Newcastle United: Some words in support of Eddie Howe.

We all know that social media can be the domain of idiots. Twitter and in particular, football related Twitter is especially good at proving this. But recently, in a Newcastle United shaped corner, it’s begun to surpass all of its previous idiocy.

To preface this, I must stress that the idiot viewpoints to which I’m about to refer are from a tiny minority. Minority or not though; they’re still out there and in my opinion, they’re still particularly stupid and particularly unjust. So what is it that folk have been saying? Well, sadly they’ve already begun to criticise Eddie Howe, with some even going as far as to call for him to lose is job.

Eddie has been in the job for a short time and in that time we’ve lost more than we’ve won. Hardly a surprise though really, is it? Remember when he first arrived and we all got giddy about the fact that he was running around during a training session? Like actually joining in. Now that’s what he’s up against. Newcastle United had become so unloved, so neglected and us fans so used to just settling for third class standards that we were hooked from the moment he donned a tracksuit, demonstrated a drill and was heard telling players, “If you’re standing still, that’s not good enough.”

Such was the transformation of things just in the space of those initial minutes, that I think some fans may have begun to think that Eddie Howe was in possession of some kind of footballing wand. And now, when improvements on the pitch aren’t quite as noticeable as they wanted, doubt is beginning to creep in. And at Newcastle United, doubt can be toxic.

Let’s get one thing straight: No one was going to turn things around at NUFC very quickly. Howe told us in his first press conference that we were very much in a relegation fight and that the priority for now was short term. He admitted himself, “the task is huge” and that “The aim is to stay in the league. To avoid relegation”. We were never going to suddenly start playing open, expansive, attractive football. When he was appointed we still hadn’t won a game, but we have now. And while that’s not the most amazing of changes, it’s a start, And it’s a start that the previous regime never looked likely to bring us.

Eddie Howe has joined our club in a completely new era. But for all the money in the world, it’s going to take a long time and a huge amount of hard work to undo all the problems that the last era created. There are years of neglect to get past. Some people are expecting that a club that has been kept ticking along with the bare minimum of funds, insight and effort for 14 years, is suddenly going to take off because a young coach is running around in training. There will have to be countless hours of unseen work done before this particular ship starts to turn and sadly, he’s joined us just as we were heading at relentless pace towards an almighty iceberg.

It’s well documented that the group of players at Howe’s disposal are still dominated by those that brought us up to the Premier League in 2016/17. So ask yourself, how is Eddie meant to drastically change the form of these players, many of whom are simply playing beyond their level now? Yet, still a vocal few are beginning to question methods and wonder out loud why the boss and his staff haven’t turned the likes of Clark, Lascelles and Schar into a modern day band of Franco Baresis. Ridiculous.

Another issue with the squad is perhaps how cosseted they’d become. You get the impression that Bruce didn’t exactly promote a strong working environment. Towards the end of his tenure the amount of days off he was scheduling got ridiculous and although some players have come out since and expressed their concern in this area, you can’t imagine that lots of them would be pleased as punch at not having to go into work for 2-3 days at a a time. Surely that’s just human nature? When it’s public knowledge that the manager has sloped off to be on the beach for a few days during a run where the team couldn’t buy a win, you’ve got to imagine that lackadaisical attitude could rub off on more than a few.

Furthermore, it seems clear that Eddie and his staff mean business. They’re not here to be regarded as ‘great blokes’ by the players and that might just be a heck of a change for those who’d gotten comfortable under Steve and the Steves (not only shit football coaches, but an appalling sounding boy band too). I wonder if a sudden injection of professionalism coupled with staff who are trying to command a bit of respect might just have ruffled a few precious feathers. Well, it needed to happen. And even if this isn’t the case, I imagine Howe and his coaches coming in will have given the atmosphere around the place a real boost.

Currently there are a number of difficulties that aren’t helping Eddie Howe at all. I think we looked to January as a time where – whether we were comfortable with it or not – the club would splash the cash and we’d bring in better, more exotic players before gradually climbing out of relegation trouble towards safety. It hasn’t happened. And while I do think a Director of Football would have helped enormously, it’s still not the Eddie’s fault. The dithering we’d become used to is a thing of the past and the owners have definitely been proactive. But for one reason or another clubs are increasingly reluctant to do business with us. Eddie Howe isn’t at fault here, but the longer it drags on, the longer he’s left working with a squad of players who sadly, just aren’t quite good enough.

Then we come to the news that has got a few people speculating within the last week – Rafa Benitez’s sacking at Everton. Sadly, some Newcastle fans have latched on to this, adding 2 and 2 together to make about 360. Personally, I’ve found the social media calls for Rafa to be brought back a little ludiccrous. At best, this would be a sideways move, but the more consideration I’ve given it, the more I oppose it. Whatever way you look at it, Rafa Benitez walked away from Newcastle United. I understand that this was a very different Newcastle United, but it still involved a group of fans who adored him and yet, he still walked. For me, this one’s a no-go.

Eddie Howe is a young, forward thinking coach who wants us on the front foot going at teams. And fair enough, it hasn’t really happened yet, but there’s no reason to and no point in doubting him now. Rafa Benitez’s style of play and his ‘short blanket’ probably aren’t what we need. Sure, he’d tighten up the defence, but I still believe we’d concede too many goals with these players. In many ways Rafa represents a glorious time in the club’s history in that fans, management and players were utterly together, but I still can’t get behind bringing him back at the expense of Eddie Howe.

My final point would be this; as fans of Newcastle United we shouted long and loud about just wanting hope. Well, for me Eddie has already delivered. The frankly strange excitement at the fact that he was in at work on his first day before 7am. The footage of those early training sessions. The win against Burnley and his ecstatic reaction afterwards. The performance against Manchester United. The signing of Kieron Trippier. The fact that he’s not an overweight has-been who would willingly criticise both his players and the fans, despite his claims about being one of us.

We may get relegated this season, but after the last 14 years, it was always coming. Eddie Howe represents hope, graft and the future. As fans of Newcastle United we tell each other to keep the faith. So let’s do that. Let’s just get behind the bloke!

Winter Running – 5 Tips to make those chilly miles that little bit better.

It’s that time of year again. The weather is invariably freezing cold, the days aren’t as long and the nights are closing in, so that it’s getting dark by around 4pm. Add in the potential for rain, snow and high winds and this can be a challenging time in anyone’s calendar.

It’s also the time of year where all sorts of people make all sorts of vows about being better people in the future. Those resolutions, however, are never particularly binding and as we all probably know only too well, they’ll fall by the wayside with the least bit of encouragement.

Exercise at this time of year can be difficult. But unfortunately it’s also one of the things that people see as a good way of changing their lives. An easy win that, in Winter, can turn out not so easy after all. So, for runners and would be runners alike, I’ve written up what I think are some handy some tips for running at this time of year.

  1. Run early. Although Winter mornings can be ridiculously cold and utterly miserable, it’s always worth keeping an eye on the weather forecast. Every once in a while you’ll get an amazingly beautiful day; still, bright blue skies and a tolerable, bracing chill in the air. If you find one, set the alarm, roll out of bed, warm up and then get out and run. I think this type of morning is my favourite for running, especially in Winter. I’ll put on a base layer – maybe some running tights as well, if I think they’re needed – and after some warming up, sneak out of the house while everyone else sleeps and just run. It’ll be dark to start off with and as a result it can be quite an unnerving experience; the sight of anyone at all will put you on edge when it’s so dark. But the peace and quiet is just fantastic. Well worth the early start. It allows me just to focus on breathing, pace and whatever might be on my mind at the time. You’ll see the occasional dog walker or shift worker, but other than that, the world is your own. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll catch the sun rising. I can’t recommend an early morning Winter run enough!
  2. Hi Viz. If you’re running in Winter, chances are that it’ll be dark at some point. Even the middle of the afternoon can get dark at this time of year. So, be sensible. A high viz top or windproof jacket is well worth investing in. A neon yellow works well, particularly in late afternoon and if you can find something with reflective patches or stripes, then all the better to be seen in! Failing that, you can buy anything from trainers to socks that are reflective enough to make sure you’re seen at night. Not everybody can pull off the neon look. In actual fact, I’m not entirely sure anyone can, but safety must took presidence over fashion at this time of year! So even if you might be going out on a run looking like a road worker or a throwback to mid 90s rave culture, at least you improve your chances of getting round your route safely this way.
  3. Join a running club or get a running buddy. Now I’m afraid this is a classic case of the person giving the advice but flagrantly ignoring it at the same time. That doesn’t make it bad advice though. Personally, I prefer to run alone. In company I know I’d either feel guilty for being too slow or grumpy for the company being too slow. But, amongst other things, running is supposed to be fun. And in Winter, it’s just safer to run as part of a group. Another added plus here is that company can be encouraging and even give you a bit of a boost. I’m a far better runner in a race situation, where there are lots of other people to focus on and aim for, so to speak. But I can guarantee that in a race, if I’m flagging, someone will offer encouragement and support. Running clubs or groups are easy to find these days, as they’re only a Google search away and they’re ideal for beginners. I know that there are a few groups around my area where it’s all very informal, friendly and the emphasis is on gaining fitness with a bit of fun and friendship. So, if you made that resolution, joining a club with like minded and friendly people might well be the decision that helps to stick to your vow!
  4. Make sure to warm up and warm down properly. Whether it’s Winter or not, this is a good tip to follow. However, if you’re planning on going out running in freezing temperatures, then making sure that those muscles are fully stretched and warmed up is essential. The temperature alone should be the only shock that you get; you don’t want to have gone 100 metres and find that your body just doesn’t feel right. It’s Winter; you’ve got every excuse you need for turning round and heading back to that warm bed or front room with the fire on! At least if you’re fully warmed up, you’ll have a fighting chance of getting into a rhythm nice and quickly and after that, it’s all about just running! Warming up will help prevent those little niggling injuries that could mean you’re back on the sofa before you know it. Similarly, by warming down once you’ve finished, you’ll feel much, much better. I sometimes finish my run within a half mile of my house and then get home with a combination of light jogging and walking, just to make sure nothing seizes up. I always stretch again once I get back to the house and make sure that I take on plenty of water to rehydrate. It’s no fun when all you want to do is flop down on the bed, but it’s a lot better to have warmed down for ten minutes or so.
  5. Never underestimate the importance of rest. Winter running can be difficult. Motivating yourself to actually go out is tough when you already know how cold and miserable it is out there! So don’t put yourself under too much pressure. If you’ve scheduled a run, but you know your body’s just not right, then don’t go. Rest up instead. There’s always another day. And the same applies for days when it might just seem too cold or too windy. If you don’t feel like it, but know you’ll go another day; do that! Or the other alternative is to go out and maybe run a shorter distance than you’d had planned. I’ve done that a few times recently and spared myself a little bit, but have also been able to say I’d been out and kept my fitness up!

So there you have it. Hopefully a few handy tips that might just help you out a bit when running this Winter. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know if they’re of any use in the comments!

Dear Gabby Agbonlahor (and any other deluded, misinformed football pundits).

I’ve supported Newcastle United FC all my life. I don’t often blog about them, but occasionally something crops up that piques my interest and gets me typing. This is one of those occasions. Let me explain.

Over the weekend the TalkSport pundit and ex Aston Villa striker Gabby Agbonlahor offered his audience some rather stupid views about Newcastle United. Now, I’ve only seen a clip of this, but essentially his point was that no one would want to sign for Newcastle. By ‘no one’ I’m taking it he meant players of any great quality and those that might get us out of the kind of trouble that we currently find ourselves in. His argument was something along the lines of “If a player was offered £40k a week to play for Newcastle or £30k a week to play for Brentford, he’d choose Brentford because players don’t want to live in Newcastle, they want to live in London.” What, all of them?

Now, I’m not an idiot. I realise that there are players who would turn us down in order to go and live in London. But his comments got me thinking. At first, like many others, I thought of the many attractions of my home town. Then I recalled some of the brilliant players we’ve had over the years. In fact, several of these former players took to social media to refute Gabby’s argument. More of this later.

What struck my mostly, when I’d had time to think about it a bit, was how utterly absurd a point Agbonlahor had made. Because of course, even a small amount of thought would produce a list of players who signed for less glamorous clubs than those in London. Some went for money, others to play for a certain manager and others because doing their homework revealed a lot about the clubs they would sign for and the cities in which they’d live and told them that although there was no Harrods, they could probably have an excellent quality of life wherever they lived. I mean, taking Gabby’s £30k or £40k a week analogy, earning more than a average person’s yearly salary in a week might make life quite easy really. But not in Newcastle though. Never in Newcastle. Take less money, to play in front of less fans at a smaller club because…London. As I said earlier, utterly absurd.

It’s widely acknowledged that Diego Maradona was and is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – footballers to ever grace a pitch. A breathtaking talent, worshipped wherever he played. And yet, he was arguably happiest at Napoli. That’s in Naples, Gabby. That’s in Italy, Gabby. Europe, Gabby. Maradona left Barcelona and signed for a club in Naples; not AC or Inter of Milan, not Lazio or Roma, but Napoli, a city that while far sunnier is totally comparable to Newcastle in terms of its economic profile and appeal. And unless I’ve missed something, Naples doesn’t have a Harrods, a Thames, a London Eye or a Buckingham Palace either.

Fast forward to the present day and a player that many would deem the best in the world plays in an industrial city in northern Britain where, on first glance, it might not seem like the best place to live. And yet, Mo Salah is as happy as a pig in the proverbial. I understand the draw of Liverpool FC, but looking at what Gabby tells us, it proves a point. Liverpool is nowhere near London, yet even in their barren years they’ve signed a great number of quality footballers.

Explain to me also, the phenomenon of world class footballers from many countries of the world, joining clubs in the arse end of Russia or China to play their football. The quality of life or that of the shopping doesn’t matter if the right amount of money is waved in some people’s direction. And while the majority of fans would rather it was a direction we didn’t take, if money needs to be waved, we’ve got enough to tempt most players out of signing for Brentford. And that’s no disrespect to Brentford.

A little bit of thought also added the following names to throw at Gabby’s argument. De Bruyne at Wofsburg, Hazard at Lille, Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson at Middlesborough, Sane and Van Dijk at Southampton, Okocha at Bolton, Carbone at Bradford, Yeboah, Strachan and now Raphinha at Leeds and anyone, literally anyone at sunderland. These players all dispensed with geography to play football and live in places that weren’t as glamourous as London for one reason or another. None of them hung around for a late bid on only slightly less money from Brentford, West Ham, QPR, Fulham or even bloody Watford. And yes, I know Watford’s not actually in London. You take my point though? Not you Gabby. You wouldn’t understand my point if it was projected onto a stand at Villa Park.

In other news, a lot of footballers are not rocket scientists. They just want to play football. They’ll have enough money to afford a nice place to live in a nice part of the area around their new football club. They may well not have heard of Newcastle, but history proves that they’re happy enough to sign for us and happier still once the decision is made. Because you know what, Gabby? It’s not a bad place and no one says these people have to stay there until the end of their days. These careers are nothing if not transitory and temporary.

Newcastle United and Newcastle Upon Tyne have a lot to offer. Whisper it quietly, but some might even enjoy it more than living in London, simply because it’s a fabulous city and area. The place is renowned for the friendliness of its people (although I’m not sure you’ve got too many fans, Mr.A), there’s culture – in case someone like Patrick Bamford ever wanted to sign for us – beaches, stunning countryside, nightlife and a night out that untold thousands would vouch for once they’d recovered from the hangover. We’re the home of Greggs – although I believe London has branches too – we have an airport with planes and everything, we have the Byker Wall if you want to see some rather unique architecture, we have the Metro, we have the Town Moor in case you do so well that you’re given the Freedom of The City and need somewhere to graze your cattle and best of all, we’ve got an absolute shitload of bridges. Probably more than London, in fact.

When I was 22 years old I left Newcastle. I had just finished university, couldn’t find a job and was in a long distance relationship that wasn’t going anywhere if we continued to live so far apart. So, I left home. And I stayed away. I’ve lived away for 27 years now, settling in Leeds for the last 24 with the lass that I left home for. So, good decision really. I love Leeds, but it’s not home. It’s not Newcastle. And let me tell you, there’s not a day goes by when I don’t feel some sort of homesickness, because I was born and bred in a very special city that sadly lots of people adopt a view of without knowing very much at all about the place itself. Isn’t that right Gabby? Well, as far as I’m concerned Newcastle is my home town, regardless of where I live and as much as it’s changed over the years – for the better – I still love it dearly. So, I see no reason why anyone else wouldn’t love it too, be they a foreign superstar or an up and coming young British player.

Which leads me on nicely to the final point I’d like to make to Gabby Agbonlahor and people like him. It’s a point that lots of others have made, but still, it’s worth repeating. There’s already an enormous list of gifted and cosmopolitan footballers who have moved here previously, despite what some may think. So let me jog your memory with a small sample of them. Tino Asprilla (clever enough to arrive in a fur coat), Yohan Cabaye (Dreamboat), Shay Given, Philipe Albert (arrived after a World Cup that meant he could have played anywhere), Gary Speed (legend of the British game), Robert Lee (an actual cockney), Demba Ba, Warren Barton, Hatem Ben Arfa, David Ginola (because while he was worth it, he thought we were too), Jonas Gutierrez (who traded living in Majorca to come to the Toon), Kevin Keegan (England captain and European Footballer of The Year, twice), Didi Hamann (left Bayern Munich to play for us), Hugo Viana, Les Ferdinand, Obafemi Martins, Nobby Solano (enjoyed it so much he signed twice), Patrick Kluivert, Laurent Robert and Gini Wijnaldum. Players from all over the globe. Some of them even from that there mythical London.

So when you think about it Gabby, what you said was a little bit daft, wasn’t it? Because footballers, primarily just want to play football, don’t they. And sometimes, just sometimes, London doesn’t even come into their thinking.

Grassroots Football Coaching: I think we’ve reached rock bottom.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you may well know that I coach an Under 13s football team. I volunteer; it’s not my actual job and really the only reason I got involved was that my son plays for the team. Around 5 years ago now the club decided that they weren’t happy with the efforts of the previous coach. Coincidentally, I’d just stepped in to take the team for 3 games while he was on holiday and after those games I was asked if I’d take over. As one of a number of parents who were unhappy with the previous coach, I more or less had to say yes. And so, a bit of an obsession began…

This season, we’ve moved to playing 11-a-side games on full size pitches, so it’s been quite a big step up. We’re also working without an actual goalkeeper – our keeper is now one of the squad who stepped up and said he’d do the job. Having struggled at one point over summer for numbers in the squad, we finally managed to get 18 players, but unfortunately that number features several players who’ve had little or no experience of playing football. In fact one boy had never kicked a football before when he turned up to train with us. So, this season was almost set up to be a struggle!

We started quite well, beating our first opponents 5-2 in a home game and managing to involve 16 of the squad, some of whom were getting their first ever taste of competitive football. There were things I noticed in that fixture that alarmed me somewhat though and I was conscious of the need to work on specific areas of play. So, despite the win, I didn’t walk away kidding myself that we’d perhaps cracked it.

And it turned out that I was right to be so cautious. We lost our next four games, conceding 29 goals and scoring just once. I took heart from the fact that in 3 of these games we’d been competitive until late on, before just getting overwhelmed by stronger and fitter teams. Our lack of experience and fitness was really starting to show, but also I think it’s only natural to throw in the towel when you’re 12 and your team is getting a bit of a thumping! It didn’t change the fact that we had a big, big problem though.

The problems have continued. There have been several games where we’ve struggled to get a team out, as kids have been either ill or away. I guess it’s just that time of year and of course there’s Covid, which has affected a few of our group. And of course, getting beat week in week out probably doesn’t make kids want to turn up either. But we’ve battled on.

Sadly, we’ve only had one more win this season. It was a brilliant occasion as we were playing a team that were above us in the league and were 2-1 down at half time. But we knew we could win. And even with a team affected by illness and other absenteeism, we knew that a real effort would blow our opponents away. So we encouraged hugely them during that half time talk, telling them that the game was there for the taking and when they took to the field with a huge cry of ‘C’mon lads!’ at the start of the second half, I knew we were in with a chance. Thirty five memorable minutes later, we’d won 6-2 and it was a thrill to see my son scoring a couple of goals and winning the Man of The Match award.

Since that point though, we’ve suffered again with absence of players on match day and have lost games when exhaustion has set in because we have regularly only had one substitute! It’s difficult to operate like this when your opposition turn up with 4 or 5 subs and can rotate players every 10 minutes or so to keep legs relatively fresh.

Going into our game last Sunday we only had 9 players on the Saturday! I was forced to call up the two lads that had barely kicked a ball just to make up the numbers. These were two players who I’d said were best off just training with us for the time being. With no experience of playing football I didn’t want to throw them into games and find that it was some terrifying experience. I wanted them to feel comfortable with a ball at their feet before then drip feeding their experience of games as substitutes. It turned out that this was no longer an option.

We managed to get another of our players making themselves available and so thought we were going into the game with a full team and one substitute and although that would mean fielding some really inexperienced players, I felt that we might just have enough quality to snatch a win, as we were playing the bottom team. On the morning of the game, however, another player dropped out, leaving us with no substitutes and 11 players faced with 70 minutes of football and no chance to give anyone a break!

I suppose it was reasonably predictable when we got beat. Our opposition were able to rotate players as they had 5 subs, whereas we had to rely on our 11 and just keep them going. We were always in the game and I genuinely think that with a little bit more luck we could have won with the players we had. Sadly though, tired legs took their toll and we were missing a couple of our more important players too. Even more sadly, our opposition being the team below us in the league meant that their win took them above us in the table.

There’s a long way to go in the season, but I’m quite worried that we’ll end up finishing in last place in the league. We won’t deserve that. Even this season coaches have gotten in touch after games and praised our passing and movement and I can honestly say that there have only been two games where I’ve been genuinely disappointed as we’ve let ourselves down.

I felt low after Sunday’s game though. I was disappointed, not in their performance, but that they didn’t manage to get anything out of the game. We were obviously up against it, but I still thought that we could sneak some kind of result. So, it left me frustrated that things had gone the way they’d gone. But I guess this is what grassroots football can be like; it’s not always the best team or the team playing the more attractive football that wins. Which of course brings up the question of whether winning is important at this level. It is to me, but I also want to combine that with enjoyment and the feeling of being part of a team for my lads. The sense that we support each other and that we’re all in it together is really important, in my opinion. But of course, winning helps with all of that!

So now we’re left picking up the pieces. There’s part of me that can see us winning no more games all season and of course this would most likely mean that we finished bottom of the league. No one really wants that.

It’s clear that some players have lost confidence. We’re quite a small team and have been up against some teams where the players look like grown ups, so it’s easy to be fearful when you’re 12! I think some are doubting their ability as well though and where before, when we’ve been doing well, they’ve wanted the ball now they don’t. Some of the lads are happy to pass on responsibility to someone else, so we’ll have to work on getting that confidence back.

We don’t have a fixture this weekend, so I’ve decided to offer a training session instead. I’m testing levels of willingness and enthusiasm in one way. Those that show up, early on a Sunday morning are demonstrating their commitment to the cause, their need to get better. Those that don’t? Maybe they’re confirming what I already know, in that I can’t rely on them. We can’t rely on them. And it seems churlish to write that given that this is Under 13 football, but it is exhausting organising things like training and matches and so when it feels like I’m not getting much back, it starts to grind me down. When you’re spending large chunks of your Saturday glued to a phone making calls and sending texts, just to get 11 lads on a field, it’s frustrating as there are other things I could easily dedicate my time to.

So, this Sunday is really important. I’d like them to know my fears and what they’ll be up against for the rest of the season. In short, nearly everyone we’ve played have hammered us. While we may well have been competitive for long periods of time in games, we’re not picking up points. In fact, we’re just picking up beatings.

While I need to get a serious message across, I also need to keep spirits up. My team know that they’re a really capable bunch, but they need to know that as coaches, we have the belief that they can do better. They need to know that although things are going to be difficult – let’s face it, every team we play can see how many goals we concede and will expect to beat us easily – we can overcome it all. So Sunday will be hard work, but by the end of it all I’ll hopefully have an even better idea about my squad and know the direction that we need to move in.

I’ve got no doubt that our next few months will be very difficult. Not only do we have league games to play – and currently every other team will feel they’re better than us – but the spectre of cup games lies ahead in the new year too. With cup games comes opposition from higher leagues and therefore, much bigger challenges. The question is, can we rise to the challenges ahead? Can we get more points on the board? And can we lift ourselves off the bottom of the table? Well, we’re about to find out!

Poetry Blog: Farewell Mike Ashley.

This is a post that’s been a long time in the making. It’s a poem about one of the greatest loves of my life, Newcastle United. And if that seems like a bit of a pathetic sentence, then you should probably stop reading. But the football team that I support have been a constant in my life for well over 40 years now and let’s face it, around the globe there are plenty of us that fall in love with their chosen sports team. The club is something that I blog about sporadically as I like to write about lots of different things, but I couldn’t resist this one.

The poem itself was written in June 2019, when I’d finally allowed myself to think that Mr. Ashley, the owner of my football club, was actually leaving. For those who don’t know, Ashley has owned the club for 14 years and it’s been an incredible low point in our history; lacking in investment, lacking in ambition, lacking in hope and a time where balancing the books has been deemed way more important than success or even excitement and hope on the field.

When I wrote the poem a Saudi Arabian investment group seemed on the verge of buying the club, meaning that hopes and dreams could return. And then, to cut a long story short, it didn’t happen.

Fast forward 18 months or so from when the news of our takeover first broke and following high profile legal action, and almost at the drop of a hat, the club has been sold. So, here’s my poem.

Farewell Mike Ashley

When you first pitched up you were greeted optimistically.                                                                                                                                 A sportswear billionaire set to change the Toon fiscally.                                                                                                                                        But then, a reason to doubt your intelligence                                                                                                                                            when you sloppily disregarded your due diligence. 
But, your black and white shirt in the away end provided a distraction,
the drinks are on Mike, no need for (Sports) Direct action.
Then you brought back King Kev, a masterstroke,
yet the way that you treated was nowt short of a joke.
Wise and Jiminez, your plan to bring the good times back,
followed by Gonzalez and Xisco; two straws to break the camel's back.
Keegan gone and relegation drawing near,
your answer? Joe f***ing Kinnear.
A sleeping giant in an idiot's grip,
you were seemingly determined to sink this ship.
But you didn't reckon with Kinnear's heart
which inadvertently gave us a brand new start,
Shearer tempted, a legend returning
but his hands were tied, the ship still burning.
Relegation and Shearer left waiting for your call,
but you chose to ignore the greatest scorer of them all
Against the odds Hughton took us straight back up,
but still the chequebook remained shut.
In time you brought in Pardew and a Director of Football...
Kinnear again though; pissed and capable of f*** all
Years passed and we made it to the Europa League
but with little investment we fell away, fatigued.
As Pardew stuttered you committed the cardinal sin
out with SJP, the Sports Direct Arena in,
terrible and sinking with Pardew's palava
as he blamed the grass, the science, the fans, then left us with Carver.
Still there was time for you to behave like a wanker
by blanking poor Jonas, stricken with cancer, 
and oh the sweet irony when he came to the rescue,
yet still you got rid like a cockney Ceausescu.
And then more alarm bells as you gave us MaClaren, 
a hair island, no idea and his tactics board barren.
Even Benitez couldn't save us from our fate,
another reason for more Geordie hate.
But Rafa rebelled, he was made for these fans,
but your silence said you had other plans,
but the tide was turning, a truth became clear,
we were nothing but right not to want you here,
we didn't want Charnley and we didn't want Bruce
whatever you did there would be no truce.
Transfer windows where nothing was spent
anyone could see it was time that you went.
Protest groups, boycotts, banners and the Trust gave hope
now finally, deal done, get out of our club you fat dope.

The future looks incredibly bright for Newcastle United and it’s been a bit of a ridiculous few days. I’ve watched the celebrations in the city from afar, just wishing I could be part of it. Making do with social media footage and various reports on the telly has had to be enough, but it’s still been amazing to watch. Then you read the media reports and the quotes from Amanda Staveley and others involved in this new dawn and it’s been as bewildering as it’s been exciting.

There are other, darker issues to address with this takeover but for now I’m happy to just wallow in what it could mean from a footballing point of view and try to forget the last 14 years of penny pinching and constant disappointment under Mike Ashley. As someone who first sat in the East Stand aged 6 and has been in love with the club ever since, I’d resigned myself to the fact that we probably wouldn’t win anything in my lifetime. As someone who walked away from attending games 13 years ago as I realised what Ashley represented, that feeling was utterly miserable. But it’s time to look to the future, because the future’s bright; the future’s black and white.

I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment.

Grassroots Grumbles; a short update as I tear my hair out!

So having posted a blog about the current trials and tribulations of coaching a football team at the weekend, I felt compelled to update things a little following our latest game on Sunday. Indulge me. Let’s just call it some form of therapy or anger management even…

We were playing a team that we’ve played a lot in the past. In fact, our last game of last season was against the very same opposition. They’re a good side, but on our day we’re a match for them. In fact, after our previous game – which ultimately we lost – their coach was kind enough to text me and compliment the team on our passing, which he said his team couldn’t live with at times. So, it was safe to say we knew the challenge we faced, but also felt like we’d be at least competitive.

We were also at home and it was a fresh, sunny Autumn morning. We had none of our big hitters unavailable for once and a good sized squad, meaning that we could make substitutions if anyone tired. We were even wearing our brand new home kit for the first time. It felt like the footballing gods might just have been smiling on us.

Turned out the smile was more of a grimace. Imagine the face a baby pulls when it’s got wind.

We lost the game 6-0 and to use boxing parlance we barely laid a glove on them. I’ve coached these lads for just over 4 years now and I don’t think I’ve felt so frustrated in that time. For the second game running we’d more or less beaten ourselves and for the second game running we’d stopped thinking, ignored advice and taken very little responsibility for what was happening with the ball. Time and time again we hoofed the ball forward without thinking of why we were doing it or what it might achieve. It felt like no one really wanted the ball and so the best thing they could do was just to get rid of it. It reminded me of what Einstein said about insanity being people doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

We were much better, much more like ourselves in the second half, but by then it was too little too late. At least though it might have allowed us to end the game on a positive. But we couldn’t even manage that as we had a player sin-binned in the final few minutes for verbally abusing the referee, which was completely unacceptable, but all the more so as our referee was the father of one of our players!

And so we are left banging out the same messages, working on the same skills, praising wherever and whatever possible and hoping that next week some of it pays off! Meanwhile, I’m reminded of a moment earlier on today, after school as I was sat marking assessments. Hearing voices, I looked to my right to find some of our younger pupils taking part in some extra-curricular football. I spotted a boy I teach, just as he gestured his team mates towards him and, just like their heroes in the professional game, they held a pre-match huddle to get out all those important messages. And it’s moments like this that make me love football and love coaching kids! So, I guess I’ll just keep going!

Let’s see if we can improve next Sunday!

Grassroots Grumbles – Busy, stressful, alarming…but still loads of fun!

While it’s just fantastic to be back involved in grassroots football without (much) Covid intervention, I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of grumbling to do.

I’ll level with you, dear reader; I hate losing. I’m not a bad loser; I don’t shout and bawl at my team, I don’t kick equipment across the field or jump up and down like some kind of demented kangaroo on the sidelines either. But I hate to lose. And we’ve been plunging headlong into losing of late!

In many ways it’s been a brilliant start to the season. We’ve got a lovely new kit – the players, not the coaches; we get very little! We actually won our first game, handsomely and for a short period of time were 2nd in the league. And this came after we’d got to less than 24 hours before the game and not been able to locate any nets for our goals! So I thought we were riding our luck pretty well really! The weather’s been great as well and for once I’ve not been soaked to the skin in either training or on the touchline during a game. And there’s just been a lovely sense of optimism about our club and our team.

But then came our second game of the season.

We’d been told we’d been placed into a cup competition with clubs from an entirely different league and while it turned out that we didn’t have to travel over far to play, we were drawn against a completely unknown quantity. We’d learn more soon enough.

By the time of the weekend of the game I’d been able to establish that our opponents were in a higher division than us; just not which one. By the end of the game not only had it been made clear in the performances, but I’d been told by their coach as well. It turned out that they were four divisions higher than us – the equivalent of a Premier League team playing a non league side – and thus we took a bit of a beating.

For a while it was actually quite a heartening performance. At half time we trailed 1-0 and were still talking about the fact that if we could get the ball forward quickly, we might just be able to nick a goal. Game on! It quickly went downhill and by the end we were beaten 8-0. For the last 15 minutes or so our lack of fitness had become all too apparent, we were repeating the same mistakes, over and over again, we looked a bit scared and some of our lads had simply given up.

So it was a Sunday afternoon of reflection. While not wanting to impinge on any of my lads’ enjoyment of training or matches, harsh words were going to be needed in order to re-focus people. I’d been a little perturbed by some of the silly behaviour at the previous training session and the messing about, chatting and not listening, the half paced attempts at drills. And I blame myself for that type of thing when I think about it. Was training interesting enough? Was that the right drill? It’s funny how you can beat yourself up for a result and performance where you didn’t actually set foot on the pitch.

The two subsequent training sessions were a bit of a mixed bag, but largely positive. We concentrated on drills with the ball and a longer game where we could stop play, ask questions and point out options in the first session. Then, for our last session we went with fitness work and a shorter game at the end. It seemed like everything had gone well and with a game against the second placed team to come at the weekend, I at least felt like we were ready.

As ever with grassroots football though, there would be a complication. As training ended on the Thursday, two of our best players – twins – told me that they wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday. Two out of four of a first choice midfield gone in an instant. And I couldn’t even feel too vexed as the reason they were unavailable was that they were off to St. James’ Park, home of my team Newcastle United, for a stadium tour. Us Geordies have got to stick together!

On the eve of the game I’d managed to scramble 13 players together and had an idea for a side and a system. But any optimism wouldn’t last as we turned up on the Sunday morning. The current petrol crisis made me a little late setting off, as I’d been queueing up to get much needed petrol. Must remember to thank the first petrol hoarding moron I see. Then when we got there we couldn’t find the pitch as it was part of a 15 pitch complex set up on a huge park in north Leeds. When we finally found our opposition I then had to run back to my car to retrieve the phone I’d left on the dashboard! This left me around 5 minutes to announce a team, talk through a system of playing and go through any last minute messages and reminders about how we try to play. A shambles, but not untypical at grassroots level! Certainly not for this coach anyway!

Despite making a good start, we still managed to come in at half time losing 2-1. We were clearly the better side and so we pointed out how we needed to be better in the second half. Less panicking on the ball, working harder, being braver with the ball. We ended up losing 7-1 and again, the confidence was shot once more.

I think we’re struggling a little bit because of the amount of new players we’ve taken on. At the end of the season, we lost 2 first team players, one of them our goalkeeper who had been excellent and vital to the team. We’ve since spent the whole of pre-season trying to replace him with players coming in and then deciding they don’t like being in goal after all within a few weeks. We’ve started with one of last season’s outfield players in goal and he’s brave, I’ll give him that. But to be playing in the huge 11-a-side goals when he’s not really a keeper is giving us a weakness that previously wasn’t there. As coaches we’re working hard on his game and his confidence, but he needs time and with a game every weekend he hasn’t really got any. The best thing is that his attitude is great and he’s working hard to improve too and relishing the chance to be in the team. So maybe we should expect results to take a bit of a hit while also being thankful that we found someone to play in goal!

A lot of the other players that have come in have had little or no experience of football. So it’s proving quite a step up for them. So far this season I’ve been asked ‘What’s offside?’ by a sub that I was just about to put on and also ‘How do I pass?’ by one of our new boys at the start of a drill. Call me naïve, but I hadn’t expected that. It means that we have to try to work on a one on one basis with some of them in training, which obviously takes time away from others. The result of this is that our work as a team can suffer as there are often not enough coaches to be bringing new players up to speed, offering a goalkeeper specialist drills and also working on team play with the players who we’ve had for years.

Making the transition from 9-a-side to 11-a-side isn’t easy either. The pitch is much bigger, as are the goals and the positions that players are asked to play will differ too. I suppose it’s a lot to get your head around when you’re 12, regardless of how much time you’ve spent playing football.

So while it’s been a bit of a disappointing start to our season and there’s lots to be grumpy about, there might just be enough positives in there to tell me that every one of our present clouds might well just have a silver lining. Let’s hope things get better this Sunday with our latest game – a second home match and the first chance we’ve had to wear our brand new kit!

The Uselessness of the Long Distance Runner (with apologies to Alan Sillitoe)

The date is Friday August 13th 2021 and it’s 7.12am. A ridiculous hour of the day, really. Our protagonist (me) is out running and over the course of the next 46 minutes he will run for 5.36 miles before feeling tired, getting confused and heading home. His confusion will haunt him moments after he drinks a chilled bottle of water in his kitchen. Why did he not run the extra 0.85 of a mile which would have led him to a distance of 6.21 miles, otherwise known as 10km? What an absolute knobhead! Never mind, in a few days he’ll go back out and run the full 10km.

Fast forward 22 days. It is Saturday 4th September and our protagonist hasn’t been on a run since the aforementioned Friday 13th August. He’s feeling frustrated. He’s feeling quite angry. He’s not enjoying this period of inactivity. He’s still a knobhead. And he feels useless.

On Friday 13th August, by about 7.15am I was regretting going out on my run. I had a sore shoulder brought on by a ridiculous combination of decorating my kitchen and a brainwave while coaching my Under 13 football team that told me, ‘Yes, Graham, go in goal for the shooting practice! Throw yourself around like a man possessed! Ignore your age and show these young whippersnappers how it’s done!’ Now, with every step taken, pain shudders right up my arm and through my sore shoulder. By the time I’ve registered a couple of miles I have pins and needles in my hand and my index finger has gone very cold. Ignoring the signs that this could be a stroke or the beginnings of a heart attack, I run on. I really am a knobh…well, you know the rest.

For anyone feeling worried, don’t. I didn’t have a stroke or a heart attack. But I did end my run in a lot of pain. But don’t worry, twenty days later I got some help. Between that time and the end of my run I googled the problem and settled on the fact that I’d managed to damage a nerve somewhere between my shoulder and my chest. Despite the intense pain, a bit of self diagnosis told me that it would heal itself and that in the meantime I should just take Ibuprofen. I also decided that continuing to decorate would help.

I realise now that I am still a good 8 years short of qualifying to be a doctor and that as a healer I make a good knobhead.

It has hurt me to have to avoid running and my reluctance to seek medical help – coupled with the amount of time it takes to actually get medical help post Covid and using our surgery’s new phone system – will subsequently cost me more time. I will lose fitness and my burgeoning belly will continue to burge. Or grow.

By the time I got medical help – two days ago at the time of writing – it turned out my diagnosis was right, but that I can’t get a physio appointment for another four days. And that will also be over the phone, so the physio’s healing hands will have to be very special indeed. In the meantime, I feel horrible.

I think I’ve made myself worse with comfort eating too. We went away to Scarborough for a few days and then Newcastle after that meaning five whole days of eating out and I didn’t even attempt to hold back and think healthily. ‘Are you having a pudding?’ quickly became not only a rhetorical question, but a stupid one too.

At home, what with it being the summer holidays, I’ve succumbed to a policy of ‘a beer a night’, which although that’s not heavy drinking, is a lot more than my usual. I’ve also relapsed in my dangerous crisps and chocolate addiction, making any trip to Home Bargains or B&Ms into an actual expedition. While I haven’t exactly piled the weight on – no surprise if you know me – this has still left me out of shape.

Having sought medical help and got my hands on some prescription pain killers and a telephone conversation with a physio, this morning brought another setback. Look away now if you’re young, fit and healthy. The ease with which this type of thing can happen in middle age might be a bit of a shock.

I was out in the supermarket, doing our weekly shop and had crouched down to scrutinise the very bottom row of school shirts. You’d be surprised at the rarity of sized 12-13 short sleeved white shirts in the George at Asda uniform section. Thus, I really had to peer deep and low to find what I wanted. But just before I located it I had an almighty spasm of pain through my lower back. I couldn’t move, was worried I might cry in front of some mums and toddlers – again – and it took my about 10 seconds to realise that I was holding my breath. When I straightened up to a standing position, the pain increased.

This will undoubtedly cost me more time away from running as I’ve struggled with my back for years. It once went completely as I arrived at work and put the handbrake on in the car! However, since getting fitter and stronger with the amount of exercise I got through in lockdown after lockdown after lockdown, it hadn’t been much of a problem at all.

Running has been an excellent help to my somewhat surprisingly fragile mental health over the last year or so. I’ve found this last year tough for a number of reasons, but whenever I’ve been able to go out running I’ve felt focused and free of any number of problems. I’ve also felt fitter and stronger and the distances run and the times achieved have been a real boost, mentally. Like I say, it has hurt not being able to run.

While I’m running I am almost forced to think things through. At my age, this is a good thing as it also allows me to take focus away from how much my body hurts! But it’s also an opportunity that I’m really pleased to be able to take. Other than traffic or people on pavements, I have little else to occupy my mind and I know that I can make decisions during this hour or so; I can solve problems.

Going out for a run means that I can think. I have time to think ‘things’ through, whatever they might be, and often by the time I’m back home I just feel a great deal lighter, so to speak. I head out, fresh faced and often feeling a bit weighed down by what life happens to be throwing at me and by the time I return I’m red-faced and sweaty, but visibly happier, even if I look like I might just be about to collapse.

Three weeks into my enforced rest, and only just back at work for a new academic year, and I’m really feeling tired and more than a little bit troubled by it all. Not being able to run is just horrible. Sometimes, I might allow myself to think that a rest might be nice, but 99% of the time I’ll force myself to get out and go for a run, setting a minimum target and then pushing really hard to eclipse it. I always feel better afterwards. Being injured like this has taken that away and it’s really not pleasant.

I’m hoping that within a fortnight at most I’ll be able to get back out again and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to run far enough and for long enough to have a good old think! In the meantime, I’m looking forward to my telephone physio appointment, which promises to be a whole new experience and hopefully the thing that starts putting stuff right!

The uselessness of the long distance runner is not a feeling I’m enjoying.

Book Review: ‘Why Running Matters’ by Ian Mortimer.

For many of us running really matters. It’s been a lifelong interest for me and something I’ve done with varied levels of success, interest and effort since I was very young indeed. As it stands, I think I’m going through what some might call a slightly evangelical phase with my own running and probably boring most of the people I know in singing its praises. So a book on why we run was a very exciting prospect!

Ian Mortimer isn’t a runner, in that it’s not his profession. In fact, where running’s concerned he’s not unlike myself; middle aged, enthusiastic competitive and probably a bit more injury prone that we’d both like. However, while I’m a humble English teacher Mortimer is a historian and the writer of the best selling Time Traveller’s Guides series.

On approaching his 50th birthday, Mortimer made a series of vows or challenges to himself. In amongst them were taking part in 45 Parkruns and 5 half marathons across the year, producing an album of his own music, seeing a Shakespeare play and organising three concerts by world renowned musicians. In amongst it all, he’d write this book. Phew!

So the book itself is one hell of an achievement. Finding time to write it in amongst all that running and other activity is quite something. By coincidence, I am too approaching my 50th birthday and while Mortimer’s challenges prompted similar thoughts of a series of challenges or ambitions, I was glad I’d picked it up in August when it was far too late to attempt as much as Mortimer did!

The book chronicles Mortimer and his running companions’ performances at the Park Runs and the half marathons, while also attempting to contemplate exactly why it is we run. Because clearly, like the title tells us, running matters, but it’s what it actually means to people that is explored here.

A source of irritation throughout the book was that Mortimer is a really decent runner! Mean spirited I know, but reading about his times and placings in various Park Runs left me feeling quite jealous and more than a little bit irked! But I suppose this is part of what the book is about; we run to be competitive. And the book delves into this in great detail because Mortimer seems incredibly competitive and so while his times were irritating – and accompanied with a smile from this reader too – it left me feeling quite a warmth towards the man himself. His determination was inspirational while remaining quite comforting. Every time he went out to run he was looking to improve on times and performance, which is very much my approach. Sadly, I’m not always successful here!

Reading of Mortimer’s running adventures all over the south west of England was really interesting. HIs descriptions of the various courses, weather conditions etc felt comfortingly familiar, even though I haven’t taken part in any of the races. But his thoughts and theories all held weight with me. And the atmosphere of all those Parkruns did too! Mortimer also wrote a lot about running with his sons and while occasionally the dose of schmaltz involved was a bit much, as someone who occasionally runs with his own son, I could empathise his his pride and enjoyment in doing so.

‘Why Running Matters’ is a really interesting and well-informed book. Mortimer knows his stuff. He’s an experienced runner who has thrown himself into races and challenges of varying levels over many a year. It was this that had me nodding along enthusiastically throughout my time reading. And although it would seem to have a bit of a niche target audience, I would argue that there’s something here for a lot more than just those of us who run. Mortimer’s year is undoubtedly inspiring and the discussions on the competitiveness, camaraderie and the at times almost meditative side of running would hold the interest of many a reader, whether they run or not.

If you’re a runner who wants to read about running, then – obviously – this is the book for you and you’ll certainly get a lot out of reading it. However, even as a non runner, if you’re someone looking for inspiration or even just a gentle push towards the door and searching out something to do with your time, you’ll enjoy ‘Why Running Matters’. And if you’re one of those people who watches runners from the comfort of your car as they pass and just wonders why, then the book will at least help explain what on Earth it is we’re thinking when we leave the house to pound the pavements squeezed into all that lycra!

I give ‘Why Running Matters’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Forget medals at the Olympics, let’s Pontefract 10k!

Facebook memories rarely fail to raise a chuckle from me. Some, I will share, without fail, every year. Others, just gain a laugh and then get scrolled through. Recently, one came up that makes me smile every time. It was the third year anniversary of me and my kids completing a 5km fun run. It made me smile for a number of reasons; firstly because in the three years since it happened my children have grown up so much and secondly because we all look so very pleased with ourselves!

This year though, it made me smile all the more because it came up on the exact same day that I completed a 10km race; the Pontefract 10k. It was the progress that pleased me so much. Not that I was now able to run twice the distance, but because of what this shift represented to me personally. It’s around 3 and a half years since I had to go into hospital for heart surgery, so while completing the 5km fun run was a real boost, this latest run has really cemeneted the feeling that I’m a whole lot better, fitter and healthier these days.

I entered the race partly because it was a goal that I set myself and also because a friend from work invited me to give it a go. He probably won’t remember, but around 3 years ago he asked me if I fancied doing a different 10k and I had to turn him down because I knew there was no way I’d be able to do it; no way that my body would have got through 10 whole kilometres! I felt terrible – like I was just being anti-social and making excuses. But it nagged away at me and then at the turn of this year, with a fair few 10km training runs under my belt, I made it my business to enter an actual race. So thanks Shaun, for the inspiration!

In the run up to August 1st though, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to complete the race. My fitness had dropped due to a period of isolation when my son caught Covid and then a series of niggling injuries interrupted my running even more. Self doubt, my old lifelong friend crept in and installed himself on a shoulder so he could readily whisper in my ear. He was there as I walked around the supermarket, there whenever I trained and my legs felt a little tired and more to the point, there when I lined up at the start of the race.

My aforementioned friend actually passed us – me and my family – as we waited by the start. I deliberately stood under a tree and hid a bit, just to avoid having to talk about what the next 55 or so minutes might hold. I was ridiculously nervous. The whole time that we stood there I glanced furtively around, knowing that there were at least two other people I knew, knowing that I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Ridiculous really! As I stood and then stretched and checked that everything was just the way I wanted it to be, I grew more nervous and more grumpy with my family, who had very kindly got up at 6.30am on this particular Sunday in order to be with me at the start line for 9am.

And then, before I knew what to moan about next, we were on the road and the race was starting. A word about a word. When I say ‘race’ please understand that out of the over 800 people who entered the run, only some of us were racing. Probably a few hundred, maybe more. But I’m sure for a lot of people the object was just to get around having had a bit of fun along the way.

It surprised me how quickly my mood changed once I got into my running. The race started in a park, running down the driveway entrance before a sharp right turn took us up what looked like a steady, but never-ending hill. Within a few hundred metres I was running steadily and feeling strong. The run from the Facebook memory had been one of the the last times I’d ran in a field of other runners and it surprised me how quickly I felt comfortable after so many solitary – but never lonely – training runs.

Running up that first climb, with a friend’s description of the course as being ‘undulating’ now ringing in my ears, I felt good. The nerves had settled, the feeling of being some kind of imposter had disappeared and here I was fit, healthy and passing people. Others had the audacity to pass me, but it didn’t feel like it mattered. My plan was for a fast final mile or mile and a half and so I felt sure that my time would come.

I ran wearing a smart watch and also with my Strava app running on my phone and found myself glancing at Strava more than ever before. I think the fact that it informed me I was running at 7.30 per mile pace and at times below alarmed me a little – I’m usually up around 8.30 at this stage of a run – and so I ran while battling to focus on slowing down and not getting carried away and also checking the app to see my progress. I seemed incapable of slowing down for around the first 3km though and was sure that I’d grind to an almighty halt at about 7km! It didn’t get quite that bad though.

The undulating nature of the course would take its toll though. Through 4, 5 and 6 kms, I slowed. I’m aware that we did run down some hills, but it just seemed like the uphill sections kept appearing in front of me, relentlessly. I dug in, tried to relax and just kept running, but it wasn’t long before it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d passed anyone. Runners were passing me though. Not in their droves, but every so often one would glide past and despite my best efforts I just couldn’t keep up! But I wasn’t dropping too far though, so I stayed calm and just relied on the fact that I felt like I could summon some strength up and have a better final few kilometres.

My mind began to wander though and I started to think about my operation three years previously. I thought about being admitted initially and the loneliness of the night in hospital wondering if I might die. I thought about hugging my wife and kids the next day, once I’d finally got home. I thought about waiting to be called on to the ward about a month later when I was operated on and I thought about the operation itself. The last thing I thought about before I snapped myself back to the matter at hand was my cardiologist giving me the all clear about a year later. I began to feel quite emotional, but knew that I had to pull myself together and get back to focusing on the running. Imagine the horror of running past some red-faced, sweaty old bloke who was weeping quietly to himself, snot and tears streaming down his face! Clearly though, this run was more important to me than I’d imagined.

A couple of minutes later, with my legs not feeling too bad – despite my pace slowing – I concentrated on distracting myself and for a few minutes at least, tried to just spot things to look at, like a nice house or the view. I made sure to reply to everyone who was supporting from the side of the road, again in an attempt to stave off mental fatigue and would occasionally take a slog from the water I’d picked up at the last feeding station.

It didn’t take me too long to pull myself together and be able to focus again and when I did, I began looking ahead and trying to focus on people that I might be able to catch and overtake. My legs still felt like they had some life in them and by the time I’d got to the 8km mark I’d been able to progress through the field a little bit. I decided that once I’d got to 8 and a half km I would up my pace some more and that for the final mile I’d be trying to run at something like 7 and a half minute mile pace.

But the hills Just seemed to just keep on coming. I knew I was nearly done though and by this point I was just determined to have a strong finish.

Halfway down the final hill and running fairly strongly, something brilliant happened. As I looked down the road I spotted my wife and children. I think I spotted them before they spotted me and so I gave them a wave. Once they waved back, it was my cue to quicken the pace again. The bottle of water that I was carrying was by now getting on my nerves, so I positioned myself near the kerb and when I passed them made sure to hand it to my daughter. Their whooping and screaming and clapping was brilliant to hear though and really spurred me on. I knew that I was within a few hundred metres of the finish now.

At the bottom of the hill we turned left and were back on the drive of the park with a slightly uphill dash to go until the finish line. Despite a sudden feeling of nausea I began to sprint – as much as a nearly 50-year-old who’s ran almost 10km could sprint – and was soon passing people. I really didn’t feel strong at all and was pretty certain that I was going to be sick, but it was just a case of digging in and getting through it. To my left I could see my wife and kids cutting over the grass from where they’d been on the roadside so that they could get to the finish. My son called out, ‘Go on Dad!’ and coupled with just seeing them there, it was enough to push me over the last few yards.

Me, knackered, attempting to power my way to the finish!

Right on the line, while I was concentrating on not throwing up, two people passed me. I spotted them in my peripheral vision, but it was too late and I didn’t really have the strength to react. I wasn’t particularly bothered though; I’d done what I’d set out to do and when I glanced down at my phone in order to stop Strava, I was thrilled to see that I’d ran the course in a little over 51 minutes, which from memory was one of the best 10km times I’d ever ran.

As I collected my water, medal and t-shirt I was in a bit of a trance. The medal quickly went into a pocket and the t-shirt got draped over my shoulder while I downed the water. I felt exhausted, but thrilled to have finished at the same time.

Within a couple of minutes I’d located my family who greeted me like I was returning from climbing Everest! We stood and chatted for a short while, but then with rain looking absolutely certain, we decided to head for the car and get home. Time to relax, have something to eat and maybe scroll through my phone for Facebook memories!

Later that day I found out that I’d finished in 271st place out of 813 runners and I have to say I was really pleased with that. My official time was 51 minutes and 51 seconds, my second fastest 10km run, so despite my mid-run lull, I’d managed to keep going pretty well.

I’m looking for more races to enter now, although with the football season starting soon, I’ll have to avoid clashes. The race has definitely whetted my appetite for more and I’ll continue going out training and trying to improve both my times and my fitness. I’ll definitely be running the Pontefract 10k next year too!

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