It is a summer’s afternoon in a Wilmslow hospital, and Lincoln manager Michael Appleton has just been told he has testicular cancer.
Appleton is a 45-year-old in otherwise rude health, with a wife and children, and has just guided Lincoln to the League One play-off final. For a man with everything to live for, the consequences should have felt too catastrophic to comprehend; instead, the only thing on his mind as he tried to digest the news was the impact it might have on Lincoln’s pre-season.
“My wife [Jess] was very concerned, but I was just thinking about what games I would miss with the operation,” he says. “If it had been Jess or any of my kids I’d have struggled a lot more and had to step away from things.
“I wasn’t undermining the illness at all, it was just my way of dealing with it: by concentrating on football. A lot of family and relatives were a lot more worried than I probably was, but I wanted to keep myself busy.”
Appleton first suspected something was amiss in March, when he noticed a lump on his testicle. He had suffered from similar pain two years before, which was monitored for 12 months, but this was something more serious. Indeed, he can still recall, with pin-sharp clarity, when his doctor confessed that the tumour appeared “a nasty one”.
“If I was in the shower, sat down awkwardly, or my jeans were on a bit too tight, it felt sore,” he says. “I went to my consultant, through the NHS, and because of Covid there was a backlog of people needing referrals. I was waiting for quite a while, but living with it.
“It wasn’t affecting my life but it got to a point where my wife said ‘I’m not having this, anything could be happening’. We contacted the consultant through his clinic and stumped up the cash to go private. We thought it was better to know.”
Testicular cancer is on the increase in the UK and much more common in younger men: the average age of those diagnosed with this form of the disease is 28. Not that it made the process of dealing with it any easier for Appleton.
“I’ve seen a lot of cancer in my life, with grandparents, step-parents, uncles and aunts, and I’ve lost a lot of relatives to it, to different types,” he says. “At my age, prostate cancer is the one which is more prevalent, but cancer doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can get it at any time and any kind.”
Appleton had the operation to have the tumour removed in July, and it was announced by Lincoln that he would take a leave of absence.
The support from Jess and other close family members was significant, while his son and ‘head of morale’, Ned, kept him entertained at home.
Appleton’s mobile phone beeped incessantly with messages and calls from his former managers, team-mates and players from spells at clubs including West Brom, Portsmouth, Oxford, Leicester and now Lincoln. All were deeply appreciated, although one in particular stood out.
“I remember Sir Alex [Ferguson] calling me after the statement, he left me a voicemail as I was still struggling with the codeine after the operation,” Appleton reveals.
“I called him back a day later and had a joke about it, saying I didn’t realise I was so popular. He said: ‘You make sure you text every single one of them and ring every single one of them back’.
“I couldn’t ignore him, could I? It was like the old days when he was my manager at United! It took me four days to get back to everyone.”
The operation to remove the tumours – subsequently revealed to be a non-seminoma – was a success and Appleton, who freely admits he comes alive on the training field, wanted to get back immediately. Just 10 days after surgery, he was back at Lincoln, even if he had to delegate much of the work early on to his staff.