Former Barnsley assistant head coach and player Dale Tonge will not forget the events of 2020 in a hurry and his multi-faceted roles in this strange, unprecedented year.
It started in Scotland with the 35-year-old working as Daniel Stendel’s right-hand man at Heart of Midlothian until the suspension of the Scottish Premier League in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He has spent most of this year back at his home in Yorkshire, broadening his skills-set in preparation for a return to football after leaving Hearts along with Stendel in June.
Tonge’s spell away from the game has enabled him to spend precious time with baby daughter Francesca, born in the Spring and valuable perspective has also been provided through his community work in the Dearne Valley area where he is from.
After making the most of his time out of football, Tonge will come back into it as a more rounded individual better for his experiences.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “When you are working, you do not have to worry about anything and you can ‘up-skill’ at your leisure. When you are not working, up-skilling is massive.
“I have nearly completed my Pro Licence now and it has been good to get stuck into that and all the projects they want you to do.
“I have had time to speak to other people in football – friends and those who are not friends as well. It has been good to go into clubs where I did not have a relationship and have them now.
“I will finish the Pro Licence with the case studies and it will be another big thing moving forward and it will enable me to branch out in football.
“I have also been grateful to see my little girl grow up as it is something I would never have seen. She is coming up to seven months and it has absolutely flown and it has been brilliant.
“As lockdown happened in March, she was born in April. I had kind of got the idea that the (SPL) league would be ending, so I got the time to come here and never went back. It’s a strange one, really.
“I was not able to be there (the hospital where Francesca was born) for long as it was mid Covid in the first lockdown. I’d be in the car park waiting for the call to say: ‘Yes, you can come in now.’
“It was not a straightforward birth, either, going through surgery and stuff like that.
“You have to put things into perspective. Football is a job and income, but your family is the be-all and end-all for me.”
Tonge’s sentiments will be echoed by millions. That he has found the time to help those less fortunate than himself is also all power to him.
Footballers and those involved in the game tend to be structured individuals.
Despite being away from the day-to-day involvement of the profession in which he has worked in since being a teenager, organising his days and time still provides a sense of order.
Away from study and family time, giving something back to his community in his spare hours and provided him with a sense of fulfilment.
“Coaching is my passion, but I have also done some charity work and I have got some fulfilment from that in helping people less fortunate,” continued Tonge.
“It has been quite an eye-opener. But it has been a good thing and getting out of the house can be quite a luxury.
“I helped with a couple of food banks and helping people in general in need in the local area.
“It was the Marcus Rashford campaign that got everyone talking about it and you think: ‘Right, what can I do?’ I couldn’t donate money, but could donate time and I think everyone can do that.
“It can be easy to be ‘Groundhog Day’ and not do anything. Structure is important in knowing what your day is going to be. Even if it is going for a walk or bit of exercise to get your mind healthy and active.”
Psychology in football and the well-being of the individual is something that fascinates him in particular.
By definition, a happy and settled player has the capacity to be more successful and achieve his own goals and the team’s.
Tonge continued: “Psychology in football is something I am massively interested in.
“The modern player has changed in terms of how you approach them and I have been touching base with some influential people in the FA. It is probably the most untapped thing in football.
“Conversations are free and it is a massive part of the game. You listen to top managers and they are top people and top motivators, first and foremost. That is what they do.
“I see myself as a developer. Yes, I want to coach, but I see my strength as a ‘people person.’
“That does not have to just be coaching. You can have a conversation about football, but more often than not, it is about families and other interests and dislikes.
“Once you have got that trust of players – even though it was a short space of time at Hearts – people confide in you and the things you get back are immeasurable. The more strings to your bow, the better.”
Tonge’s six months at the Edinburgh club – who have been propped up by fan group Foundation of Hearts in a fraught 2020 – allied to his spell at Barnsley are times that will always stick with him. The good and the not-so-good.
He said: “I am a positive person and both have been massive learning curves. At Hearts, it was a totally different situation that no-one could have envisaged with the pandemic.
“With the greatest of respect, with Daniel’s English not being the best, there was a lot of emphasis on me and communicating with the board. It was brilliant at my age to learn some of the things I have and I will take them forward.
“We had a few boys from Australia and some French nationals with African roots. They wanted to go home and we didn’t know if it would actually be allowed. When we did, the travel bans then started to come in. It was something you could not plan for.
“It was about communication, not just with football, but people above you. Doctors as well.
“Hearts are huge. The club I can probably relate it to down here is Leeds, in terms of how fanatical the fans are. They pump hundreds of thousands in every month to keep the club going.
“I was gutted to leave as it is something that can become really special. It is a fanatical club, but not so fanatical where they (fans) want to run the club and tell you what to do.
“It was more: ‘We are here to support you, what do you need to keep going?’ It was so rare in football and I only wish them all the best.”
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