Tom Carroll reflects on realizing he needed to return to playing the game he has been a part of since he was eight years old. After spending last season without a team, it was difficult for him to watch the scores come in on the vidiprinter. He would have Soccer Saturday on but found it hard to continue watching. Seeing names of players he had played with or against would remind him that he should still be playing. He would even avoid watching his old teams and opt to take his dog out instead.
Carroll, a former midfielder for Tottenham, Aston Villa, Swansea, Queens Park Rangers, and Ipswich, used to walk his Welsh terrier, Griff, near his family’s home in Hertfordshire. He admits that on Saturdays, which were usually reserved for games, he would often be in a bad mood. His wife may have been tired of his grumpiness. “Mentally, it was a challenge,” he recalls with a sheepish grin. “I would get irritable if I saw a score or someone scored. My wife could tell because I would sometimes just leave the house to clear my head.”
Carroll was not satisfied with the offers he received last season, but he is now back to his usual routine, playing for Exeter and getting ready for the match against Middlesbrough on Tuesday in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals. This comes after Exeter’s victory over top-tier Luton in the previous round. He has been intentionally trying to relax more.
Throughout my professional life, I have tended to over-analyze situations. However, this year, my goal was to fully embrace and appreciate every aspect of it – from training and playing to taking my children to football games – while also relishing the role of being a father. Looking back, I regret not adopting this mindset earlier in my career. I have often been harsh on myself and allowed negative thoughts to bring me down.
Has he not been able to appreciate important moments? “Definitely. I believe many players feel the same way when they reflect, because it can be difficult to fully enjoy the experience when you’re so focused on winning. You’re completely zoned in and then suddenly, it’s over and you can’t recall anything.”
Carroll’s current location is at Exeter’s training ground, located on the outskirts of Clyst St Mary. He is reflecting on his journey from regularly playing for Tottenham Hotspur, who finished third in the Premier League under Mauricio Pochettino in the 2015-16 season, alongside well-known players such as Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, Son Heung-min, and Christian Eriksen. In July, he joined the League One club on trial. He and Kane are still close friends, having been roommates during their loan spell at Leyton Orient in 2011 and while representing England Under-21s.
Carroll recalls the last time he witnessed his friend play was at Wembley during the Euros. He expresses his desire to attend a game in Munich and commends his friend for his achievements and ongoing contributions to both his club and country. Carroll admires his friend’s versatility, noting his skill in golf as well.
Carroll stayed active and maintained his fitness before being offered an opportunity by coaches Wayne Burnett and Nigel Gibbs, who had previously worked with him at Swansea. They invited him to train with Tottenham’s under-23 team, allowing him to be back in a professional club setting. The training facilities were top-notch, even including a putting green and vegetable garden. Carroll initially hesitated, not wanting to be a burden, but the coaches understood his experience as a former player and it proved beneficial for everyone involved. It gave Carroll the confidence to declare that he was back.
Carroll, a kind and courteous person, grins. His break from work gave him the opportunity to be with his significant other and their two sons, three-year-old Teddy and one-year-old Alfie. His oldest child had the chance to be a mascot for Exeter with Carroll. He hopes to have more opportunities to do this with his family. He wanted his children to see him play football instead of just hearing about it. He felt it was important to try and succeed for their sake as well.
Did he contemplate quitting completely? “The past four years have not been ideal in terms of injuries,” he mentions, referring to his hip and knee injuries while playing for Villa, Swansea, and Ipswich. “I was wondering what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t stay fit here. It was a difficult situation. While training with the under-23s at Tottenham, I felt great. However, training is different from playing games. But that’s when I realized that I can still do this. After a year of being out, you have to start at a lower level than you would like. Even though I am 31, if I can play consistently, it’s an opportunity to rebuild.”
Exeter has not experienced a win since the humiliating match against Luton, but for Carroll personally, he feels rejuvenated and the excitement is back. “This year, I’ve taken a moment to think to myself: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?'” he shares. “You’re doing what you love, playing football, so try to enjoy it.” He believes that playing with a smile on his face brings out his best performance.