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The Story Of Reading’s First Ever Academy Graduate: Life After The Royals

Part two of our chat with Alex Haddow, the first player to graduate from the Royals’ modern youth set-up.

Slough v Yeading
Haddow (right) celebrates with teammate Alex Harris during Slough’s FA Cup win over Walsall.
Photo by Jo Caird/Getty Images

Yesterday, we published part one of our interview with the first man to graduate through Reading’s academy in 1999 - Alex Haddow. Alex recalled his time with the Royals, in which he made four senior appearances before departing in 2001. Read on to find out what happened next...

In a bid to rebuild his career, Haddow moved nearly 300 miles north to Carlisle United, a division below Reading and a club who had only kept their Football League status by three points the previous year. But it allowed the teenager to kick on, and he started four of the first six league games of the new campaign, beginning to impress. Then disaster struck.

“They offered me a new contract on the morning of a game against Darlington. But it wasn’t the same terms we’d agreed and I said to the manager that it wasn’t right and that I wouldn’t sign it. He said ‘look I really want you to play, the chairman is here today, God forbid should anything happen we’ve agreed this’. Then ten minutes into the game I snapped my ACL [Anterior Cruciate Ligament] and that was it. Luckily they honoured it, but it sucked.

“I was 19 years old and out for the whole year. Having not had any injuries before that and really hoping to push and work my way back into a decent career. It was just six hours a day rehab and surgery.

“Especially at a lower level club, it’s not like you’re turning up to the Madejski Stadium, you’re turning up to this local leisure centre to go to the gym. Again though, you’ve got to be fatalistic about it, it was what was meant to be and I learnt a lot of lessons from it.

“I was confident I could have [gone on and had a long career in the game]. I was quite clearly one of the better players in the squad at Carlisle, so I was really using it as a stepping stone to move up. I remember we played a reserve game against Newcastle, and they made enquiries about me after the game and wanted to keep an eye on me.

“So things were going really well again and I was confident I could have settled at some level, maybe League One or the Championship. It’s really hard to say. I knew what the standard was like and that I could match it.”

Still a teenager, Haddow had played his last game in the Football League after an injury that many footballers and doctors call ‘a career-ender’. An exciting prospect at Reading two years previously, his dream was now in tatters.

Things would get worse before they got better for Haddow, as almost exactly a year after his first injury, he was sidelined for a further 12 months. He recalls: “I went and played for Hartney Witney in a silly game for my mate who was the manager, and did my knee again. It was excruciating.”

After two years out, Haddow was desperate to prove his worth whilst building up his fitness, and a unique opportunity arose thanks to a Newcastle United and England legend:

“Funnily enough it was that Newcastle game again. Peter Beardsley was the academy manager, and he used to play for the Vancouver Whitecaps. He sent some lads on loan from Newcastle to Carlisle, they then got released at the end of the season and he then sent them to Canada. Him being from Carlisle and knowing of me from those games against Newcastle, he also knew I was asking around [for a club], so he also arranged for me to go out there.

“He was such a nice bloke. He used to phone every week and speak to all of us, even me. So I played there in the summer to get fit to come back and play in the English league. It was interesting. Good players, but a totally different style and tactics.”

Newcastle United v Sunderland - Premier League
Peter Beardsley played a key role in Haddow getting the opportunity to play in Canada.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Back in England and aged 22, Haddow joined Slough Town in the Isthmian Premier Division, the seventh tier of English football. Although he was unable to make it back into the professional game, he did have a moment in the spotlight in the 2004/05 season. After Slough historically beat League One side Walsall, four divisions above them, 2-1 in Round One of the FA Cup, Haddow was voted the player of the round on the FA website, and picked up the award on the Millennium Stadium pitch at the final at the end of the season.

“I guess Slough was the first proper non-league club that I joined,” he says. “That was great, and I did really well. I was flying. I played left-back and I think I was the second top scorer and obviously won that Player of the Round award. Slough was a great club, they played nice football and had quite a good Reading connection – Gilkesy was a coach for a bit.

“There was a bit of contact with Oxford, and a few non-league clubs sniffing around, but I never got an opportunity to get back into the league, sadly.”

During his time at Slough and Salisbury City, Haddow got the opportunity to play for the England national futsal team. Look to launch the sport in this country, the FA selected him as part of a small group of players to try and compete on the European stage. It was an environment that Haddow flourished in, top-scoring in his time with the team.

“It’s totally different but’s it’s fantastic,” he said. “When I was at Slough I just got a phone call from the manager of the England Futsal Team, and he explained what it was. I think I’d heard it of but didn’t know it existed in England. They were looking for players like me that were fast, had good close control and quick feet because that suits futsal.

“A week later I went to Lithuania with the team, had never played it before but scored two goals in my first game. We travelled around, played a few clubs with a view of getting into the European Championships. We went to a qualifying tournament in Romania, didn’t qualify unfortunately, but it was a good experience nonetheless. We were all amateurs, there was no professionals in the squad at all and the other countries we were playing had professional futsal leagues.

“But it was such a great experience, I loved it and it helped my football a lot. It was nice after the previous years’ hardship.”

However, Haddow’s love for football was dwindling. He went to study at the University of Chichester alongside playing non-league, graduating in 2009 with a degree in Sports Therapy, Injury Rehabilitation and Sports Performance. The following year, he decided to retire from the game aged 28.

“I went to university whilst I was still playing with the idea that football would pay for me to get through uni and then I’d make a decision after that. But to be honest, once I’d made that decision I was studying so hard and my mind was coming away from football.

“So I wasn’t playing as well and just got to a point where I thought now’s a good time [to stop]. I’d graduated and got offered a reasonable job as a physio. I didn’t want to just keep dropping down, and the love for it had definitely drifted off a bit.

“I could just see people scraping around and players who were just a few years ahead of me retiring and not really knowing what to do. I was thinking whether I could really get back into the league.”

Haddow’s name sits alongside 46 other Reading academy graduates on an honours board at the Madejski Stadium.
Reading FC

For the first time in his life, Haddow was in full-time work outside of football, moving into a rehabilitation private practice in Godalming, dealing with the treatment and prevention of neuromusculoskeletal injuries.

“It was interesting. The skills I learnt in football were transferable. I was dealing with people who were injured, so I’d had huge amounts of life experience with that.

“It was great, but then there was the non-glamorous side of it, where you think ‘I was on the pitch at the Millennium Stadium a few years ago’. It was just another challenge, there’s no point keeping your head in football thinking ‘what if?’. Your life would be pretty torturous if you hang on to that sort of stuff.

“I started fishing again too! I fished for England in the World Championships, so it kind of came full circle!”.

Haddow also spent time lecturing at his old university, something he was keen to do as they had given him a “lifeline”. Then in 2012, drawing upon his experience in private practice, he set up Alpine Sports Physio. Based in the Arlberg mountains in Austria, the company offer a range of services, such as sports massages, physiotherapy and ski packages.

“In the private practice I was working at in Godalming, I saw lots of people go skiing and I tried skiing myself for the first time and absolutely loved it, just loved the mountains and the outdoors. That’s where my real passion is, I’m a nature geek! So I went skiing and realised my skills were really transferable to that sport.

“I set up this little company alongside working in Godalming and started running it from a distance. The ski season is quite short so I could manage both jobs and employed someone out in Austria to run this mobile physio practice.”

Two and half years ago, Alex moved to Austria on a permanent basis, and met his wife, who he now has a one year old son with.

“It’s just gone from strength to strength. We work with lots of hotels and lots of athletes. One guy is an Olympic skier, Andy Gohl, for Austria. If you ski for Austria you’re basically like David Beckham! They’re crazy for it, they’re the best skiers in the world. We sponsor him and he works with us and we do all of his performance training – all this crossover stuff that I learnt from football and sports science that we’ve plugged into the skiing world which is going really well. It’s quite a closed world skiing, so it’s good to bring in principles from other sports.”

“We work with a girl from Denmark too, who’s on the world freeride tour [an annual freestyle skiing event], plus just people who are out here skiing and injure themselves.

“We’ve got a really nice life. My wife and I get a really good work life balance. Business is very busy in the winter, so for five months it’s open seven days a week. Then for the other seven months we’ve not quite got our feet up, but it’s a really chilled way of life, like being retired. You’ve got to make your money last the whole year!”

Haddow has lived in Austria for the last two and a half years, running his company Alpine Sports Physio.
Alpine Sports Physio

Haddow’s daily life consists of looking after his son, business meetings and spending a few hours skiing, with the slopes just a five minute free bus ride from his house. He still follows Reading as much as he can, and has come back to see a game in each of the last seven years. Back in October, he was at the Madejski Stadium to see the Royals beat Millwall 3-1.

It’s certainly remarkably different from what life would have been like for him as a professional footballer, but does he ever think about how things could have panned out differently?

“Occasionally, less often now, I daydream about what would have happened if I’d stayed at Reading or if thing had been slightly different. It wasn’t taken away from me, that’s a very negative way to look at it, but I feel like I didn’t quite fulfil the opportunities that I had for one reason or another.

“I would have loved to have lived it again and just tweaked things so I could genuinely sit here and say I know that I was good enough or that I wasn’t. I still look back on it fondly, I’ve got my debut shirt in a frame up in my office and I see it every day and I’m very proud of it. So it does sneak into my mind, but I’ve come to learn that whatever you do in life, if you go into it with positivity and try and ride out the tough times, then things work out.

“That’s exactly what’s happening now. I absolutely love my life and done some cool things in the past to look back on so I’d have rather had those than not at all.”

It’s an incredibly admirable way of looking at it and is eloquently put by the 36-year-old. As our chat concludes, I’m almost left feeling inspired by Alex. The enthusiasm in his voice as he talked about his memories, especially at Reading, was clear. As was his pride when I told him that he was the first player to graduate from the Royals academy and feature for the first team, something which he was previously unaware of.

Whilst the last two decades have not worked out as initially planned, he does not dwell on the past and has never done so, instead making the most out of all the opportunities he’s been given to forge a unique and wide-ranging career path.