For any young person playing football, the dream is to emulate their heroes and make it as a professional player. That was the case for former Tranmere prospect Gabriel Kubwalo – well almost.

Born in Malawi, Kubwalo grew up in Neston on the Wirral and was obsessed with football from an early age.

Talking to him at his family home, he said: “It didn’t matter where it was, I always wanted to play (football). In the park, on the street or in the living room I was always kicking a ball around when I was a kid. I must of drove my mum insane.”

Kubwalo played for his local team, Neston Nomads, until he was 13. It was at this point his dream started to come true.

The Academy – Fond Memories:

Tranmere Rovers, then in League One, approached him offering him a chance to join their academy setup.

“When the scout asked me to come down to the training ground, I didn’t know what to say. All I thought was that this was my chance, and I had to take it.

“The first few years were such a good experience. Me and the lads became really close and I actually look back on the whole time really fondly because of that.

“There was a lot of pressure on us all. Not so much from the coaches but from ourselves. All of us felt like we had to make it, and we had to make it here. The older we got the more intense it was. I really noticed it when I went up into the U18s, it became less about enjoying it and a certain standard was expected.”

Kubwalo in action against Carlisle in 2015

The versatile defender, who could also play as a midfielder, gained his scholarship and was well on his way to becoming a professional footballer. His first season as a scholar went by and he got a step closer to the first team, even appearing in a pre-season friendly against Heswall for the first team.

The beginning of the end:

In a pre-season 2015, the Malawian went down with a sharp pain in his left knee in a game against Scunthorpe. This would see the then 18-year-old side lined for a month.

“I wasn’t told much, just that I’d be back and playing again soon. When I went down again two months later, I really knew something was seriously wrong.

“The pain was really intense. As soon as I tried to turn or bend it there was a sharp, shooting pain. It felt like I was being stabbed in the leg.”

Five months of different treatments followed, as did five months of failure resolve the problem. A gym workout designed to strengthen leg muscles, specially made insoles, acupuncture and even steroid injections were all tried in an attempt to resolve the problem.

“It was so frustrating! Id train one day and id be okay, the next id be in agony, and then I wouldn’t play for another week. The fact it took so long to find the problem was the worst thing about it.”

Finally, in January 2016, it was found that Kubwalo had suffered a torn lateral and medial knee ligament, requiring extensive surgery to repair. This took a huge toll physically and mentally on the young prospect.

Post OP: Kubwalo posts to Instagram following his successful operation

The road to recovery:

“It was the toughest thing I’ve had to deal with. The initial operation and the complications that came with it were tough enough, but the recovery was so hard. I felt so weak and useless. The fact I couldn’t even walk, let alone play was agonising. I found it hard even to watch Man United.

“I think having my parents and team mates around me really helped me through it. It honestly felt like a lifetime waiting to get back on the pitch.

“I think this was the point I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”

It was five months before Kubwalo could even kick a ball again, and a further two until he returned to training. The impact of the injury was plain to see, although it wasn’t just the scar on his knee that told the tale.

“I was so much slower and weaker than everyone else. I didn’t feel the same and I could tell how noticeably rusty I was. The thought of turning on the ball scared me because I thought (my knee) might go. There was no chance I was going into tackles either. I felt fragile.”

The Malawian played through till March 2017 when he found out his dream was over.

“We had just finished training, it was a fitness session so, yeah, loads of fun, and then they called me into the office. My coach and the assistant gaffer for the first team sat me down and gave me the news.

“I felt numb. The first few weeks were so tough. For seven years all I’d thought about is what would happen when I turned pro, and this sent me crashing back down to reality.

“I played trial games in the months that followed but I wasn’t hungry for it anymore. It’s a bit of a cliché but I really did fall out of love with the game.”

Life moves on:

Whilst there are many examples of young talent being let go from professional clubs that struggle to cope with the reality of life outside of football, Kubwalo remained headstrong and found his path away from the game.

“I played in Wales for a bit at Llandudno, but it wasn’t the same. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do for a career. It was my dad that I’ve got to thank as he suggested pursuing a degree in Law. Id always found humanities at school pretty fun, so I applied for an access course. Two years later and I’m at university doing law and honestly, I have no regrets.

“I think I’ve got to be thankful to my parents for helping keep me grounded whilst I was at Tranmere and making me still focus on school as much as I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t be in this position right now if it wasn’t for them.”

Three years later Kubwalo is still left with a reminder

The ex-Tranmere player has also re-discovered his love for football, this time in a coaching capacity.

He assists for a local grassroots team, Eastham Rangers, and says although it isn’t as good as playing, the feeling he gets watching them learn and have fun is a close second.

The university student also had some advice for any player faced with a similar situation.

“Don’t give up but also make sure you have a ‘plan B’. There’s no guarantee you’re going to make it even if you’re good enough so just cover your back.”

Kubwalo’s example of him overcoming adversity to find a new path in life is refreshing and should serve as an example for any young player involved in academy football.


Photo Credits: Gabriel Kubwalo – Instagram: gkubwalo