Another of my Time to Change challenges was completed yesterday, no.70 on the list was “to meet a Premier League footballer”, and the recent promotion of my local club Middlesbrough FC gave me the perfect opportunity to try and fulfil the task without asking my trusty Vauxhall Corsa to add another couple of hundred miles onto the 146,000 it has already covered.
Yvonne Ferguson (from the football club) had already supported the project once before, back in 2014, and I was thrilled when she messaged me to say an appointment had been made for me to visit the club’s training complex and add a seventy-first tick to my list.
The training facilities are situated in the grounds of the imposing Rockcliffe Hall in Hurworth on Tees, just a few miles outside Darlington. On the drive over I passed the Darlington Arena, the stadium which had, for a while at least, been home to the town’s football club after it had moved out the old Feethams ground.
Darlington now share a ground with Bishop Auckland as they attempt to climb their way up the non-league ladder; and the sight of the arena, the whitest of elephants, and the knowledge that houses now stand where the Feethams crowd had once gathered to cheer on their heroes served to remind me that as well as the Quakers, the only two clubs I have ever properly supported—York City and Gateshead—play at a level that in both footballing and financial terms was a million miles away from what I was about to experience.
I parked in the main car park… not another “08 reg” in sight… and strolled into the impressive-looking training complex. After a short wait, I was met by Gordon Cox, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable chat about football past and present, as well as a bit of background to my challenges.
Gordon introduced me to Boro manager Aitor Karanka and also to recent loan signing (from Valencia) Alvaro Negredo. The Spanish international posed for a quick photo and in theory the challenge was completed with the click of the camera shutter; but Gordon asked if there were any players I particularly wanted to meet… there were: George Friend and Ben Gibson.
Gordon disappeared (obviously not literally) for a few minutes, and returned having had a quick word with George (who was happy to oblige), but he hadn’t been able to find Ben.
Soon after, I bumped into Dave Parnaby, Middlesbrough’s Academy manager. Our paths had last crossed on a cricket field over a quarter of a century ago, when Dave played for Durham City and I was getting smacked round many a ground playing for Gateshead Fell. Dave has hardly changed… sadly the same cannot be said for this former slow left-armer.
There were several reasons for wanting to meet George and Ben; one was that we share a mutual friend in Gel Williams (coach of Grangetown Netball club and whose son Luke is a former Boro midfielder), and another is that I knew I would actually recognise both of them. A number of members of the first team squad had already passed by and I am rather embarrassed to admit that simply did not know who some of them were....
Had it been York City’s 1983/84 Fourth Division winning squad, or any of Gateshead’s Vauxhall Conference players from the mid-90s, it would have been no problem, but spotting someone who earns as much in a week as I do in a year proved a whole lot harder!
Anyway, just after George appeared, Ben arrived as well, and we spent ten minutes or so talking about my reasons for being there, some of the challenges I had already undertaken (including the hardest one of all… telling my Mum I was getting a tattoo), and what was planned for the future.
These are elite athletes, playing the sport in which they excel in one of the best leagues in the world, yet they were willing to give up some of their time to talk to someone they had never met… never even heard of. They showed so much interest and asked plenty of questions; and I have to say I was totally impressed by both of these young men….
I am indebted to Yvonne and Gordon for all their help; I can only imagine how many requests come into a top flight football club on a daily basis, so thank you.
Ben, George… quite simply it was a pleasure and privilege to meet you.
And so ends the story of the completion of challenge no.70. As for how to end the blog, I think I can do that in just three letters….
A few nights ago, having temporarily given up trying to get to sleep, I was reflecting on the recent Rio Olympic Games—just as an aside, the Paralympics are producing some equally wonderful performances and inspiring stories—and in particular on the gold medal won by the women’s hockey squad.
Last year, I wrote a charity book about some of my favourite ever sporting moments… poor timing on my part as Leicester City’s Premier League success would now have to be included, and the hockey gold would replace the story of the bronze medal won at London 2012, which had been my personal highlight of the home Games.
It’s never easy trying to rank any personal list—my top ten records would change on an almost daily basis—but the more I think about it, the more I am certain that the achievement of Kate Richardson-Walsh and her squad (plus everyone behind the scenes) is the single finest team performance in British Olympic history. Subjective I know, but this was sporting excellence, drama and emotion of the highest order and whilst it’s absolutely fine to disagree… you’d be wrong!
What I can’t decide is whether the 2016 hockey success is “better” than what I class as my favourite Olympic moment; Ann Packer’s 800 metre triumph in Tokyo back in 1964 (hence the addition of “team performance” in the previous paragraph)—actually I’m not sure how you could, or even if you should compare the two.
I’ve interviewed Ann (who married the fellow Olympian Robbie Brightwell shortly after the Games) about events leading up to her participation in the 800 (a distance she’d only ever run competitively on two occasions prior to Tokyo), the remarkable conclusion to the race, and the moments immediately after she crossed the line when she ran straight into the arms of her future husband who had just finished a relay heat and had managed to avoid the often over-zealous officials and remain trackside to watch his fiancée.
The footage is still remarkable more than fifty years after the event… a quick search and you should easily find the BBC coverage and the official colour film from the Games….
We stayed in touch after speaking on the phone and I had the absolute privilege of being invited to Ann’s home last November to meet her, Robbie and the three medals they won between them in Japan. It was a day I’ll never forget.
Those Games were memorable for Great Britain because they marked the first ever track and field gold medal won by a British female athlete. Ann’s was the first on the track, but she was preceded onto the top of the podium by Mary Rand, one of the finest all-round athletes this country has ever produced (back to that search engine…), who won the long jump–a feat matched by her counterpart in the men’s event; Wales’ Lynn Davies.
Fast forward fifty-two years, and it’s a measure of what Mary and Ann achieved that only seven other female British athletes have subsequently won track and field gold: Mary Peters, Tessa Sanderson, Sally Gunnell, Denise Lewis, Kelly Holmes (twice), Christine Ohuruogu and Jessica Ennis (as she was in 2012).
As for the women’s hockey team, the third-place finishes in London and previously in Barcelona were close as Britain had come to success on the biggest stage of all…. but how all that changed (as undoubtedly will the lives of all those involved) on that incredible evening in Brazil.
I have been fortunate enough to meet four of the squad, albeit over two years ago now, but whilst I may never get the chance to congratulate any of them in person (especially not over tea and biscuits), I hope this short blog gives an idea of just how I view the sheer scale and magnitude of what they collectively accomplished.
The recent Nation’s Cup in Singapore brought together six countries from five continents for what is one of netball’s most important annual events. Competitions involving teams ranked outside the world’s elite are vital for the growth and development of the sport and for Ireland, the tournament represented a wonderful opportunity to build on May’s successful Netball Europe Open and challenge five squads all ranked between six and ten places above them.
Such are the vagaries of availability and injury that only six of those who boarded the plane to the Far East had been part of the squad in Newcastle upon Tyne just four months earlier, so for the world’s no.25, the first priority was to gel quickly as a unit before the daily on-court tests that would be respectively provided by Singapore (no.17 in the world), Canada (18), Botswana (19), Zambia (16) and Papua New Guinea (15).
Throughout their previous participation in the Nation’s Cup, Ireland had only ever defeated one country–the USA–but after losing their opening fixture to the hosts, the “Girls in Green” doubled that total by inflicting a heavy defeat on Canada. This would be their only success in the group stages, but it would not be their best performance….
Two subsequent losses followed to eventual champions Zambia and fellow African nation Botswana (the latter by just seven goals in a well-contested game), but in their final pool match, Ireland produced arguably their finest ever competitive performance in a memorable encounter with Papua New Guinea. The final victory margin was just two goals in favour of the South Sea Islanders, but the way in which Ireland reduced a third quarter deficit to almost claim a remarkable win was as thrilling as it was ultimately heart-breaking.
Botswana’s outstanding effort against Zambia (43-46) was the only other match in the whole tournament that came even close to matching such drama; and initial Irish disappointment will surely be superseded by pride in a fine performance and a realisation of just what this result could mean for what currently remains a minority sport in Dublin and around the Republic.
Ultimately, one win from five games earned Ireland a 5th/6th place play-off against Canada, and fifth spot was assured with another emphatic success—this time by 47-18.
Despite being without a number of influential regular players, and even with injuries sustained during the tournament, Ireland were competitive for long periods in every game and coach Joan Young will have learned a lot about the areas where improvement is required to turn sizeable defeats into narrow ones… and narrow defeats into victories.
Aspects such as maintaining intensity across all four quarters, retaining clarity of thought when fatigued, and sustaining shooting accuracy under pressure are crucial—and also very hard to achieve; but these girls are fit, quick, strong, skilled and blessed with the kind of unshakable determination that genuinely makes you believe that almost anything is possible.
But the most exciting potential legacy from this essentially self-funded trip (because amazingly, netball in Ireland receives no central funding or major sponsorship) would be that youngsters back in Ireland will have seen what was achieved by this new squad, and decide that they want to be part of netball’s future.
It would certainly be nice to think that the 2016 Nation’s Cup, and the performance against Papua New Guinea in particular, ultimately becomes a turning point, or pivotal moment in Ireland netball’s development, but whatever the future holds, these twelve athletes, along with the fantastic Joan Young, deserve so much credit for all their effort and achievement… quite simply, they were brilliant: Ali Higginbotham, Gen Slater, Kate Bermingham, Fran Duffy, Trish Fanning, Melanie Ingram, Fiona Morrissey, Kirsty Owens, Nicky Stevenson-Potter, Christina Tuataga, Katie Walton, Keiryn Williams.
Last week, I added five more tasks or challenges to my list, taking the total to ninety.
The motivation for no.86 was my reflection in a mirror… awful. My willpower waxes and wanes with annoying regularity, but I know I’m capable of losing quite a lot of weight quickly, as opposed to a more gradual longer-term and sensible approach. I’m not going to go into the particulars of the diet and exercise regime I’m following because the subjects of weight, eating, self-esteem and mental health are rarely the best bedfellows–suffice to say what I’m doing is time-limited and controlled.
Nos.87 to 90 were added after reading a series of blog entries from a young woman who completed one hundred challenges in one hundred days a couple of years ago. Fascinating stuff, a fantastic achievement… and something I wanted to recognise by including a few from her list within my project.
The penultimate (and the 69th to be completed) task was to create a motivational poster, which I thought was a really interesting idea.
Social media is overflowing with so many quotes and sayings covering almost every imaginable aspect of life, so picking just one that had a strong personal resonance was never going to be straightforward….
But after a good couple of hours, I found a couple of lines that really hit home. The quote is attributed to the author George Eliot, and reads thus: “It is never too late to be what you might have been”.
These past few years, with Elaine’s wonderful love and support, I have tried to both raise awareness of an issue that is very important to me, and also prove (if only to myself) that decades of perceived under-achievement could be belatedly superseded… or at least partially replaced, by pushing myself to undertake various challenges.
Whilst the cause will always be far more important than any personal satisfaction, I can’t really measure the success or otherwise of my efforts to raise mental health awareness; but what I can say for certain is that the events of these past three years have taught me so much, about the person I am and what I’m actually capable of…. (some of it’s even been positive too…!).
If I could encapsulate everything into one single moment, it would back in December 2014, just after I had finished my first ever routine at The Stand comedy club in Newcastle. It had (unexpectedly) gone really well, I (equally unexpectedly) received a wonderful reaction from the audience; and as I exited stage left, I spotted Elaine….
She looked so proud—obviously there was more than a hint of surprise and relief too!—but in that split second, the smile on Elaine’s face and the look in her eyes made me feel fantastic; and it meant the world to me that I was sharing the experience… in fact my life with someone so very special.
Back to the quote and, as an aside, George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, the noted author of Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss and a number of other novels I’ve never read. The former was set in the fictional weaving village of Tipton, but was actually based on the Foleshill area of Coventry—where many of my Mum’s ancestors lived and worked during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
That’s just another reason why I find these words inspiring.
The final picture comprises the quote, blue sky appearing from behind grey clouds (all very symbolic) and a few photos of me at various stages of my fifty-two years.
I sincerely hope no one views this as self-indulgent because when I look at these faces, my first thoughts are always about my failings and mistakes. The hope is that one day I will finally see the face of someone who didn’t always get things right, but kept going, never gave up and maybe… just maybe got close to being what he might have been.
My latest Time to Change challenge was completed yesterday; and I think it’s fair to say it all went with a bit of a bang….
Elaine and I were driven up to a very muddy farm somewhere near one or both of the Trimdons by John Waite (a former work colleague of Elaine’s) for our first attempt at clay pigeon shooting. Neither of us had ever held, let alone fired a shotgun, but John took plenty of time to show us how to hold the gun, how to load it, aim it, fire it, discharge the cartridges and most importantly of all, how to do all of those things safely.
It’s all well and good watching an expert shot… shooter… shootist… making everything look ridiculously easy (similar to golf, darts, snooker et al); but the reality becomes clear very quickly when a novice has a go, and we were both well aware that hitting a tiddly little flying plastic disc would be incredibly difficult.
And so it proved.
I was actually very good… at shouting “Pull”, but sadly my first few attempts hit nothing but thin air, as clay after clay returned to terra firma in the same pristine condition in which they’d been projected skywards. Elaine’s turn next…
John helped her adopt the proper position, which Elaine duly adapted into her own stance… a stance which saw her propelled backwards into John’s safe arms when the gun recoiled; John even managed to catch the ear defenders that fell off Elaine’s head as two more discs floated gently and unscathed back to earth.
I shouldn’t have chuckled; but I did. Elaine’s riposte was to shatter one of the next clays into a thousand fragments…
John had a couple of guns with him, but I couldn’t hit anything with either of them. The reason soon became apparent when I was given the chance to try a left-handed gun….
I was given a few more pointers about where to aim and a few shots later, I clipped the edge of a clay and deflected it away to the right. It wasn’t as dramatic as Elaine’s, but it was a hit nonetheless. A couple more misses followed, but then another hit… and another… then another… and then a fourth in a row. No one was more surprised than me.
The young lad who was operating the trap then gave me what I understand was (for him) a massive compliment, when he said: “Not the worst I’ve seen for a first attempt…!”
We then had a few shots from two other traps; the low one sent the clay away from you, the high one towards you. John gave us a quick demonstration… “Pull”… bang, bang… two clays blown to pieces. I really struggled with the change of angles—although it didn’t help when I called for a clay from the low trap and Elaine pressed the button to release one from the high trap at the other end of the field—but Elaine did brilliantly and managed successive hits.
We had no expectations of being any good—which was just as well—but we both managed to break our clay pigeon duck (very clever use of the “double bird”); we really enjoyed the experience, and with massive thanks to John, challenge no.84 is now safely ticked off…
It’s almost five years now since the tragic passing of Gary Speed, the single event that gave me the strength to write openly about my own experiences of mental health, and the condition (now identified as dysthymia) from which I have suffered for something like forty years.
The response to my blog—my admission, disclosure, call it what you will—was totally unexpected. I was humbled both by the sheer number of positive messages I received, and also the fact that a few friends felt able to mention their own personal struggles, long hidden from the outside world.
My own life had changed so much since the belated realisation and acceptance that I needed help; and the even harder step of actually asking for help. That was back in 2004 and a decade later I felt ready to use my story to try and somehow “make a difference”.
I didn’t (don’t and never will) have a public profile, nor do I possess any particular talent or skill that would make me stand out, but I had the idea (in almost Archimedean circumstances… don’t try and picture the scene) to set myself a series of “challenges”, and it would be through the planning, preparation and (hopeful) completion of the various tasks that I would draw parallels and show just what can be achieved by asking for help.
I wasn’t offering any sort of magic cure… I don’t believe there is one; but for me, medication brought the objective clarity to prevent certain situations and feelings becoming overwhelming, and when the really bad days came, I was so lucky that Elaine’s love, understanding and support were always there—she is amazing xx
2014 was devoted to the charity Mind, and since then I have been working with Time to Change, for which I registered as a “Champion” (as in the Wonder Horse). My first involvement with the programme was to write a blog for their website, in which I tried to explain the effects of my condition; how it made me feel… and how much stronger I have ultimately become. The article received a few replies and comments; this was one: “Richard, your story really did strike me in a way that other pieces of writing haven't before.
“It describes so much for me in terms of being told it would be best if I see a doctor even though I was scared to. It took a year until I eventually sought help. I remember the feelings of that doctor’s visit… getting upset when speaking to my GP.
“My family didn't know anything about my depression until I had to be forced to tell them. I tried counselling but it didn't work for me; I'm now on antidepressants and they are working as they're helping me fight back and giving me a way of coping with these feelings I'm experiencing, but also helping me help myself a little bit more. This story brings me hope that I can still have a life and depression doesn't have to control me. I do still struggle but I'm finding a way to live my life. Lots of love Dionne x”
I don’t know anything about Dionne, but to have perhaps made a small difference to a total stranger meant such a lot, and justified everything about talking so openly and honestly about a subject some are still more comfortable avoiding.
To look at me, I don’t think anyone would necessarily guess I have had a chronic (albeit thankfully mild) condition for almost as long as I can remember. Equally, I suppose no one would guess I’m left-handed… nor would they guess I am deaf in my right ear—but I am, and I am (in that order). But dysthymia is part of me; it will always be a part of me… and in a sense it’s only because of a condition (that still impacts on every single day of my life), that I have met some genuinely inspirational people, I’ve had some fantastic experiences, learned a lot about myself; but most importantly of all, I’ve tried my best to make a difference.
I may not succeed—just like I haven’t succeeded in taking a leg off the BDO world no.1 Glen Durrant (definitely one of those “inspirational people”)—but I have to keep trying… because one day, you just never know.