s a little bit different from being a footballer, but I really enjoy it and I now have a career outside of football.”
And all because he jumped to block a free-kick. Football can be cruel.
Will Unwin – follow him on Twitter here