It says a lot about Luke Chadwick that he ended up feeling bad when he saw Nick Hancock apologising on BBC Breakfast for making fun of the former Manchester United winger’s looks on They Think It’s All Over all those years ago. “It made me feel a little bit guilty,” Chadwick says. “It looked so uncomfortable. Obviously people had given him stick and even though whatever happened years ago happened it wasn’t an eye for an eye. The apology is completely accepted but it’s not something I was searching for.”
There is no hint of bitterness about Chadwick during a conversation about his days at United, how his mental health suffered when he became a figure of fun on a popular quiz show and the importance of learning to love himself. While he is no longer the painfully shy teenager who once hid away from the world, revenge was not on his mind when he tweeted about the taunts this month and opened up about They Think It’s All Over in subsequent media appearances. The apologies from Hancock, the show’s former presenter, and Gary Lineker, a team captain, were nice, but Chadwick just wants people to know that it is good to talk.
This is a man on a journey of self-discovery. When he was growing up Chadwick did not understand his feelings. He was a quiet kid and skilled in shutting conversations down. He was not the type to tell anyone that the taunts about his looks were affecting him; not even Alex Ferguson knew one of his young players was hurting. “I wasn’t emotionally intelligent,” Chadwick says. “If I was in touch with my feelings then maybe I would have told the manager. I was too embarrassed. I don’t think anyone knew at that time. I got so good at sweeping everything under the carpet. You don’t want to show any weakness to your peers or opponents. It’s that stiff upper lip. But it is a relief to get things off your chest.”
I ask Chadwick what the phrase “man up” means to him. “It takes me back to that 19- or 20-year-old. If I heard of someone having mental health problems my reaction would be: ‘Pull yourself together.’ It was the reaction I had to myself. ‘Man up, pull yourself together.’ The education around mental health has improved. It still needs to be loads better.”
Life should have been wonderful for Chadwick, who grew up in the small village of Barrington near Cambridge. He went to United for trials when he was 14 and moved to Manchester with his future wife when he was 16. United were the best side in the country and the quick and tricky winger loved the club. He felt at home in his surroundings and convinced himself he was wrong to let the mockery get him down.
But Chadwick, who was 18 when he made his debut for United in 1999, was unhappy. He says he should have worn a brace as a child, only he was too scared to go to the dentist. Eventually he needed surgery to stop his jaw protruding back.
Chadwick, who played in the same position as David Beckham, was a target. People would say he was ugly and that his teeth stuck out. While Chadwick did not think there was anything wrong with him, the abuse was hard to take and there were times when he stopped leaving the house. “I’d even try to kid myself that I was fine at home. I was happy going to training. But there would be periods of time where I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Was he scared? “I was probably scared of what would have been said. Looking back nine times out of 10 nothing would have been said. I was scared of the thought something could be said.”
Chadwick insists abuse at games would not bother him. It was on a Friday night, when They Think It’s All Over came on BBC1, that he felt low. “My wife remembers once that I said to her: ‘Just turn it off,’ quite snappily.”
Watching the show seems like a form of self-punishment. “It probably was a little bit of that,” Chadwick says. “I was just so desperate to watch the episode and there not be any mention of me at all. That was the dream scenario. Then your heart sinks down to the bottom of your stomach.”
Yet Chadwick bottled it all up. He says he would have brushed his teammates aside if they had tried to help and he felt it was better not to talk to his parents or partner. “It becomes a habit and it’s hard to break,” Chadwick says. “If you never give yourself time to express yourself you’re in that rut. It will start eating away out of you. It’s changing that habit. The only way is doing it consistently from a young age.
“My parents and wife have said they’re proud of me. The important thing is I’m trying to use my experience. If it empowers one other person it’s enough. It’s worth going through that torment and talking about it now.”
Chadwick stresses that injuries are the reason he left United and ended up spending most of his career in the lower leagues. He is happy to have played for Cambridge United, his boyhood club. He is 39, the father of two teenage boys and happy coaching for the Football Fun Factory.
Above all his integrity shines through. “We’ve all got a journey to go on,” Chadwick says. “I still want to learn about myself. I thought that yesterday: ‘Why am I feeling guilty for the guy on the telly?’ I didn’t need to bring up They Think It’s All Over. I could have just gone into a tough period in my life. Strange. I’ve always thought about other people before myself. I’d rather people close to me were happy, even if it meant I was unhappy a little bit. If you want to truly love yourself you have got to put yourself first. I think I have done that a lot more in recent times.”