Tobi Alabi is both grieving and grateful. He is mourning for a career that could have been but thankful he is still alive. Five months after collapsing on the pitch with a severe heart defect while playing for a Ryman League side, the former striker, who spent 11 years coming through the academy and youth ranks at Millwall, is coming to terms with a life away from football. It is a future which at first seemed bleak, yet the darkness that threatened to consume him is slowly fading.
"I thought I was going to die," says Alabi. "After it happened I just felt 'why me?' But you can't dwell on those thoughts. What's done is done. You can either be angry with the world or you can move on and help others."
Alabi will always remember his 20th birthday. It was the day that, instead of celebrating as a normal young man might, he had a heart monitor fitted in his chest. He will wear it for the rest of his life, following two serious incidents that curtailed his footballing dreams. The first, in October last year, came 15 minutes into a midweek Ryman Premier Division match for the Metropolitan Police against Molesey, when Alabi collapsed and was taken to Darent Valley hospital in Dartford. From there he was transferred to a specialist cardiac unit at St Thomas's in central London. His second and more worrying incident occurred there, a few weeks later when, while being examined by doctors, his heart stopped beating.
"It was bad. My heart stopped for five seconds. I know people may think that isn't long but if your heart stops you are effectively dead for that amount of time," Alabi says. "I was doing a stress test in the hospital on a treadmill. I had done 20 minutes but it wasn't fast and I started to feel funny, my chest was tightening up. I couldn't breathe and I collapsed, sweating really, really badly.
"It went dark and I had a vision of a church we went to when I was younger, I was there with my brother, my sister and a load of kids that I used to know. I remember their faces so vividly even though I hadn't seen them for years.
" Then everything got slowly and progressively lighter and there was a really bright light, then the nurse was saying my name repeatedly. I don't know how to describe it – horrible is the best word. That's when I knew I would never play football again."
On a grey morning in Canary Wharf, Alabi, from Erith in south-east London, reflects on a seminal period in his young life and speaks eloquently about his recovery. He now works as a stockbroker, admitting that on the more mundane office days his mind often drifts to thoughts of football training or matchdays, vignettes of a life that now seems a world away.
Alabi spent 11 years at Millwall, never progressing to the first team but demonstrating sufficient quality that the Championship club did not release him at an early age. He played on loan at Ebbsfleet and Gravesend & Northfleet, before signing for the Swedish second division side Ljungskile SK. Returning to England last year, Alabi had firm interest from a number of Football League clubs before his collapse.
That chapter of his life has ended prematurely. How far he could have gone, no one will ever know, but the bitter disappointment of having a promising career cut short in its infancy, while devastating, has been turned into a remarkable positive. Alabi now has renewed purpose, having launched his Heart4More Foundation aimed at raising awareness of cardiac problems, striving for mandatory annual screenings for all players aged 14 and above in the professional game. He aims to raise £7,000 by 25 March to screen 100 young people at a Premier League match before the end of the season.
Alabi cites myriad warning signs that were not picked up before his collapse against Molesey, dismissed on separate occasions as dehydration, asthma and even weather acclimatisation. He says that, two years after Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest playing for Bolton Wanderers, awareness of various heart conditions at lower league and amateur level is in need of drastic improvement.
"People don't know anything about this, all they know is that something happened to Fabrice Muamba and Marc-Vivien Foé a few years ago. They don't really know much about it. People need more knowledge on the subject, education on different conditions and certain symptoms that you have that you should do something about. It's better to be over-cautious than to lose a life," he says.
"There were a number of warnings for me. The first was when I was 14 and when I felt weird at training. One of my team-mates' parents was a paramedic and she said it was down to dehydration, but it happened again during a basketball game at school. Because I'd just been hit on the head they thought I was a bit concussed. The third incident was on the first day that I landed in Sweden, they thought I wasn't used to the climate. It was the sixth incident in hospital when my heart actually stopped for sure.
"People say now that we have more defibrillators, but they need to ask what a defibrillator does – it reacts to a worse-case scenario. It's not proactive, it's reactive. Why don't you put something in place that means you won't need the defibrillator. I'm disappointed because if we'd had the education as players and if the coaching staff had the education, I could have looked at my condition more seriously."
The alarming thing for Alabi is that he will never know what actually happened to his heart on the day of his first collapse. Unlike at Premier League and Football League stadiums and elite training grounds across the country, most semi-professional and amateur matches proceed without any emergency cardiac equipment or trained health personnel on site. Even now, his exact condition has yet to be diagnosed.
Alabi was fortunate. At the time the Met Police coach, Jim Cooper, said: "We thought we had a Fabrice Muamba incident on our hands." If that had been the case Alabi almost certainly would have died, but he eventually regained consciousness after a Molesey defender, a cardiologist, assessed him on the pitch.
He says: "The thing is nobody really knows what happened and we'll never know. I didn't feel right in the warm-up, I didn't feel right during the whole day. Then again in the game the incident happened. In hindsight I shouldn't have played.
"I woke up and it's very hard to explain. If you imagine in a film when someone gets knocked out and the screen goes blurry, then you hear muffled noise, that's what it was like. Then it was pitch black. I woke up and a guy was checking my pulse and loads of people were around me. I managed to get off the pitch and my brother took me to hospital. My girlfriend came and she was just crying. It was difficult.
"I'll never know how far I could have gone or what level I could have played at. I can only think of what could have been, that's one of the hardest things to take on board. When the doctors told me that I shouldn't play professional football I knew it was coming. But when they left I broke down, crying."
The time for tears has passed, even if the pain still lingers. Alabi is now focused on using his experience for good, lobbying the FA to enforce mandatory screenings without leaving the decision in the hands of clubs. He is due to meet the PFA in the coming weeks, claiming that there is a lack of urgency surrounding the issue.
"Credit to the PFA who enforce screenings to professional players at 16, but I can't comprehend why there are not more," he says. "Twelve people between 14 and 35 collapse every week with a cardiac-related issue. More than 50 footballers have died in the last 10 years, and that's just the ones we know."
Alabi is grateful that he did not join that list. As he departs, with a new path in front of him, the grieving for a lost career continues. Yet, far more significantly, no one is mourning a lost life. "I'm now quite thankful. Football was my dream and my life but, at the same time, I've still got my life. I'm alive."