Tom Youngs aiming to help raise awareness of MS
PUBLISHED: 19:00 10 January 2017
Iliffe Media Ltd
Former Cambridge United midfielder reflects on life and career
If you did not know that Tom Youngs had been a professional footballer, it is unlikely that you would draw that conclusion upon meeting him.
Softly spoken and humble, Youngs works in the accounts department at brewer Greene King and leads a normal family life in a Suffolk village with wife Michelle and children Hannah and Orla.
In the nicest possible sense, there is nothing startling about Youngs – he does not crave publicity, seek the spotlight or try to revel in his days at Cambridge United, Northampton Town and Bury.
It is a far cry from his professional career when it was difficult for him to avoid the attention, when in his final year of six at the U’s he was part of a swashbuckling quartet, alongside Dave Kitson, Shane Tudor and Omer Riza.
That large groundswell of support for the fans’ favourite was in force again when it was revealed that Youngs had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
And now Youngs is trying to use his former status to help promote understanding about MS by writing a book – called What Dreams Are (not quite) Made Of - No fame, no fortune, just football... and living with Multiple Sclerosis – about his career and the subsequent years.
“It (the idea of the book) was after my diagnosis and I found it a bit tough to talk about it to anybody to start with because obviously there isn’t a lot of awareness about MS out there,” said the 37-year-old.
“You tend to think people aren’t going to know how to react. It’s a bit of a difficult thing, you don’t want to make it a big announcement as people get a bit scared or confused.
“I was finding it a bit difficult to talk about it, and then I read up on forums and pieces in the paper about how that is often a bit of a problem.
“People tend to go into their shells a bit and not share it. I think when you’re dealing with something, it’s not a great situation to be in when you don’t feel that you can share it completely.
“I was then thinking ‘I’ve got a slightly elevated profile compared to most people who get diagnosed’ and I always had the idea of writing a book about football in the back of my mind many years ago because there is a lot of interest.
“Everyone is always asking me what it was like to be a footballer, so I thought, maybe if I combine the two there will be a market for it and it can help, hopefully, even in a small way just raise a bit more awareness about MS.”
Youngs, who studied journalism at the end of his career, had nine months to write the book, and delved into his memory bank of his days on the pitches of the Football League.
And one night stands out as setting him on his path to the professional game.
“The most defining moment in my whole footballing life was an FA Youth Cup game for Cambridge at home to Colchester and it just happened to be that Roy McFarland had just taken over the first-team manager’s job a few days before,” said Youngs.
“He came along to see what was on display in the youth team and he really liked what he saw from me.
“So that night did change my life really, because from that point on I was probably destined to be part of Roy’s first-team squad eventually.
“I then got into the Cambridge United first team and that’s how my career was born really.”
In six “fantastic” years, Youngs made 151 appearances and scored 43 goals, but arguably it was the quartet he formed with Kitson, Tudor and Riza in the 2002/03 campaign that stands out the most.
They were feared throughout League Two, and proved almost unstoppable.
“It was quite a front four, I think we scored something like 67 between us that year which should be enough for anybody really,” he said.
“We had an exciting team at that time, we were a very young team.
“We had quite good cup runs, we got to the regional final of the LDV again, we got to the third round of the FA Cup with replays in every round so we were stretched and it took its toll in the second half of the season – we were third at Christmas.
“That was my last season there and it was ultimately a bit of a disappointment because I think we had the ability to try to get back to League One.
“But I think there were certain mitigating circumstances with the personnel, we had a very young team and that probably caught up with us.”
Having moved on to Northampton, he then went to Bury before heading into non-League with Stafford Rangers, Cambridge City and Mildenhall Town, among others.
And it was the end of his playing days which Youngs found tough to cope with – it was brought about after he fell on his hip during a game and was subsequently diagnosed with severe osteoarthritis.
“I couldn’t really run anymore and running was always my way of keeping fit and feeling energetic and feeling good really,” said Youngs.
“That was quite a big change physically and I think I struggled to deal with that, certainly for the first few months because you don’t have a release really of playing football or even just going for a run.
“So that was probably immediately more of an effect on me, as in my actual life at that time, than the onset of the MS because initially it was my eyes and feeling very fatigued.”
It was through the problems with his eyes that led to the MS diagnosis, which was made two years ago.
“It takes a long time to get a formal MS diagnosis but it looked like that was at play so up until I got the diagnosis, which probably took over a year, I kind of knew what was happening,” he said.
“So I had time to adjust to it really. It is tough, it was tough to take at the time.
“The immediate effects of it weren’t particularly life changing so in those terms it wasn’t an immediate shock and some kind of horror, but it’s more to do with the unknown of what may lie ahead, which is the great unknown with MS.
“Obviously there is no cure as such so it is just a case of we can have treatments and try to do the best with it.
“But it is always lurking in the background and something more life changing could happen so that’s the hardest thing to deal with, certainly for my wife and my family.”
Youngs talks in great depth about his life, football and the impact of being diagnosed with MS in his book, which is available from the Cambridge Fans United website cambridgefansunited.org/store, on Amazon or at Waterstones in Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds.
It is also available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon.