Former Darlington and Cambridge United player Ash Nicholls combined playing with studying and now works as a molecular biologist for Cancer Research UK.
Ash began his career with Ipswich Town as part of their Academy programme. He was advised to continue studying science whilst he was playing, which included an appearance Wembley for England U-18s.
Speaking to iNews Ash explained: “I remember having a conversation with my mum and struggling to decide what to do. My friends were going to university and part of me wanted to do that too, but my mum said, ‘You may not get this chance again. Some opportunities only come around once in a lifetime. If you decide it’s not for you or things don’t work out, then you can still go to university in a couple of years.’”
After passing his A-Levels, Ash went on to play professionally for several clubs including Cambridge United and Darlington as well a long spell within non-league football.
When Ash’s enjoyment of playing professionally started to wane, with the assistance of the Professional Footballers’ Association, he was accepted onto a molecular biology degree course which led him to where he is today.
“I was starting to get tired of professional football: the commitment to nutrition, making sure I was in peak physical condition, being away from home, sitting on a coach for hours to play away games and staying in hotels and the isolation that came with it all. It was starting to get harder, physically and mentally.
“It’s harsh, but by the time you’re 22 or 23 in football, you know how far you’re going to go. If you’re not a superstar by then, you’re probably going to decline until you’re 30, then end up doing not very much at all.”
Through continuing to play non-league, Ash was able to fund an internship at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge which meant he didn’t have to work a paid job alongside his work experience.
“When I was playing semi-professional football alongside my other job, I was having to drive all the way to Newcastle on a Tuesday night, get home at 2am and then go to work the next day at 9am. But football gave me the opportunity to be able to work for free.
“I feel for people who want to switch careers, but they haven’t got the cash to work for a year for free to get the experience asked for by employers.
“The reality is I have never really had any idea what I wanted to be. I just got involved in things I thought were positive, I enjoyed doing and found interesting. When something stopped being fun, I switched my focus to something more positive.”
“At Cancer Research UK, I really feel like I am helping people. That was important to me after playing football for so many years because I really don’t feel I helped anyone but myself in that time.
“You help the team, and football provides a support network for fans, but you don’t feel personally responsible for the supporters.”
Now Ash is part of a team at Cancer Research UK aiming to create drugs that stop children who have recovered from leukaemia being diagnosed for a second time.
“We’re trying to end the conversation that goes, ‘There’s nothing more we can do for your child’.”
“The drug might not be curative, but it could extend their lives by two or three years,” he said. “It’s a quickly moving field, so in those years something else could come out that would help.”
Although they may appear a million miles from each other, his career as a professional footballer has helped him in his new field: “Footballers in general are very approachable. The majority of them are working-class people who come from all kinds of backgrounds and are a good representation of the population.
“It is really important for scientists to do that. If the pandemic has taught scientists one thing, it’s that you need to communicate clearly, making things accessible to the public so they understand what you’re researching and how.
“If you can’t tell somebody, in layman’s terms, why what you’re doing is important, they’re not going to support it. If I can explain the project to my mum so she understands it, I know it’s a good project.”
The process of creating a drug which will eventually be available to a patient can take decades, but this is something Ash is willing to persevere with as his research shows promise.
“Most of these projects never work, but this is one box I wanted to tick as a scientist. Creating a drug that could save lives would be the highlight of any part of my career.”
Ash is supporting Cancer Research UK for Children & Young People, in partnership with TK Maxx, this Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. To find out more about their work to improve outcomes for children and young people with cancer click here.