Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 2

I cannot express my love for tournament football strongly enough. The sheer joy of watching several games in a day or even the challenge of trying to keep up with the events of a 2pm kick off while you’re still at work; I’m not sure it can be beaten. Whether it can or it can’t – seriously, it can’t – here’s my latest Euro 2020 Diary and some observations I’ve made over the last week or so.

  1. England v Scotland was as frustrating as ever. So much ground to cover here. Let’s start with the fact that it was an awful game and that much of the blame here lies with England. We were truly awful, although if you’re looking for plus points, we gave a masterclass in sideways passing. So if UEFA can tweak the laws of the game to include two new goals at either side of the pitch, we’re in business and that long wait for success might just be over.

Other observations? Harry Kane might be pregnant; certainly his movement is that of someone not far off giving birth. England fans seem incapable of providing an atmosphere unless it’s via social media and Gareth Southgate’s coat was horrendous. In fact his whole sense of style suggests he’s discovered a time portal that allows him to visit C&A back in about 1985. (C&A was a fashion retailer way back when, notorious for terrible clothes). I never imagined I’d long for the return of the World Cup waistcoat.

2. The Fourth Official in the England v Scotland game had a look of Alan Shearer about him. Except no one in our house agreed. And we still couldn’t win. Look at him though…definitely a hint of Shearer.

3. I love the concept of different host cities across Europe. I’ll be honest, when I first heard of this I thought it was a terrible idea dreamed up by an idiot. The kind of thing that gets dreamed up in education while I sit there thinking, that’s awful, who’s going to go for that before hearing that everyone else loves it. However – unlike in education – it works. Who knew Baku was such a great place and had such an ace stadium? Seeing the Allianz Arena in Munich on TV gave me a real kick as I’d been there myself. And did you know that there’s a railway in Budapest that – apart from the train driver – is run by children? I mean, apart from the fact that the stadium there has been full for games and it’s looked and sounded incredible, it’s got a railway run by kids!

Then you’ve got Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bucharest, Glasgow, London, Rome, St. Petersburg and Seville – an incredibly diverse selection of European cities. And let’s face it, this could be done every four years for the tournament with a fresh selection of cities each time, without it ever becoming dull. Covid allowing, this is definitely one to add to my ‘To-Do’ list; even if it meant experiencing the inevitable disappointment of following England, I think it’d be quite something to do in a few different cities. In fact, it’d possibly be even better just going to games that didn’t involve England, just to enjoy the cities!

4. I’ve started writing Euro Poetry! As anyone who puts themselves through the chore of reading my blog regularly will know, I write a bit of poetry as well, usually publishing it as a blog. Well, I’ve just started writing some poems inspired by the Euros. It started because the whole Denmark story just felt very inspirational, so I wrote a poem about what they’d gone through – players, staff and nation – and the somewhat glorious outcome. After that things just spiraled and I wrote more and more. So I’ll be putting them on the site soon and hopefully I’ll be able to write some more as well.

5. I wonder if other nations cheer so much for the underdog. In the UK, it’s well documented that we love an underdog story. In football, every year produces several underdog stories as David meets Goliath (if you’re reading outside of the UK, neither David or Goliath are actual teams) in the FA Cup and we adore it. At the Wimbledon tennis championship, where British success has depended on Andy Murray for far too long, we’re used to cheering for our underdogs.

At any major football tournament smaller nations have a habit of capturing our imagination. But it has made me wonder if other nations do the same. Are the Germans willing Finland on? Do the Spanish cheer for plucky Wales? Are there Argentinians watching Rwanda in the World Cup, desperate for them to do well? And are the Italians hungry for Hungary?

The obvious underdog story during this tournament has been Denmark and it’s reduced me to tears as well as having me jumping around my front room, fists pumping and cheering like a lunatic. It’s not my nation and I have no known connection. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Similarly, I’ve been desperate for North Macedonia to do well. Again, no connection, just a need to see the underdog give the big boys a tough time.

Tournament football always produces underdogs. Indeed this very tournament has been won by underdogs over the years with Denmark and Greece springing to mind. They are part of the fabric of the sport and I don’t think I’ll ever stop taking an interest.

As ever, I hope you’ve enjoyed the article. As the group stages end we move on to the knockout stages of the Euros. I can’t wait and I’ll look forward to finding more to write about.

Peak District Mini-Break

Covid, lockdowns, running out of telly to watch, the cancellation of live sport and music, walk after walk after walk, no contact with dads and mums, no hugs, no pubs. It’s safe to say that we’ve lived sheltered lives for the last 18 months or so.

As a family we’ve spent a lot of time hunkered down at home and not suffered that badly from it all. We even managed to squeeze in a week’s holiday in North Wales when restrictions were lifted last summer, but other than that we might as well have had a force field within a mile radius of our house because we would have very rarely troubled it.

Lately though, the boredom has been taking hold. We’ve had to venture out, although still never far. But the delights of our back garden and the limits of our estate have pretty much worn off, so we had to start making plans. We were finally being forced to travel in search of adventure…as long as it wasn’t too far away; I mean, we’re not exactly natural adventurers!

With half term fast approaching, what we needed was something that was not that far away, yet far enough away that we wouldn’t be tempted to head home at the end of a day. So, with the Yorkshire Dales on our doorstep, the Yorkshire coast around an hour away and the Lake District not a great deal further, we plumped for…The Derbyshire Peak District!

We booked to stay in a family room in the Whitton Lodge in Hardstoft near Chesterfield and decided to spend two days around the Upper Derwent Valley in the Derbyshire Peaks. To be fair, this was a slight oversight on our part as we thought that the two places were a lot closer than they were and as a result left ourselves with an hour long drive after our first day in order to get to our accommodation! But what’s an hour in a hot car on narrow, winding country roads between friends!?

So on the Wednesday of half term (2nd June) we set off midway through the morning heading for an early lunchtime arrival at the Derwent Reservoir in the Upper Derwent Valley.

It has to be said, it’s quite an amazing journey. The first part is unremarkable, unless your some kind of motorway pervert and then I’d guess your blood really will be pumping, as we spent about 20 minutes on the M1, Britain’s foremost motorway. After leaving that though you are quickly transported to the middle of nowhere and there are times when all you can see is stunning countryside. It’s a difficult journey as a driver as the roads are narrow, winding and bumpy too. But it’s undeniably fun at the same time!

So by the time we get to the Derwent Reservoir and the visitor centre it’s fair to say that we’re a bit like one of James Bond’s martinis; shaken, not stirred! We circuit the car park unsuccessfully and decide to head back up the road to look for a space. We’re rewarded by a roadside spot a couple of hundred yards away and free parking for the day. Result!

Once we get down to the Visitor Centre we get our bearings before opting to walk without a map. It’s a friendly and helpful centre where you can purchase a map and also get some advice on the best walk to suit your needs, but today we settle for taking a photo of the route from a sign outside. Other than that we’re hiking on instinct alone. We’re off road and wrestling with whatever nature can throw at us!

Of course, I’m exaggerating so that we sound far more adventurous than we really are. We’ve actually done this hike once before, but it’s not as simple as just following regular signposts, so we’re winging it to an extent.

The Peak District is well known as an area of outstanding beauty – one of many in the UK – and it doesn’t disappoint today. It’s a scorching hot day and even just walking down near the side of the reservoir is lovely. But then, after about a half a mile of trekking and continually telling ourselves we’ve gone wrong, we take a sharp left over a stile, as signposted and start to head uphill.

The higher we climb, the more amazing the view. However, having tweaked a hamstring the day before while taking a coaching session, I’m making an extra effort to remain sure-footed and struggling a little bit. If you follow in our footsteps and take this walk be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted; it’s a steep climb and for much of the way it’s a narrow path with a steep drop to your right. It’s a rocky footpath too, so you need to choose your path carefully. It isn’t particularly dangerous, but with the wind blowing a little bit things felt quite hairy at times!

As we get closer to the top we decide to scramble up the banking to our left a little way and refuel. It’s picnic time. We’re sheltered quite well from the wind and we have the best of views. It’s safe to say that while it’s a welcome break from our upward hike, it’s a wonderfully relaxing one as well. We spend a good half an hour eating, drinking, chatting, fending off flies and taking in the view before finally hauling ourselves into a standing position and heading upwards once more.

Once at the top of the hill – and Strava showed my ascent as just short of 700ft that day – the view is incredible. A 360 degree sight that just takes the breath away. Looking back down from where we’ve come there’s the reservoir stretching through the valley, to our left moorland and the peaks of the next valley, to our right the steep sides that – I think – lead towards Hope Valley and then in front of us, what awaits our feet; miles of stunning moorland. It’s days like this and views like this that make me all the more thankful for living in England.

The walk takes you for another couple of miles across the top of this stunning landscape before you make the steep descent down towards the Lady Bower reservoir. This is definitely not a walk for smaller children, especially not this bit and it can feel a little treacherous at times as you’re descending sharply down a narrow and rocky path. Watch out for stray sheep too! And if you’re lucky you may well spot the odd bird of prey swooping or hovering over the valley seeking it’s next snack!

Once we make it down to the bottom we’re all shattered. My legs are like jelly after the descent, it’s stiflingly hot and I have a rucksack on my back. Yet there’s still further to go! It’s safe to say we simply amble along the path along the side of the reservoir diving into shade as we go.

Once we make it back to the Visitor Centre we queue for ice creams and slump on a low wall to rest and cool down. But we can’t stay too long as there’s another hour long drive ahead of us before we get to our accommodation.

Whitton Lodge is situated 6 miles outside of Chesterfield, in a pleasant part of the Derbyshire countryside. When we show up there is no one around and how we actually check in is a little unclear. However, we make a quick phone call and the owner is with us within a couple of minutes, greeting us with a warm smile and showing us around, before taking us to our room. The property has nine bedrooms, a breakfast room and best of all, a lounge with TV and a pool table. Our room – a family room – is huge and there’s more than enough room for us all to feel comfortable. Despite this, two members of the family still take up residence on my side of our bed when I point out that there’s a plug socket next to it. It’s OK, my phone charging can wait!

We drive back into Chesterfield for our tea, opting for Frankie and Benny’s to suit both our children and due to the fact that the gluten free and dairy free options are good.

Next morning, after a good sleep in the peaceful Derbyshire countryside we head downstairs just before 8am to be welcomed warmly by our hosts. Breakfast is excellent and again the gluten free and dairy free options are great. Best of all though is my cooked breakfast; lots of bacon, sausages, egg, beans and hash browns with a decent supply of toast, juice and coffee too. Our hosts are friendly and chatty, as well as being brilliantly efficient and we’re left waiting for nothing. We even have a chat about their goats as we leave and I’m sure we’ll be back in the future.

We’re homeward bound today, but not until late, so we’re heading back into the Peaks and the Hope Valley to visit the beautiful village of Castleton. We’re not quite sure what we’ll do, but in the spirit of adventure, we reckon we’ll find something.

In fact, there’s lots to do in Castleton. There are caves to visit, a Norman castle – hence the name – a number of walks, a visitor centre and lots of pubs, cafes and restaurants. We consider the caves and the castle, but then, already tired, settle on what we think will be a reasonably easy walk. We opt for the Cave Dale – Peverill Castle loop and very quickly find that it’s yet another steep, rocky ascent! It’s narrow too, with steep hillsides either side of us, but popular and lots of people are out on the trail.

Even though the walk is slightly short of 3 miles, we take our time today and there are several stops on the way up. It’s lovely though, as with the rest of the day ahead of us and hearty breakfasts to try and work off, the rest stops can easily be accommodated! I have to say I’m grateful for every last one of them! As you’d expect in the Peaks, the view from the top is stunning and once again we can see for miles and miles.

It’s approaching mid afternoon when we get back into Castleton and we just take a leisurely stroll back towards the visitor centre, where another low wall beckons us to have another sit down! It’s a busy little place though, so ideal for a spot of people watching!

Although we’re still feeling fairly well fed, we’re now very thirsty so we head for the Three Roofs Cafe, where again there are enough gluten free and dairy options to keep the family happy. We’re unable to resist the snacks and so crumpets, scones, chips, a sandwich and a tea cake are ordered and promptly scoffed, while we sit and enjoy the cool inside air. It feels like the ideal time for a coffee, but I have what I call a ‘pop thirst’ and so I go for a San Pelegrino Limonata which absolutely hits the spot and is the best thing I could have drank at this moment in time!

We have a quick stroll through Castleton at the end of the day, but by this point everyone is shattered and it’s clearly time to head home. We’re back in Leeds within an hour and a quarter and the country air seems a distant memory. There’ll definitely be a next time though and I’d recommend the Peak District to anyone who fancies some serenity, fresh air and incredible views.

I hope you enjoyed the blog. As ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Grassroots Football: End of Season reflections.

As the curtain falls on another year of grassroots football I thought I’d reflect on what has been an eventful season. The prevalence of Covid-19 has had a major bearing on how the season has run, but then when you factor in all of the usual ups and downs of running any kind of sporting team, it’s safe to say that things have been demanding in the extreme!

A little bit of background: regular readers will know this already, but I coach a football (soccer) team for under 12s. I’ve done it now for the past four years and it’s a source of great joy and satisfaction as well as fatigue! The highs are right up there, but the lows can be an absolute pain.

The global pandemic wrecked the previous season (2019-20), but you’d hope that this type of thing would prove to be a once in a lifetime event. Unless of course you are a Hollywood actor, or you live in the Bible. Sadly though, with wave after wave of the virus hitting, grassroots sport was paralysed again and we found ourselves back in lockdown and unable to train or play for large spells of season 20-21. In fact at one point it genuinely felt like the season would be abandoned and we’d be looking at waiting 7 or 8 months before a ball was kicked in anger again. And then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, the rules were relaxed as vaccinations took effect and we were able to get going again, albeit with tight restrictions in place.

So what are my reflections on the season gone by? Well, they’re a funny old mixture of satisfaction and extreme frustration. We finished 7th in a 10 team league. 7th in Division 7 of 8. So, it’s safe to say that our performance overall wasn’t what I’d hoped for. There have been times when we’ve played wonderful fast moving, flowing football, but there have also been times when we’ve played like a team of strangers, both to each other and to football! It’s the kind of inconsistency that leaves a lot more questions than answers and has also meant a lot of time spent trying to figure out what the problem was and how we could be more consistent as a team.

When I started coaching the team they were Under 8s. We were the 2nd team and even then there were a range of abilities. My goal – no pun intended – was always to coach my players so that they were comfortable with a ball at their feet. I’d like to think that with the majority of my players I’ve achieved that. I’ve always wanted to instill the importance of playing a quick passing game into my players. Pass to a team mate, move off the ball, look for space and look for angles; play the game on the grass, in the right way. I think that for a large proportion of the season we’ve got there with these goals, but a lot of the time physicality and focus have cost us.

So these are two areas that we need to work on with pre-season and next season in mind. I still feel like some of my lads are very immature and prone to just switching off in games and that’s when mistakes happen. Since we started playing again after lockdown in January we’ve been competitive in every game and only lost one by more than one goal. In all of these games we’ve had spells of playing wonderful football; we’ve been good to watch. And yet, there’s always the risk of a mistake.

Teaching the boys the value of a team ethic has been more important than ever this year. For a few years previous there had been a bit of a tendency for boys to mix with only the people from their primary school and it caused problems. The feeling that this was everyone’s team and that everyone was a team mate took a lot of getting through. And while I don’t think we’ve quite got the message through, we’ve definitely made great strides with it this season. You can hear it on the pitch with the encouragement that they give each other and the positivity. Rather than criticising a team mate who takes a bad touch or misses a chance, now we’re more likely to hear one of them shouting that it was “unlucky” or “just keep going, don’t let your head drop.” They’ve never been the loudest of teams, but we’ve improved vocally this year and it’s something I’m genuinely happy about.

The team ethic has come into play with our physicality too. While some teams have fielded several players that look like fully grown men this year, we’re still quite a small bunch. It’s meant that we’ve been bullied off the ball at times over the years and worse still, we’ve allowed it to happen and simply complained, rather than trying to be stronger. That changed a little in the period since around April this year. We’ve talked and talked about it in training and before, during and after games and the message seems to be getting through – don’t cheat, but fight for the right to keep the ball and win football matches. This is definitely something that we need to keep working on as well as carrying it forward for next season.

Next season will be a big step up for my team. They move from playing 9-a-side football to 11-a-side and that means playing on a bigger pitch with bigger goals. We’ll have to adapt to new positions and different formations and all of this presents a real challenge. I’m hoping that the size of the pitch will help us because we pass the ball well. However, I’m conscious that it should help others too who rely on how well their stronger players can run with the ball. With this in mind, part of our build up to the season will be spent working much more on fitness and trying to improve players strength, pace and stamina. If we can get closer to teams physically, the way we play the game might just give us an advantage.

At the moment though our main concern revolves around the recruitment of players. the 12-13 age range is a tricky time with junior footballers as lots of them start to explore new interests and the drop out rate is quite high. So far, having asked parents who’ll be signing up next season I’ve had only 11 positive replies, which basically means we haven’t got a squad yet. Our goalkeeper has decided to drop football, leaving us without anyone to fill what is a really key position, so we’re on the lookout for a new keeper! It promises to be a crucial next few weeks, with the simple fact being if we can’t get enough players then the team will have to fold. I’ve already heard whispers of other teams that are in the same position, so it’s going to be a case of putting out adverts, relying on word of mouth and crossing everything that’s crossable in the hope that we can attract bodies! If not, I’m going to have to find something else to fill my everyday thoughts and Sunday mornings!

The other thing that I need to think about now is sponsorship. Grassroots football clubs are not organisations that are awash with money. But the kids that populate them tend to grow fast. So when it comes to kit, my lads have grown out of what they’ve got and we are in dire need of a new home kit. The last time we got one we could only secure sponsorship to pay for just over half of what we got, meaning that the club had to stump up money to help out. I’d like to avoid that this time round.

That said, schmoozing potential sponsors is not my thing and that is yet another problem. My assistant coach is usually pretty good at that kind of thing though and as well as this, we have parents of some of our players that have tried to get sponsorship in the past. In fact, our last home kit sponsorship was achieved by one of said parents badgering a business owner who drinks in the same pub as him!

If we do get the money then we need to get the kit, which shouldn’t be a problem, but again is something that irks me. Our club committee insist on sticking with the same supplier for all teams and frankly, I don’t rate the supplier. Our home kit for the last two seasons has been plain, dull and unimaginative, so I’m hoping that this year there might be a bit of flexibility.

A couple of years ago I used an online kit designer to come up with some ideas from a different supplier. I then put the idea to the club. You would have thought I’d just arrived at the meeting riding a sea horse while holding hands with a mermaid. Suffice to say, we stuck with our usual way of doing things.

A year later however, we decided that we’d buy a training kit that could double up as an away kit because our home kit clashed with several other teams in our league. We went with a neon yellow and grey number and it blew a few minds. And then, a coach from one of our younger age groups got in touch to find out which kit it was, as he wanted to order it. Gradually more groups did the same and now several of our age groups wear the same snazzy kit that we introduced. So there’s hope for a quiet kit revolution yet!

Overall, it’s been a season of highs and lows and it’s left us with lots to work on. I think I have a team of players that are capable of a great deal more. I think their potential is a lot greater than they realise and happily, I think the penny might have dropped a little with this. I’ll be going into the season with some targets for them, both individually and as a team, but in short I’ll be looking for a much better league finish. This season we finished 7th out of 10 clubs. Next year I’ll be pushing my boys for a top three finish (if we get the players and actually still have a team, that is…) and if results in the final four or five games are anything to go by, we can achieve just that.

We lost to the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the league, but were competitive in both games, particularly against the 2nd team. We defeated teams that finished higher than us in those final games too, most notably against the team that won the league. In fact, we were the only team to beat them over the course of the entire season; the only team to take any points at all off them as they won every other game that they played. And it wasn’t just a win; we made them look very ordinary and dominated all but the final five minutes or so. If we can take that performance forward, then we’ll be OK.

So here’s to another year of football with all of the challenges it brings. Let’s just hope that the pandemic isn’t going to cause the chaos that it has for the last two seasons though!

Running Tips for Beginners and enthusiastic old people alike!

Let me start by pointing out that in no way am I any kind of expert on running. So I’m not claiming that what I write about in this blog is any kind of guarantee of success. There is no way on Earth that reading this blog is going to make you some kind of Olympian! However, as someone who’s ran on and off – more on than off, but a little stop start now and again – for most of his 49 years, I can certainly say that I speak from experience.

Running is something I’ve always loved. It was something that I started at school and success at junior school sports days whetted my appetite. I discovered very early on that I was in possession of a good turn of pace and despite my size, was capable of beating more or less anyone I raced. For a while at least. A heart problem put pay to that and once I recovered I found that I wasn’t the ‘athlete’* I’d once been.

*The term athlete is being used with quite an amount of creative license here by the way. I was a quick kid but that was about the size of it!

With my childhood heart problem taken care of I started running again, albeit not as well as before. But I really wanted to raise money for the heart unit where I’d had my operation and so, to cut a long story short, I started running more regularly and more seriously. I started to do sponsored fun runs and from there graduated to doing the Great North Run, a half marathon, raising money as I went. After that, I just kept on running either for fun or more competitively for clubs. In my time I’ve completed a number of half marathons, but mostly just ran for fun. That said, that’s a lot of running! And in the last few years, following more heart problems, I’ve started running much more regularly. It’s amazing what a health scare can do for you! So you never know, there might just be a bit of common sense in the tips that I can offer! So here we go…

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation! I can’t lie; there are far too many times that I go out having not prepared properly. If it’s an evening run I tend to make the excuse that I’ve been on my feet all day at work, so I’ll be fully warmed up anyway. But it’s never true and the proof is never more evident in those first couple of miles when I can’t get into my running or afterwards when everything seizes up! So, it’s a little bit of a case of doing what I say and not necessarily what I do here. Take time to warm up. Stretch thoroughly and perhaps even go as far as some running on the spot beforehand. Your body will thank you for it later! Stretching isn’t the only thing you can do though. I always make sure that I’ve had a blast on my inhaler – I’m asthmatic – as I don’t want to be too out of breath too soon. I’ve also started eating a handful of pine nuts and cashews before I head out, just in the hope of a bit of an energy burst. Pine nuts are good in terms of being heart healthy and contain things like iron and magnesium, which can boost energy. Don’t eat so many that you end up running with indigestion, but I always find they help me along the way. Cashew nuts contain healthy fats and again are heart healthy. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things dietary, but even if it’s as a placebo, I find that handfuls of things like this help me out.

The final thing that I make sure I do is to have a few jelly sweets in a pocket, ready for a quick sugar rush when I feel I might be flagging just a little bit too much. My personal choice are Mike and Ike’s, a nicely sugary coated import from America, available in B&Ms brilliant and strange American Confectionary section. Other jelly based confectionary, American or otherwise, is available. All over the place.

2. Clothing. Unless you’re into naked running, clothing is a vital part of your armour as a runner. Some would say it’s essential. From a personal point of view, having never tried naked running, I’d always go with clothing; no one repeat no one, needs to see me and my middle aged body charging down the road, in the nip as they say.

Silliness aside, good quality running gear is important. But there are levels here. I’m not someone who feels the need to splash ridiculous amounts of cash on what I’m sweating into, but I do want to feel comfortable and at least look the part without it being a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’.

The most important thing – in my humble opinion – is to get a good quality pair of trainers that you’re comfortable in. I used to run in Nike flats, but found that their very thin nature meant that they wore out relatively quickly. So eventually I went for a reasonably priced pair of New Balance 680 v6, which feature a nicely cushioned sole. Game changer! Suddenly I was running faster, going further and more importantly at my age, not suffering with aches and pains for days after. You could say that I’m a convert to cushioning. I’ve since bought a new pair of New Balance, but my 680s are hanging on in there and I’m out running in them regularly. I’ve found that some good quality running socks feel a lot better too.

In terms if what else I wear, I prefer 2in1 shorts, with an inner cycling short lining. I’m all for keeping those hamstrings warm! What I would also advise with running shorts is that you buy something with some kind of pocket. That way, anything light that you need to take can be stored away. My pockets always have a few jelly sweets and I find my door key handy for getting back into the house!

I’d also advise buying specialist running tops. I’m a t-shirt man myself. My build just doesn’t lend itself to vests and no one needs the sight of any more of my body! What I would say is that you should have something bright or even high viz, just for your own safety. It’s surprising how people many just don’t see you coming, so be as visible as possible, especially on more murky days or evenings. With this in mind, I was pleased when my wife bought me a couple of light up bands that I can wear around my upper arms in winter. If it gets too late and the light is cutting in, I just flick a switch and they light up, leaving me to focus on my running rather than whether or not I might get knocked over! They’re lightweight and comfortable too, which is ideal for people like me who hate running with anything annoying attached to me. You can see the kind of thing I mean below, although there are lots of variants on this particular accessory.

3. No excuses. Until the last 18 months or so I’ve always been brilliant at coming up with excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out for a run. And excuses as to why I should come in early from a run. Drizzle, too windy (weather, not me), a niggling and sometimes not real injury, not enough time, too close to lunch, not enough sleep, not in the right frame of mind, too windy (me this time), too sunny…I’ve gone through phases where anything I could tell myself would be enough to stay where I was and not head out for a run.

Don’t do it. Those endorphins won’t release themselves. However tired you think you feel, however bad your day at work was, get out for that run. Keep up the momentum. You’ll feel better for it. You’ll be pleased with yourself. You’ll have improved your fitness, just a little bit. But if you let that excuse keep you in then you’ll find another one the next time and even when you get back out again, you’ll excuse yourself some more, another time.

Once I stopped making excuses and just getting out there, I got fitter, stronger and faster. It’s taken me a long, long time, but nowadays the weather and the niggles don’t get in the way and I’m absolutely loving my running.

4. Plan a route (kind of). Personally, I don’t like to plan a very detailed route, but I like an idea of where I’m going, vaguely which set of streets I’ll be running along and more to the point, where I turn for home. I keep it vague for one reason: if I want to add a chunk of running in, I can and that means that I can feel good about myself once I get home. If I know that where I’m headed will take me say for 5km but I’m feeling good, then I might add a few extra streets in and before I know it I’ve covered an extra kilometre or two. And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Maybe it’s just a me thing, but I’d definitely recommend it. I suppose in a way it means I get to explore little bits of town, rather than just running another circuit of somewhere and I find my way a bit more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to keep my mind distracted from how my legs are doing and heading down a couple of new streets does just that!

5. Recovery. Over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that once I get back in after a run, my next hour or so is really important. I always used to make sure that I had a drink of water, but it was never anywhere near enough. And I’d never stretch.

Nowadays everything has changed. When I remember, I put a bottle of water into the freezer before I head out for my run. I’ll neck that as soon as I get in and then refill and drink slowly for a while. I might even refill again after that. I also make sure I eat a banana as soon as I get in. I might even have more cashews or pine nuts. If I have any pain I have a massage roller ball that I put in the freezer and then massage with when I get home and it works wonders! And I make sure I stretch again. This is usually done while lying or sitting down, touching my toes or painfully pulling my feet back behind my back. Before, I might well have just flopped down in a chair and watched television, then wondered why my muscles just stiffened up half an hour later. I’d wake up next morning and find it difficult to walk, such was the stiffness in my legs and back. And then lockdown happened.

During lockdown I read a lot of things about running and exercise. I also did online workouts and learnt the value of warming down and recovery from this. I can’t recommend it enough. The stretching helps to loosen and lengthen the muscles again and the fruit and snacking helps throw vitamins back into the body, which can only help. The water replaces fluid that you’ve lost while also refreshing you, obviously. It seems obvious now and why I totally ignored recovery for so many years is beyond me, but I would absolutely recommend that you take far better care of yourself after you’ve ran. You’ll feel so much better for it.

I hope these tips – some more obvious than others – will come in handy for you. Like I said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve found that these things have helped my running immeasurably. I’m faster and stronger, but more to the point, I enjoy my running much more than ever.

As usual, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Oh, and happy running!

Ten Days: an Isolation update.

I wrote a little blog last week about the horrible time we’d had in our house once not one, but two of our family tested positive for Covid-19. There’s a link below, if you fancy a bit of misery! Well, given that we’re still isolating, albeit nearly at the end of our time as a house of hermits, I thought I’d write a little update.

Ironically, it’s not been a positive week at all.

It’s now the Friday after the Wednesday before and it’s been a tiring week, to say the least. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve washed or sanitised my hands and have spent much of the week alone, yet with three other people living in the house. I wouldn’t recommend it.

This time last week we were in the car – a wonderful place to be with two people who’ve just tested positive for any virus, let me tell you – heading to a drive in test centre on the outskirts of Leeds. We would still be in the car couple of hours later, at a third test centre after a mix up with the system led to us basically embarking on some kind of grand tour of some of the less salubrious bits of our locality. Believe me, you’ve not lived until you’ve driven down a dead end street in Beeston to be confronted by someone sat in the gutter in their pyjamas looking less than enthusiastic about life, yet somehow oblivious to your car performing a hasty three point turn and screeched getaway. And while I don’t wish to be too ‘judgy’ I suspect the involvement of drugs.

Tests duly taken, the two positive results were confirmed the day after and so began a week extreme caution, constant alert and an undeniable sense of paranoia. Oh, and from a purely selfish point of view, it’s been a week when I haven’t been able to get out for a run, which has felt horrible and also means that when I do get back out, it’s going to hurt! I haven’t exercised and I’ve had a beer almost every night, so I’m preparing myself for a painful 10k sometime soon!

We decided very quickly that we wouldn’t be able to isolate fully. This was going to have to be an isolation from the outside world, rather than one where two people were locked away in bedrooms and I waited on them. This wasn’t me shirking responsibility, more the need for the four of us to stick together as a family. When one of the ‘positives’ is an 11-year-old boy and the other his mum, locking them away just didn’t seem to be fair.

So we’ve spent the week opening doors with sleeves over our hands, bottles of hand sanitiser dotted around the place and, worst of all, relying on me to do the majority of the cooking. That said, when my wife was feeling up to it she took over those duties, mainly to stop the rest of us from suffering. We’ve also developed a very delicate way of maneuvering around the house in almost balletic fashion, avoiding getting too close to each other, remaining vigilant, taut and balanced; keeping a more than safe distance without appearing too rude to the other person. It’s been a difficult thing to do and I must admit, it’s made me feel pretty terrible. When you can’t hug your wife or children before they go to bed, it’s a horrible feeling.

In order to confront a big issue with contact, I decided that I’d sleep downstairs in our living room for the whole of the isolation period. Sharing a bed and a confined space just seemed like a silly idea and an invitation for the virus to send me multiple invites to its nasty little party.

I spent the first night with only a few blankets for a mattress and a couple of dressing gowns for covers, due to the fact that we had to make our arrangements late and remembered that our camping mattresses were locked away in a shed. That particular luxury would have to wait until daylight hours. Suffice to say, I woke up on Thursday morning feeling like I’d been away on a two week stag do in Eastern Europe…and decided to run home to save money on a flight. Not a great start, but the inflatable mattress has somewhat alleviated the problem.

I’ve found however, that sleeping so close to the floor is not so good for my asthma and while I’ve slept quite well most nights, I’ve still woke up the next day feeling various shades of rough! For the first few nights I secretly popped upstairs to check on my patients in the small hours, standing in the dark just listening to their breathing in order to calm myself. Not a nice place to be. That said, had either of them woke up and switched on a light, I’m sure the sight of me would have been just as traumatic.

My wife and son have recovered in varying levels across the week. My son; young, fit, healthy, has been relatively OK. While his first few days were worrying to watch, his latter part of the week has just seen him look a bit more tired than usual and with the occasional headache. If you’re going to get Coronavirus, get it when you’re 11, seems to be the way forward here. My wife has been worse and it’s been hard to watch. She’s always been so healthy and so watching a shadow of the person I love shuffling round the house has not been good. And there’s not a lot I can do. She’s been nauseous, extremely tired and suffered terrible headaches. There were times in the first few days when I’d pop to our bedroom to check on her to find her passed out on our bed. Sleeping, but positioned as if she’d just fallen and gone out cold. So at that point, things were a bit worrying.

My son testing positive meant that several of his friends had to isolate too and some of them played for the same football team. This is the very same football team that I coach. So, with a game to come within a week, I contacted the opposition coach, who also happens to be kind of a big deal in our league, in order to try and reschedule our game. We were faced with having to play with 8 players at most in a 9-a-side game, after all. Simple decision, right? Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong and then after that, wronger. I actually spent the next three days, messaging and emailing back and forth with various people and basically pointing out how ridiculous it would be to ask us to go ahead with the game. In the end I made them see sense, but only after a monumental amount of time and effort. Ridiculous really, but we got what we wanted in the end. As id to emphasis the need to reschedule, the game would have been last night and we trained instead with the friend who helps out taking the session. We had more players drop out and the session had 5 players taking part. So we would have had to try and play a game with 5 players!

As a result of all the unnecessary fuss, I can’t wait to see the opposition coach when we do play, as he seemed to be hell-bent on denying us the chance to just compete on equal terms. I expect he’s made the game take on much more meaning and importance than it ever had! All this for a game of Under 12s football! And all this while my son and wife were very ill.

So, in among all of the positive test news and the poorly people, this little bit of side-tracking just wasn’t needed. Meanwhile, after a fraught weekend, it was now Monday and my patients were beginning to show signs of recovery. Which was nice.

Monday meant more Teams teaching for me – a Year 11 lesson and one with Year 9. And on Monday, this felt like quite a nice novelty really. Fast forward a day and I was tiring fast. Peering into a laptop screen and attempting to teach a class while self-consciously looking at yourself on screen was little or no fun. And boy was it hard work. I quickly lost count of the amount of times I was having to repeat the on screen instructions or explain that, no I wasn’t going to be able to come into work. No matter how many times the phrase ‘self-isolation’ was mentioned, it just didn’t seem to hit home!

By Wednesday it was taking ten minutes for a class to write the date, title and learning purpose and I was shattered with the confusion of it all. Working from home has always sounded such a nice prospect, but the reality for me was that it was exhausting and incredibly frustrating. While attempting to teach my classes I have been having to jump off the call from time to time to check on my two poorly people as well as my isolating daughter and her school work. Working from home has been the least favourite part of my week.

We arrived at Thursday and I decided that a lie in was needed. My own Thursday promised to be a bit more relaxed as I didn’t have a class in the morning and because of Eid, my afternoon group were being collapsed into another, meaning in all likelihood, a free afternoon as well. Oh, and before people think that I got up late, my lie in was until 6.45am, just so we’re clear!

The morning was pleasantly sunny and my wife seemed to be feeling a lot better, albeit it in a Covid relative kind of way. She was even going to attempt some work, something that she’d done on a number of occasions during the week and that had made her decidedly ill along the way. But, taking the sun as some kind of optimistic cue, she set herself up in our bedroom (or for this week only, her bedroom) and got to work. Meanwhile, I got the lawnmower out and cut our back lawn, wrestling (not literally) with various types of animal poo along the way – I think some is cat poo, but have been left wondering if we may have a fox visiting at night times as well.

I got a lot done on Thursday, including having a socially distanced chat with a friend on our driveway, which to be honest, was a bit bizarre. Just the experience of talking to someone (who by the way, I’d spoken to only last week, as he helps me with the coaching of the football team) who wasn’t in our house was both strange and exciting.

By the way, my wife’s work on Thursday ended up with her lying prostrate on our bed with her head covered in a duvet, exhausted and suffering from everything being too bright. I discovered this when I popped up to ask her not to push herself too far. It seems I missed the deadline by about 30 minutes and she’d had just about enough strength left to put the laptop on the floor before she just flaked out. It’s clear that the virus still has a bit of a hold on her.

And so to today, Friday. The two patients are doing as well as can be expected. My son in fact, who comes out of isolation today, seems very much over the virus. In fact, I can hear him now jumping around in the front room while playing X-Box, while shouting at the television. So, touch wood, he’s beaten Covid-19. My wife is working upstairs, but pacing herself. She looks tired, but doesn’t seem to be suffering the headaches, the dizziness, the nausea or anything else that has punctuated her week.

Hopefully, we’re well and truly over the worst. Everyone is very tired, but we’re all looking forward to finding our way back to some sense of normality. I desperately want to be able to hug my wife and son once again. Myself and my son are also looking forward to Sunday and our next game with our football team. We still can’t go out to do the food shopping and I’m going to stick with my cautious approach and stay sleeping downstairs for a little while longer. But things are starting to look a little more normal.

As I type though, there are reports in the U.K. that the Indian strain of the virus is beginning to make quite an imprint here. I’m fairly sure that there’s a Prime Minister’s briefing live on TV tonight with speculation of some kind of further lockdown to come. We’ll wait and see.

Just when you think things are getting back to normal, some other kind of shit hits the fan. That seems to be just the way life is nowadays. I sincerely hope we can get through it all once again.

I have to finish with some thank yous. I’ll start with my work colleagues and friends who have made my week a great deal easier. Resources have been provided for my classes, Teams calls set up, worries alleviated left, right and centre and regular messages sent that have calmed me down no end. Thanks Big Sisters! I also have to say a huge thank my friends David and Sarah who have checked in electronically across the course of the week and just made me and my wife feel better about things. The best friends you could hope for! When we finally do catch up, that’s going to be one hell of a moan-fest! Thanks also to Nigel, my partner in crime at football, who has kept things running as smoothly as possible and gone out of his way to do so. And thanks to anyone who’s a Facebook, Twitter or Blog friend; I’ve received some lovely messages this week.

I hope you enjoy the blog.

Ironically, it’s not been a positive week at all.

It’s been a ‘helluva’ week. I know that’s not the correct spelling or grammar, but it’s how the cool people would have put it, I imagine, so I thought I’d give it a go.

So let me tell you all about it…

Firstly, we’ll cut to the chase (cool language again, I know). On Wednesday night my 11-year-old son tested positive for Covid-19. Then, feeling poorly overnight, my wife took a test on Thursday morning and also tested positive. Now, I know they’re not the first people affected by this. It’s been quite the big thing, as I recall. But it’s never got so personal until now and it’s kind of disrupted the week! The thing we had feared for over a year finally happened, just when it looked like there wasn’t much chance of it happening anymore!

It’s now Saturday, so for three(ish) days I’ve been running around trying to look after the poorly people in the house as well as my 14-year-old daughter. I’m knackered. They’re knackered too, obviously.

Chronologically speaking, we started the week on Monday. Not just us, by the way. You too, dear reader. Everybody. I’m definitely not claiming any exclusivity on Monday as the start of the week. As it is, Monday came and went quite well really. I did a day at work in a job I love, taught two of my favourite classes and then had a reasonably early finish and headed home. I suppose there was a sign of the week to come when the student teacher I’m mentoring didn’t come into work and neglected to tell me she was absent. Damn my psychic powers. They obviously don’t kick in until Tuesdays when you get a bit older. Positively though, we had fish fingers and chips (and beans, as you ask; you have to have beans in that particular mix) for tea and selfishly, my son showed no signs of Covid. Clearly he hasn’t heard of the idea that forewarned is forearmed.

So undetected were his symptoms that he played a full game of football for our team on Tuesday night. This was another negative moment in our Positive week. It absolutely threw it down with rain. We were playing the team that are currently second top of our league and who had previously beaten us 7-1 earlier in the season. Inevitably, we lost. We were absolutely magnificent and perhaps could have won it, but we lost. And we all got soaked. Despite wearing 5 layers on my top half and two on the bottom (steady on ladies…and gents…it’s 2021 after all) I was soaked to the skin. I assume everyone else was too, but it seemed like too much of an intrusive question to ask. And to re-iterate, my probably Covid carrying, yet no symptoms son ran around like a mad thing for an hour, getting pushed and kicked every few minutes by members of a very physical opposition.

He felt tired and sick the next day – no Covid symptoms though – and so when we did our lateral flow tests that night, it was quite a shock to see his read as positive. He’s tiny. He’s eleven. He had contracted a virus that kills.

And so began a whirlwind of activity. Myself and my wife – herself now starting to feel tired and sick – rang, texted and interneted (I don’t know if that’s a verb, but if it isn’t, I’ve just invented it) and organised a PCR test for my son, as well as informing the school of the positive and several parents that their kids would be most likely be isolating for the next ten days. It all felt great. (That’s sarcasm by the way. It actually felt shit.)

I slept on the floor that night with just a duvet and some blankets for a mattress and some dressing gowns for blankets, having forgotten that our blow up mattress was in the shed. I’ve slept on the floor – albeit with the mattress – since (organise my medal now someone; I have been a very brave boy). Each night, when I’ve woken I’ve headed upstairs to check on my two patients, such is the worry that this while thing brings.

On Thursday morning, feeling very unwell, my wife did a lateral flow test and, surprise, surprise, it came back positive. We promptly organised a PCR test to confirm it, but couldn’t get the same venue as for my son’s. Heads spinning – not literally; don’t worry it doesn’t do that to you – we headed out to get to the first test. And in yet another positive, we ended up at three centres after the first one was shut for use as a polling station for local elections and the second one couldn’t fit my wife in (to their schedule, not their room, she’s tiny). So we headed for an entirely different town, getting lost in the one way system first of all before eventually, hours after we’d first set out, my wife and son were able to take their tests.

At a couple of points on Thursday I went to check on my wife to find her literally collapsed on our bed, like she’d been sitting up, but passed out. On one of those occasions, such was her body shape, that all it would have taken was a chalk outline and some stripy police tape to make it look like a convincing murder scene. Scary stuff. Friday was much the same. Oh and I had to make dinner and tea on both days, so could someone organise another medal for me, please? I mean, I’ve been forced to drink beer every night, just to cope…

So caught up in it all was I, that on Friday night, I forgot that my football team were playing and only tuned in to watch about 25 minutes after kick-off. Excuse my language, but we were fucking wonderful. However, when each of our four goals went in, I was forced to completely subdue my usual loud celebrations for fear of hurting the poorly heads of our two positives. Whoever’s organising the medals, get me a trophy as well.

And now, it’s Saturday. It’s throwing it down with rain again and no one’s had any fresh air as a result. The other three members of the household are occupying themselves in various ways, so I thought I’d write this. I hope you enjoyed my week a bit more than we did.

Poetry Blog: ‘In a Perfect World’

This is another poem inspired by my Year 11 group, who are definitely one of my favourite teaching groups in years. So, I suppose that helps explain why I end up writing about them so much.

They’re a lower ability set and are currently going through the exams and assessments that will form their GCSE grades after more Coronavirus disruption meant that this would be based around teacher assessment for this cohort. And I’m desperate for them to do well, in relative terms that is, as we’ve reached the stage of the year where there’s only so much that we can do for them now, which makes me feel almost helpless.

I wrote the poem after our latest assessment. I was reflecting on the hour long input lesson that I’d done with them beforehand. After that I had to let a number of them go off to other rooms to sit their assessment due to access arrangements, like students being given extra time or being allowed to work in a room on their own. It’s safe to say that they weren’t on their best behaviour and it was something that I couldn’t shake when I was driving home. So I wrote the following.

In a perfect world...

In a perfect world you'd be ready.
Focused, a look of steely eyed determination spread across your face.
Knowledge embedded and itching to read and write.
But, it's not a perfect world, as I have learnt many times before
and you will discover on too many occasions that are yet to come.
Instead today, you are giddy and focus is replaced by noises,
bad mannered interruptions and nervous giggles that make me fret,
not just for now and the next hour, but for what is to come in the years that will follow.
I want to do whatever it takes to let you know the positives I want for you,
how I'd love for you to breeze through this,
just to give yourself a leg up, a boost, a chance at a start in life.
And despite the mood, the lack of focus and the approach of a toddler at soft play,
I will attempt to ignore the signs and stand,
fingers crossed in hope while you write, dreading what seems almost unstoppable
in its inevitability.
In the corner of the room, a poster that should probably be front and centre
declares that you should 'Dream Big' and 'Always Challenge Yourself'.
Maybe not today.

As soon as I got home I grabbed my notebook and wrote my thoughts down. I’d stewed on their behaviour in the hour before the assessment. It’s a small group but about 8 out of the 13 of them were just behaving ridiculously – making stupid noises, rudely calling out and interrupting, complaining about what we were doing and so on.

It’s one of the worst things about my job when I feel that I’m working far, far harder than the students in my room. I imagine lots of teachers feel the same. But that’s just how I felt for that hour. We’d spoken about this assessment for weeks, prepared for it intensely both during school and after, but here were my class acting like it didn’t matter a jot.

I wish I could show them how hard life can be. I wish I could show them the awful flats I’ve lived in and the terrible jobs I’ve had to do while working my way up in life and still feeling that I’m doing a bang average job of it all. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make sure that they get that pass in English that gets them some kind of start. But, of course I can’t. And standing there invigilating for the few I had left in the room made me feel completely helpless and incredibly frustrated.

As many of us know, it’s not a perfect world. I just wish I could enlighten these students to that fact a little more!

I hope you enjoyed the poem and I hope that the fact that it’s the same subject matter as another one I wrote fairly recently, doesn’t put you off. Whatever way it makes you feel – even if it makes you feel nothing at all – I’d love to hear what you think, so as ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Easter Goals – an update.

So, just before the Easter holidays rather than dreaming of chocolate and boxsets, I decided that this two week break would be different. I was going to try for something more goals driven and to help motivate me I wrote a blog about it. The thinking here was that if I formalised it in some way then I might be more tempted to actually work towards said goals. Usually formalising goes about as far as writing a bullet point list down on the back of an envelope, so this was definite progress.

I set myself a manageable number of goals, even though some of them were quite big projects. With two weeks away from work I was confident that I could achieve a lot of what I’d set myself and really, only fatigue or boredom (or my kids) could get in the way.

My first and biggest goal was to decorate the kitchen and paint the kitchen cupboards. After many years our kitchen is in need of a change, but in order to avoid the fuss of people ripping it apart, we’d decided to just update and maybe go for the whole new kitchen thing in Summer or even Autumn. We’d bought primer and paint and I had started a little bit of the sanding a while ago. So Easter was going to be used to transform the place.

Well, there’s good news and bad news with this one. The bad news is that I just didn’t get round to decorating the kitchen. I still intend to, but I simply ran out of time to do it. That and the fact that I lost the will to live too!

However, I did manage to sand down all of the doors, frames, sills on the units, then prime them before finally giving them all a good paint. Have a look! I think it looks great, but then I would say that I suppose!

Two of my other targets were running related and I’m pleased to say that I achieved both. Firstly, I was looking to break in my new running trainers, which I achieved very easily. I mean, some would say that it simply involved wearing said trainers for a couple of runs. And they would be right. That said, the trainers in question are a lot more comfortable now that they have a few more miles on the clock. They’re probably not quite as worn in as I’d like, but that’s just because I keep pulling on my older pair as I’m still very fond of them.

I also decided that part of Easter would be dedicated to improving personal bests at 5k and 10k. In truth, I didn’t manage either, but that was more to do with the fact that within a couple of days of my time off work starting I’d changed the goals a little. I decided that I wanted to try for a 10 mile run instead, as this was something I hadn’t achieved in over a decade. Having got the first weekend out of the way, I achieved this goal on the first Monday of the holidays. I did then attempt to beat my record for running 10k, but instead fell short and ran my second fastest ever. And while I’ll continue to attempt to better my 5k time, when I actually checked again what my PB was I found that it was just under 21 minutes and I’m still mystified about how I achieved that. So, in truth I can’t see that time being broken any time soon!

My other running goal was to research some runs or races that I could enter. The easing of our lockdown rules should mean that Parkrun will begin again quite soon, but I was keen to look for something more road based if possible. Sadly though, time got the better of me and just when it looked like I would happily waste away the last couple of days of my break, a friend got in touch to suggest that a group of us from work might enter the Pontefract 10k and so, presented with an open goal, I signed up. Roll on late June!

Another goal revolved around gardening jobs and, despite some lovely weather, this is where I failed quite miserably. Some jobs have been done – both lawns have been cut, even if I couldn’t quite be bothered to trim the edges or rake moss out as I usually would. Some weeding got done too, but not all of it. Roses were sprayed and my wife even pruned them, but all in all I’m facing up to late April and a garden that is not the best. To make matters worse my garden mad, retired neighbour has gone project crazy and now has railway sleeper lined raised beds in an area of his back garden as well as pristine lawns and many, many blossoming flowers. He also revealed plans for a new workshop style shed in his garden, much to my horror. His shed has always put mine in the shade, so his shed revolution is quite the blow, although you probably have to be of a certain age to understand why! I wrote a poem about it once though, and it’s on the link below.

Lockdown Literature – my stab at a poetry blog.

My worst failure came with my bonsai trees. Sadly, they’re still all in the box that they came in. I sit next to it every day and yet still haven’t managed to find the time or the urge to start their cultivation. Maybe next week, maybe next month, maybe next Easter…

So all in all – and I realise I’m probably being kind to myself here – I think I had a good break in terms of my goals. The whole kitchen thing was a big enough project that it took up a few days and in between running, writing for the blog and just settling down and being a husband and a dad, there wasn’t a lot of time for anything else. Maybe next time I’ll cut down on the ambition.

Book Review: Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Imagine if you will. it. You’re just about as multi-talented as they come. You once turned into a child at the fun fair, before turning back into an adult with the help of your best mate. Another time, you ran across America, just because you could (and this was after your time in Vietnam and your exploits as a shrimp based entrepreneur). You’ve been a daredevil cowboy, a much-loved television presenter and America’s favourite pilot. Everybody loves you. I mean you even made friends on a desert island once… with a football. You are Tom Hanks.

And then just when we thought there might be a limit to your talents, you went a wrote a collection of short stories.

As a reader, short stories generally aren’t my kind of thing. So a collection of them doesn’t normally work for me. I like the full development of characters and an actual narrative that I feel a novel always brings. But ‘Uncommon Type’ intrigued me when I spotted it on the shelves of my local supermarket. I liked the look of it, but I have to be honest and say that it was Hanks’s name that drew me in and led to me taking the book off the shelves. Yes, I’m that shallow!

Uncommon Type is a collection of seventeen stories, all set in the USA and as the quote on the front of the book says, ‘All American life is here‘. Several of the tales revolve around the same four friends and their various adventures, but then we also have a Word War II veteran facing up to life after active combat, an actor who suddenly and unexpectedly finds ridiculous levels of fame and also the thoughts of a child facing up to his parents’ divorce and the strange ways in which can sometimes move on. So although we’re largely faced with tales of small town America, there’s a great variation in the stories. And one last twist; all of the stories are connected by the presence of a typewriter (hence the title), which while it doesn’t sound a particularly clever or attractive selling point, is carried out brilliantly.

I have to admit, I was hooked from the first page of ‘Uncommon Type’. It turns out that as well as being lauded as an actor and just an all-round nice guy, Hanks can spin a yarn too. He writes beautifully and although there were one or two of the stories that did nothing for me, I couldn’t put the book down for the majority of my time reading it.

As a reader, you’re immersed in the worlds that Hanks places you in, such is his gift for description. Whether it’s small town America or the other side of the moon, Hanks’s prose transports you there convincingly and makes for an excellent read.

As you’d expect from the award winning Hollywood superstar actor, Tom Hanks can write a character! From Anna, an ex-triathlete with a penchant for telling her boyfriend, “Atta baby” through Virgil and Bud, army veterans, both the epitomy of masculinity and typical of their generation and on to American immigrant and stowaway Assan; all are believable and thoroughly engaging. Hanks has created real people that the reader can’t help but care about and ask questions of. And if you’re like me, all the while that you’re in the worlds he creates, watching the characters go about their lives, it’s all being narrated by the man himself! For all seventeen stories Hanks was my reading voice, which, let me tell you, is relaxing to say the least.

I loved ‘Uncommon Type’. It’s subtle eye for detail, charming characters and sense of humour made it a brilliant, engaging read. Although there are one or two perhaps below par tales here, all in all there’s something for everyone. A definite winner that I’d certainly recommend you read.

I give ‘Uncommon Type’ by Tom Hanks

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Back on the grass again…for an actual game! (Part 2 of 2)

So after two training sessions in a week, numerous messages over WhatsApp and several pep talks with my players, we were finally, properly back on the grass today. An actual game with points at stake. Some competition and the adrenalin of a serious game of football, albeit at Under 12 level.

Sunday 11th April marked our return to competitive football and the sun was smiling on the Garforth Junior Football League as teams re-started the season once again. We woke up to an absolutely glorious day, if a little chilly, and frankly perfect conditions for football.

As stated in the first part of this blog, my team restart their season with more than a few worries. We play in Division 7 of 8 and at present are third bottom of the league. It’s safe to say that wins have been hard to come by this season, Indeed one of our wins was actually expunged from the records as the team we beat decided to drop out of the division after lockdown. Not because we beat them, by the way. I think it was down to the availability of players, but it still cost us valuable points.

We were playing the team beneath us in the league and so the importance of the game had been stressed by myself all week. And as we arrived at the venue for the match, I felt confident that we’d give a decent showing of ourselves.

Speaking of the venue, it was the kind of place where I always feel my lads and me might look a bit out of place. We’re a team from Morley, a market town on the outskirts of Leeds and let’s just say that there are areas that we visit for away games where the locals are a bit more refined than ourselves. Sometimes, as we park up outside a row of enormous houses with Range Rovers and Aston Martins in the driveways, I feel like we might be in danger of having our collective collars felt by the local constabulary. It certainly makes me conscious of my Mazda and the scruffy bags that carry the team’s equipment!

Today was one of those days. The area was relatively rural, with some rather plush houses around. We were also playing at a quite splendid private school where they even had a steward to make sure you drove round the car park the right way! The pitches were like bowling greens and the facilities clearly nicer than ours, where only last week two teenagers drove a motorbike over our pitch at speed as we trained. So walking through the grounds of the place made me feel slightly inferior at the very least! We’re the kind of team that my dad would refer to as ‘Raggy Arse Rovers’ and it’s exactly how I felt today.

Once we’d found our pitch we warmed up and went over the basics once again; don’t panic on the ball, don’t just boot it downfield at every opportunity, try to pass and move, use the width of the pitch, take responsibility, encourage each other and anything else that sprung to mind as kick off approached. I was able to take a moment just to have a look around and for a few seconds was mesmerized by the sight before me; the bright green of the pitch and the contrast of those thick, untouched white lines painted in, the bustle of parents, the excitement of the kids taking part in three separate games on the sight and the distinct tension brought about by the fact that we all want a positive outcome this morning. And then, before we knew it we were lining up around the centre circle for a minute’s silence to mark the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. After that, it was over to the boys on the pitch.

It doesn’t take long to remember how helpless you can feel as a coach. In fact, I’d safely say that in the months of being away from football, it’s something that I’ve not missed at all.

We quickly took hold of the game and yet, for every mistake made or chance missed, my mind was ticking over with questions. Why has he done that? Who told him that was OK? What was he thinking there? As I say, as a coach you feel helpless. You’re screaming inside, yet still trying to find the balance between letting your team think and act for themselves and telling them what to do and what or who to look out for.

I don’t want to take you through each and every kick of the game. That’s not the point here. So, I’ll let you know that we lost in the end, because it helps with explaining the process that you slip into so easily despite the amount of time spent away from doing what you love.

We lost with virtually the last kick of the game, having came back from 3-1 down with about 5 minutes to go, to level it at 3-3. As our opposition re-started the game at 3-3 I was prompted to warn my team, “Don’t do anything silly now!” only to watch on in horror as a series of inexplicable mistakes happened across a timespan of about 10 seconds and we conceded the last goal. While it’s pointless playing the blame game, it was more than difficult to paint on a smile and talk to the ref, the opposition, their players and mine about what a great game it had been. Blame lockdown, blame a lack of fitness, blame me, blame whoever or whatever; we were poor. And yet we still should have won. It’s been like this for a large part of our season and again, it’s not something I feel deprived of by lockdown!

After wards we discussed the need to learn from mistakes and the need to stay calm on the ball. We have another important game next weekend and it’s crucial that we’re better. Talking to parents in the car park afterwards, I was adamant that I wouldn’t have time to put on an extra training session this week, partly due to work commitments and partly down to just feeling ridiculously unhappy with our result! Sometimes, even as an adult it’s hard to hide the disappointment and not react a bit like a child! However, as the afternoon wore on I found myself asking my wife if she’d be alright with me being out for another evening in the week so that I could run an extra session. She was just surprised that I hadn’t already sorted it out!

So, we’re back on the grass and living with all that it brings. The highs, the lows, the surprises and the disappointments. Nine more games to go, until barring further lockdown measures, we finish the season in early June. Already, it’s like we’ve never been away. Training sessions are coming thick and fast and we’ll be counting down the days until our next game this weekend. That love that I have for football is being rewarded once again and I wouldn’t change it for anything.