When the truth came, Alfie Mawson did not want it sugar-coated. After a career blighted by an issue with the meniscus in his right knee, he just wanted the facts, told straight. And so his surgeon did. “He said, ‘I could show your knee to 100 other knee surgeons, and they would all say the same thing: You need to retire’,” Mawson recalls.
Just like that, Mawson’s career, at age 29, was over.
His final game was for Wycombe Wanderers against Ipswich Town in League One a week before Christmas. There is nice symmetry there; Wycombe were the club he made his league debut for as an on-loan youngster, and last summer they were the team willing to take him on again, injury history and all.
This is why he is now sitting here at their Adams Park ground, fielding questions he did not want to answer before his 30s — about his career in the past tense, his pain and an unclear future.
Yesterday, Wycombe’s home game against Barnsley was dedicated to him as a celebration of his career. The idea of being the centre of attention did not sit comfortably with Mawson. It felt disorientating. “I don’t really like making a big deal, but it’s the Wycombe way,” he reflects. “It made sense for the end to be here.”
💙 “I don’t want any fuss.”
— Wycombe Wanderers (@wwfcofficial) March 18, 2023
For the central defender, the lateral meniscus in that right knee has shaped his career. He had it repaired five times, at Brentford, Swansea City and Fulham. He then had it taken out. “It acts like a doorstop,” he explains, matter-of-factly. “It’s between your bones, and stops the cartilage fraying. It’s wear and tear every time you run on it.” It became what’s known as a grade four chondral defect — where there is no cartilage left and bone rubs against bone.
Retirement did not come completely out of the blue. Deep down, Mawson knew his knee might catch up with him eventually, albeit not this quickly. Last summer, after leaving Fulham, the situation became more real. He failed a medical at an unnamed club. It was the first time that had happened, and it was a warning sign. “I thought, ‘Oh god, this is not going to bode well’,” he recalls. “You hear about failing a medical, but it’s very rare.
“There was always a doubt. If I could give you my knee and you could feel it daily, you’d know something is not right. I’ve felt that for a long time. I knew it would be on the cards.
“As soon as you’ve torn any part of the meniscus, the blood flow is never the same. So it never really fully recovers, no matter who you are. This is what the surgeon said to me a couple of months ago: ‘Your career finished back at Brentford, when you were 18’.”
Back then, Mawson had just finished a successful development loan at non-League side Welling. At the time, he feared that initial knee injury would end his hopes of a professional career. To such an extent he joined a recruitment website. “I did it with Joe Maloney (a team-mate at Brentford) — we thought we would be professional beekeepers,” he laughs. “We were mental. You have to start looking at things like that. Your contract’s up and you’ve just done your knee and you haven’t played any professional games. I had to be realistic.”
Maloney would not make it as a professional, but Mawson would get to live the dream. Two years on, he was playing in the Premier League with Swansea. “It was a whirlwind,” he says. “I wasn’t reaching for the stars. I was just trying to do the best I could in every game. Things just fell into place.
“I remember going into the changing room and they were looking at me, Wayne Routledge and Kyle Naughton, and they said to me, ‘You’re just high on life, aren’t you?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! It’s great, you’ve got to take this in’. I was still me. Eating sweets all the time. It was a rollercoaster. However I got there, I was going to take it.”
He was there on merit, becoming one of the best centre-backs in the country. There was an England call-up in March 2018, which Mawson found to be an eye-opener, and then a big-money move to newly-promoted Fulham that summer. But there was also another meniscus tear, suffered in the warm-up before an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday in the February. He missed out on selection for that year’s World Cup in Russia and would arrive at Fulham not fit to play following an end-of-sesaon knee operation.
Mawson was eager to lose the injury-prone tag. “I didn’t cut corners but I sped up the process when I should have said that it felt a little bit worse, or should have taken two steps back to go forward,” he admits. “I didn’t take my rest days, but you just want to play, you want to get back. I didn’t want to be that player who was injured and take ridiculously long to get back. But once it was done, the damage was there. It was going to keep coming back and it did.
“When you’re injured, it’s repetitive. I’ve been through the same rehab over and over again. You’re just like, ‘Oh god, I have got to do this again‘. You get to a stage where it’s like, ‘Fuck this’.”
There is frustration over something that is hard to deal with as a player. At Fulham, manager Claudio Ranieri told the press that one of Mawson’s meniscus tears, in January 2019, happened as he was putting his boots on. That led to ridicule.
“We were playing Huddersfield at home and I was sat like this (legs apart),” Mawson recalls. “When you bend your leg, the part of the meniscus, the part that would fray, would get caught in between my two bones. I’m sat there lacing my boots, and as I straighten my leg I felt it.
“It wasn’t because I was taking off or doing up a boot. I know it ended up coming out like that, and I’m not going to come out and say any different because I’m not bothered what people think. Let them have it. It sounds funny, whatever. It’s a little story. But it was caught between the bones. I knew something had gone and then it got back to him that I was just changing my boots. Then he told the press.
“He was a character. For an older guy, maybe he had a lot of energy, I’ll give him that. He would go mad if he needed to, which he did a few times. We just took it, as you do. But he was a gentleman.”
That debut season at Fulham was always going to be difficult. The club had spent more than £100million ($121m) on new players after securing promotion back to the Premier League and fitting all that together would prove unworkable as they went straight back down. “It was, ‘You’ve been bought for money, you’ve been bought for money…’ there was pressure,” he reflects. “I remember loads of the boys getting their Premier League debut balls. I thought, ‘We are new. We have some great players, playing in different countries in top leagues. But there’s no league like this league. It is brutal’.
“Players went from playing sides in Europe to (facing) Burnley at a cold Turf Moor. You do not want that. You look at those players when it’s not going well and they are like, ‘Where am I?!’. It took a lot adapting for people, myself included.”
Mawson had a mixed time at Fulham but he left after four years having helped win two Premier League promotions and an EFL title. In his final season, he felt as fit as ever and was only kept out of the team under Marco Silva by the form of Tosin Adarabioyo and Tim Ream.
“We had this conversation, me and the gaffer. I said, ‘They are undroppable’. I wasn’t an idiot. I knew they were the two that were starting and he pulled me into his office and said to me before the first game, ‘You have done really well. It’s been a hard decision but I’m going to go with these two’. I respected that. I’m not going to sulk. I said, ‘Just know that if they do slip up, I’ll be there’.
“My first start was Coventry away, and we were absolutely tanked (4-1 defeat). Everyone played shit. I remember Denis (Odoi) said to me afterwards, ‘Alfie, I’m sorry’. ‘Why are you sorry?’ ‘Because I know how hard you’ve worked to get back in and we go and perform like this’. That’s life. I knew I was straight back out of the team. The boys didn’t look back. As long as the boys are winning, I didn’t care. And then we went up.
“(Silva) knew what he had in me as a person more than a player. We had good conversations off the pitch and I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He dealt with the players well. He never changed. He never panicked. He’s a good manager and everyone’s seeing that. Give him a good group that he can mould, which he has, and there’s no surprise 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 once-defensive midfielder has started scoring goals. “I said to him, ‘You’ve not scored in eight years’, and now it’s two in two,” laughs Mawson.
“He’s probably helped me without even knowing. I’m looking at him and he’s playing and there’s a little sense of pride. Me and Beth (Mawson’s partner) were part of him training, getting fit and then ultimately signing at Exeter. He scored against Wycombe, though. I told him never to do that again.”
McDonald lived with Mawson in west London as he was building back up to fitness. There was mutual support there and Mawson also relied on Beth and his best friend Charlie, as well as his mum and dad. It was difficult to break the news of his retirement to them, though. “They were probably more gutted than I was because they lived football through me,” he says. “It was sad for me to have to tell them.”
He tries to keep perspective, and has had to do that because there’s been more going on behind the scenes. “Beth’s old man has had multiple fights with cancer, and he’s still here to say he’s winning that fight, which is great. Last Friday my sister, Leanne, had a biopsy. She had a lymph node removed from a vein, via a robot. That’s a proper fight.
“I went to see my sister a few times in hospital. I got there the other day and we we were in a critical-care unit and there were four people, all with cancer. I looked at Beth, went outside, and I’ve gone. She said, ‘Don’t cry’. I didn’t like it. I don’t like hospitals. It was selfish, because my sister’s in there and just had an operation. She’ll be buzzing to see us and she was.
“But that little moment… you know what is going on in the world and when you go into a unit where there have been four life-saving operations, and you see people struggling… it hit me. I was a wreck but I had to be strong for Leanne — and feed her because hospital food isn’t great. You have to support each other and my family’s support is fantastic.
“I’ve got to be positive because people get dealt bad hands in life, and I haven’t been. It does put things in perspective and I’m just glad they’re healthy. All I’ve got is a bad knee.”
Mawson now has more time to spend with his family, and he has seen his parents much more regularly. Retirement itself though, a few weeks on, has not sunk in yet. He is enjoying the freedom of no training schedule, albeit he pushes himself to still go to the gym. “Fair play to people who go to work, come home and then go to the gym, because I’ve got no motivation for that at the moment,” he says. There has been a fair bit of golf. “I wish I could be good enough to take that up full-time.”
He is not sure about what comes next. He talks warmly about mentoring — youth players at Fulham have remarked about his positive influence there. But first, Beth wants to travel, and he says Asia has been discussed. There are thoughts of a family too. “I didn’t want to be risking my health (by playing on),” he says. “I haven’t got kids yet and that was a big thing for me. I want to be able to be athletic with them, move around with them. The little things, like playing in the garden.”
In the short term, Mawson will adjust to retirement and deal with whatever is next.
He has a saying he has used throughout his career.
“Always fall forwards,” he explains. “Because if you dwell on things, you might miss other opportunities.”
(Top photo: Simon Galloway/PA Images via Getty Images)