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….