Leeds United: The hidden downside to being a pro player - Matteo

Professional footballers have much to be grateful for.

Many of us are paid a fortune to do the most popular and sought-after job in the world. But I'll never let anyone tell me it's a free ride – not when I'm about to undergo a medical procedure that would give you nightmares.

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At some point today I'll have spinal surgery at a hospital in Stoke, the only answer to an injury that has done its best to ruin my life.

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The best case scenario is that three of my discs are replaced with metal. If the damage is as bad as it feels, I could end up losing five or six. Needless to say, I'm extremely apprehensive about the outcome.

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Whenever you undergo an operation like this, you're obliged to sign paperwork accepting certain risks. The biggest of those is that I suffer permanent spinal damage – and that's been made very clear to me.

I know the surgeon well and I trust him implicitly, but my health is entirely in the hands of someone else. Whatever happens, it'll be morphine for me this Christmas rather than lager.

This all stems back to my playing days and the injury I'm suffering from is the injury that finished my career. I was at Stoke City at the time and I broke down while I was out for a jog. After a short tour of a few back specialists, I was basically told that the best option – the only option – was to call it a day.

Those are horrible words to hear. You know you'll retire eventually, but you expect it to be on your terms. However much your body aches, you always assume a scalpel can fix you. But the writing was on the wall, whether I wanted to see it or not. The pain in my back had become so bad that I couldn't put my boots and socks on. I should have known what the final MRI scan would say.

The truth was that I'd been listening to sobering comments for some time. A lot of Championship clubs don't have their own doctor and when I was a Stoke player, we were looked after by a doctor in Cardiff. I was having problems with one of my feet and taking needles in the sole to get me through matches. They're some of the most horrible injections

I've ever had. When I told the doctor this, his response was 'what on earth are you doing?' If he'd had his way, I'd have packed the game in there and then.

Some of my team-mates felt the same. They'd look at the swelling and think 'is that really worth it?' I thought it was.

This might seem naive or reckless but I wasn't going to let my career go because of a sore foot or a sore back.

My body was telling me to be honest with myself but it's asking a lot for someone who loves football with a passion to let it go.

With hindsight, I pushed myself to far.

But injuries are part of football and I don't mean in the sense that they happen to everyone from time to time. I mean that every week before every game, each club has players who are either struggling to be fit, likely to be fit or determined to be fit no matter what.

On any given weekend, countless professionals take part in matches against their better judgement or despite the fact that they'd be justified in refusing to play.

Much of the time, the blame for that lies with the players themselves. God knows I sympathise. The biggest worry for any footballer is the thought of losing your place in the side.

Take the 2000-01 season when I was with Leeds United – under no circumstances was I going to give in to injury if it meant I would be on the bench when we went to Milan or Valencia in the Champions League.

If a local anaesthetic did the trick then you could count me in. In my head, it felt like a better alternative than sacrificing some of the biggest nights of my career.

Blackburn Rovers were probably the only club where I didn't have injections to get me through matches. Everywhere else, and especially as a youngster with Liverpool, it was a routine response to niggles and strains.

At one stage with Leeds, I was doing no training through the week until a Friday morning, when I'd join in for a bit of work on the team's shape. The upshot was that I'd be warming up for every game with doubt in my mind about whether my fitness would carry me through.

Adrenaline usually does the trick but imagine throwing yourself into a game against Manchester United when you know you're in no shape to be taking part. I think the word is unsustainable.

So this is D-Day for me. I'm not joking when I say that I really need this operation to work. I haven't slept properly for months and I can't lift anything remotely heavy. People who know me will tell you that I've got the posture of a hunchback and the surgeon has predicted, in all seriousness, that I'll grow by two inches if this operation goes well. All in all, it's been a very long time since I was able to

function properly.

I've already accepted that I'll never be able to sprint again. It'll be enough for me if I can get back to the gym and do a bit of jogging because I took a lot of pride in keeping myself fit, before I was a footballer and afterwards.

I want to finish my coaching badges next year and I've no intention of being a coach who watches from afar. I want to be hands on and in the thick of whichever club I'm working for. But that's entirely down to my body playing ball.

I sound like I'm fishing for sympathy but that's not what this is about. What I'd like people to do is to think about the implications for a player who wasn't lucky enough to earn my wages. I'm not disillusioned – I know that I was in the top bracket for salaries for a lot of my career and I've got the money to pay for this surgery. Which is just as well because it's costing an absolute fortune!

My condition meant I wasn't able to take out insurance and I won't get any funding from within the game. The point, I suppose, is that I don't need it.

But what is a lower-league player whose career was finished by football supposed to do? Live like a cripple for the rest of his life?

As things stand, I wouldn't be able to do a full day's work as a labourer or in any industry which involved physical work. It's not even an option.

The irony is that I'm not someone who's especially renowned for having retired due to injury. It makes you wonder how many lads are in the same boat.

I'll be writing to the Professional Footballers' Association about my situation, not to look for money or help but to make them aware of the position I'm in. Specifically, to make them aware that the cost of the operation has fallen entirely to me.

This has opened my eyes to the issue of aftercare for professionals and I really have to ask whether it's good enough.

Some of us can afford to cure the physical effects of football. It's safe to assume that many more cannot. If I won't stand up for them then no-one will.

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Thomas Christiansen after Saturday's defeat to Millwall. PIC: Tony Johnson

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