Alex Butler: A life in football with Wolves and Aston Villa, a life and death fight and a move into acting
As a sports massage therapist, Alex Butler plied his trade for almost 20 years at a high-profile and pressurised level, including with Wolves and Aston Villa in the Premier League.
Part of backroom teams engaging with players in their best and worst moments, meeting triumph and disaster with all the contrasting fortunes and emotions which such an intense environment provides.
But nothing in his working life could ever have prepared Butler for the night when, struck down with Covid-19, and struggling for air, he was told he needed to go on a ventilator.
‘Touch and go’ is his ever-so-slightly understated version of such a harrowing ten days back at the start of the pandemic, when, still 18 months shy of his 40th birthday and with a young daughter waiting at home, his very survival was in the balance.
“I’d been in Sandwell Hospital for a few days, and was going downhill very quickly,” Butler recalls.
“I’d been admitted into a private room on the side of a ward, and I never knew whether that was because they weren’t sure I would make it and didn’t want it to affect the other patients, or if it was because they knew I worked for Villa!
“There was a time they wouldn’t even come into the room because I was so bad and the monitors were turned towards the window so they could see my stats.
“Remember that scene in the ET film with all the hazmat suits? Well, when they did come in to check on me, they were wearing those and they told me that they were going to have to put me into a coma – I just couldn’t breathe.
“But there was a queue ahead of me, four people waiting to be incubated, so I would have to wait until they either recovered, or sadly, if they didn’t.
“I remember thinking that if I was going to be put on a ventilator then that was it, that would be me done.
“So yes, that was a tough time.
“My Mum had also got Covid and was in a bed on the ward, so as soon as I was told I might have to go into a coma I asked them to tell her and also phone home for me as well.
“Mum came into the room and looked like death warmed up - we both probably thought I was a goner - and I was texting people to let them know as I really wasn’t sure I would make it.”
At this point the emotion takes over. Completely understandably. The memory is still raw. And yet, in Butler’s case, at a time of such national torment and uncertainty back in March 2020, his story was one which produced a happier ending.
He composes himself.
“Do you know what? I still have no idea what they gave me that night, but I remember experiencing the maddest fever dreams, I was drugged up to the eyeballs.
“And then, the next morning, the fever broke.
“My temperature started falling, my breathing was better, and ever so slowly I started to recover.
“I can never say enough good things about the staff at the AMU (Acute Medical Unit) at Sandwell – I owe them my life.
“But I am also very glad they didn’t have enough incubators on that night – had I been at the ‘QE’ (Queen Elizabeth Hospital) then I’d probably have been straight onto a ventilator and who knows what would have happened then.
“The staff at Sandwell were incredible, obviously Covid was new and at that time they didn’t know what they were dealing with, and I was getting pumped with medication and as much oxygen as they could.
“And, eventually, I got better.”
It is in situations like those that football has no colours.
Butler also worked for short spells with Walsall and West Bromwich Albion – the team he supports – but the world of Midlands football and beyond became united in sending goodwill to inspire his recovery in response to social media updates from his sister Hannah.
“It was so nice to get those messages, even though I was often too tired to look too closely at my phone,” he recalls.
“There were people from school I hadn’t heard from in 20 years getting in touch, people from football, a certain few from Aston Villa who gave me their support and I will love them forever for it.
“Once Hannah put that message out, and the outside world became aware, I received nothing but love which I will certainly never ever forget.”
It is testament to Butler’s popularity within the world of football across almost two decades that he had so many people rooting for him, just when he needed it.
As one example from so many, then Villa defender James Chester not only kept in regular touch during his recuperation but also sent food packages from Carters in Moseley to try and keep his strength up. A gesture which illustrated the power of goodwill.
Over an hour-and-a-half’s chat at the Kafenion Café in Bournville – near Butler’s home and a favourite haunt of his eight-year-old daughter Rosa – the painful and upsetting memories of his battle with Covid form just a small part of the overall conversation.
“I don’t mind talking about it, in a way it’s important,” he says, after temporarily being overcome by the emotion.
But the rest of the time is filled with far happier memories of life as a backroom boy, some of them positive, some not so, but so many of them absolutely priceless.
He also discusses aspirations of a fledgling new career as an actor, which has developed since leaving Villa after he recovered sufficiently to complete the end of that delayed 2019/20 season.
Butler has Ricky Gervais to thank for that particular ambition. To be discussed later!
With any luck, he will enjoy his new calling just as much as he did his first, which began when, upon realising he wasn’t going to be good enough to be a player himself, and not being suited to the classroom environment of training to become a physiotherapist, a friend suggested becoming a sports masseur.
Practical training at North Birmingham College saw Butler secure a qualification, after which followed a blanket distribution of speculative CVs, the only nibble coming from Walsall whose then physio Duncan Russell gave him some hours during the season when budget allowed.
Russell had moved to Wolves by the time they reached the Championship play-offs in 2003, and, while another offer of help from Butler was knocked back due to not wanting to bring in a new face, he was encouraged to keep a close eye on whether the team won promotion.
“Growing up as an Albion fan, and with my family mostly Albion, I was probably the only one who was smiling when Wolves surged into a 3-0 lead by half time against Sheffield United,” Butler laughs.
“I was thinking, ‘go on boys, this could get me a job’!”
With Wolves Premier League bound, Butler was called in for interview just before pre-season, and grilled first by head physiotherapist Barry Holmes, then boss Dave Jones and then CEO Jez Moxey.
“I think the salary got bartered down with each interview,” he recalls with a laugh.
“But I didn’t care – I just wanted to be part of it, working in the Premier League, and it didn’t matter what the money was going to be.
“Sports massage was still quite new for clubs in those days, I started out as the only one at Wolves, and, as a young lad just out of college, it was very much sink or swim.
“There weren’t too many backroom staff at that time, Doc Perry was there but part time, and there were many other aspects to the job as well as massage - getting the drinks, getting things ready, all sorts of jobs all over the place.
“It was a bit of a baptism of fire with some of the high-profile players at the time, I learned when to shut my mouth and when to try and give a bit back, but it was all about getting to know the personalities.”
After three years at Wolves, one Premier League season and two in the Championship, Butler became one of many victims of the loss of the parachute payments.
By this time the more experienced Mark James had been brought in and, whilst Butler had learnt a great deal from working alongside him, when the cutbacks arrived he was always going to be the one to be let go, just a couple of weeks before Glenn Hoddle resigned.
But the impressions he had made, including on skipper Paul Ince, meant he wasn’t out of football for long.
He worked for several months covering an absence at Albion, and then, after that came to an end, was about to start selling phones for O2 at their Birmingham store when Ince landed the manager’s job at Macclesfield Town.
A good luck message swiftly led to the offer of a job, and after a truly memorable season of survival Butler also followed Ince as he stepped up to take the reins at MK Dons.
After just three months at a club which was filled with potential, the opportunity to join Villa was one which Butler simply couldn’t turn down, the prelude to 13 incredible years as part of a veritable massage double act alongside Andy Smith at Bodymoor Heath and Villa Park.
‘Big Al’ and ‘Smudge’ became part of the fabric of the club, fulfilling the role of backroom staff across the country whose duties are often about far more than just their practical talents.
Counselling skills, a listening ear, a voice of diplomacy, so often those qualities are just as important within the frenzied environment of a football dressing room.
“Even at Wolves, when I was still quite young, I would find that a lot of the players would unload their feelings while having a treatment,” Butler explains.
“We actually had a psychologist Dr Tim O’Brien coming in a couple of days a week – what a guy he is, by the way – but I soon discovered that being a massage therapist had a bit of psychology thrown in as well.
“You had the lads who were playing every week who were happy, the lads who had been dropped who wanted to have a moan, and the lads who were nowhere near it who just wanted to be quiet.
“For me it was about being that listening ear, taking on board what they were saying, and maybe giving them a cuddle if they needed one!
“And by the time I got to Villa, working with Smudge for 13 years, we had great fun working as a team and were known as the deadly duo.
“We had our own little room, ‘The Cave’, and everyone would congregate in there, having a laugh and a joke, but knowing when it was the time to be serious and get to work.”
Within any club’s backroom staff, there is always first-hand experience of the rollercoaster ride of results and emotions at a football club.
And the establishing of close working relationships and a keen desire to see a group of staff and players succeed.
At Wolves, Butler enjoyed learning from working under Hoddle with his tactical knowledge and innovative methods, but will always harbour a soft spot for Jones, his first manager.
Hailing Jones’ ability to build a team from a fiery group of players, and particularly his man-management techniques, from Subbuteo tournaments in pre-season – “I swear he could take curling free kicks” – to taking staff out for a Chinese when the food had run out at the end of a long away coach trip.
Not to mention the odd few hours on the golf course, which Matt Murray gleefully recalls to this day.
“Yeh so I was useless at golf, but I used to get invited along when everyone played, probably for their amusement,” Butler explains.
“I was giving it a go, to my usual bad standard, and then on about the 10th or 11th, I absolutely caught one for the first time in the round, it felt so good.
“Then it hit a wire going across the course, how it hit a wire I have no idea, but it dropped like a stone, and big Matty and everyone else fell about laughing as you can imagine.”
On the pitch, relegation was no laughing matter, but it still had its moments.
A win over Leicester after being 3-0 down, beating Manchester City and Manchester United, being 2-1 up at Chelsea with 20 minutes remaining.
“The Wolves fans were sat behind the dugouts at Stamford Bridge and I remember one of them telling Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink they hoped he had a **** birthday when he came off the bench,” says Butler.
“Ten minutes later he had scored a hat trick and the game finished 5-2!”
Memories of Villa were also somewhat mixed, from the highs of working for Martin O’Neill and European ties with Ajax and trips to Russia and Bulgaria, to winning and losing Championship play-off finals and also losing – at times controversially – two League Cup finals and an FA Cup Final.
The FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool in 2015, when a 19-year-old Jack Grealish excelled, is another happy memory, as well as coming through a tense play-off semi-final with Albion and beating Derby at Wembley which made up for the earlier and more painful memories of the National Stadium.
Particularly from 12 months previously when Butler describes Villa’s loss to Fulham as “easily the most heart-breaking game I have ever been involved in”.
“The financial pressure was on that day with a lot of whispers going around and no one knowing quite what would happen if we lost,” he recalls.
“The lads had worked so hard to get into the position that they did to reach the play-offs, and it felt like the family was going to break up if we didn’t win.
“To their credit Fulham played well and I have never seen as many men crying in a dressing room as I did that day.
“You try and console them at the same time not knowing if you would ever see them again, and I remember wondering how on earth we were going to come back.
“Fortunately, the club got taken over and were able to go again, although even then it was a challenge and it took a run of ten wins in a row to get into the play-offs.
“This time it was different, and I remember the lads being so relaxed on the morning of the final against Derby, and finally we got over the line.
“The scenes after the Fulham game stayed with me for a long, long time, and I think it was only with getting there 12 months later – and the celebrations which followed - that I got over the feeling from the year before.”
Throughout the victories and defeats, the highs and the lows, the one consistent within football clubs is often the people.
Whilst not in as close contact with some as he would like to be, Butler feels lucky to count so many within the game as friends thanks to relationships forged over such a long period of time.
He is still in touch with Terry Connor from the Wolves days, and will be forever appreciative of the early-morning lifts from the Scott Arms in Great Barr to Compton and the kindness and endless words of advice and guidance from the Molineux coach in those formative years.
He harbours fond memories of club characters from Molineux such as ‘Fozzie’ (former press officer John Hendley) and ‘Muffer’ (former club historian Graham Hughes), sadly no longer with us.
Not surprisingly, there are many links which have endured from the Villa family too.
Butler maintains a strong friendship with Stiliyan Petrov – he and Smudge carried out a fundraising bike ride following his diagnosis with leukaemia – then there is Derek on security, former physio Alan Smith, ‘Riggers’ (Steve Rigby) the ex-kitman, several players including Neil Taylor, who he drove to Middlesbrough on several occasions last season.
And Smudge, the other half of the ‘deadly duo’, is someone he will always regard as being like a brother.
There are so many more, and yet, when it came to the crunch, and perhaps in part due to such a distressing time with Covid, Butler, now 40, ultimately decided that it was his own people who needed to become the priority.
Villa had just been beaten by Leicester and had been due to play Chelsea when the pandemic arrived and football ground to a halt.
Butler had attended a family funeral in the midweek, and, after his Mum Philippa started to feel under the weather, he too started to struggle.
With both suffering from illness, he went to stay with Philippa for the weekend, but by the Monday had been admitted to hospital with a temperature of 42 degrees, was unable to keep any food down and was treated for sepsis.
Having stabilised, he was sent home after a Covid test, but when the results came back showing positive a day or so later, he was called by the consultant.
As a nurse, Philippa had still been looking after him even with feeling unwell herself, but with his temperature back in the 40s, and oxygen level at 82 per cent, Butler was re-admitted to hospital. Which is where, a few days later, he was so very close to being put on a ventilator.
His Mum's condition was also a cause for concern both for Butler and Dad Ray, and so she eventually followed him in a separate ambulance, and would also become seriously ill.
Even then, she was using her skills and experience to advise young and frightened nurses, thankfully also going on to make a full recovery and not long afterwards return to front-line duties on the NHS’s pandemic response.
Butler too returned to work for that manic five-week spell to round off the Premier League season – he wanted to try and regain a sense of normality - but, looking back, admits he wasn’t fully ready either mentally or physically.
He departed Villa in that summer – “the football gods decided it was my time” – and admits that while there was a spot of grieving for his near 20-year career, he soon started to realise, and cherish, all the family moments he had been missing out on.
And that is when life took a new and exciting path.
Whilst recovering on the sofa – he still suffers from tiredness thanks to long Covid two years on – he started re-watching Ricky Gervais’s Extras series, rekindling a previous interest in that particular vocation.
A quick google search later, and he was sending off photos and applications to websites and apps, soon landing a couple of unpaid roles in the background of films.
“I have always been a great believer that when you are learning you do things for free because you both learn the ropes and get to meet people who are in the industry,” Butler explains.
“I’d never actually thought of trying to become an actor, but having been in the background for a couple of films and TV shows, being on set for ten days at a time getting to know people, the interest grew.
“Sometimes you’re tucked away as an extra and one of the assistant directors might look at you and decide to use you for another shot and before you know it you are bumped up and have also been given a couple of lines.
“I’ve not had any training – again I’m not sure that’s the best way for me to learn – and a lot of people have said they like my natural, relaxed approach.
“And I am always listening to actors and directors who give me feedback, so I am learning on the job with every single role.
“I’m now with agencies who try to provide me with opportunities to be an extra and I have a main agent – can you believe that?! – who puts me forward for bigger roles.
“So now we’re just waiting for that big one – it might never happen, but equally, you never know.
“All you can do is put yourself out there like I am doing, and all the time still learning and working with some really good people.”
Butler’s varied list of credits so far include horror film The Shimian, fantasy short film Myrlan, adverts for footwear giant Deichmann and accessory supplier Toolstation UK, extras roles in Casualty, Doctors and Midsomer Murders, and a particularly surreal moment as a delivery man in a scene with one of his comedy heroes, Morgana Robinson, in TV series Newark Newark.
Above all else though, life is now also about making more memories while continuing to enjoy family time with partner Marie and daughter Rosa, which offers a timely reminder to buy some cakes as our conversation comes to an end.
“Rosa won’t forgive me if I don’t take anything back,” Butler laughs.
“It’s great to be around so much more now, doing the school run, taking her to piano lessons, seeing so much more of her and I think our relationship has grown because of it.
“That’s not to say there is anything wrong with working in football and I had some incredible times, but sometimes you realise that it’s not the be-all and end-all.
“I remember when I was really poorly, and not too sure how things were going to turn out, I was thinking that if I go, my little one would have nothing to show for it.
“Maybe one or two memories, but that was it, and the selfish part of me thought if I could get myself on television with the acting, she would always have something to remember me by!
“Has she enjoyed it when she has seen me on there? No, not at all. I think she’ll only be bothered if it’s something she is already watching - maybe one day!
“We will see how it goes, and while I know I’ll never be a household name it would be nice to be someone who might get recognised in something.
“You know how it is – when you watch a film and go, ‘oh, it’s him, what was he in again’?
“Yeh, to be known as ‘that guy who was in that thing that one time’, I think that would do just fine!”
After everything that Butler has been through, that would certainly be more than enough and he is clearly driven to both succeed but also enjoy his new career direction.
Whether that big break comes along or whether it doesn’t, there is still plenty of time for that dream to be realised as he embarks on life after football.
And the best thing about it, is that he is still here to tell the tale.