Luke Chadwick’s career should have been a dream come true.
A boy from a little village south of Cambridge, where nothing really happened, who fell in love with football and went on to win the Premier League with Manchester United.
Luke Chadwick played alongside the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham as United won the league in 2001
But the Theatre of Dreams quickly took on a very different meaning for Chadwick.
Rather than imagining a last-minute winner at the Stretford End, he would fantasise about how to make the abuse stop.
He would write letters to the BBC in his head, asking them to stop making fun of his appearance on ‘They Think It’s All Over’.
Relentless jokes about a young Chadwick most Friday nights, for which BBC presenters Gary Lineker and Nick Hancock have since apologised, left him anxious and depressed.
His stomach would twist every time he appeared on TV – and he wouldn’t leave the house out of fear at being mocked by strangers.
Chadwick struggled with his mental health while playing for Manchester United
These are undoubtedly different and less tolerant times, but social media remains littered with victims just like Chadwick, and his story should serve as a lesson to anyone who targets footballers with abuse.
Sometimes, they hear it. And sometimes, it hurts.
Sitting down with talkSPORT for the latest episode of After The Lights Go Out, Chadwick said: “I don’t want to blame anyone; I suppose in this day and age it wouldn’t happen.
“It probably would happen on social media, but it wouldn’t happen on TV.
“I often thought to myself, ‘Should I say something to see if it would stop?’
“I don’t know how I would’ve gone about that, but I used to fantasise at home, thinking, ‘What if I wrote a letter to the BBC? Then maybe it would stop’.
Lineker and Hancock both apologised to Chadwick for joking about his looks
“But because it was such a childish thing, the way I looked, I thought there was something wrong with me because it made me feel so bad.
“I thought I needed to pull myself together because it was such a childish thing. I thought I needed to get on with it.”
Chadwick found friends in the most unlikely of places, or it may seem that way to us.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane, two of the most fearsome characters in United’s history, took Chadwick under their wing and made him feel special, at a time when the rest of the world didn’t.
“I went up for a trial from Cambridge, by the time I got home on the train, Sir Alex phoned my mum up to ask for permission to sign me,” Chawick added.
“It wasn’t just me he would do that for, he would do it for every player. I remember at Carrington, there were under-12 academy boys, and Sir Alex would know all of their names, all of their parents names, and a little detail to make them feel special.
“He used to treat the dinner ladies and the kit men just as well as he’d treat Roy Keane or Ryan Giggs. He had an incredible way of building relationships with everyone so you could work harder than you ever thought you could.
Sir Alex Ferguson scouted Chadwick in 1994
“If you got praise, I can’t begin to explain how that felt, hairs on the back of my neck would stand up.
“When people talk about the hairdryer treatment, it was scary, but there was no worse feeling than letting him down.”
Like Sir Alex, Keane could be a nasty person to get on the wrong side of, but Chadwick reveals how it always came from a loving place.
“I came back from Antwerp and had my first sessions with the first team. Obviously, the standards weren’t quite as high!” Chadwick, 40, continued.
“I gave the ball away and got the biggest telling off I’ve ever had from Keane – and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m not sure about this’.
“In the dressing room afterwards, Keane came up to me and told me why he did it. He said that’s what it’s going to be like here, and you need to deal with it.
“As well I that, I didn’t drive at the time, and he would come and pick me up. He would do anything he could to help the players, because he was in charge of the dressing room.
Keane is one of the most famous leaders in Premier League history
“He was the most amazing captain, who would do all he could to help you.
“We used to have small-sided games and we used to pray we weren’t on Keano’s team, because if you lost he wouldn’t speak to you for a week.”
Chadwick never became the star Sir Alex identified when he was 14, making just 39 appearances for Manchester United over five years before embarking on a journeyman career.
He did find a home at MK Dons in 2009, playing more than 200 games and becoming a fan favourite, but the end of his career in 2016 resulted in more mental health problems as feelings of loneliness kicked in.
“I just lost my whole idea of where I fit in the world,” he added. “From the age of seven or eight, I’d been known as a good footballer, then a professional footballer, then I didn’t know what I was able to give the world.
Chadwick’s career never panned out the way it was expected to when he was a star in the United academy
“I used to be able to play football but now that’s stopped, I just felt so alone. I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to burden other people because I just felt so low in myself.
“I didn’t really have a purpose, I spent my whole life being obsessed with football; it was all about being a footballer and staying in the game.
“Football was my first love, and when that’s taken away, that’s when I felt so alone.
“That was always the thing that kept me going.”
What keeps him going now? A wife, kids, a promising coaching career at his boyhood club Cambridge United, and some newly-found self-confidence.
Presented by Steve Harmison and Leon McKenzie, After The Lights Go Out focuses on the struggles of professional athletes after their retirement from sport and the fourth episode features Luke Chadwick this Sunday at 9.30pm on talkSPORT
Luke Chadwick’s career should have been a dream come true.