As much as we would demand our 21-year-old footballers to be role models, to put others before themselves and be ambassadors for their club, we also know that at 21 that may be asking too much.Not of Alfie Mawson, it isn’t. What makes this youngster’s tale different is that Mawson isn’t even a seasoned pro. He is in just his second season as a regular and has only been at new club Barnsley since July. Oh, and he was immediately made club captain and is living 200 miles away from his west London home.
And yet, in four short months, the young central defender has become the figurehead of his club in the local community. Whether it is visiting patients at a local hospice, surprising supporters at their work on his day off or befriending a seriously ill three-year-old Barnsley fan who now refers to him as ‘Big Alfie’, Mawson has embraced the people of South Yorkshire.
His dedication makes him a worthy recipient of the Sky Bet Football League Unsung Hero of the Month award for September.
“There’s no effort in it,” said Mawson modestly. “Personally, I never feel like I have to do it. It’s just nice to be able to give back, especially to kids who are a lot less fortunate than you were. It’s always nice to see them. You’re putting a smile on someone’s face and you can’t buy that.
“I am very fortunate to be a footballer. To be in the sport you love and for people to want you to make a special appearance or to help out makes me proud and makes my family proud.
“I was at Reading when I was younger so I saw some of the Reading pros, people like Kevin Doyle who we were in awe of, doing hospital visits. I did a bit of that when I was at loan at Wycombe last season.
"Going to see the kids in hospital, it really hits it home that we are unbelievably fortunate. Not necessarily because of the job that we do but because we have our health. These little kids, some of them won’t be able to see Christmas. The world works in funny ways unfortunately.
“When you come to a new club, you want to assert yourself in certain ways. Being made captain is a privilege and an honour and I wear the armband with pride.
"Because of it, at the back of your mind you feel like you’ve got to do a little more, to get yourself out there and show, not the club or the other players, but people from outside the club looking in that they haven’t signed someone just to play football.
“It’s no effort, even if it’s on your day off. Maybe an hour of your time but what’s that in football? The time that we play and the time that we train is nothing.
“I just felt that this year I should try to do a little bit more as I get older and more confident with my surroundings. I’ve only been here a short space of time but I can feel Barnsley is a club that’s at one with the community. It’s a really positive environment.”
Mawson was given the captain’s armband by Barnsley manager Lee Johnson, who felt that he was bringing a special character in to the club when he signed him from Brentford in the summer.
Johnson said: “From the first moment I met Alfie, I realised that his values and his morals were very in order and that he was a well-rounded individual.
"He’s a very good footballer but more importantly he’s a good man. He’s willing to put the time in to make other people’s lives better – and that’s a nice thing.
“We do try to bring good people into the football club. That’s an important part of our recruitment philosophy. Clubs like Barnsley are very community-based and it’s very important that not only Alfie but all of the players touch the community because it means a lot. If we can help as a club in any which way we can, then we will.
“Alfie’s not only done that, he’s gone beyond the call of duty and taken on extra himself. It’s all for the greater good of improving other people’s lives and it’s nice to be working with someone who has those values.
“This award is fantastic news, great for Alfie and I’m delighted as well for the people that Alfie’s made feel better.
“The fact that he’s doing what he is at 21 is standout, isn’t it? It is nice to see because young footballers get a bad press nowadays for some of the things they do but Alfie is one of those in the good band.”
Ask Mawson if the community work he does helps him to understand Barnsley and the local area and his reply shows off his mischievous side.
“To understand the accent mostly, to be honest. It’s the one thing I haven’t got to grips with yet. The people here just miss words out and take the lazy route. Instead of saying ‘the other’’ they’ll say ‘t’other’. It kills me. I genuinely have to take a step back and concentrate sometimes to think: ‘What did they just say?’
“I’m getting there slowly but surely. It’s funny when they’re screaming at you in a South Yorkshire accent on a Saturday. You think: ‘I don’t know what you’re saying but it doesn’t sound good.’
“But I’m sure they’re the same with my accent and they take the mick out of me for being a bit Cockney.”
As well as the visits he makes, Mawson has become Barnsley’s face of the ‘Legal Highs’ campaign being run by South Yorkshire Police. He admits he didn’t understand all of the issues surrounding legal highs before becoming involved but has now developed a passion for the subject.
“It hit home with me that these legal highs are so bad for society. There is a growing number of young lads and young girls who are using them because they are easily influenced by them being packaged nicely and by them being legal.
“Unfortunately they could be a pathway to something that’s not legal. I get frustrated by it. You hear stories of people who have passed away from using legal highs and it still doesn’t hit home enough.
“These substances are so easy to get hold of, but they are one way to make you ill and also a way to possibly get you on to further substances.
“I didn’t have a clear about it before getting involved but after seeing the presentations, I thought I needed to do what I can to represent Barnsley against it. It’s easy to sit back and just let it happen but it’s better to go out and try and make a real difference.”
Making a difference is what Mawson has done to three-year-old Barnsley fan Alfie Ledgeway, who suffers from a Chiari malformation, which means the lower part of his brain sits below the entrance to his skull. In addition, one of his kidneys doesn’t work and he has severe sleep apnea for which he requires oxygen at night.
When Little Alfie visited Oakwell, Mawson went beyond his duty of helping the young boy walk on to the pitch with his heroes.
Hayley Ledgeway, Alfie’s nan, explained: “He did everything for him and was absolutely brilliant with him. He walked at Alfie’s pace on to the pitch and then when we visited the team at training, he stayed behind afterwards and gave Alfie his signed football shirt
“What he’s done is put a big smile on our Alfie’s face. Our Alfie knows Alfie Mawson now as Big Alfie. He says that Big Alfie is his best friend. He loves to talk about Big Alfie and it gives him that lift. He is due to have a serious operation soon and Alfie Mawson has said he wants to come and see him in hospital afterwards, which is brilliant.”
Mawson insists that his interaction with the Ledgeway family is little more than a selfish act.
He added: “You get that buzz from helping people and doing effortless things that take so little time but mean so much.
“If Alfie walks too much, he loses his balance. We were in the changing room when he walked over to us. Then we all walked slowly out on to the pitch with him and it was lovely because I looked down at him and he was grinning from ear to ear. It was brilliant.
“What was nice was that he then came back in and he didn’t stop talking about it. He’s got a lot going on in his little life but all he cared about was that he had walked out with the Barnsley team on to the pitch.
“Then when he next came in to training, he ran up to me and gave me a cuddle. It was lovely. We gave him a little kit and again the smile was brilliant. Little things like that, when someone is going through something so hard, for his parents to then see him smiling, that’s priceless. He’s a fighter and a lovely little lad as well.
“I’ve genuinely never thought about winning an award, although when I was at the Football League Awards last season I saw Danny Shittu win the Player in the Community Award and saw how much his work meant to people.
“But even if you get recognition for it, it doesn’t mean you can just stop now. A lot of players do things to be seen doing it and then that’ll be it. We’ve got to make sure that we keep doing it.
“With the lovely bunch of lads we’ve got at Barnsley we’ll be doing it all season and we’ll be doing as much as we can, putting ourselves out there. Wherever we are wanted, we’ll show up.”