Not many (rugby players) can claim to have shared a dressing room with Trevor Benjamin. Fewer still can claim to have outranked him in terms of fame and notoriety. Tom Youngs is different; not your typical footballer. “Even though I was 18 and had only played about 15 games, mostly as a sub in League Two, he knew who I was from the game,” the Cambridge United and Championship Manager legend told Sky Sports of a first encounter with Villa loanee Darren Byfield.
He was the budding manager’s dream that guaranteed goals and for a bargain £1.5 million ‘big-club release clause’ price. Accessible to just about any club (sorry Cambridge) he was as likely to bag the goal that clinched Division 2 safety as the strike that clinched that all-elusive European trophy.
Youngs had all of the required attributes to lead the line for club and country and was always quick to finish when the opportunity presented itself. “Debuts are a bit like losing your virginity only with more spectators,” he would later write in a book about his life.
Pace (18), dribbling (20), flair (17) and creativity (16) were his highest attributes. They were skills honed during his spell at Lilleshall and, should the right manager nurture his precocious talent to maturity, go on to be perfected in Sports Interactive binary code.
His ability to play across the frontline offered would-be Wengers the chance to include him in the line-up be it a diamond, the Christmas tree or a before-its-time false nine but Youngs seemed to enjoy his best moments playing on the shoulder of the last defender, waiting on a long-ball over the top.
He even managed to get the best of a defence containing an ageing Lorenzo Amoruso and Dario Simić in an unlikely European clash between Darlington and Rangers. He came away from Ibrox with a hattrick, the last clinching a place in the knockout rounds against all odds.
Youngs cemented similar cult-hero status for Cambridge. He netted 48 goals in 100 games for the Us, 26 of those across two seasons from 2000 onwards, and was part of the promotion winning side in 1998.
It must be argued, however, that he never quite reached the potential envisaged by the Collyer brothers. Perhaps he was not quite cut-out for the “macho, blokey” element that is a quintessential part of dressing room culture. “That’s understandable when you are stripping lads straight out of school, chucking them into what is essentially an extension of school,” Youngs told Sky Sports.
Although he did enjoy relative success in his early career, injuries and a loss of form after a £50k move to Northampton Town in 2003 suggest that Youngs did not possess the tunnel-vision and permanently adolescent confidence needed to make it to the very top. He spent time studying (successfully) for a degree in sports journalism and more recently working the steps to becoming a chartered accountant. He did always have a habit of putting up good numbers.
Unfortunately, all of this forward planning was knocked askew when Youngs was diagnosed with a degenerative disease called Multiple Sclerosis, which affects the brain and spine and greatly reduces life expectancy. In true not-your-typical-footballer fashion, Youngs has used the pen to tackle his problems, writing a book in 2016, which charts his life in the lower leagues and details his experience of living with MS.
Tom Youngs was the one who won it all. His honours list may read differently depending on whose computer you are reading from, and an internet search conducted without the words “Championship Manager” involved may leave you wondering if such a footballer as the goal-machine of Championship Manager 3 was a figment of childhood imagination. To my generation though, he will always be a symbol of the hope that a new signing and a new season can bring.