“Not at this minute, no,” says Neil Dalton when I ask if he is missing his old life as a professional football physiotherapist, now that he has stepped out of the sport after decades in order to begin a new venture.

Since childhood Dalton has spent his life in the game, most notably through hundreds of games tending to Carlisle United’s injured bones and muscles. Latterly there were also spells with Aberdeen and Celtic, but now the man known commonly in these parts as 'Dolly' has left the pro game and set up on his own.

Neil Dalton Physiotherapy is in its infancy in Carlisle and, while it is a significant change for the 45-year-old, he currently feels refreshed by doing something different.

“I’ve spoken to a couple of physios who’ve gone down this route,” he says. “One of them texted me to say, ‘Once you get busy, it’ll change your life – and once you see football from the other side, you won’t miss it’.”

Dalton, who was an apprentice player and then a highly respected physio at Brunton Park, now aims to offer physiotherapy to people of all ages, backgrounds and states of fitness. He works from an impressive, open-plan room at the Sheepmount which is also home to Dan Anderton’s longer-established sports therapy business, Dan Anderton Human Mechanics. The two men have known each other for years and linked up when Dalton resolved to come out of football.

“I work in here,” he says, pointing to a partitioned area, “and I have an office for consultations which gives a bit of privacy. Then, in the middle of this space, Dan and I can work together. It’s a brilliant place to work.”

Because of Dalton’s qualifications, he can work with patients referred by GPs or privately. He is able to arrange and assess scans and advise on rehabilitation and exercise plans. This is his fifth week since setting up the clinic. “I’ve had about half a dozen people in each week. I know it’ll take a few months to get those numbers up – but I’m enjoying it. In football, you normally have five minutes to crack on with whatever player and joint you’re faced with. This is completely different – there’s more time, and it’s much more relaxed.”

News and Star: Neil 'Dolly' Dalton at his new base at the SheepmountNeil 'Dolly' Dalton at his new base at the Sheepmount

Dalton says he clocked up 1,209 games as Carlisle’s head physio after taking over from Peter Hampton in 1997, so when his departure was announced in 2020 it felt like the end of an era. Dalton was greatly respected by fans and by the legion of players he helped, but admits now that, for various reasons, it was time for a change.

“You probably get a bit stale with it,” he says. “Because you’ve only ever done that one thing, you get a sort of tunnel vision, where you don’t see anything else. My kids growing up was all around football. My wife, all around football. Holidays, all around football. You miss weddings, stag dos, family functions. And, being at Carlisle all that time, you don’t see anything else outside Carlisle. Your whole life is about Carlisle United.

"A couple of years previous I’d been offered the chance to go up to Aberdeen, where the head of recruitment was [the former Carlisle chief scout] Russ Richardson. It wasn’t quite the right time…but as things went on I knew I wasn’t enjoying it the same. My missus would tell you I was like a bear with a sore head half the time.”

The Aberdeen opportunity reappeared in the winter of 2019, at a time United were under the fledgling management of Chris Beech. Dalton is clear that he does not want to put all his disillusionment on the former head coach, but it is apparent that, either way, his enjoyment of both job and club was fading.

“I suppose I wasn’t happy in the job myself, and that was probably getting me a bit down,” he says. “There was also a bit of a blame culture going on; everything seemed to be blamed on what had gone before. Even on the non-footballing side in the staff, it just didn’t seem a happy place to work. I just thought it was one of those things where something had to give.”

Dalton said the environment around the squad at Carlisle had also changed over a period of years. “Your Nicky Adamses, Mike Joness, Jabo [Ibehre]s, Danny Graingers, Jamie Devitts…I could list 15 or 20 of them. Even in the times when you were struggling yourself, you would go into work and the day would change on its head because of those lads.

“The last year at Carlisle…you didn’t have that togetherness. You had little factions and it was tough. Is that why it didn't work for Steven [Pressley, Beech's predecessor]? Maybe."

News and Star: Neil Dalton in the treatment room with former United skipper Kevin Gray in 2005Neil Dalton in the treatment room with former United skipper Kevin Gray in 2005

Dalton says Pressley, who struggled for results over an 11-month tenure, was one of the hardest-working managers he ever worked for. Beech was the Scot's replacement from November 2019 but a few months later and Dalton had decided it was time.

It is a little sad to hear such a long servant coming to the conclusion that, by the end, he felt he could depart Brunton Park largely unnoticed. "I suppose if I’d got on really well with the manager, I might have stuck it out, or at least said I was struggling a bit, not enjoying it the same. I didn’t have that relationship, to be honest. I got to the point where, other than those I’d worked with a long time, I didn’t think many people would have been bothered [if I left].

“I came to the conclusion that it was time to have a go. I was lucky. I got an out.”

Dalton’s move to Aberdeen was held up by Covid but he eventually made it to Pittodrie in June last year. “There was a big medical staff who rotated. It was brilliant to experience. Pre-season was full-on and there were also Europa League games in the first couple of months. We went out to Norway, played Sporting Lisbon…it was great.”

Dalton would leave Carlisle at 4.15am on a Monday and arrive in the north of Scotland between three-and-a-half and four hours later for the week ahead. The plan was for the dad-of-two to have two days off a week, but Scotland’s Covid rules, and the need for regular testing, meant he could not be as home as often as he had hoped.

“If we were in Europe, I’d be home in Carlisle for about 34 hours then had to be back up to get tested. Because I couldn’t do that with the lads, I had to go to the airport, where the oil-rigging lads would get theirs done. I’d be there for 7.30am and wait in the car an hour for the result.

“It was difficult in a sense. The wife and kids never actually got up to Aberdeen because of the lockdowns. I was in a hotel for the first period then got a little one-bed flat near the training ground, on my tod. There was a game on Sky nearly every night, which was a godsend...”

Dalton is philosophical about these circumstances, and glad he experienced different aspects of football and life. “The snow,” he chuckles. “I’d never seen anything like it. I used to think Oldham away on a Tuesday night was Baltic, but it was nothing compared with Aberdeen. You get an inch of snow in England and things stop. They would have a foot and things would just keep going.”

Aberdeen were investing in plush new training facilities during Dalton’s time there but after a season he came to the conclusion that he could not be part of it. Family had to come first, and it was also time to scratch the itch by going it alone. “The club itself was brilliant," he says. "I just wasn’t home enough. With a teenage son, a daughter into her A Levels…it was hard to leave them six days a week. They probably never missed me, mind – I’m probably the disciplinarian between me and my missus…”

Dalton’s plans to join up with Dan Anderton were forming, and he planned to take the summer off before getting started. A week into that break, Tim Williamson, the head of physiotherapy and medical services at Celtic and a long-standing contact, called him. A physio at Parkhead was off work for six weeks, having had a hip operation. Could ‘Dolly’ fill the void?

“I thought, 'a club of that size…I’d like to have a go at that'."

Dalton joined the physio team that covered Celtic's home games. The arrangement lasted for nine weeks and introduced Dalton to life at a major club.

“When they got 53,000 in for European nights…it’s an atmosphere everyone should experience,” he says. “You do realise, when you're there, how Glasgow is very staunch: Rangers/Celtic, you’re one or the other. In the day-to-day football staff of approximately 30 folk, there were only three of us [who weren’t Catholics and Celtic devotees]. A lot of them had played for the club.

“I thought, ‘Crikey, am I gonna get some stick here? Will I have to sit in the canteen by myself?' But once I got in there…they were brilliant. It was magnificent. Whey I eventually left, Tim asked if I fancied a position. But I’d made my decision and I didn’t want to keep stringing Dan along.”

His new base in Carlisle was duly established – and Dalton is animated about the challenge, now, of helping people of all backgrounds, not just pro footballers with their egos and strains. 

“It can be someone sedentary, ageing, who’d like to prolong their life," he says. "I can provide them with a plan. It doesn’t have to be ‘couch to 5k’. It can be ‘couch to walking the dog for 25 minutes’.”

Dalton says that working with the public brings more neck and back injuries than he has been used to dealing with in football. “You’ve got to get the books back out, look at full assessments again.”

He adds, with a wry smile, that while helping a footballer back from a long-term injury invariably brought words of gratitude, private clients are “so much more thankful” than the average player who he helped recover from a minor knock. He also appreciates the mental boost a fitness plan can give a person.

“Seeing people improve, get better, have a smile on their face after coming in initially worried...it’s a real pleasure," he says. "My oldest client so far has been a 75-year-old guy. He loves playing bowls, but because of lockdown, he hadn’t done it for months. He starts again and gets a bad back. He’s then worrying like mad – ‘my bowling career’s over, I’m 75, I want to be doing this 'til I drop...what do I do..?’

“He came in for an assessment, and while I told him it might take a couple of months to overcome, the first thing I said was, ‘I don’t want you to stop playing bowls’. I gave him a series of exercises and he’s happy with that. He's got some peace of mind.

“In lockdown, he didn’t think he could go and see anybody about his back, and couldn’t get in with his own GP. I imagine there’s a huge proportion of the population suffering in silence like that. Some people I’ve seen, if they don’t have some form of exercise, you worry about them. You can see why depression and anxiety took hold in lockdown. One small thing can cascade, and they feel they’ve got nothing to look forward to. If we can play even a small part in lifting people, it’s brilliant.”

News and Star: Dalton, who clocked up 1,209 games as United's head physio, received a memento at the 1,000 mark from chairman Andrew JenkinsDalton, who clocked up 1,209 games as United's head physio, received a memento at the 1,000 mark from chairman Andrew Jenkins (Image: Louise Porter)

In terms of football, Dalton now reverts to being a Carlisle United fan as part of his new life in his home city. “I went to the Forest Green game last month,” he says, “and I realised it was the first game I’d actually gone to watch for 30 years. I used to go on the Warwick [Road End], near the old tuckshop, as a bairn, but once I was a YTS it would be a case of rushing back from a youth game to see the first team, and then later working as physio.

“We got beat 2-0 but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Went for a pint before the game, pint at half-time…then a pint after the game! 'This is brilliant’. I’d never experienced it as an adult.”

At the Forest Green game, Dalton watched Ross Goodwin, his successor as United physio (and someone Dalton knew, and was pleased to see the Blues recruit), doing his old job. Did he not have the itch to be out there one last time with his bag? “Nah. I was very comfortable. There was a moment when Ross ran on the pitch and it was deadly silent in B Stand. One of my closest friends shouted, ‘At least we’ve got a decent physio now…’

“I could see folk chuckling, their shoulders going. I was sat there wanting the earth to swallow me up…”

For more information visit ‘Neil Dalton Physiotherapy’ on Facebook, neildalton_physio on Instagram and www.dahumanmechanics.co.uk.