Sunday, 3 January 2016

My Amazing August

Anyone who has known me for a while will know about my football obsession, which started at the beginning of the 1986/87 season, when my Dad took me to the opening league game of the season following Bristol Rovers move to Twerton Park. I was nine years old. As I got older, my love for the game increased, and Dad and I would traipse around the far corners of England to follow our team.  This is me, aged 12 at Wembley at the final of the Leyland Daf Cup in the days when out national stadium still had some character.

As I got older, and my peers were spending their pocket money on make up and Just Seventeen, I was saving my pennies to buy Match magazine and Pro Cards. My bedroom walls were not filled with posters of the latest boy band but of newspaper clippings of the famous 2nd May 1990, and the cup replay at Anfield. At around 14, after pestering the poor bloke in the Young Pirates room for most of the season, I became the first female ball boy at the club.

As a socially awkward teenager with little in common with the other girls at school, football games became an important focus of my life, somewhere I could go and be part of something, to celebrate the wins over City and despair at getting knocked out in the first round of the cup. Where my messy hair and lack of style didn't matter as long as was able to understand the offside rule. It is a time I look back on with fondness. I remember at about 15 years old expressing annoyance that I could never be a footballer because I was a girl; I have zero sporting ability so my gender would have had no bearing on this whatsoever. My mum told me that I would have to be the physio instead.

Fast forward nearly twenty years, with my life on the verge of collapse, I decided that a physio was just what I was going to be. At the time, I was spending my week in a backpackers hostel in Birmingham, a city where I knew nobody working as a temp, and studying Biology at night school, studying by torch light in my bunk bed. My subsequent physio degree was the hardest thing I've ever done; I am not a straight A student or a scientist and the course took me to the edge of my sanity as I struggled to keep up with the coursework and work enough hours at Asda to pay my bills. Every exam, and every essay was a struggle which took every ounce of strength that I could find.

At the end of July, two years after graduation, I'm browsing on Facebook, when an advert for a temporary matchday physio pops up on the Rovers page. Encouraged by my Gas Girls friends, I submitted an application and twenty four hours later, following the Phil Kite testimonial, I'm behind the scenes, in the physio room. This is me and my Mum with Phil on that night.I'd just found out that I'd got the job, which explains my extremely happy face.

 Within four days, I'm at the FA Training HQ in Burton, mixing with various Premier League physios and doctors on the Advanced Resuscitation and Emergency Aid Course, in preparation for being pitch side. For me, it was an opportunity beyond anything that I could have dreamed of, eating lunch with the men (and it was almost exclusively men) who keep some of the world's most famous footballers fit to play. They are the unsung heroes of the game, many with a huge amount of experience, yet they made me welcome as part of their exclusive group.

The following Saturday,  having had a lovely chat on the phone with DC to finalise the arrangements, I'm at the Mem, getting issued my kit by Steve Yates - the same Steve Yates that I'd seen in Rovers promotion season in 1990. As far as I know, I am the first female to be named on the team sheet. There was a moment, in the tunnel just as I emerged onto the pitch behind the team where you can feel the anticipation and excitement of the crowd at being back in the league, where anything seems possible. I can't put into words how much that one moment meant to me, like a lifetime of dreams all coming together. Several of the players were making their league debut that day too, and it was a privilege to walk alongside them. This is me, just before kick-off of that game on the bench.

I was privileged to be able to remain in the dressing room for some of the team talks, and while it wouldn't be professional to comment on what was said, I was inspired by the way that DC speaks to the players; how he motivates them to be the best that they can be. I have seen numerous managers come and go over the past 30 years, but in my view not since the Gerry Francis reign in the 1990s has there been someone that brings the passion  into the club as much as  the current Gaffer.

I did come in for some criticism from some fellow supporters for not running more quickly across the pitch - I feel that I must point out that I was wearing moulded boots for the first time in my life, carrying a reasonably heavy bag on a wet pitch in front of over 5000 people. I am capable of moving faster than I did that night, but didn't want to end up on my arse on my pitch debut. 

And so it came to an end, as I knew it would. August 2015 has been the most bizarre month of my life to date. I don't know where I go from here; I have made some great contacts and have a qualification that could help take me places that I didn't think I could go. Having been back on the terraces for a couple of games, I know life will never be quite the same again.


Dai Prof said...

An amazing journey. Really well done.

Patricia Gardener said...

Proud of you Joanna. It's a story unlike any other May your experiences take you where you dream to be. Well done Gas Girl!!