When GP and ex-Wigan striker Mike Hazeldine ultimately chose medicine over football, quitting the game wasn’t easy. But he has gone on to forge a successful career in the NHS that has seen him caring for elderly, high-risk patients during the Covid-19 pandemic
You’re now a doctor in care homes and the Salford Royal NHS Trust – not a typical move for an ex-footballer…
No, but even in my cohort at Wigan there were quite a few who were academic, doing A-levels and pursuing other things. I don’t think it’s as uncommon as the stereotype of a footballer suggests.
Was it helpful to have other players in education around you?
The four of us coming through that year were fortunate to have a day to do something and the option to study. Three of us did A-levels and the other lad was on a different course at college. We all travelled there together after training and had exams at the same time. There was a lot of understanding, support and guidance from the club.
How did you square playing football and your academic career?
In my mind, and it’s how most footballers see it, football was my primary focus. It had to be or you wouldn’t have that confidence to make it. I was always aware of the statistics for young footballers and how competitive it is. Everyone was aware of that and, as you are brought up by parents and teachers, you always make sure you continue studying. I had a plan B, which was to pursue a medical degree. I was always academic at school and did quite well. Wigan supported me. I was fortunate.
Why become a doctor?
There are no medical professionals in my family. I had a keen interest in medical science, problem solving and mathematics. I think it’s also a desire to help and support others. It was a natural career choice for me outside of football. I think it’s part of my personality and it’s true of a lot of footballers, that we have 100% commitment and the belief you can succeed in whatever you choose to do. I never looked at it as difficult to get into. It was something I wanted to do and I had the ability to do it. It was natural. I originally felt I could combine it with football.
Did you get stick in the dressing room about your academic ambitions?
There was a lot of banter. I did my GCSEs and starting training at Wigan and when the results came out the club got a call from newspapers and the headteacher to say I had done really well – an A* in every subject. It was a big deal at the time. One of the keepers, John Filan, used to call me ‘The Prof’ and it kind of stuck. After that coaches and players always used to highlight to me that you can’t neglect education and recognised that I and other players had a real opportunity to back ourselves up. It was a really good environment, actually.
Has the PFA helped you with your education journey?
Absolutely. Going back to when I was at Wigan, Osh Williams and Pat Lally were a constant source of support. There was lots of guidance and making us aware of the opportunities outside football as we came towards the last year of our contract. For me, there was support with university applications. When I started uni I had additional financial support with tuition fees, living grants and payments towards textbooks and equipment. The support continues before, during and even after your degree. Even now Osh will call me to see how things are and whether I need support. We always keep in touch.
Was it always clear that the demands of medical training would be too great to juggle alongside a playing career?
When I went to Edinburgh University I was very lucky because I continued to play football professionally for Alloa Athletic. For the first few months I was well established in the first team. It came to a head a month or two later. When I started uni in September, the demands of the course became obvious – the 100% commitment I needed for a medical degree, then a clinical placement, exams and studying. All that on top of the day-to-day, plus training, travelling at the weekend and for midweek games. I just knew it wasn’t going to work. It was a really difficult decision. I rang the manager and they were really understanding about it. By mutual consent, I terminated the contract.
Presumably you agonised over the decision, weighing up your love of the game with career success in medicine?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it was. It had been building over a few weeks. Pre-season went very well. They provided me with accommodation in Alloa and then I moved to Edinburgh for the degree. Games came thick and fast and obviously the study was building up. I had to make a decision as I was thinking more long term at the time with having started a medical degree. If it was something I dropped out of, I would never get back. In the end it was a cruel decision ultimately to step back from something I loved to do. I wasn’t able to continue football at a professional level.
Who influenced your decision?
I was on my own in that I was at university in a different country. It came down to an individual decision. I was very well supported by parents, family and obviously the club. They had invested a lot in trying to make it work for me and wanted me to stay. But it was one of those situations where only I knew the demands and what I felt I could do.
Is football still important to you?
I knew I would be stepping back from professional football at Alloa but it would always be a big part of my life. As soon as I made the decision I had a few options to continue playing football. Some semi-professional teams contacted me. And I played for Edinburgh University, who are semi-pro. I was quite prolific there, scoring about 61 goals in 80 games. It was a fantastic team, a very good standard, but flexible. We had some non-students but the vast majority of players were studying. Everything was geared around exams and making sure studies were not neglected. At no point did I want to give up football completely but it was just about what I was able to do and to what level.
Do you ever regret your choice to step away from the game?
From a career point of view, there’s no regret. Occasionally I do wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed at Alloa. Would I have been more successful and made more of a career out of football? There is some regret because I believe I had the dedication and commitment to succeed. On reflection, I made the right decision.
Are you still playing, aged 33?
I’ve played for a couple of semi-professional teams around Manchester. Just this season before lockdown – having not played for a couple of years – I got the bug back and started training again. I just signed for another team in January, Horwich RMI, which are historically a semi-pro or amateur team. I’m hoping to get back to it perhaps next season.
Where are you playing, have you drifted back to sweeper yet?
I played centre forward and we are playing a front three so I’m playing at the left forward position. In training I haven’t lost the initial burst at this stage. I’ve probably benefitted for not playing for a few years. I am fresh.
What’s next for you?
Sports and Exercise medicine is something I really want to do – there’s a diploma and Masters that I really want to get. I’ll speak to Osh [Williams, PFA Assistant Director of Education] and the education department at the PFA about the support that’s available and take it from there. I’m now actively seeking opportunities to work as a club doctor as a way back into the professional game. That would be an ideal way for me to combine my two big passions - medicine and football.