Francis Duku will never forget the story of how he broke his ankle in a pre-season fixture for Gravesend but all these years on, he is learning how to tell the tale with a smile on his face.
“It was just a lazy attempt at an overhead kick,” he tells Sky Sports. “I am a 6’4″ centre-half. I am not supposed to be attempting overhead kicks. I heard the crack when I landed.”
It put paid to Duku’s childhood dream of playing professional football, but it has proved to be the inspiration behind his plans to revolutionise the game for thousands of others.
He is the owner and chief executive of Our Game Football – a members’ union aimed at providing meaningful protection for players in non-League and at all levels of the game.
Duku himself had to find out the hard way.
His broken ankle had been misdiagnosed as a sprain. He even went out for a drink with his team-mates later that evening. “Once you have a drink, it numbs the pain but I woke up in the morning and it had ballooned,” he recalls. Only later did he discover it was a fracture.
“How can two physios and a doctor tell me it’s a sprain but it’s a break?”
That was just the start of his problems.
“The person who did the operation stuck pins in the ankle, dealing with it as they would a normal person, as opposed to someone with aspirations of being a top athlete.”
The result was that a senior career that took him from Maidenhead playing under Alan Devonshire alongside Tony Gale to spells at Kingstonian and Dulwich Hamlet never scaled the heights that he had once hoped for during his days as a youth-team player at Reading.
“My body has never been the same since,” he says.
“I did all the rehab and still did reasonably well in my career but anyone who saw me before and after did comment on the marked difference in performance. I am not going to say it stopped me being a pro because everyone has a hard-luck story, but it affected my career.
“I had the wrong treatment for me, someone trying to be as mobile as possible. I was only able to have the rehab that I did because of the private medical insurance through my job.
“Most non-League players don’t have that.
“It just got me thinking. I just thought about all the people in non-League in worse situations than me who would have worse outcomes. Could I pull it all together into a service?
“That was where the idea came from.”
Many football fans would be surprised to discover that clubs well-known to them do not have the sort of insurance that protects their players if they suffer serious injury. With shorter contracts now the norm and clubs at crisis point, the risks are becoming greater.
NHS waiting lists for a cruciate ligament injury can be long and without help during the rehabilitation process careers can still be ended. It is a major issue in the women’s game and in the lower levels of the pyramid where GoFund Me campaigns have become popular.
“Football as a whole is reactive, not proactive. People live week to week. That is the reality. You have got this model which clubs seem to love of asking fans to come up with cash at a time when they are struggling as well. Everyone has been hit. That is just not sustainable.
“The truth is that many clubs view insuring their players as a luxury rather than a necessity. That view comes from the attitude that if a player gets injured, then it is on them.
“But the clubs are asking players to put their bodies on the line. I have never met a manager who has said, ‘Look, because you are taking a risk at work, I don’t expect you to put your head in where it hurts’. They expect that and say that it will be sorted out afterwards but nobody sorts it out. If you fall into that gap that so many are falling into, what happens?”
The answer is that hopes are dashed and dreams die.
“I will give you an example from the past two weeks but keep it anonymous,” says Duku. “There is a player in a youth team in non-League. The club did well last year, got a few youth-teamers into the pro game, and are one of the more respected systems around.
“This player played a couple of games, got injured, was in a lot of pain and went to hospital. They told him he had twisted his knee and to rest up for a few weeks before he started playing again. He then broke down again after an hour and the cycle repeated itself.
“They got in touch with us asking for some help and we were able to put him in touch with a doctor – it turns out that he had done his anterior cruciate ligament and his posterior cruciate ligament. This had been missed by the NHS check.
“He is devastated and wondering what he is going to do. He is not insured with us so he is looking at the NHS. Their advice with Covid-19 putting additional strain on the NHS is that he is looking at 18 months before he can get this dealt with by them.
“Bear in mind that this is usually a nine to 12-month rehab after the operation, you are looking at maybe two-and-a-half years before you are back playing football. As a 17-year-old player with ambitions to push into the pro game at some level, that is basically the end.
“His mum starts looking at doing it privately but that is a five-figure sum and she is looking at re-mortgaging her house to pay for the private operation. That to me is crazy.
“I can understand why she is doing it. Her son is distraught. She knows what it means to him to play football. But instead of everyone having a system that allows them to either be fully insured or substantially reduce their costs, you have ended up with a situation where a parent is considering re-mortgaging their house to allow their son to pursue his dream.
“That’s her reality and I can understand her thinking as a parent, but there are so many better ways. And what happens if she doesn’t have a house to re-mortgage? If people were to understand that there is a solution and that the solution is affordable.”
Duku has spent much of the past nine years working on that solution.
He took redundancy from his job as an operations manager for a hedge fund in London. His second child was on the way. “It was a leap of faith,” he admits.
“They pay you well but they work you hard, they take their pound of flesh. I was spending so many hours at work that I was losing the will to live. I had a young family but I was behind my desk at 6.30am and there was a regular period when I was not leaving until 9pm.”
Duku’s idea was supposed to mean an easier schedule but it has not quite worked out that way. Initially, it was hard to convince people that it was worth parting with a modest sum now to insure them against major problems later. Nobody wants to think about the risk.
Nobody in football believes it will happen to them, it will always be someone else. They genuinely believe it. They look me in the eye and tell me they don’t get injured.
“There were a lot of people who told me it was a no-brainer, it makes sense. But the difference between people saying it is a good idea and actually backing it by putting their money where their mouth is, that is another huge lesson that I learnt.
“Nobody in football believes it will happen to them, it will always be someone else. They genuinely believe it. They look me in the eye and tell me they don’t get injured.
“You ask some questions and find out they were injured a few years ago. Then they say it won’t happen again. It is only when the big injury comes, that I get the call.
“‘Francis, I was meaning to get back to you, I need your help…'”
Today, the Our Game membership has expanded its offering far beyond help with injury problems. There are retail discounts and support with disciplinary matters, cut-price boot offers and, importantly in these fraught times, counselling services too.
The result is that more and more people are turning to them.
“We have been digging people out of holes for nine years so word of mouth is the big thing. Football is a world where once you get the seal of approval internally, it just goes.”
With the help of Lincoln City manager Michael Appleton, Duku is now looking to tailor the membership offering to help players and clubs at League One and League Two level as the pandemic pushes more and more into a situation where they need protection.
For Duku, these are troubling times but satisfaction comes from the knowledge that he is providing a service that is helping many who find themselves ignored by the system.
“A lot of people outside the game think of footballers earning £200,000 a week,” he says. “It is a tiny, tiny minority. There are loads on much less, right through to players who pay to play because they enjoy football. This isn’t about millionaires all over the place but this is the perception. The tag of footballer stigmatises people who need help.
“The bigger picture remains being able to stop people suffering through football and that’s more relevant than ever. Injury is the biggest part but the mental health side is huge too.
“Players have come to us because of that and I have ended up in the conversation. So many are going through battles. From the text messages I receive, there is so much heartache.
“We are trying to create a new model for this and we are trying to help. We have a solution that works well because we have built the right thing. People just need to use it.”
Perhaps the unfortunate ankle break suffered by a young Gravesend player all those years ago could yet bring out positive change for a generation of non-League footballers.