Mitchell Cole admits he doesn’t know what the future holds.

The Oxford United midfielder, who has been forced to retire at the age of 25 because of a deteriorating heart problem, says he is still trying to come to terms with the fact he will never play competitive football again.

“It’s hard to swallow at the minute,” he said. “I only got the news a couple of weeks ago, so it’s still sinking in. But it’s tough.

“Football’s been my life. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

The former West Ham youth player, who went on to join Grays, Southend, Northampton and Stevenage before signing for Oxford last summer, was first diagnosed with a heart problem at the age of 17.

But it was something he was able to live with, and did not inhibit his footballing career.

Yet when last autumn he was not getting truly fit, the club sent him for more extensive tests, and they revealed a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a thickening of the left side of the heart.

“When the doctors told me at 17, it was more that this ‘might’ happen,” he said. “Now it’s a case of this ‘will’ happen sooner or later.”

Mitchell, who has two young children, a daughter aged five and son aged three, has worries about the future for them too.

“Both have to be scanned on a regular basis because it’s a genetic disorder,” he explained.

“There’s a 50 per cent chance that they’ll get it too, which is obviously worrying.”

Cole made just two starts for United, at West Ham in the Carling Cup, and at Aldershot in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, plus four brief cameos as a substitute.

He feels “gutted”, he says, that the Oxford fans never saw him at his best, at least not when he was in a yellow shirt.

“I think I’ve played more games against Oxford than for them, which is bizarre because I’ve been here six months,” he said.

“But they saw enough of me playing against them to know what they’re missing out on, and how I’m feeling at the minute.”

Cole played more than a dozen times for his country, scoring seven goals in his 14 England C appearances.

At Grays he won the Conference South title and the FA Trophy, and he twice helped Stevenage lift the FA Trophy, scoring in the first-ever final at the new Wembley Stadium as they beat Kidderminster 3-2.

“I’m quite happy with my achievements,” he said, with clear emotion in his voice.

“I’ve won something every year I’ve played and you get some who go through their whole career and don’t win anything.”

His worsening condition means he must not play competitively, but he hopes to still do some physical exercise, and to stay involved in sport.

“It limits me,” he said. “I can still have kickabouts with my friends, but as far as competitive action goes, that’s it for me.

“I’m exploring every avenue. I’ve got my agent working on it, and the chairman here, Kelvin Thomas, is working on a couple of avenues to see if they can keep me in football or something that is sport-related.”