‘Life in football hardens you,” says Gareth McAlindon, with the confidence of a man who knows.

The former Carlisle United forward learned this truth over a career which included a part in the Blues’ memorable 1990s and, more recently, coaching and scouting experience that helped his old club with the spotting of Jon Mellish.

The hardness, though, benefited McAlindon most of all when he was confronted by cancer. Five years ago, a trip back to Cumbria was followed by the toughest of challenges. “I’d been to play in [the former Carlisle and Workington defender] Kyle May’s testimonial, and I felt what I thought was an ulcer on the side of my tongue,” the 43-year-old says. “It wasn’t going away, so on the train back the next day I thought, ‘I’ll maybe have to see about that’.

“I left it a little bit longer, went to the doctors, got referred – and it was a tumour.”

McAlindon, a dad of two young children, found it difficult to accept the news. “The doctors at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle were asking things like, ‘Do you smoke? Do you drink?’ I said, ‘Well, if I go out, I go out, but I never smoke’. None of my mates could believe it.

“It was quite quick after that. I had to go in for a 12-hour operation, and they cut the tumour off the side of my tongue.

"They actually then took skin off my calf and lapped it over to form my tongue.

"Then they took all the lymph nodes out of my neck on the left-hand side.”

Microscopic cancerous particles were found in the lymph nodes. “It had got to Stage Two,” McAlindon said, “so I had six weeks of radiotherapy, which wasn’t great, like.

"After three weeks I thought I was all right, but after that, the side-effects started – tired, ulcers all over, lost weight, and the skin on my neck… it sort of burns you from the inside, so that wasn’t nice.

“Because I was 38, they said I was getting really strong doses because my body could take it. It left me in a bit of a state. It took me quite a spell to get over it.”

McAlindon gradually recovered, and says his experience of playing a hard game equipped him for the struggle. “Football, with all its highs and lows, gives you that hard exterior. My idea was to look at it as though it was a bad injury, something to try and battle back from.”

This was the mindset McAlindon adopted after the initial shock. “My first thought, when I was told it was bad news, was for my kids,” he adds. “You don’t want anything to happen to you for them. My little boy’s 11 now and my little girl’s eight. They still don’t really know what happened to me – they just know that daddy had a bad tongue.

“It was hard for my wife. I remember when I came back from the hospital and, because I’m no good just sitting around, I would try to go for a jog by the river at Hexham. I mentioned it to her and she rang the hospital, telling on us…”

He laughs. “They said, ‘Look, he’s gonna get better, so just as long as he doesn’t go overboard…’ – which I couldn’t anyway, because I couldn’t move, hardly.”

McAlindon is, all being well, close to the end of that difficult chapter. The check-ups have become less regular, the cancer having not returned in the years since his treatment, and he is now waiting for a Covid-delayed appointment with his consultant in the hope that he will be fully discharged.

Perspective, in the last five years, has often been within reach. McAlindon refers to his admired former team-mate Tony Hopper, who died from motor neurone disease in 2018. “I was probably feeling a bit sorry for myself at the start, but I had light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “What happened with Hoppy brought it home for me. There’s always somebody worse off. I went to see Hoppy a few times, and I still can’t believe it. It still gives me that horrible feeling when I think about it.”

McAlindon’s earlier time in hospital also encouraged reflections. “When you’re young and playing football, you’re always looking forward,” he says. “When you’re in bed for days, not able to move, it does give you a chance to look back, and I did think about football in that time. At 38, it was the point when I was finishing playing and I thought, ‘Well, I might not have had the longest professional career, but I was a decent player and I had a good time’.”

This included four years at Carlisle, McAlindon having joined in 1995 after leaving Newcastle, where he was an apprentice. “We were quite successful, but the youth thing wasn’t on top of Kevin Keegan’s agenda,” he says. “I got a free and was offered a two-year contract at Sunderland, but the manager, Mick Buxton, was sacked the very next day. I then got invited up to Carlisle on trial.”

McAlindon, from Hexham, was a young addition to a squad going places under Mick Wadsworth and Mervyn Day, amid the best years of Michael Knighton’s ownership. “There was a big group of us that were similar age – Paul Murray, Rory Delap, Rich Prokas, Hoppy, Will Varty, Scott Dobie, Matt Jansen, Paul Boertien. They were already getting called the Brunton Babes and I ended up in that group. We were together on the pitch and always knocked around together off it.

“Mick Wadsworth’s sessions were brilliant. It was a great place to play football. When I first got on the pitch, against Bradford at home, I’m sure there was 9,000 there.”