Last night, I read a post by former rugby league player Francis Maloney, who played for a number of clubs during his career, but was a member of the Castleford Tigers squad for Super League IV in 1999, the year in which Gateshead Thunder took to the field for the first time.
It is clear that Francis has faced (and overcome) more than his fair share of adversity, and it was a very brave piece for the 42 year-old to write. Whilst scrolling through the comments, I spotted a message from Danny Fearon... not someone I know, but another former player whose name was instantly recognisable.
I was suddenly transported back fifteen years, to a game of rugby league between Halifax and Hull. On paper, that would not have been a game that I would have gone to watch, but circumstances in March 2000 were far from normal. Danny Fearon was in the Halifax seventeen that evening... it turned out to be a “memorable” evening for both me and for Danny but, as it turned out, for very different reasons.
Here is how I related the events of that Friday night in the second volume of my history of Gateshead Thunder’s early years and this article is posted with my best wishes being offered to both Messrs Maloney and Fearon.
The opening round of Super League V fixtures was surely going to be the moment when the loss of Gateshead Thunder would really hit home. Our players now wore the black and white of Hull FC, who had been boosted by a couple of huge, but relatively meaningless, Challenge Cup victories. Supporters were suddenly reappearing in numbers and it was rumoured that a massive contingent would be travelling to the New Shay for an intriguing clash with Halifax Blue Sox.
The game had been switched from the Sunday afternoon to the Friday evening, thereby reducing the number of Gateshead supporters able to make the journey to West Yorkshire, but a full coach and several carloads still ensured an eighty-strong presence at a ground where the original Thunder had suffered their worst defeat in 1999.
Mark Wightman had quashed fears of a protest, or backlash against Shane Richardson and Kath Hetherington, but the Thunder Storm Chairman was quick to admit that: “We’re going to West Yorkshire to show our support for the game of rugby league. It’ll be difficult to get behind Hull, but it will be nice to show our appreciation for the players who were magnificent for Gateshead Thunder last season.”
In the build-up to the game, Shane Richardson was quoted as saying: “It’s going to be a hard road ahead for the new club. It’s all about pounds and pence and getting enough punters through the gate. But I wish them well….
“A big piece of me has gone missing and I’m still sick to the stomach at what happened at Gateshead. It’ll be a night of mixed emotions when we play our first Super League game at Halifax Blue Sox on Friday, but the reality is it’s just another Rugby League match we’ve got to win.”
As we rumbled down the steep hill into the town, the main topic of conversation revolved around whether we should (or could) cheer on our former heroes, now they would be representing Hull FC, a club that didn’t exactly suffer from excessive popularity outside the west side of the city. Most (probably all) wanted the best for our players, yet the overwhelming majority were not thrilled at the prospect of Hull being successful. It was a difficult conundrum and one which, at that moment, I was unable to solve.
Bearing in mind the close rapport we had enjoyed with our team throughout the previous year, we wondered how we would be received by those same players, now they had acquired a new set of followers, much greater in number, much louder in victory... much less forgiving in defeat. I had spoken briefly with Adam Maher shortly after the move had been announced, but while the bulk of the squad were still training on Tyneside. I mentioned our concern that the new regime may force the players to ignore their former supporters, a view strongly rejected by the former Rochdale second row.
A few days before the game, Mark Wightman had contacted the West Yorkshire club to request that the Gateshead supporters be kept away from the end terrace where the Hull fans would be housed. It was important for the Halifax stewards to be aware that although the two clubs had theoretically “merged”, the same certainly did not apply to the supporters.
Save for a couple of stragglers that ended up next to the Hull contingent more by accident than design, the stewards did a thoroughly efficient job in directing the Thunder Army to the far end of the popular stand, just to the right of the bulk of the Blue Sox hardcore.
A firework display (of sorts) heralded the arrival of the players. Hull FC ran onto the field to be greeted by a tremendous ovation from the mass of supporters (as many as 2,000) gathered behind the posts. My stomach felt like it was being twisted in knots, as Brian Carney jogged towards the try line and returned the applause. The Blue Sox players then emerged from separate dressing rooms to our right and so intensely were my eyes trained on the ex-Thunder players, that I have no recollection of the welcome afforded to the home side.
Halifax would kick-off and the Hull thirteen began to drift down towards us. This was the moment. To the well-rehearsed strains of Thunder Wonderland we waited for the players to acknowledge our presence - just as they had to the Hull fans...
But it didn’t happen.
As the decibels increased, only three players (Matt Daylight, Dave Maiden and Craig Wilson) were able to manage an almost apologetic wave in return.
Rarely have I seen the mood of a group of people change so dramatically. A chorus of booing, a number of none-too-pleasant comments aimed at those players defending the touchline directly in front of us and one or two outbursts of language that (whilst out of character) reflected the heightened emotional state generated by these most unusual circumstances.
In that split second, I found the answer to the conundrum. Yes, I wanted the best for the ex-Thunder players, but if they were prepared to look the other way, after the kind of relationship that had been forged in the north east, then I was going to lend my voice to the Blue Sox. And I was far from alone.
Hull shaded the first half, but contrived to go in 12-8 behind at the break, thanks to two glaring defensive errors in a four-minute spell, which led to tries for Andrew Dunneman and Damien Gibson. Shortly after the interval, the Blue Sox had an inspired ten minutes, during which they ripped through the Hull defence for three further scores (Marns, Florimo and Pearson) and it was our turn to sing a song or two at the expense of the now silent travelling supporters.
The Halifax crowd warmed to the eighty-strong chorus of “you only sing when you’re fishing” and “you only win when you’re Gateshead” and responded with “there’s only one Gateshead Blue Sox”. The game looked all but over and surely only the most cynical would have predicted a dramatic fightback...
Which was, of course, exactly what happened. Brian Carney crossed twice in three minutes to complete an awesome hat-trick; Wayne McDonald, almost unstoppable from close-range, powered over and with Ben Sammut kicking absolutely everything, the scores were tied at 26-26 with only a handful of minutes left on the clock. The Hull fans had turned up the volume and they looked set to celebrate a stirring victory when Craig Wilson popped over a field goal. As if things weren’t already bad enough for the Blue Sox, Danny Fearon then sustained an horrific leg injury and there was a considerable delay whilst the youngster was stretchered from the field. With barely any time remaining, Halifax launched one last desperate push downfield.
“Cliché Man” would probably have described the evening’s events as a “roller coaster of emotions”, although a “see-saw” might be a better analogy as feelings had fluctuated from spine-tingling highs to sense-numbing lows ever since we’d stepped off the coach.
By now, we were standing right in the middle of a pretty deep trough, as Hull looked sure to snatch victory by the narrowest of margins. However, as we peered through the gathering gloom towards the far corner of the ground, the home side’s final assault was rewarded when former Wigan stand-off Greg Florimo went over for the winning try. From our vantage point, it was impossible to distinguish those players involved in the scoring move, or who had eventually crossed the line. Frankly, we didn’t care, as the award of the four points provided the catalyst for some truly amazing scenes as the Hull end of the see-saw plummeted to earth.
Losing in such a dramatic fashion must have been extremely hard to accept and several members of the Hull side hastily made for the sanctuary of the dressing rooms. To their great credit, a few of those who had graced the Thunderdome during 1999 (Matt, Dave, Craig Wilson, Steve Collins and assistant coach Tony Anderson) came to say their farewells... which were hugely appreciated.
Strolling back to the coach, ignoring the occasional taunt from Hull fans leaving the car park, I tried to make some sense of Friday 3 March 2000. We had celebrated a remarkable win for Halifax Blue Sox against a team that was essentially Gateshead Thunder. We had been warmly applauded by the Halifax players, acknowledged to a degree by some of the Hull side, yet what did we have at the end of the night?
Apart from fading memories of a brilliant year in Super League and vivid images of those surreal few hours in West Yorkshire, the answer was precious little. We still faced the prospect of a long battle to get a new team and the state of euphoria that had greeted Greg Florimo’s try suddenly seemed no more than a distant dream. It was a sobering moment....
On this very day twelve months ago, I left the office I had called “home” since 2002 for the last time. I have been lucky enough to have been in constant employment since my teens, but this was the first time I had been in a job for more than ten years.
My previous “record” (if that’s the right word) was eight years, a term that was brought to a fairly abrupt end by redundancy as my role was being relocated to Preston… and I wasn’t prepared to make the move to Lancashire. And to a certain extent history repeated itself last year, when my job (and that of a number of colleagues across the country) was disestablished in what was somewhat politely called a “restructure”, although “cull” might have been a more suitable, albeit emotive word given that people had to travel to Sheffield from places as far afield as Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Lancaster to be told in a presentation that lasted barely five minutes that ninety per cent of the room would be out of work by February 2015.
It was pretty brutal, and understandably a massive shock to many people, but strangely I felt quite calm… yes I know; not like me at all. The reason was that the intention to restructure had been announced more than two years earlier, and with the relatively recent confirmation that layers of management would be wiped from the payroll, the news for our department was simply never going to be good; and in the end ongoing employment effectively boiled down to a geographical lottery.
I had already sat with Elaine and discussed what I would (hopefully) do if the axe was to descend; and that meeting in Sheffield simply forced me to put plans into action.
We were given something like a year’s notice… presumably in the hope that staff would jump ship and save big redundancy pay outs—but this was very much what I was aiming for. Jobs were (and are) not easy to come by, and if an opportunity was to present itself, I was definitely going to try and take it… after all, I’d never had any money before, so getting a new position at the same grade wouldn’t change our way of life… and I knew how the level of worry would increase as any lump sum dwindled with every month that passed without finding work.
Over the next eight months, I only applied for four positions… and in the September, after what was only my second interview, Hambleton Richmondshire and Whitby Clinical Commissioning Group offered me a job—a matter of hours after I’d visited their Northallerton office… whilst I was pedalling away on my exercise bike in actual fact.
It’s hard to describe the feeling when someone rings you to say they want you to join their organisation… their team. I was excited and nervous at the same time. As far as accepting the offer was concerned, there was no decision to make… the job sounded great on paper, and the people who interviewed me couldn’t have been nicer.
There was a bit of a wait whilst various bits of red tape were untangled, but it felt fantastic when I was able to hand in my notice. And when that day came to leave, there wasn’t a single backward glance.
I rarely write about work, and notwithstanding my view of the way the restructure was handled (which I would claim as “fair comment”), I have no intention of saying anything negative about the time with my previous employer (an organisation I purposely haven’t mentioned by name). I met and worked with some good people, and most importantly if I hadn’t been taken on, I would never have met Elaine… and for that I will always be grateful.
But in the end, I was no longer wanted… and there was nothing I could do about it. I completely understood the need for “efficiencies”, but I wasn’t willing to just sit back and accept my fate… even if it came with a fat cheque.
But did I make the right choice?
Undeniably yes. The work is varied, challenging and rewarding. Starting again without the level of knowledge I had gained in my former role was (and to an extent still is) quite daunting, but I have a fantastic and supportive manager, great colleagues... and my petrol bill has halved! The past year has absolutely flown by (although my actual anniversary is not until 3rd November), and although I am happy to spend a moment to give a gentle nod to the past, I am now able to enjoy the present... and look forward to the future—and that is a lovely feeling.
I’ve never been one to let a bandwagon rumble past without clambering aboard, so today’s blog concerns Scotland’s epic Rugby World Cup quarter final with Australia.
Plenty has already been said and written about the decision made by referee Craig Joubert to award a penalty in the game’s closing moments, which Bernard Foley coolly converted to secure a one-point victory for the Wallabies.
By now I think it’s pretty much accepted that it was the wrong call, and the timing and importance of the blunder has only increased the media focus on the South African, who certainly didn’t help his cause by haring for the exit as soon as he had whistled for full time.
Perhaps he had realised (courtesy of the big screen) what the Scots already knew; the ball had touched an Australian arm in between being knocked forward and collected. Without Nick Phipps’ intervention, the penalty would have been the correct decision... clearly there is now a big “but”....
All the talk around referring the incident to the television match official (TMO) is moot because the rules don’t allow for such situations to be reviewed; the mistake had been made and Joubert should have showed more dignity, respect for the Scots and for the game by staying on the field and shaking both sets of players by the hand.
The moment is likely to define Joubert’s career which, in some respects, is a shame because you don’t get to take charge of a World Cup Final (which he did in 2011) by being incompetent. In fact, earlier in the game Joubert picked up the smallest of knock-ons by Will Genia in the lead up to a subsequently disallowed “try” by Adam Ashley-Cooper. It was a great spot, but one which only makes the later miss that much harder to accept.
To a degree, the events of those closing two minutes have distracted from what looked a harsh yellow card shown to Sean Maitland for a “deliberate” knock-on that was always going to look worse in slow motion. And then there was a non-referral to the TMO for a late hit on Stuart Hogg which would have inevitably have led to a Scottish penalty... and from there, who knows?
Whilst on the subject of “what ifs”, I’m sure that given another line-out towards the end of such a massive game, with rain pouring from the heavens, the ball would have been thrown short... cue a second big “but”....
The bare facts are that Australia have advanced to the semi-final and Scotland have bowed out of the tournament. The final pages of the story of the World Cup are still to be written, but whoever lifts the trophy on 31 October, the competition will hopefully also be remembered not for a refereeing howler, but for a performance of remarkable and inspiring courage from the proud men of Scotland.
I will admit from the outset that I’m not really sure of the direction which this blog will take. Nominally, the purpose is to confirm the completion of another of my “Time to Change” challenges: that of meeting a Doctor Who companion (which was achieved at the Dimensions 2015 event, which was held at the Copthorne Hotel in Newcastle).
But... in doing so, I learned quite a lot about the nature of these clearly incredibly popular events, and the apparent culture of what I believe was/is called “fandom”; and I found the experience slightly... what’s the word I’m looking for... “uncomfortable” perhaps?
There were some massive positives to come out of the day; but the second thing you notice (the first being that a lot of people are wearing Doctor Who-related costumes – I must be getting old because I just don’t see the attraction at all) is that almost everything revolves around money.
If you ignore the travel, accommodation, food, drink etc., the price of admission is far from cheap (I had what amounted to the economy ticket... and that cost £50). For that you were entitled to queue for an autograph from most of the guests; although there was a charge associated with others; but woe betide you if you asked for a photograph... because a series of separate “official” photoshoots would set you back anything from £15 to £40... each!
You could buy a silver or gold ticket that would gain you a number of “free” photos, but any extras meant another peek inside a wallet that was probably begging for mercy. On the basis that this “experience” was always likely to be a one-off, I had pre-ordered a photo with Daphne Ashbrook (who played Grace Holloway in the 1996 Doctor Who movie), and at the appointed time I joined the queue... it grew into a very long queue, but happily I was about tenth in line....
Well I was until gold pass holders were ushered to the front, with silver following right behind. As for me with my contemptibly cheap £50 day pass and £15 photo ticket: “Please would you just join the back of the queue....”
The shoot itself was little more than a conveyor belt. Sit, smile, click, bye... but at this point, I need to mention the highlight of my day: meeting Daphne Ashbrook.
Many moons ago I wrote a book about Doctor Who - the first two editions were self-published and profits given to charity, before the third edition was published by BearManor Media in the U.S.. The premise of the book was that I would build a personal history of a programme I had watched since 1968 (and yes I know I don’t look old enough) around a search to obtain a signed photo from as many female TARDIS companions as possible.
I was incredibly grateful to everyone who took the time to reply, and genuinely humbled by the lengths some people went to support the project: the late (and much missed) Caroline John wrote a couple of lovely letters, and Daphne took the time to send a fantastic personalised photo all the way across the Atlantic. Yesterday I had the opportunity to thank her in person, and give her a copy of the book....
A couple of hours before the official photo, I spent a couple of minutes in Daphne’s company, explained about the book and my mental health awareness work, and she was an absolute joy. I asked for the photo (to complete the challenge); she immediately agreed although her “minder” was slightly more reluctant. The flash didn’t go off, so the picture is a bit grainy, but the photo proves two things: one, I actually met the fantastic Daphne Ashbrook; and two, I’m still eminently huggable! I took a selfie for good measure, but I haven’t seen the “professional” photo yet as I had to leave before it was printed - an unforeseen two hour delay presumably caused by the sheer volume of pictures... or maybe I’d simply been dispatched to the back of another queue!
Hopefully I will receive the photo in due course, and I would like to say a quick thank you to the member of the event staff who offered to post the picture to me. I did ask how he would know which picture was actually mine. I expected some really clever technical explanation, but he simply said: “grey top, red sleeves!”
I met three other people who had appeared in Doctor Who at various points during its near fifty-two year history, and I also want to mention Jacqueline King, who played companion Donna Noble’s mother Sylvia in relatively recent times. She took a real interest in what I had been doing, and the photo was absolutely no trouble at all. A lovely lady.
From what I could gather, the level of interaction very much depended on the allocated minder; one of whom issued a refusal to a photo request that was blunt enough to actually take the actress concerned by surprise. Another looked like he was going to have palpitations when a former companion agreed to a quick photo that wasn’t going to boost the coffers by that all-important £15.
Twenty-four hours on, I can look back on a slightly surreal trip to Newcastle. Meeting Daphne and Jacqueline was brilliant. Seeing a couple of other former companions was nice, but no more memorable than it was for them to meet me; but I did enjoy having the chance to catch up with Cory and Tricia who I had met at my first (and probably only) book-signing in Mansfield a couple of years ago.
Above all however, the day was about ticking another challenge off my list (thank you so much Daphne) and continuing to raise awareness of mental health issues in the best way I can. My bank manager might not be speaking to me right now, but he can relax because it’s pretty safe to say I won’t be making the journey north again next year. As the day progressed I became increasingly aware that I was (rather ironically it has to be said) the odd one out; and in future I think I should stick to sharing my love of the programme through the written word because the atmosphere and genuine excitement I sensed amongst so many others attending Dimensions 2015 was something I just didn’t feel.
Next stop for me? A chance to meet 1964 Olympic gold medallist Ann Packer (now Brightwell) and, having set myself a goal of 13st 13lbs, a very definite need to lose some weight.
It’s been a brilliant few days for British sport... well unless you happen to be English I suppose!
I am extremely patriotic; I’m proud to be English, but I am equally proud to be British and follow the fortunes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in pretty much any and every international sport – something that applies to the Republic of Ireland as well. I particularly love watching the players as they sing their national anthem, and seeing just what it means for elite sportsmen and women to represent their country.
The little photo collage highlights Scotland’s progress into the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, the qualification of Wales and Northern Ireland for Euro 2016 – the first in a major competition for both countries since 1958 and 1982 respectively - and the Republic’s stunning victory over Germany, a result that sets up Martin O’Neill’s side for today’s crucial game with Poland.
As for England, well our rugby side exited the World Cup with barely a whimper and the footballers overcame the might of Estonia in a fairly drab encounter at Wembley. In doing so England preserved their 100% record in the qualifying group, and given that only five other teams have ever achieved that throughout a full European Championship programme, it is a pretty impressive record. Less impressive is the fact that England haven’t set the world (or Europe for that matter) alight when it comes to tournament finals... and of the other five countries to qualify with an unblemished record, only one made it to the final (Spain in 2012). For now though you can do no more than top your group, and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens in France next year.
I would not single out any of the events or achievements of these past few days as being more notable than another, but in the week of World Mental Health Day, I want to remember Gary Speed, the former Wales manager, who made such a positive difference to Welsh football before his untimely and tragic passing in 2011.
It was Gary’s death that prompted me to talk openly about my own experiences with what was diagnosed as depression, but I now know is more specifically dysthymia; and in duly acknowledging the fine on-field performances of all those British and Irish teams this week, I want to close by simply saluting the memory and the bravery of Gary Speed.
It was a word I had never even heard until Monday… but the definition of these nine letters described me (and parts of my life) so accurately that I just had to share.
The word is dysthymia.
The condition was first identified as recently as 1980, and its diagnosis, certainly in this country, is very much on the increase. There are “official” symptoms of dysthymia, but essentially, it is a form of chronic depression that may be mild or intermittent for many years; to the extent that the sufferer may not even be aware there is anything wrong.
Symptoms can be vague in younger people, but when I saw this list of possible effects, I was shocked at how many I could (to a greater or lesser degree) tick off: habitually gloomy, pessimistic, humourless, or incapable of fun; passive and lethargic; introverted; sceptical, hypercritical, or complaining; self-critical, self-reproaching, and self-derogatory; and preoccupied with inadequacy, failure, and negative events.
I am definitely not all of the above… hard as it may be to believe… (I don’t see myself humourless, nor incapable of fun; in fact I enjoy a laugh almost as much as I love a double negative), but there are many traits there that have been part of me for as long as I can remember. When I was diagnosed with “depression”, there was a part of me that was relieved that there was an explanation for the way I was, but there was also a sense of being something of a fraud (if that’s the right word) because I didn’t feel “ill” as such, and there were no obvious outward signs of how hard it was to face or cope with every day—and interestingly that feeling of what can almost amount to deception (in the eyes of the sufferer) is another tell-tale sign of dysthymia.
The reason why the diagnosis is most often clumped together under the general banner of depression is that any visit to a doctor is likely to have been prompted by the effects of an unrelated illness or traumatic event, which has led to more extreme symptoms of withdrawal—i.e. “classic” depression symptoms. Strictly speaking, this extreme dysthymia is called “double depression” and it is the one-off more serious episode that is treated, rather than the long-standing underlying feelings, which the sufferer would almost certainly describe as “normal”.
What is really positive however is that it is possible to overcome the lack of energy, feelings of isolation and debilitating negative thoughts and still be able to achieve personal goals. It may be harder and take longer, but whilst dysthymia is a heavy burden to carry, failure is not inevitable; and the feeling on realising an aim or ambition is arguably much greater as a result. I can certainly identify with that sense of achievement at the fulfilment of a challenge (just as I can with the enduring symptoms of dysthymia), and whilst I may never completely conquer my lifelong fear of failure, no one can ever say I haven’t tried my best… and I’m actually really proud of that.