It has hardly been a bumper year for the region’s local football clubs, with Middlesbrough and Sunderland bound for the Championship, Hartlepool losing their league status, and York City (FA Trophy notwithstanding) facing virtual oblivion in National League North after a second successive relegation.
Newcastle United’s immediate elevation back to the top flight is some positive news, although most praise should be reserved for South Shields, who have the chance to end an outstanding campaign in the best possible style if they win Sunday’s FA Vase final at Wembley.
But away from the headlines and the back pages, a local club has achieved a promotion that effectively ranks them as one of the top twenty clubs in their sport in the entire country….
Earlier this month, Grangetown Netball Club travelled down to Nottingham to compete in the end-of-season play-offs, and try and secure a place in National League Premier 2. Aside from the sport’s Super League (which is run on a franchise basis), the National Premier League is netball’s foremost domestic club competition; Grangetown had been relegated from Prem 2 last year, but a new young squad had been consistent and competitive throughout a demanding Prem 3 season, which involved travelling in excess of 3,000 miles for just nine away fixtures.
Last season’s relegation via the play-offs was all the more difficult to accept because no less than five squad members were unavailable due to international commitments with Scotland and Ireland in the annual European Championships.
This year however, coach Gel Williams chose to focus on the future by recruiting a number of talented youngsters to join Grangetown’s own gifted teenagers Hannah Raine and Tasha Grylls in a squad led by club captain Vicky Rees and vice-captain Ria Small.
Ireland’s Australian-born defender Gen Slater travelled over from Dublin virtually every weekend to take her place in the squad alongside fellow Ireland international Katie Walton, and Jenny Mrozik.
It was very much a blend of youth and experience, but the squad gelled quickly and after a couple of narrow reverses, the team acquired the winning habit and began to climb the table. The squad was arguably the fittest in the division and their relentless combination of defensive pressure and speed through the court resulted in some thrilling and dramatic matches over the past seven months; and their third-placed finish was as hard-earned as it was thoroughly deserved.
Although Grangetown made the trip to Nottingham without Jaydene Robinson and Brie Grierson (due to Team Northumbria commitments), fellow Newcastle-based students Abbie le Brocq and Kate Hill joined the squad for the four-club round robin. The equation was simple: the two clubs with the best records would be in Prem 2 for 2017/18, the other two would be in the third division….
Grangetown recorded two convincing wins from their three fixtures, but lost to a dominant Linden side that retained its Prem 2 status with a 100% record. There were a few nervous moments before Grangetown’s promotion was confirmed, but results went the way of the Middlesbrough club and the celebrations could begin in earnest.
To play netball at a national level demands huge dedication and commitment as well as sporting ability. There may be no comparison between football and netball in terms of popularity, money and audiences, but in fairness, as far as respective seasons are concerned, there has been no comparison between results and achievements either….
On Friday night, Elaine and I took part in the Big Tees Sleepout, an event organised by the Middlesbrough & Teesside Philanthropic Foundation to raise awareness of (and funds for) homelessness and poverty in the region.
It was going to be a new experience for both of us; so much so that we had to borrow a sleeping bag and purchase a couple of foam mats. The five-day weather forecast had predicted rain during the night; and sure enough, Friday morning was cloudy and cool following a glorious Wednesday and Thursday.
However, as the day progressed, the temperature remained mild, and the final forecast we heard suggested that the rain would linger in the west of the country, and we were set for a dry night—something of a relief.
We were advised to wear plenty of layers, so that’s exactly what we did; thermal vest, jumper, hoodie, and waterproof jacket just in case of a Michael Fish-style blunder with the weather. Hat, gloves and thermal socks for the old extremities and we were almost ready for the off….
There are actually two sleepouts every year; one in summer, the other towards the end of the year. The later event is apparently much more popular (or perhaps “well-attended” might be more appropriate), with often three or four times as many participants than the thirty or so that assembled at Middlesbrough College on Friday.
When we arrived, we had to sign a disclaimer that said something along the lines of: “you accept you may be injured, or even die”. I was fully prepared to go home with a sore back, but to be honest, I felt less inclined to perish in the attempt; but no matter, we completed the form and set up our double sleeping bag and pillows in the designated area outside the main building.
Much as the event aims to highlight the hardship faced by the homeless and the poor, we had the luxury of being given a warm meal (soup or jacket potato), hot drinks and access to toilet facilities. What we were about to experience was therefore only a taste of the reality faced by so many on a nightly basis, but I suppose it’s important to actually ensure a decent attendance… and help to raise as much as possible towards supporting those most in need.
Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, we had raised £150; the total donated on the night exceeded £5,000, the news of which was a boost as we headed back outside.
I wasn’t expecting a get too much sleep, but after a couple of poor nights during the week, I was certainly tired. I snuggled into the sleeping bag, gloves and hat on, but shoes off, closed my eyes and started to drift. There was a hum of conversation from those around us that was more relaxing than annoying, and I reckon I was probably asleep by half past ten.
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t easy to stay comfortable for long periods, and I stirred several times in order to readjust my position—and to remove my hat and gloves; would you believe I was too warm?! Each time I woke, I remember thinking that despite a couple of aches and a bit of cramp, this was only one night; and it wasn’t even cold or wet.
How do people manage when this isn’t just a one-off? When it starts to rain… when the temperature drops….
It’s so easy to take the lives we have for granted.
I woke properly at about five o’clock. The sun was starting to rise, and it was a beautiful morning. Elaine was still fast asleep, but she opened her eyes about half an hour later, having also had a far less difficult night that we’d probably both expected.
The event (which was extremely well organised) ended at six o’clock, and people started to drift off back to their respective homes for the weekend. Within half an hour we were sitting in our living room… and it was basically a normal (albeit early) start to what would hopefully be a normal day.
But with a far greater appreciation that everybody’s “normal” is not the same.
During the past three-and-a-half years, I’ve had a go at things that I used to be reasonably good at; things I thought I might not be too bad at; and things I was hoping against hope I wouldn’t be totally rubbish at.
Recording a song came very much in that final category.
True, I had been a chorister whilst at junior school, but my angelic treble tones disappeared in a flurry of teenage hormones, and I was left with a voice that would have been classified as basso profundo… had I retained the ability to stay in tune.
That said when I’m driving to and from work with the window down and the volume up, I genuinely believe I can sing; it wasn’t until I taped myself practising for this particular challenge that I realised that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It was a sobering moment….
When I added the recording task, I thought it would be a good idea to sing a duet, thereby offering me an opportunity to hide behind someone who had a much better and stronger voice.
The Lee to my Peters happened totally by accident; a random conversation with a colleague at work. That colleague was Georgina Sayers; it seemed like she was a talented singer, so I took the plunge and asked how she felt about singing with me if I was able to get everything arranged?
I was actually taken aback when Georgina said would; although part of me suspected she’d only agreed because the likelihood of the plan reaching fruition probably appeared minimal!
Even so, we chatted over possible suitable songs, and the final choice was on of Georgina’s suggestions: “Set the Fire to the Third Bar” by Snow Patrol (featuring Nancy Wainwright). I didn’t know the song, but even on first listen, I really liked it. It was a was sung as a duet all the way through, so I could hopefully hide behind Georgina’s voice; and although it was essentially of no consequence, I had seen Snow Patrol in concert sometime around 2000—before they hit the big time, so I still felt relevant and trendy… but obviously only a little bit.
The next stage should have been the most difficult to finalise—finding a studio where we could record the song.
I decided to send an e-mail to Lee Tuck, who I’d met a few times when he had been the bass player in an excellent rock-band called The Karma Heart. I hadn’t seen Lee for a good few years, but I thought he might possibly know someone involved with a recording studio who I could contact and ask for help.
Lee did know someone… mainly because he had set up his own studio in South Shields a year or so earlier!
We talked through what I was hoping to do, and he said he’d be happy to get involved, to not only record the song, but video us as we were singing, and also film a short covering video about my reasons for wanting to raise mental health awareness. It was an incredibly generous gesture; something that I could never have expected when I typed the original e-mail. This all happened sometime in February 2017, but we decided to wait until early May before going into the studio because Lee was about to become a father… oh and I needed to practice!
The moment when I recorded myself (with such a dreadful result) came just two days before we were due to sing for real, and my nerves quickly escalated towards anxiety; but I tried to convince myself that Lee and his fellow director at The Garage Studios, Kyle Martin, would have state-of-art computer equipment capable of working miracles—even with voices like mine.
On the morning of May 8, Georgina picked me up, and as we headed north up the A19, we sang the song together for the first time. As I suspected, Georgina had a lovely voice, but much as I was still concerned about how I would sound, we both agreed this was an experience we might never have again, and it was important that we made sure we enjoyed it.
We arrived at the Garage Studios just before ten o’clock; Lee and Kyle appeared a couple of minutes later; we climbed the stairs and ventured into the studio… and it all felt quite daunting. While Lee set up the lighting in the studio, Kyle was busy sorting out the backing track and all things technical. After setting up the studio, Lee joined Kyle in what I would have called the “control room”; they could talk to us, but we could not see them—and as far as our nerves were concerned, that was no bad thing.
Although we had both learned the words, we had a copy of the lyrics on a music stand, just in case one or both minds went blank when the recording got underway. We did a first run-though, which went reasonably well except that I just couldn’t find the right pitch for the opening note of the first and third lines of the chorus. It was the one part of the song where the two voices diverged (if that’s the right word); and, of course, I was conscious that there were two more choruses to come.
Georgina was very reassuring, just as I would have been had I been note perfect! I could sense I was on edge (something that Georgina had picked up as well), but the second rehearsal was a bit better. The third attempt was recorded (audio only) and it was reassuring when Lee came into the studio with a thumbs up.
He then proceeded to position the three cameras; one that would have us both in view, and one pointing directly at each of us. Funnily enough I didn’t feel fazed by the cameras, nor the microphone; I just wanted to do my best and get the chorus right. We both seemed much more relaxed, and the first “take” (as we call it…) went well—as did the second. By then I felt much less self-conscious and thoroughly enjoyed those live recordings. Georgina sounded amazing, and singing together was a lovely feeling.
Lee entered the studio once again; this time to say that they had everything they needed. Basically, they had two video and three audio recordings and could use them to create the best overall finished product possible. They said it was just a case of cutting and pasting, but I’m sure it was a bit more involved than that; either way, I hoped that I didn’t irreparably damage their auto-tuning software; and I also encouraged them to consider auto-chin software for future videos—sometimes one chin is all you want to see!
Lee then rearranged the cameras and lighting for the video, which I did in one take and a ten second introduction… which took two! A couple of photos of the four of us and as the clocked ticked towards midday, the challenge was essentially completed.
Except of course that there was the small matter of the recording: how would we sound… and what would we look like?
I was like a child on Christmas morning waiting for the link to the files to appear in my inbox, but after hearing nothing for the rest of the day, a message from Lee appeared at just after six o’clock the following morning. I downloaded the files, then played the video….
It was amazing. Of course, I could easily pick all sorts of faults with the way I looked, but I thought the piece to camera definitely conveyed the message that it is fine to ask for help; and the song just totally blew me away.
However good I thought Georgina had sounded in the studio, the final recording was stunning; I can’t believe how lucky I was that she chose to do this with me. I sounded far better than I imagined possible (don’t you just love technology); I was in tune, and actually our voices blended together really well.
It was all very surreal—especially listening to the audio. You know it’s you… yet it’s hard to fully accept that it actually is.
What Lee and Kyle did to help me complete this challenge was just fantastic. They have made a massive and lasting contribution, and to be honest, it’s not really possible to convey my thanks through a few written words.
This was the 86th completed challenge, so many experiences and memories… but I’m not sure one individual challenge has made me feel such a range of emotions; and that in itself says a lot about my visit to the Garage Studios.
So, thank you Lee… thank you Kyle… and thank you too Georgina; it was a day I will never forget.
The last time I was in a swimming pool, the distance of a length was measured in yards… or was it leagues?
However, the fact that swimming a mile was on the list meant that it was always going to be difficult to avoid dipping my toe into chlorinated water at some point (open water was always a non-starter). On the May Day Bank Holiday in 2017, I felt the time was right to go to my local leisure centre and see how close I could get to the 66 lengths of the 25-metre pool that would equal one mile.
I had been doing quite a bit of training in the gym, so I knew I was reasonably fit; but an hour’s breaststroke was a totally different proposition to the same time on a rowing machine. I was concerned that my back might seize up, but the hope was that I would get somewhere near halfway before the aches and pains started.
And as it turned out, it was around halfway when I got my first twinge—halfway down the second bloody length. Six lengths later, I was convinced one of my contact lenses had come out (and yes, I know you’re not supposed to wear them in the pool….), but after a couple of minutes the blurred figures that kept overtaking me started to come back into focus.
As far as my technique is concerned, the fact that my back was getting pretty sore would suggest it wasn’t very good; add to that the fact that I was considerably slower than “Eric the Eel”, it was probably a slight error of judgement that I chose to plod up and down the “fast lane”….
Thankfully I started to forget about my back… when my neck and shoulders started to stiffen up; but as soon as I passed 33 lengths, I was confident that I was going to complete the mile. I didn’t time myself to the split second, but as my weary arms touched the wall at the end of the 66th and final length, a quick look at the clock confirmed that it had taken a few seconds either side of 58 minutes to finish the task.
The biggest test was still to come. Despite the lanes being all but empty by now, the lifeguard at the opposite end of the pool wasn’t overly impressed when I tried to take the customary post-challenge photo. However, he was twenty-five metres away; I pretended not to hear him and took a quick selfie before dropping my phone back in the rucksack I’d left near the edge of the pool. I hauled my portly frame out of the water (at the first attempt… impressive!), and trudged back to the changing room… aching, but happy.