“I just want to enjoy the last few years of my career,” says Alan Judge.
It is a simple wish from the 33-year-old Irishman, who has been through the mill throughout the last six years and is now playing in League Two for the first time in his career, with Colchester.
His recent journey to this point has been littered with misfortune and started with an horrific leg break in April 2016, during his time at Brentford.
After the best part of two years of recovery, he returned to action, but could not force a way back into the side he had previously played such an integral part in, which led to a quiet exit to Ipswich in January 2019.
Though the Tractor Boys were on their way towards eventual relegation, a run of 19 games helped Judge to get back into the groove with the regular football he had been starved of during the final months of his time in west London and he was called beck into the Republic of Ireland squad, too.
But that summer, things changed when talk of a move back to the Championship with QPR surfaced
“I felt like myself again in the first six months I was at Ipswich, without doubt. I was enjoying my football,” Judge says, speaking to Sky Sports.
“Then QPR tried to buy me and obviously I was interested. It was Championship football and my family still lived in London. Things were leaked to the Ipswich press, but they didn’t get the full ins and outs of what was going on with my family life and fans just thought I wanted to leave straight away, which wasn’t the case, and that took a while for me to get over.
“Initially, I had a release clause in my contract. When I first signed at Ipswich, I was given an 18-month deal, but I signed a new one after six or seven weeks; my theory behind giving the release clause was so the owner would get his money back for taking a gamble on me after my injury. Not many teams would have taken a gamble on a player coming back from two years out.
“But the owner didn’t want to sell me – it was as simple as that. I just lived with it and didn’t kick up a fuss or refuse to train. I told him my family situation, but he really wanted me to stay. Once he said I wasn’t going, that was the end of the story.”
True to his word, there were no issues over the next two seasons, other than the fact Judge was mostly deployed on the left wing, much to his frustration. “I’ve never been a winger. I always got put out on there because of the type of player I am – I’d run for the team and they knew I’d run back.”
Then one day in early April last year, a bombshell was dropped. Following a 3-0 defeat away at AFC Wimbledon, Judge was informed that he had made his last appearance for the club; one more start would have triggered a new one-year contract extension – a clause the club no longer wanted to exercise.
With his family situation at the time, it came as a significant blow.
“It was very difficult at the time because my mother passed away two weeks beforehand,” he explains.
“I played for the club continuously for the whole year I knew my mum had cancer, but she was pretty bad in the three months leading up to that, so I was playing on a Saturday, flying back to Dublin on Sunday, flying back Monday for training, playing again Tuesday night, flying back to Dublin Wednesday morning, flying back and playing again Saturday.
For me, it felt as though that just got thrown out – I felt like I deserved a bit more. It wasn’t as if I was playing badly either, I was actually playing quite well but I do understand the club was going in a different direction.
“I got told it was Paul Cook’s decision, then I got told it was the new owner’s decision. I don’t know who made the decision to be honest. It was a weird place to be in. I said in my statement when I left there that it doesn’t surprise me what goes on in football anymore. But I generally loved being at Ipswich. It’s a hell of a place, the club is great and the people are great there.
“I stayed at the club, trained on my own and still went in and used the facilities as, as far as I was concerned, I was still contracted to the club until the summer, so I was keeping myself fit and deciding what to do with my family. I went about my business, said hello to the lads and the people there because the staff treated me great.”
When his contract expired at the end of June, the next opportunity came at Colchester, just 16 miles down the A12.
With Hayden Mullins installed as head coach on a permanent basis having guided the club to safety in 2020/21 and three other former Ipswich team-mates – Cole Skuse, Luke Chambers and Freddie Sears – having already swapped Portman Road for the Jobserve Community Stadium, the project in Essex was attractive.
“I was interested in the vision that they had and everything they were trying to do,” Judge adds.
“I am living in Ipswich, my family are really settled, I am happy down here and it just made sense for me. I knew the quality and the type of players that were going in as well and then I just had to listen to the people running the club and I bought into their ideas.
“After what happened to me the year before and what has happened to me in football in general, I just want to enjoy my last few years of playing football, which is hopefully for about another three or four years.”
It has not quite gone to plan, though. Mullins was relieved of his duties on January 19, following a run of five straight defeats, and though the U’s have not dropped into the relegation zone so far this term, they remain just eight points above it with seven games to play.
“My idea was that I would like to try and do something at Colchester, but we are having a tricky year and our main concentration now is making sure we stay up. It is still a club in transition with many things on and off the pitch and we can deal with other things that need to be dealt with as long as we achieve our main objective and stay up.
“Against most teams, we don’t lose the games by a lot of goals, we lose it by the odd goal and there are games we should have seen out that we haven’t, for example Leyton Orient, Oldham, Carlisle. They are games we should have taken points from, but we took three points from those three games.
“We’ve got a young squad so we are a bit naïve at times, but they are going to get that with experience – they have played a lot of games, so hopefully the year after, they’ll have it and we’ll all be better for it.
And how has Judge found the experience of playing in League Two for the first time?
“I’m very surprised at the amount of football that is actually being played – and I don’t mean that disrespectfully,” he says, correcting himself.
“When I played for Brentford in League One, it was a bit of a mix and match and there weren’t many teams trying to play football. There are a lot of good teams – Swindon, Forest Green, Hartlepool try to play out from the back and Joey Barton has Bristol Rovers playing good football, too.
“I am playing a bit deeper this year, which I do enjoy and I maybe have to try and read the game a bit better as sometimes the ball might not come into midfield as much; it might go forward quicker and you pick up the seconds.
“We’ll learn from this year, our main aim is to stay up, go again next year and hopefully kick on.”
Given what Alan Judge has been through over the past few years, no one can begrudge him that hope.
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