At the start of 2004, I was actually quite positive about becoming forty. I'd (relatively) recently started a new job and, despite numerous aches and pains, was looking forward to my final season in club cricket.
And then my world was turned upside down...
Now is not the time and definitely not the place to go into detail; suffice to say that I began to question the reality of almost every aspect of my life.
Ten years later, so much has changed. I met Elaine, moved to be with her in 2006, and we married in 2008. Starting again in our forties was so difficult, but despite my introspective nature, I don't look back at how things were before Elaine and I got together. Why would I? I now have a life filled with love, laughter, trust and contentment. Yes, a few extra pounds (money not weight) wouldn't go amiss, but we're healthy, we're happy, and I feel incredibly blessed.
That said I can feel the anxiety growing as my fiftieth birthday draws ever closer. I don't want to be fifty.
When I was much younger, I would have expected fifty to be the age of financial stability, and a leisurely stroll towards retirement, but sadly as job disestablishment is now just over six months away, that is hardly the case.
When I joined the NHS, I gave up a steady job because I wanted a career that was both meaningful and hopefully secure. Notwithstanding I was wrong about the latter (although I remain proud to work within the health service), I am well aware that I need to overcome my worries and channel my efforts into finding a job where I can make the best use of the skills I have, make a positive difference to my employer - and give Elaine the best life that I possibly can.
The fact remains that I share every day with the most special person I have ever met, and whatever the future holds, I know I don't have to face it alone. I couldn't say either of those things at forty... nor do I take them for granted. Fifty will come... fifty will go; there's nothing I can do about it. What I can do is gather my strength for what lies ahead, and do everything I can for those who mean the most to me.
Then, and only then, will I start saving for my Saga cruise...
When the idea of undertaking some sort of charity challenge first occurred to me - in true Archimedean spirit, it happened in the bath - I had no real idea what to expect.
I just wanted to set myself a number of goals that would be achievable - not simple, not ridiculously difficult, but tasks that would need effort to arrange, would require help from friends and strangers alike, but which ultimately would not only help raise awareness of mental health issues, but also have a positive impact on my life.
Today I completed the twenty-first of the forty challenges on my list, as enjoyable as so many of the previous twenty, but arguably one of the most surreal.
On yet another miserable May morning, Elaine and I headed south to the pretty little market town of Helmsley, to meet Sarah, a classmate from my primary school (York College, which I left in 1972), and someone I hadn't seen for roughly thirty-five years.
I had been nervous the previous evening. We had exchanged e-mails and texts since I managed to get in touch with Sarah back in January, but actually meeting her was something else altogether. I think it's fair to say that Sarah was my "childhood sweetheart", but given that I was only eight at the time, the intervening decades meant that we were essentially strangers.
We had arranged to meet at Porter's Coffee Shop. Elaine and I arrived at first - which was a surprise seeing as you needed a bloody degree to work the parking meter - but just a couple of minutes later a face that was more familiar than I expected appeared at the other end of the shop.
I needn't have been nervous, the introductions and conversation were relaxed and natural, and there wasn't a single awkward moment - well apart from feeling my cheeks start to redden as Sarah related a Valentine's card story from c.1972... I will check with my Mum, but I'm sure I would have got you a card too...).
I suppose we cross paths with so many people during our lives, those paths inevitably lead and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, never converge again. The fact that Sarah and I attended the same primary school is basically all we had in common, and is probably no real basis for adult friendship. Yet with Elaine and I having spent a very enjoyable couple of hours in Sarah's company, heard about her life and family, and shared our own experiences and stories, I can only say that I hope that the wait for the next meeting is significantly shorter!
On a slightly damp afternoon in Manchester, standing outside probably the most famous pub in the world, I officially reached the halfway point in my 40Fifty charity challenge.
Elaine and I had just been on a tour round the old Granada studios, we'd sat in the Green Room, peered into various dressing rooms, seen some of the internal sets, sat in the Rovers Return (complete with absolutely brand new dartboard) and listened to the guide talk to us as if we were seven!
We even got to stand behind the bar, home to so many iconic figures from Annie and Jack Walker right through to Steve McDonald and Michelle Connor - including my friend Michelle Holmes, who played Tina Fowler back in the late eighties. I'll be honest I could have sat and reminisced for hours, but studio tours wait for no man!
I've watched Coronation Street for as long as I can remember. It's no longer the gritty tale of northern folk, more a main competitor in a ratings war that demands storylines that can sometimes captivate a nation, but can also stretch even the most vivid imagination. As we strolled down the Weatherfield cobbles, practically every house we passed will - at some point or another during the past fifty-three years - have witnessed deaths, disasters, serious crimes (the number of which will be way above the statistical average for one street - and I'm including Deirdre's glasses in that), tears of joy and sadness, champagne comedy moments, and a million other memories.
The set had undergone many changes during the previous five-and-a-bit decades, and much as it was hard to believe that we were walking the same path as Elsie Tanner, Stan and Hilda, Jack and Vera et al, and sitting in the same pub as the likes of Ena, Minnie and Martha, the inescapable truth is that the studio and sets are pieces of pure television history - pieces that will soon disappear forever.
The fact that being pictured outside the Rovers Return was one of my challenges is arguably incidental - this was an hour or so of self-indulgent soap magic. I would urge anyone who loves the show to try and go on the tour before it's too late.
"By the way Elaine, you smell nice... what is it?"
"Woman, Richard... Woman!"
We've just returned from a lovely weekend away at Shrigley Hall, a country hotel hidden away in the Cheshire countryside, not too far from Macclesfield. En route, we stopped off in Manchester to have a look round the soon-to-be-demolished Coronation Street set. The Weatherfield blog will follow later...
As is seemingly the law in and around Manchester, the skies were dark and full of rain. It was still decidedly damp when we arrived at the hotel, but we were arguably less bothered than the couple who had got married earlier that afternoon and whose guests were dodging the puddles on their way to the function room for the evening's festivities.
We took some time to unwind before heading down to the dining room. The directions seemed simple enough... along the corridor, down one floor in the lift, up a few stairs, along another corridor, turn left, down the main stairs, turn right and bingo!
It was a "fine dining" restaurant - which means "small portions" in English, and there wasn't a sauce in sight: jus and coulis, if you please. The food was very tasty indeed though, even to this most uneducated palate, and I was hugely impressed when the waitress set up the dessert cutlery right-handed for Elaine, and left-handed for me. I assumed the pea and mint soup I'd had for my starter gave it away, but I asked the waitress anyway.
Apparently, she'd actually laid the spoon and fork that way because it was simply the nearest side of the table to where she was standing...
Ermm wrong answer.
Sunday morning was spent at Macclesfield's monthly Treacle Market, before we returned for a very enjoyable afternoon tea for two, followed by a leisurely walk around the grounds. The main stairs were being used for photographs following yet another wedding, so we had to find an alternative route through the hotel. I'm sure we could have interrupted proceedings... had we paid five grand for the privilege.
For the record, the newlyweds were called Lisa and Colin. I did consider wishing them a long and happy life together, but statistically...
Anyway Shrigley Hall has an 18 hole golf course that had been redundant most of the weekend, but the rain had relented long enough for a few belated rounds to get underway - and for us to take a late afternoon stroll. On our way round, we spotted a couple of hares and a family of ducks, before our designated route brought us alongside the tenth hole. We watched the three golfers (and I use the term loosely) drive off, the first only having to walk fifty or sixty yards before reaching his ball and playing his second shot.
We deliberately made sure we stayed behind the threesome, because backwards seemed just about the only direction they couldn't mishit the ball. At one point, one of them shouted over: "Are you golfers?"
Coincidentally, the very same question I was thinking of asking them.
What was for certain was that even if we'd been in the firing line so to speak, we wouldn't have had to duck to avoid being hit by a wayward golf ball, as shot after shot skimmed across the lush grass. I didn't enquire, but I assumed they must all have bought their irons from Ping's new "Barnes Wallis" range.
It was about then that the duck and ducklings reappeared. They were crossing the fairway - a pretty safe move. I understand that ducks aren't very good at golf, but they do like to spend time watching the players, listening to the banter... basically just enjoying the quack.
The tenth was a long hole: unusually, a par fourteen. We felt less threatened when all three eventually reached the green, and we ambled round the back on the hole and back to the hotel... just in time to watch the Soap Awards!
A relaxing weekend away with your wonderful wife that starts and ends with Corrie... it surely can't get much better!
Between 1969 and 2012 my father ran the 1st XI cricket at St Peter’s School in York. I did once ask if he was to rank the players from four and a bit decades into some sort of order, where would I come. Apparently he had given it some thought and I wasn’t in the top two hundred or so. Maybe I should have a bit more specific... bowlers... left-arm... slow... called Kirby?
Ah... that’s better. At least, I’m now in the top twenty!
Right at the very top of the list however is Jonny Bairstow, and it is perhaps fitting that the school’s first future post-war test debutant (Norman Yardley having made his England debut in 1938) came towards the end of Dad’s tenure. Jonny’s ability and potential were obvious from a very young age, and I know how thrilled Dad was when Jonny came through the county ranks to become a full international.
My own cricket “career” never reached such heights – although plenty of batsman hit me fairly high... and far... and often, but I made plenty of friends and had some great times during my twenty-five years playing club cricket. I retired in 2004 due to a combination of a painful hip problem and public demand, and apart from a handful of overs a couple of years later, I basically hadn’t bowled in almost a decade...
Until yesterday, when the 1981 St Peter’s captain (me) met his 2007-8 counterpart (Jonny) at York Cricket Club in order that I could complete charity challenge no.6 – that of bowling at a county (or more accurately, test) cricketer. Jonny was playing for Yorkshire in a T20 game against a Yorkshire League side in aid of Tim Bresnan’s benefit, and it was slightly unnerving to try and propel a ball from one end of the net to the other (preferably bouncing just once, and hitting the back of the net and not the side or top) with the cream of local cricketing talent warming up next to me.
That said the first ball not only pitched, but turned: from memory that had last happened in 1995 – and even then it was only the once. Anyway, I practised for about a quarter of an hour, before Jonny arrived, and it was time to bowl the “proper” over.
All six pitched (once each), the first four were slightly short of a length, but there was nothing wrong with the last two, which were very respectfully defended (please see video for proof!). I was pleasantly surprised with how I bowled, although I was far less impressed by how much my back was hurting... and still is if you’re interested.
The customary photo was taken – and Jonny also signed another picture (which he duly pierced with one of his spikes for authenticity!). It was over in a matter of minutes, but they were the last deliveries I will ever bowl and it was a privilege to bowl them at arguably the finest player to have ever graduated from the St Peter’s cricket field.
Dad and I watched the Yorkshire innings when the game eventually got underway. The New Zealand test batsman Kane Williamson played some truly wonderful shots in a quickfire 95, before Jonny came to the crease and made some decent bowlers look very ordinary indeed, as he reached 48 not out from probably no more than twenty deliveries. They included two sixes over long-on (one was a towering blow) off York slow left-armer Dan Woods. Dan is a class act, one of the best bowlers you’ll find in league cricket, but he went the proverbial journey last night... in stark contrast may I add to yours truly!!!
Anyway, in saying a huge thank you to Jonny for taking the time to let me complete my nineteenth challenge, I also want to mention Nick Kay, a quality cricketer in his own right, another former St Peter’s pupil – and, incidentally, another significantly higher than me in Dad’s list – who had both organised last night’s fixture, and agreed for me to use the club’s facilities. Thanks Nick... although you should be aware that I’m holding you indirectly responsible for the fact that I can barely walk today!!
When I started my 40Fifty charity challenge back in January, there were a few reasons why I wanted to raise awareness of, and funds for the mental health charity Mind.
Some of those reasons are personal, although I have written about them and even spoken about them in the three radio interviews I've done. I've also been inspired by some people - including cricketer Marcus Trescothick, whose autobiography was, at times, incredibly moving - and affected by others, the late Gary Speed being the most notable.
Obviously, a lot can happen during a year-long challenge. For example, whilst I was pretty certain that I was going to turn fifty (June 3rd if you want to buy me a present), I suppose I was less prepared to find out my job will be disestablished in a few months time. But my own problems and worries pale into insignificance when someone you know passes away both unexpectedly and in awful circumstances.
The person in question was Sharon Evans, someone with whom Elaine had worked for well over a decade. I knew Sharon reasonably well, but plenty of people on the team were extremely close to her. In the scheme of things she wasn't particularly old, and whenever I had been in her company, Sharon was almost always chatty and outgoing; great with the blood donors at work, and blessed with a seemingly never-ending wardrobe for nights out.
Sharon was simply not the sort of person you would have expected to suffer from depression.
But she did.
There may have been a reason, a trigger, I don't know - and frankly it's none of my business - but there could just as easily have been no explanation at all. Depression is such a cruel form of mental illness, essentially unseen, sometimes badly misunderstood, but potentially so destructive, and the absolute tragedy is that Sharon's personal anguish ended with her taking her own life.
I cannot imagine Sharon's pain.
I cannot imagine her family and closest friends' grief.
But I can take this opportunity to thank Sharon's friends and colleagues from work, who have asked that part of their collection be donated to Mind in memory of a very courageous woman.
That I shall do with sadness, with respect, and with an even greater determination to complete my challenge.
Rest in peace Sharon x.
How many people are waking up across Gateshead this morning, wondering if it is all a dream?
Yesterday, in a game that was low on quality, but off the scale in tension and drama, Gateshead defeated Grimsby 3-1 (4-2 on aggregate) and are now set to play Cambridge United at Wembley, with the winners heading into the Football League.
Yes... the actual Football League... the one from which the name of Gateshead was so cynically removed in 1960.
For me, it was a totally surreal experience, not just because Gateshead Stadium has been so impressively upgraded since I moved away from the town, but because during the decade or so that I travelled far and wide following the team, the Football League was something that one or two of your players had tasted during their career, but a level to which your club could never really aspire.
Just being around for another season was a cause for celebration, and the occasional wins at places like Stalybridge, Bath, Kidderminster, Kettering, Gretna, Emley, Marine and Radcliffe etc were the icing on our non-League cake.
Some of the faces at the Stadium were the same—well the same but older—but the nerves were plain to see: the 1990s definition of nerves was getting to a ground with the rusty minibus windows still intact. Yes, that's how much it has all changed.
I was lucky enough to have been invited to share the corporate hospitality yesterday, and it was hugely impressive: well-organised, excellent food, plenty of drink for those that weren't driving, and thoroughly enjoyable company. Surely it wasn't going to be a great day, ruined by ninety minutes of football..?
The atmosphere inside the ground was superb. The attendance was 8,144, probably ten times Gateshead's home league average, and the biggest for a Gateshead club sporting fixture since the heady days of Gateshead Thunder's 1999 Super League campaign.
Both sides looked nervous throughout the early exchanges, but the game (and the home fans) exploded into life midway through the half when James Marwood's speculative drive was spectacularly fumbled by Mariners' keeper James McKeown. For the rest of the period Gateshead looked comfortable, without being consistently threatening and the single goal separated the sides after forty-five minutes.
The pattern continued at the start of the second period, but somewhat bizarrely the momentum swung Grimsby's way when they were reduced to ten men. Gateshead looked unsure how to play with their man advantage, and spurred on by their left-back (and best player) Aswad Thomas, the visitors pressed forward and netted a deserved equaliser—which prompted an ugly-looking pitch invasion and the arrival of a sizeable police presence at the far right-hand side of the ground.
Grimsby continued to look the more likely to score, until the game took another twist with another sending off, Sam Hatton being dismissed for the second of two needlessly reckless challenges.
Finally the numerical difference started to show, Gateshead dominated possession, but lacked a bit of composure in the final third. It needed something special to break the deadlock, and the moment finally arrived with just six minutes remaining, as James Marwood unleashed an unstoppable left-foot shot that flew past McKeown to spark some wild celebrations amongst the home fans and a rather unnecessary pitch invasion by some of the Gateshead contingent.
For some reason, Grimsby let Gateshead pass the ball around for the next five minutes—with a similar period of stoppage time being added as the clock reached ninety minutes. Belatedly, Grimsby pushed forward, only to be caught on the break, with JJ O'Donnell sliding the ball into an empty net to put the result beyond doubt.
One minute later, the final whistle was the catalyst for another pitch invasion, essentially celebratory, but sadly a small minority of idiots tried to goad the travelling supporters.
Of course it's easy to gloat when there is a cordon of police separating you from the opposing supporters; it's a bit like going to a zoo and waving your burger at a lion, safe in the knowledge that it's snarling behind the bars of a metal cage. All a bit unnecessary really.
The Gateshead players eventually made their way through the mass of supporters to exchange applause with the fans in the main stand, before heading for the sanctuary of the dressing room. Each player's subsequent arrival in the lounge was greeted by loud applause, with a special ovation being reserved for the appearance of Chairman Graham Wood.
Overall, it was an incredible day, but essentially it's still a job half done. Two weeks from today, Gateshead's fate will be known: another year in the Conference... or a long overdue return to the Football League. From what I've seen, this Gateshead squad is certainly good enough, they'll have the amazing Heed Army behind them, and 18th May might just mark the end of one remarkable sporting story... and the first chapter in another.
For the last eight years or so, I've got up at some unearthly hour and driven up the A19, along the Felling by-pass and into Newcastle to get to work. I've lost count of the number of times I've passed Gateshead International Stadium... home of the town's football and rugby league clubs.
Throughout the two decades that I lived in Low Fell, both these clubs were a hugely important part of my life. Both have encountered more than their fair shares of trials and tribulations, but I suppose that's what makes the good times so much more special.
During the 1990s, I was a regular on not only the Stadium terraces, but at grounds right around the country (actually that should read "countries"—viz. Gretna and Colwyn Bay) watching Gateshead FC. Back in those days, "success" was defined as not being relegated, and a half-decent run in the Trophy and FA Cup.
If following a club was simply about the weekly taste of victory and silverware, then Gateshead would not be on anybody's list of teams to support. But over those years, the players who represented the club, and the small, but ridiculously dedicated band of fans—the Heed Army—gave me so many brilliant memories, the like of which a Manchester United fan (for example) probably wouldn't even understand, let alone appreciate.
It would be rather self-indulgent to recall some of the stories here (suffice to say there were several occasions when there were more Gateshead players on the field than supporters on a far-flung midweek evening terrace) because the real reason for today's blog is to recognise those Gateshead supporters who were travelling then, and still travel now come rain or shine—the hardest of the hardcore.
Tomorrow, Gateshead will entertain Grimsby Town in the second leg of a Conference play-off semi-final, with the tie superbly poised at 1-1 after Thursday's clash at Blundell Park. It's the biggest game in the club's recent history, coming some fifty-four years after being unceremoniously dumped out of the Football League when a first application for re-election was ignored in favour of three clubs all of whom were making one of multiple bids to retain their status.
There have been several occasions during the intervening half century when the very existence of the club was threatened, but for those whose resolve may have been sorely tested, but never broken, this season's third-place finish was a reward that was as fantastic as it was long overdue.
The stark reality is that two games of football lie between Gateshead and a return to the Football League. Even typing the words it's hard to take in, but tomorrow afternoon I will be privileged to be back on the terraces, hoping against hope that there is at least one more chapter to write...
But tomorrow isn't about me, nor the majority of an expected 6,000 crowd. In some respects it's not even about the manager, and his magnificent squad of players, nor those whose hard work and investment has helped make this occasion possible.
No. Tomorrow is about Tony, Gary (Frankie), John, Mickey, Tommy et al... for the thousands of pounds... the tens of thousands of miles... the sheer love of their club. It was a pleasure being a small part of your remarkable journey (a horrible word—apologies), and if a Wembley trip and maybe even beyond is fated to happen, then you deserve every single special moment.