“The most sensible option is to… retire as soon as possible.”
That noticeable pause before saying the word suggests Sam McQueen is still coming to terms with the news himself.
It’s the worst nightmare for any professional footballer. Maybe it’s why they’re painted out to be mercenaries, because deep down they know – they
know – their lifetime dream can evaporate before their eyes at any moment.
It’s a short career, and stories like McQueen’s prove football isn’t sentimental. Take what you can get before it takes it from you.
Right now, riches are the last thing on the mind of this lifelong Saint, in a rare interview that details everything that’s happened since his last Southampton first-team appearance.
Back then, McQueen was a promising 23-year-old who had earned his place in the squad over the course of 15 years, working his way up through the ranks from the age of eight.
Maybe it’s fitting that his last game in the red and white stripes was against Manchester City on the final day of the 2017/18 campaign, for that was the day City became the only side in English top-flight history to amass 100 points in a season.
McQueen, quite literally, bowed out at the top, facing perhaps the greatest team these shores have seen, as Pep Guardiola’s current quest for a fourth title in five years strengthens the argument.
Back then, there were no signs of the impending deconstruction of body and mind that was to follow.
“I was on loan at Middlesbrough, playing in the cup,” McQueen, 27 next month, remembers the incident vividly. “I just twisted my knee trying to clear a ball. I heard it snap, knew instantly it was an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament).”
That was Halloween in 2018, but only the beginning of the horror story.
“The week before Christmas I started getting hot flushes and found out I had an infection,” he continues.
“I got rushed up to London to have some emergency surgery to try and flush the infection out of my knee.
“Then I started getting hot flushes and bad pain again, in my knee, and found out the infection had come back – the same infection.
“I had to rush up to London again to see the surgeon and redo the whole operation, taking ligaments from my other leg to put the knee right that had unfortunately not gone successfully the first time.
“I had that last surgery in July 2019, so from November 2018 to July 2019 it was probably about nine different surgeries.”
In a world where your teammates and rivals are in peak condition, training daily and competing at the highest level, he’s been playing catchup ever since.
“For the last two years I’ve been coming in six days a week, doing everything I can that you’d normally do after an ACL rehab – lots of gym work, lots of pool sessions,” he explains.
“I’m back outside running, doing everything I can, and the staff are doing everything they can to get me back training.
“It’s just the amount of time I had not on my feet and running has caused my body to decondition to such a level that now, if I try to join in any parts of training, I just continually get muscle tears in certain areas, and my knee is not able to cope.
“They’ve advised me that I probably won’t be able to play football for much longer, even if I do manage to get back.”
This was before the retirement announcement, but by now it was already a heart vs head decision.
Do you continue to put yourself through the physical pain of pushing a shattered joint, adding to the mental toil of doing so for three years with no reward? Or finally call it a day and throw away any lingering chance, however small, of resurrecting your career with the club you love?
“Anyone who does an ACL is told you’re likely to have early problems with your knee, whether it’s stiffness or arthritis,” he says, weighing up another factor – his health in later life.
“The situation with my knee means that those problems are going to come a lot sooner and be a lot more severe.
“Nobody can tell you exactly what’s going to happen, nobody can give you definite answers, it’s up to you. It’s what you want to do with the information and what you think is possible.
“I’m still very fortunate now to be able to do the things I can do – play with my son, go for walks with my family and enjoy being outside. I want to try and appreciate that as much as I can now that I am still able to.”
It was actually a relief, in some ways, to hear of McQueen’s final decision. As heart-breaking as it is, the noose around his neck has, at long last, loosened.
He's free to breathe again, but only at the end of a journey made ten times tougher by matters away from football, which took an equally cruel turn at the same time as the injury.
“I didn’t maintain a positive attitude; I became quite depressed,” he admits, referring to “family issues”.
“I probably had six months of counselling, which was much needed and helped me a little bit, but I still wasn’t able to be there for my family and friends.
“It was only when I found out my partner was pregnant and I had a son due in about six months’ time that it gave me a bit of a kick up the arse to try and make things better and have a positive outlook, because I’d given up. I wasn’t able to deal with the injury and the things that had happened within the family.
“I’m open and happy now to say I wasn’t capable to deal with those things. I thought I was capable of anything – I thought I was Superman when I was playing Premier League football.
“I was completely unaware that I had no capability to deal with any emotional or personal traumas. When it hit me, it ruined me for a certain amount of time. It’s taken three years for my mind to start to process it and start to feel like myself again. The journey is still ongoing with that.
“I used to be a player that would come in and train and leave. Now I feel more part of it than I ever have – I have conversations with people about their personal lives, how they’re dealing with losses within family or friends, or illnesses, personal struggles or relationship issues.
“That’s something that has changed my life for the better and something that I hope other people get something from, because I’ve taken so much from so many people here on this journey that’s helped me to be stronger than I was before the injury.
“The club have been fantastic – there’s nothing bad I can say about that, the support around me has been fantastic.
“I won’t speak too much about family and my partner and son, because that’s between me and them. They know how much they mean to me and what they’ve done for me. Without those people I wouldn’t be where I am, whether that be alive talking to people or just being able to enjoy the things that I can enjoy now.”
Such words are difficult to listen to, and McQueen seems understandably exhausted by the whole traumatic tale. You hope voicing it publicly helps him grieve.
What’s also important is for the player to be proud of his achievements; less than one per cent of children who enter Academies before the age of nine will make it in the professional game at any level.
If that was not enough in itself, Southampton-born McQueen went on to make 56 senior appearances – more than half of those for Saints, including starts in both Europa League matches against Inter Milan; the home game is arguably the greatest night St Mary’s has witnessed in its first two decades.
Internationally, his performance on his England Under-21 debut was deemed “excellent” by then-manager Aidy Boothroyd, whose side ran out 4-0 winners in Denmark. Jack Grealish, Tammy Abraham and Reuben Loftus-Cheek also featured, while Joe Gomez was McQueen’s fellow full-back.
“It’s been nice to reflect on my time with the club, and think back through the years,” he smiles. “I’ve got people like Jack Stephens and Prowsey who are still here, having good conversations about the times we spent in the younger years in the Academy.
“It’s made me realise how much a part of my life this club is, and how much it means to me. It’s been like a father figure, in a way. It’s given me guidance, it’s given me things to try and achieve, it’s pushed me and encouraged me.”
The smile broadens at the mention of his all-conquering youth team.
“It was the golden year,” he says, his enthusiasm growing. “We were hated by the age groups above us! We were taking their places in the teams – not me personally, I was always one of the average ones in the group.
“We had Luke Shaw, who obviously left at 18 to go to United, Prowsey was there, Calum Chambers, Harrison Reed, Dom Gape who’s now at Wycombe, Gboly Ariyibi now plays in Greece somewhere (he moved to Turkey in the summer), Jordan Turnbull, Jake Sinclair was an unbelievable player back then.
“I just loved playing football anywhere on the pitch – scoring goals, making tackles. I used to be a left-back – Luke (Shaw) took my spot! Then I became a winger or a striker, or behind the striker, then Claude Puel converted me to a left-back.”
A natural talent belying his modest memories, McQueen possessed an enviable left foot capable of teasing crosses from the left or curling shots from the right, as well as a diligent defensive discipline called upon to combat world-class wide men.
“I’m ridiculously lucky to have done what I’ve done in my short football career,” he reflects.
“I feel like I could’ve done a lot more – I wanted to try and reach Champions League level as a target I had in my head as a kid. That’s just where I would’ve loved to play, but I’m very proud of the things I have achieved here.
“Sad that there wasn’t more, but later in life, to be able to look back at the memories I have of playing against Inter Milan and being around a Premier League team and travelling with the squad – all those things about being part of a team and the passion of the fans.”
Those memories will always be with him – and with the Saints fans who enjoyed watching his progress.
But now it’s time for McQueen to take a breather and enjoy the majority of his life in front of him.
“My deepest wish at the moment is beyond happiness for my family and friends,” he says.
“After that, I’ll just try to make the most of the rest of the life that I’ve got. The world is my oyster – I can do anything that I want really, and I’m excited about that.
“I’m starting to open my mind up to the options out in the world, and looking forward to cherishing that with my partner and children.”
You’ll always be welcome at St Mary’s, Sam.