Stars gather for touching story of Danny Wallace

Danny Wallace recalls the moment he knew his football career and, for a period, much of his life was over. It was one evening back in 1995 when he turned out for the reserves during a frustrating 18-month spell at Birmingham City. "The whole of one side of my body felt really, really heavy," he recalls. "Kicking the ball was like kicking a balloon full of water. My foot felt like that and I felt like that all down my right side as well."

Danny Wallace recalls the moment he knew his football career and, for a period, much of his life was over. It was one evening back in 1995 when he turned out for the reserves during a frustrating 18-month spell at Birmingham City. "The whole of one side of my body felt really, really heavy," he recalls. "Kicking the ball was like kicking a balloon full of water. My foot felt like that and I felt like that all down my right side as well."

Wallace had ended up in Birmingham's second string after one of the most glittering careers in English football had slipped into alarming decline. Little did he know, and it wasanother year before he found out, that he was suffering from multiple sclerosis, a condition that attacks the central nervous system.

"After I was diagnosed it was a shock," Wallace, now 40, says. "Maybe this was a problem that I'd had throughout my career. Then after that a bit of depression set in. I never came out of my house for about five years. It was scary, it was lonely. I had my family and they have been so good for me. But it was a deep, deep depression.

"Close friends knew what had happened, but not most people in football. I think I was embarrassed. I really wanted people to remember me as a player. The way I was was not the way I had become. My balance went and everything, I was falling over. I just thought to myself, 'No, I'm not going out'."

The distress is hard to imagine - particularly for such a high-achieving sportsman. Wallace became the youngest player in Southampton's history when he made his first-team debut aged 16. His performances, his skill and pace, brought him international recognition and he was capped by England in 1986. Two years later he made history again, playing for Southampton with his two brothers Ray and Rod before he made a £1.3m move to Manchester United, where he won the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners' Cup.

But it was at Old Trafford that his problems started. "I was at United for four years, and in the last two years I started to get a lot of niggling injuries - hamstrings and calf muscles - and they were occurring a lot more frequently than normal injuries should," Wallace says. "I would play a game and I'd be out for two or three weeks and then I'd come back, play a couple of games and get injured again. It was a circle."

At Birmingham it got worse - "pains in my back, pins and needles in my fingers" - before a three-month spell at Wycombe Wanderers signalled the end. He went to see the Professional Footballers' Association and they referred him to a specialist. "It was frustrating more than frightening," Wallace says. "I didn't know what was happening, I just wanted to play football and just thought this was something that was holding me up."

It was football that brought him out of his depression. His friend, and former Southampton team-mate, George Lawrence came to see him in Manchester, where Wallace and his family live. The two men have known each other for 26 years. There had been talk of a testimonial or benefit match. Lawrence decided he would make it happen, and tomorrow night at St Mary's Stadium a Southampton XI will play an All-Star XI.

It is a stellar line-up, including Matt Le Tissier, John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley, Mick Channon and Gordon Strachan. Part of the proceeds will go to the MS Society. "And now I feel I can come out because of this game and I feel more comfortable," Wallace says. He went down to St Mary's last month and was overwhelmed by the crowd's appreciation.

"I'm not too bad at the moment," Wallace says of his MS. "About three weeks ago I wasn't too good because I'd been trying to promote the game, and I had then to spend three or four days in bed.

"The fatigue is the worst thing. Seeing people is really tiring. My walking also is really bad. I use a cane now and have done so for a few years, and that's quite hard work. I can walk about 50 yards and then I have to stop. When I'm walking I have to make sure that I lift my legs so that I don't trip over the cracks in the pavement. So I have to take care and it takes a lot of concentration."

His family - wife Jenny, 20-year-old son Remi (named after the former United midfielder Remi Moses), 17-year-old daughter Elisha and nine-year-old son Thaila - have pulled him through. Time is now spent looking after Thaila. "He's not seen me run around and do normal father things," Wallace says. "But he's taken it really well." He still watches football. "And it's not hard watching videos of myself, I don't mind," Wallace says.

There's another reason to look forward to tomorrow's match. "I just want to say thank you and goodbye so that I can get on with the rest of my life," Wallace says. "I need to do that, to draw a line, because I never said anything in 1996. I just want a bit of closure now." And, it is hoped, before a sell-out crowd.

Tickets for Danny Wallace's testimonial are available priced £15 (adults) and £5 (concessions) from the Southampton ticket office: 0870 2200 150. For more information on Multiple Sclerosis, visit: www.mssociety.org.uk

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