Released Watford defender Alfie Young has a sense of perspective none of the other eight under-21 players released were able to call on when they were told at the end of April they were being released.
Young lost his father, Tony, to cancer two years ago. He was diagnosed with the disease and died nine months later. He was just 49. So whatever under-21 coach Harry Kewell and head of academy Chris McGuane had to tell him about his footballing future – and it wasn’t good news delivered in the meeting room at the training ground – it paled into insignificance given he had already digested the worst news imaginable.
“That was a tough time,” Young told us exclusively this week. “I was just 16. I was off for two weeks but I had to get back into it as my mind was wandering and I wanted to get back to normality.”
Young was living in digs at the time and because he was too young to drive, he could only spend a fortnight at the family home in Islington, with his mother and three older sisters, before emotionally returning to his temporary accommodation in Watford.
“That was quite hard,” said Young. “I could only go home at weekends so it was tough, but [the then under-18 coach] David Hughes was so good to me. He told me to take my time. I have a lot of respect for club and how they treated me.”
The under-16 and under-18 youth teams turned up to the funeral and the first team had a whip round for his mum.
“My dad was massive in my life,” Young said. “He was at every game and played reserve football at Southend for a while.”
Amid that backdrop of heartache, Young deserves the utmost credit for keeping his career on track when he could easily have gone off the rails or thrown the towel in. The fact he went on to captain the under-18s and then earn a one-year professional contract speaks volumes for his character. That deal comes to end this month.
“They pulled us in one by one and let us know they wouldn’t be extending our contracts,” said Young. “They said they didn’t see a pathway into the first team and felt it would be selfish to keep us on just for the under-21s. They said it would be best to go somewhere else and look for first team football. I had hoped to stay on but I wasn’t too surprised [to be let go].”
Young is upbeat about his chances of finding another club, lower down the league pyramid. He draws inspiration from the likes of Troy Deeney and Jamie Vardy who were rejected by league clubs earlier in their career. There is also the tale of Ashley Young, who was has gone on to carve out a career at the very top of the game after initially being rejected as a scholar by Watford.
“[Former Watford striker] Britt Assombalonga had to drop down a league or so and then he got a big move to Forest,” said Young. “There is always an opportunity. Being released has happened to loads of players and they’ve gone on and had good careers.”
A ringing endorsement from Harry Kewell will help his cause.
“My favourite player this year – even though there was a lot of talk about Alex [Jakubiak], Dennon [Lewis] and George [Byers] – was Alfie Young,” Kewell said in an interview on Hornets Player. “When I first came in everyone was telling me a lot about him, that he was very young and that kind of stuff. He was the only player, for me, who took a lot of information on. The way he constructed himself and not only played in one position [was impressive]. I had the confidence to play him anywhere on the backline and one or two times I got him to play in the midfield. For me, he is a player who can learn a lot and, to this day, I still feel he can be a late bloomer.”
Young certainly learned a thing or two from Kewell, the former left-winger who has skinned a few right-backs in his time.
“I really enjoyed his coaching,” said Young. “I know he was criticised by someone people on social media but he’s good, particularly one to one. It was his first year, and our first year as a 21s, so we were getting to know him and the standard. I went up against him a few times in training and he’s still got it. He’d also gets in the gym with us and do a circuit.”
Now 19, Young has been at Watford for seven years and was part of the same school year at the Harefield Academy as Dennon Lewis and Carl Stewart. He drove out of the London Colney training ground, which has become his second home, for the final time last month. “I’ve made a lot of friends, so I was upset,” he said. “I didn’t quite cry, but it was a bit weird leaving there for the last time after going there for many years. It still hasn’t hit me now and it probably won’t until I find a new club.”