Alfie Mawson is thinking about the times when he would drive home from training and spend the afternoon working on his dad’s fruit and veg stall at Ealing market, happily swapping life as a professional footballer for a few hours as a greengrocer, back in the days when he was picking up apples and pears rather than Premier League strikers.
There was only one occasion when Mawson can remember someone doing a double take. “It was December and Dad sells Christmas trees at that time of year,” Mawson says. “I was on loan at Wycombe from Brentford and was putting the trees through the ‘netter’ when one of the Brentford physios turned up. He just looked at me and said: ‘What on earth are you doing?’ But that’s the person I am. I used to help out last year when I was playing for Barnsley. I’d still do it now, although I guess I might get recognized: ‘There’s that ginger one from Swansea!’”
Mawson, who does a nice line in self-deprecating humor, laughs at that last remark. After making his way to the top in a hurry, climbing from the Conference South to the Premier League in the space of three years, including playing in every division in between, Mawson doubts whether his Premier League opponents know who he is, let alone the wider football public.
Plenty of people have struggled to keep up with his meteoric rise, including the recruitment agencies that were still sending Mawson job alerts on his mobile phone long after he was making a name for himself in professional football and his proud parents, Gary and Paula, who were watching their son play in front of a few hundred people not long ago.
“My dad said to me last Sunday: ‘Agüero came on against you, Alf,’” Mawson says, smiling at the excitement in his father’s voice. “It’s mad and a bit surreal. But you’ve got to take it in your stride. You can’t give these players half a yard or they’ll punish you. Because these players don’t care who you are – they won’t know who I am.”
To fill in a few gaps, Mawson grew up in Hillingdon, in west London. He supported Chelsea, started his career at Brentford and joined Swansea from Barnsley for £5m in the summer. Powerful in the air – he scored last month in Premier League wins against Crystal Palace and Southampton – and comfortable on the ball, the central defender won his first England Under‑21 cap in November and has impressed since Paul Clement took over as Swansea manager last month.
As well as being a promising young footballer, Mawson also happens to be a thoroughly nice guy and there is no better example of that than the heart-warming story that he tells about the lovely friendship he formed with a seriously ill boy in Barnsley during his time at Oakwell. Alfie Ledgeway, who is four years old, suffers from Chiari malformation, which means the lower part of his brain is being pushed towards his spinal cord.
“He was a mascot one day,” Mawson explains, “and before the game they come in and have a walk around, so I said: ‘Hello mate. What’s your name?’
“He said: ‘I’m Alfie. Alfie Ledgeway.’ I said: ‘That’s funny. That’s my name.’ He said: ‘What, you’re Alfie Ledgeway as well?’ I said: ‘No! I’m Alfie Mawson.’
“After that he’d always run to me whenever he saw me and say: ‘Hello Alfie Mawson.’ It was never ‘Alfie’ because he was worried people would get us confused. I later got speaking to his mum and his nan, and I got him a shirt with ‘Little Alfie’ on the back. I became known as ‘Big Alfie’. We went on Facebook and my mum started talking to the family as well, so they then built up a good relationship.
“Alfie used to FaceTime me on his iPad and ask if I was going to see him, so I’d pop round with Beth, my missus, and play with him. An hour of your time is like a day for him. He’s a little legend. He’s had surgery again recently and I haven’t seen him this season because of the distance. But I want to sort out for him to come and watch a game, probably Everton, because that’s who his family support.”
It is a tale that breaks with all the stereotypes about modern footballers and partly explains why Mawson was wearing the captain’s armband at Barnsley at the age of 21. He is an old head on young shoulders and it is not surprising that comparisons have been drawn with Ashley Williams, who left Swansea for Everton in the summer and also had a stint in the non-league game.
Mawson smiles at that suggestion. “When I signed for Swansea my agent asked me what number I wanted. I said 26 because it’s my favourite – it’s my dad’s birthday and John Terry’s number. But Kyle Naughton had that number – my mum had already told me that, she’s my No1 fan and knows everything before I do. So I looked at the other numbers and there was only one I was going to take – No6, which was Ashley Williams’s old shirt.
“People were saying that I had big boots to fill and that I was coming in to be Ashley Williams. I wasn’t. I was coming in to be me. Ashley’s a class act. He arrived at Swansea when he was a bit older than me and he got promoted with the club and was on that journey. But it’s a different task for me because I’m coming in to fight for a place in the Premier League.”
Top-flight football was a long way from Mawson’s mind three years ago. Brentford had offered him a second chance after he was released by Reading at the age of 15, but there was little sign of a breakthrough as he reached his late teens. “I wasn’t getting any games in the reserves, so I applied to loads of job websites,” Mawson says. “Growing up working with my dad on the fruit and veg stall, you learn people skills from a young age and so I wanted to do something hands-on. I remember going on loan to Maidenhead and wondering if I could nick a move to a Conference South side and have a job on the side.”
A season-long loan at Wycombe Wanderers in 2014-15 proved to be the turning point as Mawson swept the board at the League Two club’s end‑of‑season awards. Brentford offered him a new contract but he signed for Barnsley instead and went on to win the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and promotion from League One via the play-offs. Swansea decided to make a move and had a bid accepted at the end of August.
Excited rather than daunted by the prospect of playing in the Premier League, Mawson was blown away by Swansea’s training facilities and the surroundings – he has an apartment in Langland, overlooking the beach – but not everything clicked. “I wasn’t involved for the first couple of weeks and I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t been in that situation for the last few years. I’d find myself getting the weekend off. It was 3pm on a Saturday and I was having lunch with my missus. Not being rude but the weekend seemed too long.”
Mawson had to be patient and it was not until Bob Bradley replaced Fransceso Guidolin in October that he got his chance. He was named man of the match on his debut against Watford but soon discovered what an unforgiving place the Premier League can be during a damaging run that led to so many “stupid goals” being conceded and Bradley losing his job.
Swansea appeared doomed, but Clement’s arrival has breathed new life into the club. “We’ve come on in leaps and bounds with the new gaffer and everything’s looking up,” Mawson says. “Training has got so much more intense but in the right way. He’s reinstalled the basics, which we needed. He shows us clips of Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid and how they work so hard. If one player goes into press and gets beaten, there’s someone else to back him up and then another. If you see those clubs doing that, then there’s no excuse not to do it.”
An added bonus for Swansea has been Mawson’s aerial threat in the opposition area. The 23-year-old has scored 19 times in his career already and last month’s goals for Swansea were crucial. “I’ve got a big head, that’s what everyone says to me,” Mawson says, laughing. “But I do love scoring. If you haven’t got that confidence to go and get a goal, then what’s the point in going up for a corner or a free-kick?”
That Gylfi Sigurdsson delivers the set-pieces helps. “Every ball is spot on. Gylfi’s like an angel for us at the moment,” says Mawson, smiling at his choice of words. “He just does things that you don’t expect. Even when we weren’t playing as well as we are now, he’d still come up with an assist or a goal. He’ll always be involved in something – and that’s not luck.”
Mawson knows that Sunday’s home game against Leicester is huge and although his total focus is on winning, he could be forgiven for having a wry smile when he looks across at Claudio Ranieri in the visitors’ dugout. “I’ve got a ball signed by Ranieri and the Chelsea players,” Mawson says. “My dad bid for it at an auction. I’ve still got it at my mum’s house, but the ball’s got a bit of a hole in it now because my dog chewed it. I was gutted about that at the time.”