Luke Chadwick Opens Up On Abuse He Suffered Over His Looks During Football Career
It's matchday and a young Luke Chadwick steps off the team bus.
He goes past the crowds and makes his way down a walkway towards the dressing room when a group of people follow him. They cruelly make fun of his appearance.
Chadwick would look at the floor and carry on walking but deep down, the abuse was having a negative impact on his mental health.
"They abused me purely because of the way I looked. That was tough. It made me feel really low about myself."
This type of incident wasn't a one-off either. It happened on numerous occasions.
"I remember people saying I was ugly and that my teeth stuck out," he tells SPORTbible in an exclusive interview. "It was the feeling that everyone was laughing at you. It wasn't just people taking the piss and you have some banter back.
"It felt like that's all anyone was talking about."
The 39-year-old has only recently opened up about the struggles he suffered during a successful career in football.
Chadwick is best known for his time playing under Sir Alex Ferguson, a person who made him feel "so important and special" during a five-year spell at Old Trafford.
He enjoyed his time in Manchester but the abuse the midfielder suffered was damning at times, although he holds no grudge towards anyone who criticised him in the past.
"It played a big part in how I was perceived as a player," he says. "I believe If I looked more like everyone else, I wouldn't just be remembered because I looked differently to others.
"It was the reason why I didn't go out a lot. I was anxious. I was embarrassed about it. It was a hard situation to go and talk to someone about.
"I was just a real quiet lad. I didn't really speak that much. I'd just go to training, go home and just stay in my flat.
"As I got older, I grew more resilient and would have some banter back, but I was still so quiet and shy."
At the time Chadwick admits he would try and shrug the abuse off. Rather than talk about his problems to teammates or staff he would create a barrier, despite his true feelings on the inside.
"Even if they [teammates] did mention it, I don't think i would have opened up," he says.
"People in my family would sometimes bring it up but I would brush it under the carpet. It's hard to come out and say something. Deep inside I was feeling low, but I wanted to keep that tough exterior on the outside, like it's not going to affect me."
The abuse he received in and around football was just the beginning.
Chadwick says he was often teased on BBC show They Think It's All Over, a British comedy panel show featuring the likes of Gary Lineker and Jonathan Ross.
It was the thing that affected him most.
"I remember waiting for this show to start on a Friday night and I would dread it, thinking, 'Please just don't say anything else.' I just wanted it to go away but it seemed like every time this show was on, they would bring my looks up in some way.
"It was seen as light-hearted comedy but afterwards it seemed everybody thought about my appearance.
"I'd get abuse on the football pitch and I'd accept that because it happens to everyone but it was off the pitch that affected me most."
Away from the negative aspects of being in the limelight, Chadwick also reflects on special times at Manchester United.
At the age of 14, after impressing for Arsenal's youth team, the club invited him to train with the scholars. The teenager played a game against Nottingham Forest and just hours later, a phone call from an eager Sir Alex sealed the deal.
"I got the train afterwards to my home in Cambridge and by the time I got back, the gaffer had already phoned my mum and said he wanted me to sign for the club.
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"The man just made you feel so important and special. That was the genius to him."
Five years later, during a loan spell at Belgian side Royal Antwerp in 2000, Chadwick was initially "really disappointed" when United decided to recall him. But to his surprise, the youngster was thrown into the first team having thought he would just play reserve football.
"That season where I did play a few games, it was so intense," he says.
"Every training session was incredible and the standard was through the roof. You had to work so hard and If you weren't at that level on a certain day, you were certainly told about it.
"There was incredible support off the pitch as well. The players would help you. If you were feeling low about the way you played, they would always have your back. It was an incredible environment to play in and as a result, we enjoyed sustained success."
The reason behind United's success at the time was largely down to the leadership of Ferguson, who had a huge impact on Chadwick. He was attentive about everything and everyone; to the smallest of details.
"When I was at the club as a first-team player, there would be 12 or 13 academy players in the canteen and he'd know every single one of their names and where they were from.
"That little bit of detail made you want to run through a brick wall for him. He was an absolute genius in terms of the way he treated everyone at the club. From Roy Keane to the kit man to the girls who cooked the dinner.
"When you get that at a football club, you see success."
Chadwick made a total of 39 appearances for the club between 1999 and 2004 before joining West Ham on a free transfer.
He is the first person to admit he was never going to make it at Old Trafford by the time he departed.
"I must have done something right to get games at a world-class team like United," he says. "But I don't think I was ever going to make it there. I never truly believed that. And I know that had nothing to do with the way I looked.
"Sir Alex was really honest with me when I left. The great strength I had as a kid was my speed but after a couple of injuries, I was never the same.
"He said I was not going be able to make an impact playing for a club like United. 'It's going to be tough having a career at the top. Go and do your best,' he said. 'If there's anything you ever need, once you've played for this club, we'll always try and held you out.'"
After leaving United with a Premier League winners medal in his pocket, having played 16 league games in 2000/01, Chadwick spent one season at West Ham. He would go on to play for Stoke City, Norwich, MK Dons and his hometown club Cambridge United before hanging up his boots in 2016.
He then fell into coaching and went through his qualifications before joined Cambridge United's academy team.
It wasn't for him, however.
"I was obviously really happy to get a job because I'd just finished but I didn't love it anywhere near as much as I did when playing. I knew it was going to be tough replicating that," he told us.
"I soon stepped away from that side of things and joined FFF [Football Fun Factory]. It's nothing about developing players, it's just about kids having fun. Rather than judging the kids on scoring goals or who has the best skills, we praise communicating skills and sportsmanship.
Chadwick now plays a huge role at Football Fun Factory, an initiative that provides childhood football experiences for boys and girls of all ages and ability levels, eliminating barriers to opportunity.
"We are trying to use football as a vehicle to better people. It's rewarding what football can bring us in terms of positive life skills."
At the end of our chat, after reminiscing about good and bad times during a fascinating career, Chadwick answers the age-old question: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your teenage self?
"I'd say open up and talk about your feelings," he says.
"I would have felt a lot better about it but, as strange as it sounds, even If i told my teenage myself that, I probably still wouldn't have done it.
"It's more of having an understanding of how you are feeling. If you're feeling low, you should open up.
"It's the most important thing in the world, our mental health. We've all got it. It goes up and down. It's just trying to keep on that even keel, on that spectrum of medium to good mental health, and it's finding ways to do that.
"Talking about your feelings is so good."
If you watch to check out what Luke is doing at the Football Fun Factory, go to their official website for more details.
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