“I know football is an amazing thing but there is so much more to life,” says Alex Nicholls. “You don’t think about it when you are ingrained in it.”
After nine clubs, 66 goals and 429 appearances, former forward Nicholls walked away from the game to become a firefighter.
Having spent his entire adult life in the football bubble, after coming through the youth system at Walsall, the 33-year-old is relishing the real world.
There are no hang ups, no regrets and no looking back.
“I look at people talking about football on the TV, listen to players doing interviews and I kind of pity them a little bit,” he said, sitting outside a cafe in his home town of Stourbridge.
“They are caught up in it. I feel like my eyes have been opened and it’s nice. It’s something you only realise when you leave.
“I’m the happiest I have ever been. You learn as you live your life. If you asked (girlfriend) Amy, she would say I was a lot happier. I always took football so seriously.
“That was to my detriment, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have. I was always ultra-critical and when things did go well I was always thinking of the next game.
“It’s a bit of a cliche but a lot of players are like that. She can’t remember me being this happy and content.”
Having started his career at Walsall, Nicholls moved to Northampton – where he suffered a serious broken leg against Port Vale in 2012 – before a successful two-year spell at Exeter.
An unhappy two years at Barnet followed and, after a loan move to Dundee United where he won the Scottish Challenge Cup in 2017, he moved to Crewe.
Another loan at Solihull followed before he finished with Stourbridge in the Southern League but, rather than be bitter about his career winding down, it left Nicholls with a sense of closure.
He said: “It’s crazy the way it works. A lot of people struggle with the transition because they go from playing in League One, Two or the Championship, don’t get a contract and that’s it.
“I can see how players struggle and go off the rails after playing football. I was young in football terms but if you are 36 or 37 and leave a club and finish, it’s a rapid stop.
“If you have nothing else at the end of your career what are you meant to do? Mentally it must be so difficult.
“That is where everything has fallen into place for me because I went through the transition from Crewe, Solihull to Stourbridge.
“I was getting used to less money and stepping into part-time football. I had the gradual transition.
“I knew after a couple of months at Crewe I was coming towards the end. It was when when I first applied for the fire service. I wasn’t at the level anymore.
“I scored two on my debut and thought I’d kickstart my career but it didn’t quite happen. After that it was pointless really.
“The last four or five years were pretty rough and I was ready to move on. I wanted to do something I was passionate about.”
Nicholls failed his first application for the fire service in 2019 – having his interview and fitness tests on his day off while still playing for Crewe in League Two – and admitted he had no idea how to get through the interview having never had one before.
After a mandatory six-month wait he applied again and was successful and, having coming through a gruelling eight weeks of training, is now stationed at Haden Cross in Halesowen, a few miles west of Birmingham.
“I started in the first week of August. You have to put two circular stickers on your helmet so, if you are at a job, everyone knows you’re a trainee,” said Nicholls, who works shifts of four days on followed by four off.
“My mum couldn’t believe it and she was asking what happens now. Well, that’s it. If there’s a house fire, I’ll be there.
“At the start I didn’t even know what the bell sounded like. You are anxious and I was thinking if it went what I needed to do, running to the engine house, getting my kit on, jumping on the truck.
“On my second set, there was a big job in West Brom on the High Street at the old building society. A big, derelict, high rise which had been on fire.
“That was my first proper job. When we got there the fire had been put out but I got sent in with breathing apparatus to do search and rescue.
“I wanted to get into the building so I felt part of it. It was really good for me, a group of four of us were working through the bottom up.
“We were searching rooms, making sure there wasn’t anyone in the building. It was real life.”
It is a tribute to his determination – or foresight – that Nicholls became a firefighter having only written two jobs down during a careers talk at school: footballer and firefighter.
He has followed his dad Kevin, who was a firefighter in Smethwick for 30 years, and children Grace, 12, and Theo, eight, have lost any early worries about their dad’s new career.
“I take unbelievable pride putting my uniform on in the morning and driving to the station,” he said. “We do safe and well visits too, going to the homes of vulnerable people to make sure they are safe and have working smoke alarms.
“I love meeting people and helping the community. In football, you do it because you have to. Now I do it because I want to.
“I get the same buzz driving with blue lights as I did with football.”
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