Grassroots Football: Back on the grass once again…but it might be a very long season!

I half recognised the feeling both when I went to bed on Saturday night and then while I was having a shave on Sunday morning. With the whole house silent, other than the noise of the swooshing of my razor in the sink, I tried to pin down what it might be. I showered – always a good place for thinking – but still it didn’t come to me. Breakfast presented no breakthrough either. And then, as I closed the front door and ventured out into the brisk chill of the early Autumn morning, it hit me.

Excitement!

Of course! This was the first Sunday of the grassroots football season and despite the fact that my team had finished rock bottom of their division last season and then subsequently lost around half of its squad, I was definitely smack in the middle of a bout of excitement.

I’d packed the car, as I always do, the previous afternoon. Kit bag, footballs, nets, Respect line, corner flags, step ladders for putting the nets up and a smaller bag with my match book and a few other things in. I’d got up slightly earlier than usual, having also lost an assistant coach, whose son was one of those who departed at the end of the previous season, which meant that I’d be starting to set up on my own. And now, I was getting into the car to drive the two minutes up to the pitch. To add to my by now rather distinct sense of excitement, it wasn’t even raining! Today would be one of those rare occasions where I would be able to set foot on the grass without getting soaking wet feet within about 3 minutes!

My excitement continued, but was dulled ever so slightly when I walked across our pitch and saw the state of the grass. It was easily a good three inches long and therefore not really very convenient for football. So, not ideal then! When one of our parents arrived, we decided to change to an adjacent pitch which appeared to be slightly shorter. That buzz of excitement was still hanging around and the fact that an adult pub team might turn up later looking to use the same pitch added a sense of jeopardy too!

Time always seems to fly when you’re setting up for a match. It can seem like one minute it’s just you, your corner flags and the odd dog walker and then the before you know it, players and parents are arriving and the whole pitch is surrounded with people. It’s always at this point when you realise that all of this is your responsibility and sometimes, especially when the opposition seem to have a number of players who look like grown men, it can be quite daunting!

Still though, the excitement hung around. I spoke to some parents, to some of my players, to the opposition coach and still the flutter stayed. As we warmed up and closer still to kick off, as we conducted a team talk, I was optimistic and looking forward to the game to come.

Sending your players out onto the pitch at this level can relieve you of any control that you thought you might have had. And this is where the excitement can begin to dissipate. It certainly did on Sunday. I sent my lads out onto the pitch on Sunday we some simple instructions, I’ve decided this year to try and think of games in terms of 3 Golden Rules because this should mean I’m never over-complicating matters for my players. I may then speak to people individually, but as a team I want them to all think in terms of these golden rules and trying to do a few simple things as well as we can.

After making a decent enough start on Sunday, we then conceded 3 goals in quick succession and the game was almost already out of our grasp. Worst of all was that they were avoidable goals, meaning that my excitement quickly turned to tension, dread and a real feeling of helplessness. I ask my team to enjoy playing and stay positive, but for them and for me it can be difficult when nothing’s going your way.

At 3-0 down I could see heads dropping and I could hear one or two of my players sniping at each other and arguing a little bit. Obviously, I tried to encourage them to stay positive and to keep playing and pushing forward, but by half time, we were 6-0 down and I knew that it was going to be a difficult half-time team talk!

That earlier feeling of excitement now disappearing somewhere over a local hill, I tried to stay positive. I pointed out the mistakes that were being made, but also reminded my team that they were a far better team than both the last 35 minutes and the score were showing. I repeated the three golden rules and pointed out some positive aspects of our performance, but made sure that I didn’t give anybody any excuses to relieve themselves of any responsibility for what was happening. I made sure that we all understood that every one of us was part of a team. No one person was responsible for this scoreline.

To cut a long story short, we were better in the second half, but we still lost the game 9-1. We had 7 new players in the squad, so it was always going to be a bit of a learning curve as these are 13 and 14-year-old kids getting used to new people.

At the end of the game I ramped up the positives and made sure everybody knew that in the second half we’d been far, far better. We train again on Wednesday evening, when we’ll try to tweak a few things about how we play in order to cut out the kind of silly errors that cost us dearly this weekend.

Then, we have another home game next Sunday. Same time, same place, different opposition. Hopefully I won’t allow myself to get too relaxed and too carried away then, because as I found out at the weekend, it turns out that excitement’s not always what it’s cracked up to be!

Always look on the bright side: Things that made me smile.

Almost two weeks ago, it was time for me to head back to work. A new academic year has now started and having spent the whole summer free of this particular stress, I never take the return very well at all. Despite 22 years as a teacher, I never get used to going back and I never look forward to it.

That first week would also later turn into the week when Queen Elizabeth II passed away and whatever your feelings about the monarchy, it seems to have hit large swathes of people really hard, especially here in the UK.

While none of this made me hugely emotional, it all combined to make me feel low, quite sad and just a little bit like I could do with a boost. So, rather than wallow in the doom, I thought I’d think – and write – about some more positive aspects of the last few weeks, something that I started to blog about early on in August. Here they are in no particular order.

A few weeks ago I chanced upon an article on the BBC website, something that I make sure to have a look at every day. The article was about a restoration project with a difference – the re-planting of seagrass off the Welsh coast. Seagrass is, as the name would suggest, a type of grass that grows in the sea. Bigger than the type of grass you’d find in your garden, but grass all the same. Brilliantly though, a single hectare of seagrass can be home to 80,000 fish and 100,000 invertebrates. It also absorbs and stores carbon dioxide, making it a really important plant to have in our seas.

The project is taking place off the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales, which is somewhere we holiday every year. Its aim is to plant seeds that will grow into a 10 hectare seagrass meadow by 2026. In the sea off our favorite beach, there is already an area of seagrass, which is revealed every time the tide goes out. So the story really resonated with me and I must admit, the idea of its benefits just really made me smile.

The next smile giver is a little simpler than the serious, but exciting eco-project I’ve just written about. We’re big telly watchers in our house, viewing a whole range of things from terrestrial channels, Sky, Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon. We even have ‘Family Telly’ time every day in our house, where we all sit down to watch something appropriate together. But it’s not a family friendly piece of TV that has made me smile recently.

‘All Of Us Are Dead’ is a South Korean high school zombie horror show and to be frank, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds! We started watching it around a month ago and, despite its obvious flaws – blood stains on the kids’ uniforms that have clearly been scribbled on with a marker pen, for instance – it is just a fantastic piece of telly. We’re big fans of anything apocalyptic in our house, so it was onto a winner from the start, but its jeopardy and originality really make it stand out. It’s dubbed, which might spoil it for some, but still if you enjoy the odd fright and a bit of a rollercoaster ride of a programme, then I’d highly recommend tuning in.

While not wanting to go into too much specific detail and attract any unwanted – and frankly unwarranted – criticism, my daughter’s GCSE grades really put a smile on my face. Our faces, in fact, because it was a boost for all the family. She’s worked incredibly hard over the last few years in preparation for them and in the end got very much what she deserved. It’s a set of grades that should help open some doors for her and hopefully help with her progress as she enters further education and even when heading into the world of work eventually. She has a habit of asking, shall we say, ill-thought out questions, as well as just saying ridiculous things, but it turned out that we have a very, very bright kid on our hands and her success made me immensely proud.

Football can be a very cruel sport. Especially when you’re particularly invested in it, as I am. In fact, football was very cruel just a couple of weeks ago, when my team Newcastle United lost a game in time that had been added on to the time that was added. In essence, we lost a game because the referee seemed to revert to playground rules, allowing play to continue until the home team scored the winner.

However, just before this game we had rescued a point in an away game at Wolverhampton Wanderers with an absolute wonder goal from Alain Saint Maximin, our maverick Frenchman. The ball was cleared from deep inside the Wolves box, going so high I expected it to come down with snow on. And what did Alain do? Volleyed it straight into the back of the net from around 20 yards out! Smile? It made me leap around our front room like a giddy teenager again!

The final thing that has given me a bit of a boost over the past couple of weeks has been the surprise I’ve had upon going back to work. Two weeks ago I was dreading returning back to work after 6 weeks of summer holidays. I always do and wrote a post about it.

Teaching: That first week back.

However, although I still can’t declare myself happy to be back working, I’m surprised by how smoothly it feels like I’ve got back into the old routines. I suppose, having been a high school teacher for quite a while now, I should expect just to be able to do my job with the minimum of fuss. But there’s still anxiety at this time of year, every year. Still though, although I’m tired beyond belief at the end of every day – age can be a cruel mistress, dear reader – I’ve not encountered any problems at all and have just been able to take up where I left off a couple of months ago. Definitely a reason to allow myself a bit of a smile!

More again soon on this topic. I’ve enjoyed writing about the things that have made me smile and I think it definitely helps with my mood! Feel free to leave a comment if you enjoyed reading!

Teaching: At times it’s just like riding a bike…

Last week I posted a blog about that difficult first week back as a teacher. The anxiety, the new classes, the lottery that can be a timetable, building relationships and even just having to get out of bed a couple of hours earlier. Having spent 6 weeks living life at a slower pace, it can all be a bit much.

However, every year I tell myself the same thing. I tell colleagues too. And I tell my long suffering family, who have had to live with this ‘even grumpier in September’ bloke for far too long: get the first two weeks out of the way and it’ll be alright.

That first two weeks essentially allows me to find my feet and reminds me that I can in fact do my job effectively, having spent the previous two weeks – without fail, every year – feeling like I’m going to stand at the front of the classroom, trying to teach, but just not remembering how to do it anymore. My students will talk over me until it all gets out of control and I end up in a tearful heap on the floor! It never happens that way though.

My first two weeks have been incredibly busy, hectic at times, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Really, it’s been OK. I feel like I’ve found my feet quite quickly and that the confidence that is needed at the front of that classroom has returned and allowed me to jus do my job without too much stress at all. I’m back in the old routine, using the same skills, adapting to different texts and techniques, learning some of the new names that I have to learn (this always takes me a while) and even managing to get through meetings without too many thoughts of simply throwing myself out of the nearest window. I knw that will come though!

There have been some minor challenges as well. Sadly, I’ve noticed that my eyesight has got a bit worse, meaning that I can’t read the register without my glasses and that certain texts have been a little more difficult to read through than they were a year ago. In vanity news, I have had to come to work for 9 days with hair that has looked like a hedge left to its own devices for a number of years until it has just become untamed. This, courtesy of my hairdresser who had the audacity to go off on holiday without warning…for a month. Until last night I hadn’t had a haircut for over 10 weeks, which was beginning to cause me some trouble!

In one of my classes I have a student with a hearing impairment, which requires me to were a kind of digital microphone that hangs round my neck like a lanyard. Much to the student’s delight, I forget about it, without fail, every lesson and she has to remind me. But even this is good in a way as it allows me to overact, like some kind of pantomime dame, and really ham it up about how useless I am and what a great helper she is. Sometimes, even the simplest of things can make a student smile!

So, while it’s been as difficult a couple of weeks as I’d imagined, it’s not been too bad and it’s funny how old habits die hard. As the headline suggests, it really is like riding a bike…provided you could ride one in the first place!

Teaching: That first week back.

I’ve been a teacher now for 22 years. It’s a job I love – despite the fact that I fell into it, rather than approaching it as some kind of vocation – yet a job that causes all manner of stress. And one of the biggest causes of stress is the first week back after summer.

If you’re a non teacher, I see the irony in that last statement. You don’t get 6 weeks off in summer and therefore probably think it’s decidedly ungrateful to feel stressed about going back to work after such a long break. Truthfully, I don’t really care what others think. It’s how an awful lot of us feel and probably not something that can be understood too well if you’re not in the job.

Some teachers are seemingly full of enthusiasm for the first week in September. I’m still not convinced by this enthusiasm though. To me, it seems simple; you’ve been on full pay for six weeks during summer and within reason you can get up to whatever takes your fancy. A wonderful way to live one’s life and the closest some of us are ever going to get to some kind of carefree celebrity lifestyle (albeit it as decidedly Z list celebrities). But then someone orders you back to work and all of the early starts, late finishes, politics, behavioural issues , meetings…children and everything else that comes with being a teacher. What a pain in the arse!

I thought I’d write a post reflecting back on some of my experiences in the first week back this year. I feel sure that any teachers who read, or indeed anyone who works in education will recognise at least some of what will follow.

The first day back used to be a time for easing yourself back in and just generally getting things sorted out. Then someone had the brainwave; the brainwave that became known as an Inset day! In my experience this started out as having to endure a couple of hours of various members of SLT talking at you about results, routines and – shudder – mission statements. There’d be some graphs that you didn’t really understand, but smiled through anyway because you knew you’d be released back to your classroom soon enough.

Gradually, this developed into things like lectures and group activities, often prompted by the dreaded phrase, “You’re going to work together” while you gawp at the people from different departrments that, if you’re me, you don’t know the names of. One of the worst of these was on some Head of Department training over a decade ago when we had to develop strategies for what was called a marketplace activity where students work in groups and then ‘teach’ other students via the presentation on their ‘stall’. I can still hear a woman bellowing “Roll up, roll up!” at the top of her voice in an affected cockernee accent as she got deep into character and it still makes me want to crawl under the nearest rock.

This year, our first day back was spent in two locations. Make of that what you will. We started off at the lead school in our trust for what felt like 36 hours before returning back to the more familiar surroundings of our own school later on for more briefings and I think 8 whole minutes of our own time to prepare for the next day when the kids came back. At several points during the briefings I snapped back to reality faced with the fact that I’d probably just been staring blankly at the person speaking for what could have been 7 or 8 minutes. I was finally able to leave work at just after 5pm, almost organised for the next day, only vaguely aware of my own name and already knackered.

Staggered returns have become a new way of thinking since I started in the job. So now, instead of Year 7 being plunged into big school, with all of the other enormous, scary students they’re given a bit of grace and allowed to come in before everyone else. Depending on the school, this might be for a few hours or a full day. We gave them half an hour (!) but then kept them in forms for most of the day to preserve their innocence for a little while longer. This was a particular delight for this grizzled old English teacher who has never been a fan of year 7s. By the time the whole school went to a token lesson for the last period I was delighted to see my Year 9s, having worn out my fake smile and Disney teacher voice and grown tired of repeating several variations of the phrase “If you’ve got any problems come and see me” with my fingers crossed behind my back. At least the later start allowed me a couple of precious hours of planning time, even if I couldn’t remember how to get my board on, leading to a call to IT support who then came down and, much to my shame, made it work by plugging it in.

Wednesday brought our first full day. By this point, the 6am alarm was taking its toll and my body had gone into a state of shock. My brain wasn’t coping well with the fact that both of own kids didn’t start school until Thursday, either.

My second lesson of the day was with our alternative curriculum lads in our internal PRU. I’ve never taught them before in this setting, but had taught several of them in mainstream school, so in a way I knew what to expect. They didn’t disappoint! Thus, after much calling out, the odd piece of bad language and every last one of them moaning about doing any work, they waited until I walked to the other side of the room and ignored them a bit before just doing the work. Wasn’t it Robin Williams who in his role as an inspirational teacher in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ said, while standing atop a desk, “kids, even in a non mainstream setting, are funny little buggers”? Well, he was spot on.

Thursday and Friday passed in a blur with Friday being all the more memorable for having to fend off the ‘we’re getting two weeks off school because the Queen died’ rumours all day. I told them that they were very wrong; it was three.

Friday also brought me into contact with a brilliant new Year 8 groups. They’re a very low ability group of only 8 students, with low literacy levels and a cavalcade of complex stories between them. Fifteen minutes in, I quickly emailed the friend that I’m sharing the class with to tell her that I wanted to adopt them all. I wanted to take them all home and cook them a nice, hearty meal before letting them watch telly for as long as they wanted. Every so often you get a group like this, who regardless of ability, you just adore. I am going to absolutely love teaching these kids!

And that was that. First week done, eyes barely open having zombie-walked through 5 whole days and done the commute on auto pilot, 4 trips to the supermarket because fatigue and stupidity made me miss something every time I went, sore feet and a Friday where I wore a black tie to somehow pay my respects for a lady who I never knew, but whose death shook the word. And while I remain convinced that I wasn’t born to work for a living, I’ve found out once again that it’s strange the way that you can slip back into the same routine as if you’d never been away.

Grassroots Grumbles: Here’s to a new season!

It’s that time of year again; we’re approaching another season of grassroots football. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, but given that I’ve felt like quitting on a number of occasions recently I’m a little surprised that I’m writing this blog.

Last season was dominated by a feeling of joylessness and repeatedly asking myself the question, why am I bothering? Of 24 games played (22 league and 2 cup) we won 2. We drew a few and really didn’t deserve to lose in others, but largely, and for a number of different reasons, standing on the touchline during games of football last year was simply horrible. And so, the thought of doing it all again for another year wasn’t one that I approached with any optimism at all.

The sound of the last referee’s whistle of the season may well have still been lingering in the air when the first of several players said that they were leaving. This was followed by another and another and before I knew it, I’d lost 5 players. In fact, from the squad of 18 that we’d stated the season with, we’ve actually lost 7, while another seems to have disappeared (and he’s not even the first to do that). So we’ll call that 8 then! And whatever your knowledge of football, you’ll probably realise that 10 players doesn’t make a squad.

There has been some good news since that point. We’ve been helped out by our A-team coach – nothing to do with Hannibal, Face, Mr T etc, just the other team in the club at our age group – who’s sent 6 players our way who weren’t going to be good enough to play for his team, given the division that they play in. Further to that, our advert for players has gained us a couple of other players, including a goalkeeper, which was the position that we struggled with last year. So, in many ways, that signing alone means that we’ve struck gold. All in all as I write, we have potentially (so far nothing has been made formal) 18 players for a squad for next season. And who knows, the lad who disappeared might well pop up out of nowhere again!

We also have a little bit of hope elsewhere too. Firstly, our best player from last season – one of those who left – is considering coming back to us. I’m not building up my hopes at all, but also can’t ignore the fact that he came and played in a friendly match for us and has openly said that he just misses being part of our team. At the moment, he’s thinking about exactly what to do next, but he knows that he’d be welcomed back with open arms, so we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed as he really would make a difference.

We also had a response to our advert for players just this week that has intrigued me. It was from a girl and we’ve been trying to encourage girls to join us for years. In the developmental sense, I just think it’s good for the game that more girls join in, but also we’re just very aware that there are some excellent female footballers out there that can’t always find a clear path into a team. England’s Lionesses winning the recent European Championships has undoubtedly helped with that pathway, so I’m hopeful that we can find our first female player soon! Again though, it’s really just a case of keeping fingers crossed!

We played our first pre-season friendly match a couple of weeks ago and in contrast to how things felt at the end of the season, this was a really positive experience. We only played against our club’s Under 13 team to help them out as they adapt to playing at 11-a-side, but we had 20 players available, including our best players from last season, who as I said earlier had only just left!

It was difficult to juggle the numbers and we ended up splitting the game into quarters and just using almost separate teams, but it worked and we were able to try players in different positions and get a sense of where new lads might fit in. Since then we’ve struggled for availability because of holidays and so we haven’t had another game, but we’ve kept training chugging along, albeit it with smaller numbers.

The next step is to start registering players. So far everyone seems keen, so it’s only the notoriously difficult internet registration site to get round. It took several visits and around a week to get it all done last year, but I’m hopeful that with some players returning from last season, at least their registrations will represent minimal work!

Another big job will come with trying to get a new kit. We need a new away kit, as a lot of lads just haven’t got one as they joined the club late while others have simply grown out of theirs. We need to attract a sponsor and while in my head that could be difficult post-Covid, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that our old sponsor will simply give us the go-ahead – aka money – to get another set of kit ordered. If that happens and the registration of players is at least quite straighforward, then we can just concentrate on training and organising friendly games. It would be nice just to stat being able to work on building a team, given that we’ve lost four who were regulars in the team for the last four years. But in the ever complicated world of grassroots football, I’ll stay just a little bit cynical about those prospects!

One of the bright spots of the last couple of months worth of scrambling around trying to get new players was the offers of help. Other coaches at our club have said they’ll keep their eyes and ears open for any possible players and as I said earlier, the other Under 14s coach has sent players our way. But the one that was most positive was the offer from another coach at a different club in our division. One of the teams at our age group had folded due to lack of numbers and despite the distance between the two teams, he actually passed my details on to parents of players left without a club because in his words, he knew I’d look after those players.

As it turns out, I’ve not heard from any of those parents, but I’d like to think that’s because it’s a good 30 minute car journey to get to us and there are probably other clubs that they can go to that are a lot closer to where they live. It didn’t matter; it was nice to know that your hard work gets recognised and that there’s respect between coaches. It was something that helped make up my mind about carrying on coaching the team this year and it was nice to be reminded of the good that’s out there in grassroots football. (So thanks Rich, if you ever stumble across this blog).

So we’re just under a month from kick off in grassroots football here in our corner of Yorkshire. There’s a lot still to do, but I feel like I’m approaching it with at least the tiniest bit of optimism!

Parenting: It’s nearly time for results day!

It’s the kind of landmark day that you probably don’t give a passing thought to as a parent for quite some time. Not before your child is at least a decade old, I’d say. Until then, there are far too many landmarks to give thought to, meaning that those that are going to happen just as your kid is on the verge of adulthood (but still very much your little girl or little boy) won’t even occur to you. After all, with everything from emptying the contents of their stomach or bowels all over you to first steps, first words and first days of nursery and school, there’s a lot to think about. Your thinking time is pretty well taken care of for quite a while!

However, at some point, as I’m finding out in the next few days, your child will start to come up against potentially life-changing days and will either achieve things that you would have never thought believable or be forced to cope with the biggest phase of adversity that they’ll have had to face up to so far in their time on the planet.

Thursday is GCSE results day in the UK and my daughter, who at present is staring out at me across the kitchen on the side of not one but two mugs as a very cute, laughing toddler, will be faced with opening the most important envelope of her life so far. On Thursday, she will collect her GCSE results as the biggest phase of her education so far draws to a close, ready for the next one to start about a week later. It’s quite a concerning time for all!

As a parent, I feel quite calm and rational about it all. This is probably because wen I’m off pretending to be a proper adult, I’m a high school teacher. So Thursday won’t be my first rodeo, as they say. I know the drill and have worried about literally hundreds of kids and the contents of their envelopes over the years. So, in a sense everything’s zen for me personally.

However, while the above is very much true, it still promises to be a stressful day. Results day has never mattered this much. And while I’m calm on the surface and not a natural worrier, I’m still obviously feeling concerned and over-protective.

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to worry at all. After all, my daughter is a bright kid who realises the importance of education and qualifications and has the will and determination to do well. She’s worked damned hard too, spending much of the last two years revising in her spare time, making notes, flashcards, doing online tests, battling through hours of homework, listening to podcasts and just generally leaving no stone unturned in her quest for success. The trouble is, it’s not a perfect world. She really deserves a good set of results, but there’s obviously no guarantee of success with exams.

There have already been reports that results will take a hit this year, due to the fact that they were viewed as being inflated during the two non exam years of the pandemic. So, there’s that to contend with straight away, before she even gets the envelope in her hands. And we’ve been contending with it. Such is the reach of social media and 24 hour news these days that kids see almost everything that’s out there. And of course, my daughter has read all of it, meaning that she’s thoroughly stressed out already. I really feel for her. In my day I had no awareness whatsoever about results and grade boundaries and everything else that goes into gaining a GCSE. Having scare stories thrown at you left, right and centre can’t be any fun and there’s very little we can do to protect her from it.

As a parent, I can’t help but hope that she just does really well. I understand that good GCSEs aren’t the be all and end all of things for her and that she got a lot of life to live, with a lot of opportunities to come whatever her results; but I’d still love to see her come home with a great set of results. Whatever her future holds, it’d be great to think that had a firm foot on the first rung on the ladder!

Despite our attempts to make her look into colleges and different types of courses, my daughter was very firm in her intention to carry on at school via 6th form. One of my biggest regrets is doing just that and while our schools are enormously contrasting (hers is good, mine was like a cross between a safari park and a prison), I wish she had at least assessed her options properly. Now – and this has been discussed and will be handled on the day by my wife who is heading to school with her – she has to make the final decision on which A-Levels she’ll be taking. She knows what she wants to do, but this will come down to results, which has meant more stress and more ‘what ifs’! We’ve talked about options though, so there’s at least a Plan A and a Plan B, which is two more plans than I had at that age!

I think the main point in dealing with such a big thing as GCSE results has to be reminding your kid of how loved and valued they are. While I’m desperate for her to do well, obviously in the main for her but let’s not deny that parental pride won’t come into it, this is merely a step to get over. If the results aren’t what she would have really wanted, then it’s still a world full of options and it’s still a house we’re she’s always made fully aware of how loved and supported she is.

Given how quickly things move, I suppose it’ll not be too long before we’re discussing her next steps. At the moment, university seems to be at the forefront of her mind and I’d love her to go, but I’m hopeful that with a bit more maturity, she’ll listen to as many options as possible. She has some interests where she shows a huge amount of talent and I’m quite hopeful that these may be areas that she can explore further in the future. It would be wonderful to think that her work was also something that she loved.

Before then though, we have two more stressful nights to get through. And then the drama will begin in earnest on Thursday morning! I’m hopeful that it won’t actually be too dramatic though. Whatever happens, as parents all we can do is to be as supportive as possible, listen carefully and try to offer useful advice, even if this is a day that we’d happily tucked to the back of our minds with the thought that it was far too far off to really worry about!

Fingers crossed that everything will turn out alright!

Poetry Blog: Process

I’ve had a burst of activity with poems lately and written three or four that are in varying states, as well as several lots of notes that will serve as drafts for other poems.

I love it when this happens. Primarily because it’s good to be writing and in most cases, these poems provide something to go on the blog! But also, there are times when I haven’t written for a while and start to feel like I might never be able to do so again. So, to al of a sudden be able to produce some ideas, let alone some actual poems, is a bit of a relief.

I had to read this poem back a couple of times before I could work out what it was about. I’d written it a few days ago and, as is regular for me, it was done in the early hours of the morning after I found that I just couldn’t sleep once again. Hence, coming back to it, I was unsure who it was about as well as precisely what. Turns out it wasn’t that complicated because it’s just a poem about me and my state of mind at the moment.

I wouldn’t say that I was particularly low; just not particularly happy. Confused about a few things maybe and while not struggling, definitely not finding things as easy as I’d like. There’s been a lot going on with family issues and health issues and I think it’s reflected a bit at least, in the poem.

Process

Thoughts emerge like a pack of cards being dealt haphazardly,
some spinning and turning over as they drift through the air,
others plummeting directly to the floor
and the time spent on each left interrupted as more and more land to steal away your attention from the last,
and although your gaze may return to some randomly, 
none will be allowed to feel complete,
so you twist and turn, restless for an end that doesn't look like coming.
Similarly, your questions are all frustratingly rhetorical.
There are answers, but they are never a truth,
a rock, a definitive
and as a consequence, you do not know which route to take.
This is a process.
No one else need get involved or share the burden.
All of this, you hope, will pass.

For once, I have reasons behind the title of the poem. And for that reason, I think that for once, I have a decent title. I called this one ‘Process’ because my whole state of mind and the situations that I find myself going through will get worked out. They really are a process. As well as this though, I used ‘Process’ in terms of the fact that I’m just trying to figure things out. In know what’s happening and I know why, but I can’t really figure out how best to get through it. But I know that I will.

The end of the poem is quite important for me. In terms of problems or any kind of mental health issue that I might have, I’m never great at sharing. It’s not that there’s no one to share with and it’s also not that I don’t believe in sharing, talking or unburdening yourself. I totally understand that a problem shared is a problem halved, as they say. It’s just that I’m usually fine just dealing with stuff myself. It might take longer, but at least I don’t have to trouble anyone else. Apart from by writing about it, I suppose!

I hope you enjoyed reading and would love to hear any comments that you might have.

Until next time…

In lieu of a better title for a feature here’s ‘Stuff I enjoyed this week’.

So clearly being not very good at titles doesn’t just afflict me with poetry! But I’m hopeful that as a feature, not only will this grow and become regular, but I’ll come up with a better name for it.

Anyway, while I was sitting trying to enjoy the sunshine this week I found myself reflecting on stuff I’d enjoyed over the course of said week. That and worrying that I’d burn or just end up reduced to a puddle on my patio that would swiftly evaporate and leave my wife and kids forever wondering about the mystery of my disappearance! And so, I thought I’d write a blog about the stuff I’d enjoyed! It was a good excuse to get inside before I melted. So, here we go.

  1. Julie’s Facebook post. My friend and former colleague Julie moved all the way from Yorkshire to Devon a short while ago. It was a complete lifestyle change and a huge gamble and I was full of admiration for the bravery that it involved. Anyway, this week on Facebook she posted this and it really made me smile. Definitely some evidence to say that she made the right decision!

2. Sanding. Sad, but true. This week, in the midst of a heatwave, I got up early . and sanded all of our garden furniture down in preparation for applying some wood oil. I did wood work at school and always enjoyed it and there’s a bit of me that regrets not persuing this type of thing as a career. I always enjoyed it and was good at it too, but I guess it didn’t seem like the kind of career choice I could have faced my parents with, so there you go. The sanding was really hard work and I was far too pleased with myself by the time I’d finished. Probably far too sweaty and hot too! But it made me genuinely happy. Here’s one of our benches – have a look!

3. Nick Pope. On Friday, a Newcastle United site on Twitter (Toon Polls) set off on a mission to get the name of our goalkeeper Nick Pope trending. They replied to a poll on a Burger King post with the alternative answer of ‘Nick Pope’, who if you don’t know is a goalkeeper for my team, Newcastle United. Lots of Toon fans joined in and then after that it’s safe to say that things went a little bit mad as football clubs, global brands and celebrities got involved and it made me smile…even if my own attempt to join in was spoilt by predictive text on my phone. Not to worry, it made for a good day on social media and was a cracking effort from our fanbase ad the internet in general!

4. A conversation. A simple one this. On Wednesday after training with my Under 14 football team (I’m the coach, not a 13-year-old for those who don’t know) I had a lovely conversation with the parents of one of our new players. They’ve recently arrived from Armenia and it seems, are loving life in Yorkshire. I was really pleased for them. They were also asking for help in getting their son some friends, obviously through football and I promised to try and help. Again, it gave me a bit of a warm glow to think that I’m lucky enough to be in a position to be able to help.

5. A notification. Now these things can be the bane of all our lives, but this one made me laugh. It was a notification from my own phone offering me the chance to view highlights of my recent trip home to Whickham, which is the village just outside of Newcastle where my parents live. I’d gone to visit my mam because she’s been poorly for months and is housebound. So literally, all we did was sit in their bungalow drink coffee, eat and chat for about 6 hours! It was lovely, but I didn’t really see the need to view the highlights, not least because I was there! I had a lovely bacon sandwich though, which my timeline didn’t pick up on!

So there we have it. Five simple things that I enjoyed this week. Hopefully I can find some more for next week and hopefully I can come up with a better name for it all!

It’s been a weird couple of months – a bit of a health update.

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog about the latest downturn in my health. I didn’t do it because I’m self obsessed and imagine that anybody really wants to know how I’m feeling at any given time. It was written mainly because my health was the reason that the blog started in the first place and also because writing stuff like that is a good way of taking the weight of any worry off my shoulders. If you fancy a read of that one, it’s on the link below.

A spanner in the works.

For a bit more context, just over four years ago I was taken into hospital with heart problems and then, having been fine ever since, last month I spent a Sunday afternoon in a bit of a secretive mild panic as my heart decided it was about time it start racing once more. When I eventually confessed to feeling unwell we had a bag packed ready for a visit to hospital quick smart! In the end though, I didn’t need to go as after an awful spell of dizziness and nausea, everything went back to normal.

A few days later I had an ECG and some blood tests at my doctors and was referred back to Cardiology at our local hospital. This then led me to another local hospital some weeks later, where I got fitted with a 24 hour ECG machine. The most exciting thing to happen within that 24 hours was going to the hospital. Once I had the ECG machine on, my heart behaved impeccably, which was both a comfort and a frustration. A kind of proof that nothing was wrong alongside the mystery of what had actually happened in the first place. So, it sort of confirmed what I’d felt all along; that the latest setback was just a blip, while still leaving open that nagging sense of doubt!

In between times I gave myself a short break from any exercise at all. However, in the back of my mind I knew that I had entered the Leeds 10k and was desperate to do it. With 4 weeks to go until the actual race I set myself a challenge. I would train as best as I could, without pushing things too hard and a few days before the race itself I’d make an honest decision on whether to run or not. I presumed that if there was a problem, I’d know before then anyway.

On my first training run I had to detail my exact route and approximate finishing time to my daughter, so that if anything went wrong, she’d have an idea where to find me. This was much more for her benefit than mine as really, I felt quite strong. I also texted my wife the same details just to reassure her too.

Fast forward four weeks and I found myself on the start line suffering with my usual bout of pre-race nerves, but also feeling a huge determination to run a good time. It was a warm day, but quite still so I was pleased that I wouldn’t be battling the wind too much. What I felt I was battling though, was a bit of a lack of fitness. I’d run a solitary 10k in around 6 weeks, so while I wanted to run a good time, I didn’t know how capable I was and the state of my heart was always at the back of my mind too.

In the end, despite any reservations, I ran just two seconds outside my personal best! I got a little confused in the final mile, thinking I had more to run than I did – I’d definitely put this down to fatigue – and so I didn’t start picking up the pace until it was a little too late. I’ll know for next year though!

My latest heart scare had come after another 10k race about 6 weeks previously having just gone straight back to training, so I made sure I rested properly this time round. In fact, I don’t think I’ve run a 10k since, just concentrating on 4 and 5 mile runs when I go out in order to just stay sharp.

So, at the moment, everything seems OK healthwise. I actually spoke to a cardiology doctor last week, about the results of my 24 hour ECG and the general consensus seems to be that what happened was a bit of a blip. He did brielfy float the idea that I may have had another, much less serious atrial flutter (my problem first time round), but having consulted with another doctor, neither of them were too sure or too concerned. There doesn’t seem to be any need for medication and the only minor concern is that my heart rate is particularly low while I sleep, but from my point of view, that’s OK. I keep an eye on my heart rate when I’m out running, but only looking once or twice, usually once I’ve got up any big hills! Again, there’s been nothing alarming to report.

I’m learning to listen to this middle aged body a bit more though! I’m hopefully finding out that it’s not in as bad a shape as I thought it might be. Oh, and I’ve also learned that I need to hydrate far better, after another doctor told me that my blood test results looked like those of a bloke who didn’t ever actually drink water! So, now I start every day with a glass of water and then make sure that I’m drinking throughout the day. It sounds easier than it is, so again, I’m still learning which is ridiculous at my age.

The good thing is though, despite a few more heart worries, I’m still going strong(ish)!

Top Ten Hazards for the Middle Aged Runner

Now some people would take one look at the title of this particular blog and question the need for a Top Ten. In many ways, I would be one of them. I mean, as a fairly regular middle aged runner I can testify to the fact that it’s often no fun whatsoever. In fact, there are times when it’s nothing short of sheer hell. I enjoy it, in a strange way, but I can’t kid myself that it can be sheer hell too!

In the recent heat, there have been more than a few moments where I’ve wondered if my thumping heart, trembling legs and sweaty face would actually make it through the next few moments, let alone allow me to get back through our front door. I could argue that my face when running, resembling as it does a prized, agricultural show-ready plum tomato, is hazard enough to just give the whole running lark up. But, if you insist on continuing to run into your forties and fifties, then I suppose I’m providing a bit of a public service in telling you the kind of things you should look out for. And simultaneously ignoring my own advice as well…

Hazard 1 – Hills. Going up. not going down. Although even going down a hill can play havoc with the knees these days. But it’s the going up that presents the hazard. A friend of mine once commented on the town where I live, ‘Morley, built on 7 hills, like Rome. And that’s where the comparison ends’. I’d argue that this is not true as we have crumbling buildings and crazy drivers too, just like Rome, but that’s beside the point. Morley was indeed built on seven hills and this means that when running locally I cannot escape the bloody things. So beware, fellow middle age runners, hills mean an increasingly worrying heart rate, jelly legs and the production of many a strange wheezing noise.

Hazard 2 – Van drivers. Well known for their stereotypically lewd comments to women, van drivers are often not the runner’s friend either. Strangely while some are just downright abusive, others appear to think that they’re either running coaches or cheerleaders and many’s the time I’ve been shouted at to “get those knees up” or just told “go on lad”. None of this does any good for my motivation and if you too are a fifty something runner, I daresay it will only inspire muttered threats and swearing.

Hazard 3 – Wind. Just to clarify, that’s the weather related type rather than the arse related. Although I find that sometimes a good burp can do me the world of good while running. But that’s besides the point (and possibly another blog…). At a certain, respectable age wind can become less of a challenge and more of a factor to keep me indoors. It’s battle enough chasing times running a 5 or 10k without having to throw myself headlong into a 20mph headwind. I don’t mind said wind behind me as I’m heading home though!

Hazard 4 – Cobbles. Now this is a niche hazard, I’ll grant you that. But where I live in West Yorkshire, cobbles are still quite common. And before you say ‘just avoid them’, it’s not that simple. I don’t have to run on entirely cobbled streets much at all, but there are certain sections of the roads that I run on where there are still cobbles that are more or less unavoidable. If I don’t run on the cobbles the alternative is to run on the main road connecting Wakefield and Bradford, which as you’d expect, can be rather busy. So while my elderly knees and ankles are put at risk on cobbles, I’ll take my chance with this hazard rather than getting clipped by a truck! If I can continue to keep my balance and stay upright, everything will be OK!

Hazard 5 – Dawdlers. Slow walkers. Like, perilously slow. The bane of my life when I’m out running. Now you may think that this isn’t just a problem for the more vintage runner like myself. So let me explain. I’m out, I’ve established a rhythm and I’m not even giving any thought to how I feel. I’m just running without really having to think too much. And then, up ahead there’s a dawdler. I’m suddenly aware of the width of the pavement or just conscious of the fact that running behind them might give them a bit of a fright. But if they can just make it to that opening or the wider bit of pavement I can give them a wider berth and not slow down. Because I can’t slow down or stop as I might struggle to find this rhythm again! Of course, they never make it to that wider section at the right time and so I’m forced to take evasive action, like running up a grassy bank or into the road. Not a problem at all as a younger runner, but now it’s the kind of thing that could knock me off balance or just drain the legs of what it turns out is absolutely vital energy! Dawdlers: the incredibly innocent looking hazard that you hadn’t even thought about!

Hazard 6 – Dog walkers. Before I go any further, I’ll just say that I know that the majority of dog walkers are wonderful and responsible people. Some of them though, are just dicks! Now this hazard can be similar to your dawdler, which as we know represent a tricky problem. But then you throw in the dog. And here’s the deal. On numerous occasions I’ve been leapt at by dogs, twice sending me crashing to the floor in an ungainly fashion. The first time led to me completing the final half of my run caked in mud – hair, face, arms, legs – and the latest saw me sent sprawling to the concrete and subsequently taking the skin off my hands and knees. And on each occasion the humans involved were unapologetic and worse than useless. I was jumped at recently by a couple of scrawny rat type things and when the owners just grinned I’m afraid my response wasn’t particularly composed. Instead it was riddled with expletives. But I think I made my point. I’m 50 years old and doing my level best to stay fit and healthy. My body does not need to be hastily considering evasive gymnastics while I’m out running.

Hazard 7 – Young runners. Put simply these runners are younger than us, fitter than us and most likely quicker than us. In my case, they probably look better in their running gear too. But they certainly represent a hazard to the middle aged runner like myself. Lots of us will be the same in that we still retain a competitive edge and thus, when I see a young runner out and about, I only ever see a challenge. If I’m ahead of them, I’ll try to stay ahead. If I’m behind, I’ll lengthen my stride and try to catch them. Both are terrible ideas at my stage of life and only ever result in a struggle to actually finish my run! The lesson is to not try and take on people 20 or 30 years younger than me. If only I could learn the lesson!

Hazard 8 – Friends in cars. Admittedly, not the worst thing in the world, but believe me, when you’re 50, approaching the end of a run, sweaty, disheveled and your face looks like it might just explode, you do not want to see one of your mates go past in the car!

Hazard 9 – Chip shops (see also Indian takeaways and pizza shops). An easily avoidable hazard, but one where I never seem to learn my lesson. All of the above are regularly on my running routes simply because I live in quite a large town. Let me tell you, they are not good for moral! The wonderful aroma of chips, garlic or curry never fails to leave me wondering what the hell I thought I was doing when I had the idea for a run in the first place. Surely, ordering out and then sitting down and tucking into any one of these delights would be far more sensible and enjoyable than dragging my weary lycra-clad self round another 10k?

Hazard 10 – Beer Gardens. I regularly go out for a run after work on a Friday. I leave as early as possible, get home and changed quickly, stretch and then out I go. And it always seems like a great idea. I can rid myself of the mental fatigue and stress brought on by the working week and just be alone with my thoughts. Until that is, I spot a beer garden up ahead. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I smell a takeaway, but worse. Worse, because as I look up, it seems like every other middle aged person in town has decided to head to the beer garden and they look to be having such a great time. Would it not make sense for me to deal with my stress just like them? Well, yes, it would! And yet, here I am attempting to recapture the fitness of my youth, like an idiot while the inevitable wag glances up from a cold pint to call out to you to ‘get those knees up’. He probably came over in his van as well!

It should be a very simple thing to do, go out on a run. Staying fit in your middle age should only really be a battle with your own body. But as you’ve just read, it can be far, far more than just that!

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