Tracking, swooping and discussing: Welcome to the world of transfer window jargon!

As fascinating as it is, the transfer window can be a frustrating and baffling place. As a fan of Newcastle United, during the Ashley years I lived in hope, despite the fact that every fibre of my being told me that it was a fruitless exercise. As if any of us didn’t learn our lesson after we signed Shefki Kuqi!

Yet still, we feel our hearts skip a beat at the mere sight of the yellow ticker at the bottom of the Sky Sports screen and we can’t stop ourselves from refreshing Twitter (and especially the NUFC hashtag) every minute of every day at certain times of the year! And don’t get me started on ITKs! I’m guessing it’s exactly the same with all clubs at this time of year though.

Although things have very much changed for my team on the transfer window front, one thing has stayed very much the same; the amount of hilarious jargon used in the reports relating to the window.

Recently, while I was having a scroll through the BBC Sport gossip section, I found that it was out of hand. And then when combined with places like the Chronicle Live website and listening at any length to Talksport, the language just seems to enter an entirely new dimension. Here’s a selection of what I found.

‘Tracking’ was something Newcastle did a lot while Ashley was owner and as far as I could tell, at most it meant watching a player and generally it seemed to just mean building your hopes up a bit but not buying a player. The verb tracking though brings to mind some kind of cowboy film scenario where native americans are using special skills to find the foot marks from a player’s Gucci trainers on a pavement outside a nightclub somewhere or a broken branch in a hedgerow where the player they’re searching for has passed. At best though ‘tracking’ seems to have meant scouting, which if I’m not mistaken has been going on for years! But, reading newspapers and websites, the amounts of players being tracked was quite something.

I also read a lot about clubs having ‘made contact with’ various players. Now firstly, I thought that was kind of against the rules. ‘Tapping up’ they called it. You’re not supposed to just make contact if a player has a contract with another club. I get it that clubs do, but it’s actually against the rules. Secondly though, it’s funny, because making contact could mean almost anything from sending a letter, a text, an email or even just shaking his hand when you played against him. Sadly, I have a feeling that during the Mike Ashley era, we probably attempted to make contact with players via carrier pigeons…blind ones.

Some new jargon seems to have emerged in recent years with phrases like ‘maintaining an interest’. Another ridiculous one for me, this. Basically, it sounds like a club have said they’re interested in a player and then a bit later, when they’re ‘maintaining an interest’, well they’re just still interested. So, all in all, a pointless report to make really. Great for those ‘clicks’ though eh?

Staying with matters of interest, it amuses me when I read that clubs have ‘cooled their interest’ in a player. How is that interest cooled? Does the coach get forced into a very cold shower? Are they subjected to the ice bucket challenge or just asked to make their minds up while sitting under the shade of a nice big parasol? A weird phrase really. Sadly, again I think that Newcastle’s interest was often cooled in the past when it looked like that carrier pigeon hadn’t been able to make contact with a player. Or just when Mike Ashley realised that he couldn’t sign said player for a bargain bucket price or traded for a box full of Lonsdale tracksuits.

One of the more vague expressions I read concerning transfers was that a club was ‘weighing up a bid’ for a player. Almost like a manager would go to the chairman, let him know that they’d been ‘tracking’ a player, had ‘maintained an interest’, but didn’t know whether to actually sign them. So the two of them were just going to sit their and ‘weigh up a bid’, looking quizzically at each other. Similar to this in terms of vagueness was reading that a club were ‘discussing the possibility of a deal’. Not the deal, but the possibility of a deal. Weird.

It amused me to read that a club was ‘exploring a deal’, conjuring up images of Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola in a big canoe going up the Amazon or Ralph Hasenhutll wandering round the jungle in the Republic of Congo, looking for a right back. Come to think of it though, Ralph Hasenhutll sounds way more like an old time explorer than a football manager so maybe it’s a more accurate phrase than we imagine.

Similarly vague is the new kid on the block as clubs are now often described as ‘preparing an offer’ for a player. I mean, how much preparation is needed? It makes transfers sound like one of those property shows where the house hunters really want the property but are encouraged to make low-ball offer after low-ball offer, pushing the money up by a thousand pounds every time until they get to a ;point where the seller will actually let the house go. Or is it just that so much money is involved in transfers these days that everyone at the club is encouraged to search down the back of their sofas to club together any pound coins they can find? Or do some managers just not really know what to say when it comes to transfers? Maybe there are some painfully shy bosses that we just don’t know about yet.

Some of the more old school phrases still get used around transfers today. One of them revolves around the idea that clubs have ‘swooped’ to make a signing. Again, it’s ridiculous, implying as it does that there is some kind of eagle-like quality to managers or even football clubs. Personally, I’d love to see some managers being urged to run off the side of a cliff wearing some home made wings, but that’s got nothing to do with the transfer window.

With a day or so still to go in the summer transfer window there’s still time for someone to invent some new jargon with which to entertain us. It’s certainly allowed me to conjure up some strange scenarios over the last couple of months. Anyway, here’s to my club Newcastle pouncing tiger-like or maybe even ambushing their way into one last signing before midnight on Thursday.

NUFC Season Tickets

So, another new era NUFC milestone was reached this week as the club put around 1000 season tickets on sale. It was reported that over 30,000 people were sat in an online queue at one point, all patiently waiting, Willy Wonka-like for the chance to get their hands on a golden ticket.

Given the hysteria around the club for the last year or so, the numbers weren’t that much of a surprise. If you take into account the whole feel good factor created by things that range from being as small as team photos and painting the concourses in the stadium to being as big as signing world class players or indeed any players in what I’m reliably informed is called a ‘transfer window’, then it’s no wonder people want to watch their team again.

However, while it might seem simple that people want to see attractive football again, a lot of people still aren’t particularly happy.

For me, it seemed a simple equation. If you sit in a massive queue – nothing like the numbers that Everton get for Under 23 games or the launch of new mugs at the club shop mind, but massive all the same – trying to get something that’s available in a limited amount, then you might well miss out. And yet, still people seemed outraged.

Some said that they had a greater right than others to getting season tickets, while others bemoaned the size of the stadium. So here’s my take, for what it’s worth.

First of all, I’m not that sure that anyone has a greater right to watch a football team than anyone else. I’ve always been a bit of an advocate for supporting your local team, but even then I realise that people from other parts of the UK and the world have a connection to the club. And that connection makes it perfectly natural to want to go to St. James’ Park and see your team. It might not be perhaps as obvious a connection as being local, but it’s a connection all the same.

I was born and bred in Newcastle, growing up in Blaydon while spending a considerable amount of time with family in both Byker and Walker. I never thought I’d leave, but then a combination of university and Margaret Thatcher deciding the region didn’t deserve investment or jobs happened and I moved away, first to Stoke and then back north to Leeds. So was I only passable as a season ticket holder or even a supporter to some while I lived in Blaydon? It’s a silly argument really, but I guess some people are a little blind to real life at times.

Then we come to the question of what some see as loyalty. Some will tell you that season tickets and indeed any kind of matchday seat should go to those deemed the most loyal. But then, how do you define loyalty? Is it a simple matter of attending every game home or away? It can’t be, surely because again this is an area where life can get in the way. What if you work shifts or occasional weekends? What if work takes you away for periods of time or what if you live too far away to make it practical to get to every game? And what about the fact that there’s only a finite certain amount of people that can fit into the stadium or an away allocation. What if you can’t be ‘loyal’ because of that?

And as for loyalty, what even is it? If you’re going to every game because we’re successful – probably difficult to imagine, I know – then that’s an easy version of loyalty. I’d hope I was loyal during enough of the awful football that I’ve witnessed over the years to be able to be respected for boycotting when I’d had enough of seeing how badly my club was being run and the foresight, perhaps, to see it was going to get worse. So while I’d salute (not literally, that’s be daft) those who stuck with it, I’d argue that the reasons myself and many others had for stepping away were equally admirable.

Lots of people have had a real issue with those of us who boycotted because of Ashley’s ownership. It was an early and reasonably easy choice for me to make. Having held a season ticket for years, I was driving up from Leeds and my first thought on taking my seat was often, ‘What am I doing here?’ I was getting more and more frustrated by the lack of ambition and by what I felt like I could see was going to happen to the club. To paraphrase a now famous banner, I didn’t want a team that won all the time, I wanted a team that tried and from the owner downwards, I couldn’t see that. Everything came to a head for me at the fateful home game versus Hull, just after Keegan had resigned again. Here was my childhood hero being roundly abused by Ashley and his cronies. In fact, we were all having the piss taken out of us. I’d had enough. That was my last game. Even during Rafa’s time, despite the pull of something a bit brighter, Ashley kept me away.

Staying away has genuinely hurt. There’s something missing in my life every time we play. Tears have been shed over all manner of issues – various protests, Rafa leaving, Wor Flags displays, the takeover, Wilson’s goal against Spurs after the takeover was done, sometimes even just the sight of someone like Justin Barnes was enough to bring a tear to the eye! I’ve missed the social side of games, I’ve missed the atmosphere, the expectancy, the hope, the sight of The Angel signalling that I’m nearly home again on the drive up, Local Hero…all sorts of things. But I knew it was important to stick to my guns.

For people to now be telling me (or us, the ones that walked away, heartbroken) that I have no right to a season ticket is a bit of a joke. In walking away, what we did was incredibly difficult, but it had a purpose and I’d argue it had to be done. I couldn’t continue to give my money to Ashley and the thought that if he was denied our money he might sell up seemed reasonably sensible to me. So, I gave up one of the biggest things in my life and something that I’d been utterly in love with from an early age. It wasn’t a simple matter of having had enough and waiting for us to start winning and signing big names again. It felt like it had broken my heart.

As it happens, I’ve not applied for a season ticket. Somehow, I’ve got to the age I’m at and found that I lead a bit of a busy life and the thought of driving up and down the motorway to get to games just felt a little bit too much at the moment. My health hasn’t been fantastic over the past few years and so this was an extra strain that I felt unwilling to put myself through. I suppose I’m finding out that sometimes in life, the time just isn’t right, no matter how much you want to do something. But, I’d defend anyone’s right to try and go back, who’s been in the situation I’ve been in. Ashley’s season ticket giveaway of a few years back suggests that there’s a lot of us too. Like me, a lot of those will have been long term season ticket holders when they decided to boycott. Like me, a lot of them would have done plenty of time following Newcastle home and away over the years. That love, that loyalty and that history can’t just be switched off. Nor can it be ignored or cheapened.

As Newcastle United fans, it seems odd that so many are determined to have us divided. I understand that everyone has a view, but I’d also suggest that people don’t criticise or judge too much when they haven’t walked in the shoes that they’re so eager to denounce. Everyone has a view, but everyone has a story too, whether it be about why we love Newcastle United or why we had to loosen our grip a little bit. When it comes down to it, we all want the same thing; the hope and the pride that comes with supporting a competitive and ambitious Newcastle United.

Grassroots Grumbles: Preparing for the season that might even not happen.

When I last wrote about the junior football team that I coach, we were really struggling. Come to think of it, I’d probably written along the same lines with the time before that as well as it’s a subject that I blog about reasonably regularly! Well, we’re still struggling, which is quite some feat when the season has ended! So, it’s safe to say that last season was nothing short of an absolute nightmare in terms of results.

We eventually finished at the very bottom place in our division; division 6 of 7 divisions in our league. I say eventually, but we were stuck there from around January. Now I don’t know the exact protocol as I don’t think there’s necessarily automatic relegation, but I still suspect that we’ll get relegated to division 7 next season. I believe there’s a bit of a consultation process, but I’ll be honest, I don’t think we have much of a case to see us stay in our present division. We had huge problems with Covid and injuries, but we still managed to play all of our games eventually and the results don’t lie.

During the final couple of months of last season I began to hear rumours of certain players being unsettled. And let’s get this straight, by ‘unsettled’ what I mean in a couple of cases was that they were sick of losing and happy to blame anyone but themselves for the results. I was hearing that at least a couple of players were planning to leave our club and worst of all, that while we toiled and struggled for numbers, these kids were training with other clubs at times. Sure enough, now that the season has ended, they’ve left. But it gets worse, another two have gone and one of them was clearly our best player. Add in the two that just stopped coming from around December time and we’ve now lost 6 players from an 18 man squad that clearly wasn’t big enough in the first place! I also fear that there might be one more considering moving on as well.

So, to put it bluntly, we’re in real trouble! There’s a genuine chance that the team could fold, hence the title of the blog!

At the end of the season I was sorely tempted to quit coaching the team. It was taking up far too much of my time, I wasn’t particularly enjoying it and due to the weekly scramble to get a team together because of injuries and just a lack of reliability in some cases, my mental health felt like it was suffering slightly too. As a football obsessive and a keen competitor, seeing us turn up with no substitutes once again or even not enough for a full team and suffer the almost inevitable defeat was getting me down. There were times when we were competitive, but they only ever seemed to lead to a false dawn before hopes were dashed once more. I’d often spend hours on a Sunday brooding about results and trying to figure out where we were going wrong.

Despite all of this we’re continuing to train over summer. I think we’ll take a break eventually, but at the moment the focus is on attracting new players. I don’t dare take a break in case we get an enquiry and I have to risk losing a potential new player because we’re not training for a couple of weeks! We have actually gained a couple of new players though as two have dropped down from our ‘A’ team, with the promise of another on the way once he’s recovered from a knee injury. That still only leaves us with 15 players in the squad, which is still short of the maximum number allowed on a match day.

We’ve just put a new advert out on social media and hope to attract people from that, but it’s an avenue we’ve explored in the past that’s not always been very successful. Despite repeated adverts, we didn’t have a goalkeeper for the whole of last season and it cost us dearly. We still just have one of the lads filling in as a goalie even now. I mean, am I asking too much for a 6ft 13 year old with hands like shovels to step forward? I’ve had several promises that kids will definitely be coming to training to try out, only for said kid to never show. It can feel like such a let down when you’ve built your hopes up! However, such is our desperation this season that my assistant coach even put last year’s advert out a couple of weeks ago, despite the fact that it was the wrong season and age group! Predictably, we got a response, but we’re still waiting on the player showing up! We’ve got everything crossed in the hope that someone, especially a goalkeeper turns up any day soon though!

I really want to do my best by the team this year. As with every year, I suppose. There are boys in the squad – including my own son – who I’ve now coached since they were 8 years old and I can’t let them down. So, although it was tempting to call it a day and perhaps hand the reigns to someone else, I became more determined to carry on and do my utmost to put together a more successful and competitive squad of players. But even that, with the best will in the world, is problematic.

In the majority of cases our squad are limited in either ability, attitude or both. I hope that doesn’t sound disparaging. Like I mentioned, we finished bottom of our division and some of that was simply down to the ability of the players. (I’ll crash into the thought process of some readers here though and add that, yes, I understand that some of this comes down to me as a coach as well).

We happen to have a lot of small, slightly built players too and were easily the smallest team in the league last year. And when you’re coming up against teams that look like they’re fielding 5 or 6 18-year-olds it must be quite daunting when you’re less than 5ft tall! As a coach I found myself frightened on their behalf at times! It often meant that we were simply bullied out of games last year though.

A lot of our training last season and so far during this pre-season is dedicated to time on the ball and becoming more comfortable with the ball at their feet so that they could take a touch, control the ball and then pass it on or drive forward with it. But even then, training was regularly disrupted by poor behaviour or kids with bad attitudes just wanting to either mess around or simply do what they wanted to do. So when the instruction was to limit yourself to 3 touches before moving the ball on, we’d have the West Yorkshire Mbappe trying to dribble round a whole team and taking 104 touches into the bargain amidst the soundtrack of two coaches shouting “Touches” repeatedly. (Which when working with children could be seen as a dangerous thing to shout if it’s not heard correctly!)

And this permeated its way into games where we’d find that even when training had gone well and when we thought we’d drilled a message into the team about exactly how we wanted to play, they’d defy all logic during a game! So instead of not panicking on the ball and simply passing to an available team mate who had moved into space, we’d be losing the will to live, watching kids just launch the ball as hard as possible down the field to no one or setting off on a mazy dribble that would lead to them losing the ball or just shooting wildly from 40 yards out! And don’t even get me started on taking quick throw-ins, which you’d think would be a simple one to master!

I think confidence dropped and lots of the boys were just frightened of making a mistake, so just got rid of the ball as soon as possible. So the focus now has to be on praising them and building that confidence back up.

It’s time to put last season and past players behind us though. As a coach, I now need to concentrate on fostering good habits with the ball, building everybody’s confidence and getting my squad as fit as they can be by September. The last few weeks of training have been different and enjoyable. The attitude of the squad and the atmosphere on the pitch has been positive. Training has been well received and drills performed with enthusiasm. There definitely seems to be a determination to do better and I’m hopeful that we can build a decent team spirit in the coming weeks too. Best of all, the boys are training with smiles on their faces.

Ultimately, I want my players to enjoy their football and to feel comfortable as part of the squad. Obviously, I want results to start going our way too and we’ll be arranging friendly games in order to work on just that soon.

We have to hope we’ll pick up more new players, otherwise we may not have a team to put out next year. So we have a bit of a battle on our hands, but after a few weeks of reflection and a bit of sulking about it all, I’m determined to face it head on! If we can pick up more players, improve those that we’ve got and have an enjoyable, but hard working pre-season, I’ll be thrilled. If we’re still short on numbers by the start of August though, we could have a real problem.

I’ll be sure to keep you informed!

As ever, feel free to leave a comment as it’s always nice to hear people’s thoughts.

The Last Day of Term

I’m starting this blog at break time, which is mid morning on the last day of our half term. Some of you will know this already, but I’m an English teacher in a high school. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but the day starting as it did I felt I had to in the interests of sanity. Some of you – fellow teachers – will read this at the very least with a knowing smile on your face, while others will have their eyes opened at least a little bit about what can happen in a classroom.

It’s been a tough half term. We’ve been busy preparing classes for GCSEs, which is taxing to say the least, but obviously then you’ve got all your other classes and day to day dramas on top of that. For me personally, it’s been a stressful week; three sets of assessments to mark, pre-exam sessions with my Year 11, after school sessions too and the sheer unadulterated fun of a fairly vicious fight happening in my form out of absolutely nowhere!

So today, the last Friday before a week off, should be about tying up loose ends relaxing at least a little bit. So why am I finding myself so wound up? Well, let me tell you a story…

I teach a lovely Year 7 group and they are the start of my worst day of the week, which is Friday. Friday’s timetable is book-ended by my Year 7s and my nice Year 8s. In between I teach my bottom set Year 10s twice and then my bottom set Year 8s. Both provide, shall we say interesting lessons.

However, today it seems even my Year 7s have been sent to try me!

It should be simple. Today we’re improving on a recent assessment; a process we call EPIC time. Basically, using feedback given on their assessments the pupils improve on a new topic, but the same type of writing. So their assessment was a newspaper article on one topic and now they’re doing one on a different topic. Simple, right? No actually. You’re wrong.

I start by getting them to copy down the date, title and learning purpose. I tell them to do it in purple pen, adding more than once that everything we do today should be done in purple. Cue the first question.

PUPIL: “Sir, do we write that in purple” ME: “Yes, like I said, everything” PUPIL: “Oh. I’ve written it in black.”

And so it begins. I must have been asked about purple pens at least 8 times after this. It felt like it would never end, despite the fact that every so often I’d remind them that EVERYTHING should be written in purple.

A similar theme emerges when we have a couple of small worksheets to fill in; one as a recall Do Now task (we stick them into books every lesson), the other a checklist for the task. These small loose sheets need to be stuck into books. I tell them this. I tell them again…oh, you get the idea. Still, they ask if they should stick them in. One even informs me that they’ve stuck one of the sheets next to their assessment, which must be 4 pages further back from what we’re doing today.

I’m beginning to think that today is going to be one of those days…

Having completed their assessment a couple of weeks ago, it means that the class will have to turn back some pages if they need to refer to it. So I tell them the date that we did it. Friday 13th May. Maybe I was asking for trouble, eh? Still some can’t find it, but they eventually do, leaving just one who is adamant that it isn’t in his book. After much to’ing and fro’ing about the date I head across to his desk, where I promptly find said assessment. The assessment is on the page that has the date Friday 13th of May on it. I resolve that these things are sent to test us and move on…very quietly grumbling to myself.

With 35 minutes of the lesson remaining, we’ve covered all of the input into their task and it’s time for them to write.

I am able to relax for approximately 4 minutes before, despite trying to encourage their independence since September, a barrage of questions. I’m asked what emotive language at least 3 times. I’m asked to spell every word in the dictionary, despite the fact that they’d all been given a dictionary as part of their equipment about two weeks ago. I’m even asked what my favourite cheese is? Not really, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise.

My next two English lessons are with the same group – my lower ability Year 10s. They’re what you might refer to as ‘hard work’ and although there are only 12 of them, they’ve kicked hard against Macbeth for the last month or so. Behaviour has not been good and at times I’ve ended their lessons exhausted.

Today, I decide we’re going to do a big timeline of important events in Macbeth with key quotes added. We’ll do it via my whiteboard, which is actually three put together. The students will contribute via questioning and hopefully a bit of their own volunteering of information. It’s quite demanding doing it this way because as the teacher you’re driving everything forward, doing lots of writing, prompting with questions, key words and hints, while hoping that they don’t notice how hard they’re working and how much they’re writing. And you’re doing it with your back to the room for large chunks of the lesson, which with this group is a bit of a risk. Especially if one of them’s brought the darts again. Just kidding.

To my great delight it works. Have a look for yourself.

However, it’s not without its hitches. I have to stop within about 5 minutes as two students have copied what’s on my board exactly. So not only has their A3 sheet got a big timeline horizontally, but they’ve also copied the edges of each board – remember there are 3 put together, so my one big board space has two vertical lines down it. Rather than a timeline they’ve got a grid and when I ask why they tell me it’s what I did. They’re staggered when I tell them it’s the edges of two of the boards. They’d thought that I’d drawn on the vertical lines and despite the fact that they’d always been there, they hadn’t noticed them in almost a whole academic year! As horrified as they are and as amused as I am, it only takes a fresh couple of sheets of A3 and they’re good to go again.

By the end of the two hours though every student has an A3 timeline chock full of Macbeth flavoured goodness. They’ve enjoyed doing it, they’re telling me that they understand the play more now (even if it’s just what happens) and they have a good 15 or so quotes to learn/ignore. Maybe the day is taking a turn for the better?

After some dinner I face up to an hour with the class that is easily my worst behaved. Another low ability group, this time Year 8. They’re finishing off some non-fiction work and will ultimately design a poster persuading people to stop using single use plastics. There are too many ‘events’ to go through here though, but by the end of the lesson they all have a poster which consists of the word PLASTIC (their choice) in bubble writing done by yours truly and some facts about single use plastics scattered around. We’ll file them under the heading ‘Last Day, Not Very Good’.

Four hundred hours later – give or take an hour or so – it’s time for the final lesson of the day. Again, it’s Year 8, but a different group. Again, they’re working on an EPIC of an earlier assessment, so we’ve come full circle, which is nice. Workwise, they’re great. But our rewards system provides a couple of interesting moments.

Good work, behaviour, telling me they like my socks or that I’m just generally great is rewarded with tokens. Tokens can be placed in a box marked with whatever whole school reward they want at the end of the half term. Most tokens wins. Today, every kid is getting an ice lolly during the final period of the day. They’re delivered by a member of SLT called Emily Smellyfartpoo (Her 2nd appearance in one of my blogs and once again I’ve changer her name; she’ll never know it’s her). Her real surname is Shittyarseface. It’s not, I’m just kidding. It’s dafter than that.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with two gems that come out of the mouth of the same student as a result of an ice lolly. Firstly, when he takes a nibble from the lolly he literally screams before declaring ‘It’s cold!’. He’s really not messing around. This is genuine shock. I mean, the clue’s in the name, kid. Then, while everyone else is managing to keep working while they eat their lolly he claims that he can’t eat it with his left hand, so must do so with his right, his writing hand. He ends up spending a little bit of time with me in a short detention at the end of the day!

So there we have it. That last day is never as easy or straightforward as you’d like it to be but I hope you enjoyed the end of term as much as I did!

Jelly legs is feeling his age!

It’s Monday morning and not only am I afflicted by that Monday feeling, but my body aches almost everywhere from head to toe. Worst of all is that nobody else is to blame; this is all my own fault. And now I have a busy day at work ahead teaching students aged from 11-16, not many of whom will have any sympathy for me!

So yesterday, I completed a 10km race. The same 10k race that I was banging on about a little while back in the blog on the link below, complaining that I was never going to be in the right shape for.

https://middleagefanclub.wordpress.com/2022/04/09/my-first-10k-race-of-the-year-a-month-to-go-and-i-dont-feel-good/(opens in a new tab)

It was my second time at the Pontefract 10k in West Yorkshire and I was determined to do well. But training had been far from perfect and I’d been suffering with a mixture of injury and illness in the weeks leading up to the race. However, come race day I believed that I was fit enough to get round in a time that would beat the one I ran at the same event last year. I felt that I’d managed to pull myself together just about enough in the last few weeks and had trained fairly well, completing a couple of fast – for me – 10k training runs that were only a minute or so outside of the type of time I hoped to run in the race.

It was an early start on race day in our house as myself, my wife and my son all rose before 7am in order to scramble down some breakfast and get ready to head to Pontefract, a 20 minute car journey away. The race was starting at 9am and we would need to be there early in order to get parked up before heading to the start.

I’m functional at best in the morning, so it was tough going! However, I really enjoy an early morning run, so while breakfast and getting ready would be a struggle, running – I hoped – would not!

This year’s start line was not the nervy place to be that last year’s had proved. I felt that I knew my surroundings and it helped that I bumped into a friend from work and we chatted for a few minutes until it was almost time to line up. In short, I didn’t have time for nerves. However, I still felt a strange mixture of concern about my fitness and hope that I could run a sub 50 minute 10k.

I won’t bore you with a detailed commentary of the race, perish the thought. I for one don’t particularly want to relive it anymore!

However, it’s safe to say that it was tough. It started to rain on the first long, uphill stretch and I heard someone near me let out a little cheer about this. I should have tripped them up. Thankfully, it stopped shortly after.

The course is described as undulating, but let me tell you that the undulation feels largely uphill when you’re out there. I managed to forget any race plan I might have had and instead went off quickly (for a man of my vintage and physical state, that is). My competitive side kicked in here and I was more concerned with passing people, than thinking about how far I’d gone and how I was feeling. I’d regret this later. I told myself that I’d be able to power through and just keep the pace going, but it’s safe to say that miles 3 and 4 saw me slow more than I’d have liked.

By the time we turned for home and the last couple of miles or so, my legs were like jelly, a substance which for years I was quietly convinced that they may have actually been made out of. Quite a bit of the last half of this race is uphill though, a fact that my mind had rather inconveniently forgotten, so it was pretty difficult to keep on going at any pace, although I managed. For the first time in a long time though I found myself thinking I should just stop, as a few people had. I had a bit of aa word with myself though and kept going.

The final mile or so of the Pontefract 10k is downhill and I was looking forward to just powering down the hill. However, having used up so much energy already my body wasn’t responding in the way I wanted. I imagined a Mo Farah like kick where I just passed runner after runner. Instead, I was much more akin to Moe from The Simpsons as I grumbled my way down the last stretch.

Pleasingly, I did pick up my pace a bit though and kept a close eye on the time via Strava, so I knew exactly where I was with my personal best in mind. Passing my wife and son just before the last 250 metres, I knew I had to go faster, but was convinced that there was nothing left in the legs…not even jelly. However, as someone passed me within the first few metres, something in me flicked a bit of a switch – my competitive side again – and before I knew it I was sprinting. More like a middle aged man laden down with bags on a train platform than Usain Bolt, but sprinting all the same.

I crossed the line in 51.27, a good 25 seconds better than I’d ran the previous year and inside my personal best. I wasn’t sure I’d stay on my feet or even conscious, but I’d done what I’d set out to do! Never had 250 metres felt so long!

Cramp set in as I met my wife and son, but some stretches and a stroll back to car had me feeling a bit more comfortable. But I’d forgotten how much racing takes out of me. I can run 10k on a training run and feel reasonably good hours later and more or less back to normal the next day. Running a race just wipes me out.

The rest of Sunday was spent keeping busy, while also trying to relax, but I woke up on Monday morning feeling groggy to say the least! It’s now Wednesday and although the muscles are nowhere near as tender as they’d felt for the first couple of days of the week, I’d still quite like to just be at home napping rather than at work!

Training for this race was difficult. It was very ‘stop start’ as I seemed to just keep picking up niggling injuries or colds, meaning that some weeks I’d be running 20k and others I’d do 3k at best! I think a lot of what got me through was just sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to let myself down. Having got through it quite successfully I’m now planning my next race, which will probably be in Leeds in July, unless I can find something earlier that appeals. For now though, I’m just feeling my age and hoping to recover by the end of the month!

Gig Review: Rich Hall at The Leadmill in Sheffield

Wednesday, middle of the week and two stupidly busy people have taken the bold decision to go out. Not just to go out, but to go out having made a 45 minute journey down the M1 to Sheffield in order to do so. And on a school night as well! They don’t get out much either and when they do they tend to aim for a weekend, so being out on a school night had better be worth it! Over to you, Rich Hall.

Walking towards The Leadmill I’ve got the familiar pre-gig nerves. I won’t be on stage or anything, but I always get a bit nervous around big groups of people. Gigs make me additionally nervous because, despite my vintage, I’m still really self conscious. What if I fall over in a rush of people? What if everyone thinks my t-shirt’s shit? Rational types of fears, you know?

I’d forgotten about the calming effect of certain places though and as we pass through the front doors of The Leadmill and head towards the turnstile and the ridiculously slim door that takes you through, it all disappears.

Even though I’m a long time fan of Rich Hall, I’ve never actually seen him live. No idea why, but it’s certainly not a deliberate choice. Just one of those things, I guess. I know I could list bands that I love that I’ve just not gotten round to seeing too. Tonight, I don’t quite know what to expect. I know that Rich will come on and do a stand up set for the first hour or so and I also know that after a short break he’ll be back on with his Hoedown band. And, as someone who would gladly roll out every stereotype in the book if I was asked about country music, here’s where a bit of a problem lies.

The country music side of things almost swung the vote as to whether or not we’d come tonight. We had the tickets, but had an awful lot on in terms of work and personal stuff and to be honest, the thought of sitting through an hour of country and western music, nearly had me sat in an armchair in defiance 45 minutes north of Sheffield. (That’s defiance as in an emotion. Defiance is not a place 45 minutes north of Sheffield).

I’m now so, so glad we decided to come out instead of staying home.

Rich being Rich he ambles on stage, having given himself a fairly downbeat intro. Just the sight of him boosts my mood! From this point on it’s all set at an dawdling kind of pace and sometimes in a rambling kind of direction. But it’s fantastic.

Rich tells jokes and tales about all manner of subject matter. From Donald Trump, to budgeting and health care, right the way through to various places and accents in England that he’s well aware of. He’s clearly done his homework too as he opens with some observations about Sheffield taken from reading the local paper, The Star. It’s fair to say that this goes down brilliantly and from the moment he sets foot on stage, he’s got the audience on his side.

There are tales about the perplexing differences between Americans and British people and our non-linear way of thinking as well as combine harvesters and how they link to how a Tory MP might have mistakenly looked at porn in the House of Commons. There’s also a fantastic story about Rich’s trip to Buckingham Palace. And if you didn’t know, he’s also unearthed an improbable link between Morgan Freeman and the American actress Ashley Judd. Everything here is laugh out loud funny and all of it smattered with a liberal helping of curses.

By the time Rich has done about twenty minutes of stand up I’m sold on the idea of the hoedown. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Maybe a 13 minute song about a dead pet, but I figure I can get through that.

There’s a fifteen minute break between Rich strolling off at the end of his stand up set and the Hoedown and then, on come the Hoedown band to start us off with a little bit of country riffing before Rich himself joins them.

I have to confess that Rich Hall’s Hoedown is a revelation to me. This is not a morose hour of dead pets and droughts (look, I was trying for some alliteration, alright? I have no idea if either of these things crops up in regular country an western). This is more comedy, but with a country twist. And it’s clever stuff too. Not only does Rich come up with a song about Sheffield, but there’s lots of audience participation where he’ll have a little chat with someone in the front row and then get a few things about their lives into a song, more or less on the spot.

Now, I’m not daft enough to realise that there’ll be song templates in use here, but I’m still left admiring the skills involved. And it’s still endlessly funny! Two sections stand out tonight and they both involve the audience. Firstly, there’s what we’ll call the Kieran Edge section where Rich asks a few questions of a lad in the front row – Kieran Edge, don’t you know – and then skillfully weaves him into the set, including a song that’s sort of about him and even a guest vocal slot for the man himself later on too. There’s also a section – and this has to have been off the cuff – where another bloke in the front row, named Sid, turns out to b a musician and is then invited to come up and play guitar for a song. And Sid does a cracking job, let me tell you, while Rich watches on from the side of stage clearly enjoying this twist, but slightly bemused all the same. I find myself tapping my foot, laughing along and ever-so-slightly wishing I too had a cowboy hat.

The evening ends with the interruption of a country song for a burst of Lynrd Skynrd and some gunfire courtesy of Kieran Edge again and some rednecks from the Hoedown Band’s brief tour of some southern states in America – you had to be there! It sums up the hilarity and sheer sense of good fun of the night though. Where else could you be included in a country song and then get asked to stand up and fire an imaginary pistol at the guitarist at a gig? Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Rich Hall’s Hoedown, coming to a venue – maybe – near you right up until September. I’d heartily recommend that you get out to see him as quick as you can!

https://www.ents24.com/uk/tour-dates/rich-hall

As a post script to this review, I’d like to both show my support for The Leadmill and in my own small way, hopefully publicise their fight against closure. I’ve posted a link below that will tell you all about it as well as the relevant hashtag should you want to protest via social media.

From my own personal viewpoint The Leadmill and small venues like it simply cannot be allowed to close. They’re the thriving, beating heart of local entertainment and the places where many an act will find their feet, hone their craft and give some of the best performances that they’re ever going to give.

I live in Leeds, but me and my wife have been going to The Leadmill for years, seeing countless bands and comedians. I could bang on about the place for another few thousand words, but it’s easier just to tell you that it’s just a fantastic venue. There’s nothing flash about the place and it’s not some kind of enormodome where you might have the misfortune to squint from a distance at what you’re told is Ed Sheeran, having payed three figures for the privilege. The Leadmill is small and intimate, the people are welcoming and the atmosphere is always electric. Spit and sawdust spring to mind, but you’d never actually find any! From the turnstile to get in, the brilliant bar and of course the venue itself, it’s just perfect in it’s own special way. Everyone seems happy to be there.

On our most recent visit – the one you’ve read about above – we followed a couple of women down the street and into the venue. They were chatting about whether or not they were in the right attire for a comedy gig (I’m not sure what the right attire would be, unless you’re dressed like some kind of North Sea fisherman in order to save your clothes from the tears of laughter you’re exepcting) and as we got to the doors they came to the following conclusion.

“Aah, doesn’t matter really. Leadmill, innit?”

We don’t need a multitude of reasons to save The Leadmill. Let’s do it because… “Leadmill, innit?”

#WeCantLoseLeadmill

Please click the link below and sign the petition to save The Leadmill!

https://leadmill.co.uk/2022/04/20/help-save-the-leadmill-please-sign-our-official-e-petition/

Super Sporting Sunday? It was anything but!

Sunday 3rd April should have been a glorious day for me. As a sports fan, it promised much and although it would prove tiring, I was aware of the fact that it could send me back to work on the Monday in a fantastic mood. And here begins a lesson in not building your hopes up!

Last Sunday was a day where sport dominated. Nothing hugely new here, I’m afraid, as sport has probably dominated much of my life. But on Sunday I was due to be ‘on the go’ with sport from early morning until well into the night. It should have been the stuff that (my) dreams are made of. A day away from the pressure of work where everything would come together and provide me with some reasons to be cheerful. Well, the day away from work bit was right anyway…

With a game for my Under 13 football team in the morning, Newcastle United away at Tottenham in the Premier League live on Sky in the afternoon and then a trip to watch Leeds Knights ice hockey team in their final regular season match, it should have been a fabulous day. But sadly, the gods of sport had other ideas.

I should have known. When we booked tickets for the ice hockey, I didn’t bother to look at the football fixtures. Nor did I pay any attention to the date and time of the hockey. You’ve guessed it – fixture clash! Newcastle would kick off in the Premier league at 4.30pm, while Knights would face off at 5.15, meaning that I wouldn’t get to see a single second of the football. Sadly, I only realised this on the Friday before and because we have adopted ice hockey as a family sport, there was no getting out of it. I didn’t want to either though as I’m really enjoying watching hockey this year. But I was gutted at missing out on the Newcastle game.

When we set off on the 13 mile trip up to Horsforth in north Leeds on Sunday morning, I was optimistic. It was very much an optimism that was hanging by a thread, but it was optimism all the same. Having endured a tough season so far, we went into this game bottom of the league, but facing a team that were only a couple of places above us. I also knew that they were struggling for players and form, so initially I’d hoped we could make it a fairly straightforward win. And then I put the message out about our own availability for the game. Out of a squad of 18 players only 11 were available! One of the stories of our season; despite having a good size squad, we’re almost always short on numbers. With only 11 players it meant that we couldn’t make any substitutions. Only 11 players meant that injuries – another key theme of the season – would cause us all manner of problems. Fatigue would also enter the equation now too, as no one would get a rest. To add to the problems, two parents had messaged to say that they were concerned about injuries with their sons!

It turned out to be an awful start to my sporting Sunday. We were beaten 1-0, but we outplayed our opposition for some of the first half and the entirety of the second. Our players were beyond frustrated, one even leaving the field crying at the end, having put in so much effort. We created chance after chance, but just couldn’t put the ball in the net. Had we scored one, we would definitely have gone on to win the game. I made sure to put out a message later that day on our WhatsApp group, thanking parents and players and telling them how proud I was of our team, their boys (and mine). But we still hadn’t taken a point from the game and it played on my mind for the rest of the day.

I should have known that it would be downhill all the way from this point of my sporting Sunday. But hope springs eternal and I was still thinking optimistically about the two fixtures to come. Little did I know that a narrow, perhaps unjust defeat in junior football, would actually turn out to be the highlight of my day.

I was already at the ice hockey arena when Newcastle kicked off their Premier League game against Tottenham. Armed and ready with the live updates of the match on my phone, I still thought we would be able to get something from the game. Sitting waiting for the hockey to start, I was checking my phone every couple of minutes, half expecting a Tottenham goal any second. And then, my phone buzzed. I pulled it from my pocket to check and found, to my amazement, that Newcastle had scored. This sporting Sunday might just be taking a turn for the better!

As the ice hockey began, I was only partly engaged, hoping that Newcastle could get to half time still ahead, surfing a tiny wave of optimism. Checking my phone once more I crashed off my imaginary board and was sucked under by this particular wave; Tottenham had equalised.

At half time in the football I was able to fully focus on the hockey. Leeds were more than holding their own as the puck flew from end to end and chances were created and missed on both sides. Was it possible that I could have some kind of fairytale ending to my day (not that a fairytale ever involved Premier League football and NHL English ice hockey)?

My question was answered with a resounding ‘NO!’ shortly afterwards. Three minutes into the second half of the football, Tottenham scored again. Then it felt like they just kept on scoring. Soon, Newcastle were 4-1 down and what little hope there had been had long since left the building.

Then, just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get worse Leeds Knights conceded! The game had been fairly scrappy and the Knights had had a couple of players sin binned for silly fouls. Gradually the tide had turned and it was Sheffield exerting all the pressure. Their goal was inevitable, even if I’d taken my eye slightly off the puck in favour of sulking about Newcastle.

The day ended with yet more negativity. Newcastle ended up losing 5-1, our first heavy defeat in a while and one that leaves us looking over a shoulders just a little bit at those behind us further down in the relegation fight. Leeds Knights would concede another and then labour through the rest of the game without ever looking too close to scoring, losing 2-0 in the end.

As we got in the car at the end of the match, I thought about how badly my sporting Sunday had gone. Three defeats in a day is quite something! Eight goals conceded by my various teams and only one scored…and I didn’t even see it! Sometimes sport can be cruel. Here’s to next week though, when I get to put myself through sporting purgatory all over again. Never lose hope, folks!

Grassroots Grumbles – The Great Escape? Not if the last few months are anything to go by!

It’s been a long season of grassroots football. Long, tough and frustrating. High points have very definitely been at a premium, while low points seem to have continually plumbed ever lower depths. And now we’re entering the final straight.

With just four games remaining of a season that started in the middle of September last year, we have very little left to play for. In fact, we’re really just playing for pride. Whatever the outcome of these next four matches I will feel that we’ve achieved very little across the course of the season.

In many ways, I can’t wait for it to end, yet in others I wish it could carry on for a little longer. We haven’t won a game since 17th October 2021, coming back from 2-1 down at half time to hammer our opposition 6-2. There’s no doubt that we peaked that day though. This was the day that we played our best football of the season and in truth, we’ve rarely hit anywhere near those heights since.

It’s been a brutal season for me as a coach and obviously most of our players have had it tough too. As usual the weather has played its part in disrupting things and we’ve played in hail, driving rain and snow on waterlogged pitches, as well as having to call off several games for exactly the same reasons. Around Christmas and New Year it felt like we’d never get a break. Games would be called off when we had a full squad and would go ahead when we were struggling for numbers.

Covid and injuries have had a terrible impact on our team this season. In December and January, if we played it was often with just the first 11 and no subs (sometimes we only had 10), but there were several postponements when we could only muster 6 or 7 players. This would mean we’d have to prepare for games regardless before finding on the day before or in one or two cases on the morning of the game, we didn’t have anywhere near enough players.

On top of all of that we’ve had our main striker injured for around 6 weeks and other key players missing consistently with injuries too. This has often meant fielding a team with 3 or 4 boys who only really started playing football in June of 2021 and the gap in quality in those games was all too clear. In one three week period we were beaten 12-0, 14-0 and then 16-0. Bad for a coach’s moral, but disastrous for our players who are 12 or 13 years old! On a couple of occasions the opposition rubbed this in our faces; players and coaches. You certainly learn about people in these situations. But, we’ve kept going.

Over the past few weeks we’ve had a mini revival in form. We’ve still not managed to produce a win but in the last four games that we’ve played we’ve drawn two, narrowly lost another and we’re well beaten in our latest game. So, I’m hoping we can finish the season strongly…relatively speaking.

Four points separates us from the team above and I’m hoping that we can catch them. I’m not entirely sure how we do it, but we have at least a couple of winnable games out of the last four. We’re training well and there’s a new found enthusiasm among the squad. Even though we suffered a heavy defeat last time out, we still created chances and definitely should have got more out of the game. This week we’ve worked on defensive shape with our defenders and midfielders and shooting drills with our more forward thinking players. Now we just have to hope and pray and keep everything crossed and see if we can produce better performances.

We go again on Sunday morning. We already have a few players unavailable, but I’m still going to go with optimism. We may get relegated this year and it may mean that some players will leave – I’ve already heard one or two rumours – but I really want us to end the season on at least a reasonable high!

As for next year, I fear that we may no longer have a team left. Other teams in our position have folded across the season as kids just get sick and tired of losing all the time. We’ve tried to recruit this year, but despite some enquiries we’ve not been able to add even one more player. So Summer promises to be tough and busy as we first of all see who’ll be signing up again and then start the process of trying to recruit others so that we have a big enough squad for the next season. If we don’t, then my time as a grassroots football coach could well be over.

Spring Goals

As I sit here this morning, looking out of my classroom window across our playing fields, a change is in the air. I noticed it while eating breakfast too. Three quarters of our daffodils are now in bloom and the huge camilia bush that has dominated our back garden for a good 15 years has enormous pink flowers in bloom at regular intervals across its bulk. And of course I couldn’t miss the bright blue sky that greeted me as I drew back the curtains. Definite signs of change.

Whichever way you look at it – the change in weather and light or just by consulting the calendar – Spring is on its way. So, as bloggers often do, I thought I’d take advantage of the weather and pretend to all of us that it’s prompted an upturn in mood and the urge to get even more done in my life! You guessed it, I’m setting some goals! However, unlike my usual way of doing things, I thought I’d make them realistic and attainable this time round.

I have a 10k race coming up in May and am planning to enter a few more across the Spring and Summer, so I thought I’d use the weather to help me step up my training. In terms of being a goal to set, I’ve already started with this one. We’ve seen a definite change in the weather in West Yorkshire over the past couple of weeks and it’s just given my enthusiasm for going running a real boost. It can still be a little cold, but not worrying about the sun setting if I’m on an after school run, makes it a lot easier to motivate myself.

As you can see from the image above our weather is looking good for the next week and this really helps get through the working week. I usually aim for a Friday evening run and as you can see, this coming Friday looks amazing. Whatever that big yellow thing is, it looks promising, I have to say! This gives me something to really look forward to as I drag myself through another week of work. Because, as we all know, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as dragging yourself through a 10km run on an unusually warm afternoon after a week at work! Joking aside though, I know that I will thoroughly enjoy being out running and completing my first 10k in a while. And if the legs will allow, that Sunday afternoon is looking good for a bonus half hour run too! Hopefully, by the time May comes around I’ll be a lot stringer and fitter and ready to take on my first race of the year…if the weather doesn’t make me do something daft like enter an earlier one!

One of the first things I did during the first Covid lockdown was to paint all of the fences round our house. The weather was glorious, but of course fresh air was being rationed unless you had a garden, something which we’re lucky enough to have. And so, armed with the knowledge that I wasn’t allowed to go into work and two cans of fence paint bought previously – probably just after publishing another ‘goals’ blog – I set to work.

At the time it all looked great, but now, having had far less time on my hands since lockdown, it looks tired, worn and in places covered in a thin layer of bright green moss. It’s definitely time to get those brushes out again! Luckily, I have an end of term holiday coming up so I should have time enough to get this one done without even a hint of trouble! Goal two achieved (in my head)!

In another of our periods of lockdown/partial lockdown/that thing where some of us followed the rules and stupid people wondered why they felt so poorly having been out in bars mixing freely, I chanced upon what I thought was a bargain in our local supermarket. Grey shed paint. Now, I’m reading back that last three word sentence and wondering what on earth I was thinking when I bought it, so I can wholly understand your own confusion. Paint, for the shed, that’s grey.

A few factors go against this next goal…in fact let’s just call it a job, because goal makes it sound almost enticing; like a good idea when I now can’t figure out what I was thinking in buying it. The first factor that goes against it is that my shed is going to be a different colour to my fences and I’m not sure I like that idea anymore. In fact, I probably only liked it for a few seconds at the time. Then there’s the time. Do I really want to invest this time, when there are other, more productive things I could be doing that? There’s no doubt that the shed could do with a lick of paint, but it will stay standing without it. Clearly, this goal or job will need a little more thought before I commit my time to it. Either that or I need to find a way to dispose of said paint and hope that my wife doesn’t remember this particular plan. Or read this blog post.

Sticking with all things shed related, another Spring goal has to be the clearing out of my sheds. I have two (but don’t be fooled by the sheds that I got, I’m still Grahamy from the block) and can’t actually set foot in either without having to remove countless tins of paint and varnish, a lawnmower, tools and garden implements. Clearly, this is not an ideal situation.

One of my sheds has a lot of football gear in it. In particular, that’s essentially balls. I seem to have accumulated a lot of footballs over the years. So I think the time has come for a bit of a purge. I’ve noticed that some of our training balls are looking a bit the worse for wear, with splits in their coverings and bits hanging off and there are also some balls that we no longer use as they’re the wrong size for our age group. Given that this type of thing will only take a short amount of time and effort to sort out, it’s a goal that will definitely end in a tick on a list. And those always make me happy!

Another of my short term Spring goals is to write more poems. I’ve recently identified some competitions and some literary magazines that I’d like to submit to and my blog always needs new material, so it’s time for a new batch of poems to be written. Given the weather and the change in the landscape at this time of year, there should be plenty of source material to go at. I’ve also just written the bones of a poem this morning. It’s one that goes back to worries about the pandemic after I noticed that a larger than usual proportion of a couple of my classes was missing when I looked at today’s registers. Coupled with not feeling too well myself, it started me wondering if we’re as safe as we seem to think. I also have plans for a poem that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so I’ll definitely need to find some time to get that written.

My final goal is to spend a little bit of time at Easter sketching. Firstly, it’s something I haven’t done since last summer and something that I never seem to find the time to do, but I also want to go out with my daughter to do some. She’s a really talented artist, but is starting to feel the pressure of her upcoming GCSEs and so maybe we can go somewhere that’s peaceful and picturesque, even for a couple of hours and help take her mind off everything that’s bothering her presently.

I also bought some pastels during lockdown and then proceeded to not even get them out of the packet, which is a very me thing to do, so if for no other reason, I need to get out and doing some art just to try and use those pastels!

For once, I feel that I’m setting myself targets or goals that are fairly achievable. They’re definitely more sensible than my usual type of thing. I’ll keep you informed on how it all goes. I mean, who could resist some pictures of my brown fence, my grey sheds and my sketches of what might be trees, but could equally be just tall people in fluffy green cardigans?

Book Review: ‘I Saw a Man’ by Owen Sheers.

In my job as a teacher there are times when, at a parents’ evening, there is very little to say. I will jokingly tell the parents of a particularly wonderful child that this could be a very short appointment. There are no targets, there are no complaints…their child is a pleasure to teach. Then I try to string this our over at least a few minutes, so that I can truly feel like I’ve done my job for the night and that, for the parents, there was a point in coming out. And it’s a bit like that parents’ evening appointment with this novel. I literally can’t think of a bad word to say about it, but just telling you it was great would make for a terrible review.

I fell in love with ‘I Saw a Man’ from the very first page and my work as an English teacher was immediately at the forefront of my mind as I found myself thinking about how I could use some of the description from the first couple of pages in a lesson. Sometimes, it’s hard to switch off from the job! However, as a reader I found myself lost on the fringes of Hampstead Heath – somewhere I’ve only ever heard scurrilous rumours about – within a couple of pages of Sheers’ prose. In short, I was immediately hooked and then desperate to share this writing with not only friends and colleagues, but my students too.

The story here revolves around Michael, a writer and widower who moves into the neighbourhood in order to make a fresh start. On the surface, it’s all going fairly well. Life has an element of normality and he’s struck up a friendship with a young, professional family – Josh and Samantha Nelson and their children- who live in the house next to his apartment block. However, grief is never far away and it feels like any ‘moving forward’ will be done in glacial inches, rather than at any real pace. He follows a humdrum daily routine, sees his friends often but his writing seems to have stagnated. Michael is existing, but little else.

The narrative here jumps in and out of the present day to the back stories of the three main protagonists, at will. And in actual fact, the primary part of the action unfolds in what feels a little like real time as we inch forward through Michael’s call to his neighbours’ house. No one is home, but something is not quite right and Michael feels that he needs to investigate. He shouldn’t be there. He knows this as well as we do and yet he keeps on creeping through the house, all the while leaving the reader more than a little on edge. He senses that something is wrong and we know that it is, yet when the devastating event that will change all of their lives occurs none of us would have guessed what it was that would actually happen that day.

What happens to Michael is shocking. But it’s what he does next and the dilemma that it leaves him with that produces such a superb thriller. He can’t move on, but he can’t fall any further backwards either. Michael finds himself in a self inflicted purgatory and yet he’s actually done nothing wrong at all. As a reader I found myself constantly changing the advice that I’d give him, the actions that I’d take if I had found myself in his situation. And yet, I never thought I had a solution.

Michael’s story contains elements that we hope we’ll never face ourselves. Not necessarily in the specifics of what happens, but in the kind of dilemmas that you might face while knowing all along that there isn’t really a right decision to be made. And then, just when you suspect that there might be a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, the old adage of trouble coming in threes is proved right and there’s another terrible twist in the tale.

‘I Saw a Man’ is brilliantly written. The suspense will seep into your thinking and keep you wonderfully hooked; worried for Michael, willing Samantha to find the strength to move on and feeling conflicted by whichever angle you take on Josh. Sheers’ writing is sumptuous and beautiful and there were plenty of times during reading where I just felt compelled to call out to Michael, be it to offer advice or just out of complete frustration. Maybe that’s a sign that I might have got a bit carried away, or maybe it’s just a sign of brilliantly written characters. I prefer to consider it the latter.

Mr. Sheers, we could have made this a very short appointment. Your novel was a pleasure to read.

I give ‘I Saw a Man’

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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