Joe Thompson: "Cancer felt like a snake wrapping around my neck... I was determined to win"

Joe Thompson’s life and career were thrown into utter chaos after he was diagnosed with cancer twice within the space of three years. Now he's part of a Rochdale squad preparing to face Tottenham on Sunday. FourFourTwo heard his story

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Illustration: Alexander Wells. Photography: Jon Shard

I can still remember the tiny, two-bedroom council flat back in Bath that I used to call home. My brother and I shared one room and my mum was in the other.

She would often wake us up at 4am and tell us to put on our school uniform, as she knew she wouldn’t always be able to function in the morning. About three or four hours later we’d wake up again, have our cereal and head out the front door. We didn’t realise it at the time, but she was suffering with a mental illness and has done for her whole life.

Mum was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was eight years old. She is a wonderful person to be around – a real social butterfly who people gravitate towards, but she can go the other way as well. I remember vividly the day she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. I was too young to understand what was going on, but for a while my brother and me were looked after by our neighbours, who lived in the flats above and below. There was a real fear of social services getting involved and us going into care.

A tough beginning

I remember vividly the day she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. I was too young to understand what was going on, but for a while my brother and me were looked after by our neighbours

When I look back, what my mum really needed was someone who could help her stay level – but my dad was never around. He’d gone down the wrong path and became addicted to hard drugs. I think he has spent 12 of the last 20 years behind bars and missed out seeing me and my brother achieve some great things in life. When he’s been out of jail, he’s found it hard to adapt to normal life. The people, shops and pubs he knew about 20 years ago just aren’t around any more. I’m not trying to justify his behaviour, but I do try to understand him.

Not long after my mum was taken away, we moved to Manchester to live with my auntie. It was a city I had always loved. At Christmas, we’d head north – there’d be snow to sledge on and it felt different to down south. We would go to farms and places such as Blackpool and Formby beach for days out – but adapting to life in a new place wasn't easy.

Walking through the streets of Rochdale, I’d sometimes get called a monkey or a Paki. I wasn't unfamiliar with racism, but I refused to argue with idiots. Settling into school wasn’t easy either – on my first day I remember a few heads turned to have a look at the new brown boy in their class.

Portrait: Jon Shard

I’d never played football before. I loved athletics and was a good 800-metre runner, but I longed to be a part of something. I started playing for a local team as a way of integrating.

It turned out I was pretty good, and got scouted by Manchester United at a five-a-side tournament when I was nine. My mum – who’d joined us up north – didn’t want me to go because she knew the chances of me making it were pretty slim, but I went on trial anyway and a couple of weeks later they signed me up. My auntie started taking me off to training at night and games at the weekend – without knowing it I had structure and discipline for the first time in my life.

It was an amazing time to join United. It was 1998 – the club had just moved to their new Carrington training ground, the Class of ’92 were flying the flag and would soon win the Treble. I was part of the same youth team as James Chester, Danny Drinkwater and Tom Cleverley. Together, we played in tournaments all over the world. I’m still in touch with a lot of them today, which speaks volumes for the team spirit we had back then. Lots of players had ability, but they got the changing room right at the club as well. It’s the best education that you can get in football – it develops footballers and people, too.

At school, football slowly turned me from an outsider into one of the gang. I got a lot of pats on the back and respect as I was playing for United, and suddenly I had an air of arrogance and confidence in any situation because I knew I was good at something. My teachers warned me that I still needed to concentrate on my studies because I might not make it, but that didn’t stop me practising my signature on scraps of paper at the back of the classroom.

Joe Thompson

Thompson, pictured in 2010, battling with Notts County's Stephen Hunt

During the next six years, life was great – but when I was 16 I had the rug well and truly pulled from under my feet.

The club tried to break the news gently. My coaches, Paul McGuinness and Tony Whelan, phoned up my mum and told her they wouldn’t be offering me a contract. I was just about to start my GCSEs, so the timing couldn't have been worse. I had to swallow my pride and realise my teachers had been right all along – I wasn’t going to get to where I thought I was heading. The rejection was difficult to take and I didn’t tell any of my friends for at least two weeks. I’d always been a winner – the best at football, athletics and basketball – but now I was a loser.

Falling confidence

During the next six years life was great, but when I was 16 I had the rug well and truly pulled from under my feet. My coaches, Paul McGuinness and Tony Whelan, phoned up my mum and told her they wouldn’t be offering me a contract

I still wanted to become a footballer, but my confidence had been dented. I had trials with Blackburn and spoke to Liverpool, but I was still hurting and ended up nowhere. My old school teacher told me to go down to Rochdale, but I thought I was better than that.

In the end I relented and realised it didn’t matter who I’d played for in the past, we were all in the same boat. I did well and the club told me I’d soon be playing for the first team. I made my first appearance at 17 and scored on my home debut. The senior pros started to accept me, and at last I had the acceptance that I’d craved. I often wonder if that’s because I never felt accepted by my dad.

I spent six happy years at Rochdale and life off the pitch was perfect, too. I didn’t know it at the time, but I met my future wife Chantelle in a bar in Manchester when I was 21. We soon moved in together and found out that she was pregnant, just as I’d agreed to join Tranmere Rovers in the summer of 2012.

Another knock

But the first season didn't go to plan. The dressing room was full of strong characters, and even though we were top of the league at Christmas, there were a lot of flare-ups. I played 20-30 matches but didn’t do myself justice. I was determined to start my second season flying and began it on fire. I was scoring goals and being named man of the match, but then in one game everything ground to a halt. I felt like I was moving in slow motion. I was lucky a team-mate got sent off so I was sacrificed.

Then the same thing happened again a few weeks later – I felt exhausted and got substituted after half an hour when one of our players was sent off.

I knew there was something fundamentally wrong. Lumps started appearing in my neck, so I told the Tranmere physio and we booked an appointment with the doctor. I thought I had glandular fever and had a scan to rule out anything more serious. A week later I returned to get my results. The clinic was in the Wirral, so my wife and I chose to make a day of it, take our daughter Lula to the beach and then get some food at a nice restaurant. It was the worst decision of my life – I sat down in the doctor’s office and could tell by the look on his face that it was bad news.

Portrait: Jon Shard

He told me that I'd got Hodgkin lymphoma – a rare type of cancer which develops in your glands and blood vessels spread throughout your whole body.

The walls seemed to crumble around me. I was in complete shock. I couldn't believe what had happened to my life in just a matter of minutes. What would happen to my career? I still had a year left on my contract and a young family to support. Would I live or die? Why me? All of these thoughts were running through my head, while the tears ran down my face on the journey home.

In the following weeks I broke the news to my family and friends. It was actually my agent who took it the worst. In a funny sort of way it reassured me, because I knew he wasn’t with me for financial reasons. I had someone in my corner with my best interests at heart.