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A sporting legacy

The following ‘blog’ started out as a letter to my local newspaper. I wrote the letter because I couldn’t make the funeral of a local coach, however, after speaking with a colleague I was encouraged to turn this into a blog with the hope it would relate to other people and show how grass roots coaches do have a wide reaching effect and how they can and do make a difference, even when they don’t realise it.

When we usually think about sporting legacies we think of a large event like the FIFA World Cup, players like David Beckham or coaches like Sir Alex Ferguson, but sometimes we can look at little closer to home.

This legacy is about the influence one coach and referee had on my family. When Natalie, my daughter was six she would watch her big brother at football training, she would kick a ball about and one day I asked her if she wanted to go to football too. She replied ‘oh yes’. At the end of the session I asked the coaches if she could join the club. I was told ‘we don’t take girls at the club’. Although disappointed we didn’t think much about it, I will add this was over 25 years ago. A couple of days later I was contacted from the same club, but the coach of Natalie’s age team. He had heard she wanted to play football and invited her to join the team at training. Natalie was delighted and couldn’t wait for the session to come round. A few years later the same man become my son Simon’s football coach, creating a group of teenage boys who are likely to stay friends for the rest of their lives.

That coach was Neil Hartles who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago. It bought all these thoughts back around just what influence one person can have. When Natalie could no longer play mixed gender football, she become the first and for a while the only player of Redditch United Girls FC (RUGFC). It is rare that you can say one event can completely change so many lives, but it is safe to say that Natalie being invited to play football meant she was bitten by the football bug and this was the catalyst to the creation of RUGFC. As mentioned Neil was a referee and was one of the first in Redditch to officiate one of our games and continued up until a few years ago. Many of the 100s of girls who played for RUGFC over the past 20 years will have been refereed by Neil. And even if they weren’t, playing for RUGFC meant they were part of his legacy. He regularly refereed for the Central Warwick Boys’ League and often helped out local schools with their matches and tournaments.

As for Natalie, she is now a qualified PE teacher and football coach. She is currently working with adults and children with severe learning difficulties, as well as still playing for her local Club in Whitchurch (Shropshire). She reminded me the other night that the club was near to folding when she arrived, but she helped recruit more players and now those too are part of Neil’s legacy.

Simon, is a qualified football coach and ran a boys’ team before joining the Fire Service. He recently took part in a 24-hr football match at the FA’s St George’s Park to help raise money for the national Firefighters’ Charity.

As for me, I was one of the founder members and first chair of RUGFC, the experience I gained in undertaking the role meant I successfully applied for the Worcestershire FA’s Girls and Women’s Football Development Officer. In my four years there I worked with various organisations, including the Worcestershire Schools FA, The Kidderminster Harriers’ Girls’ Centre of Excellence, grass-roots clubs and was instrumental in creating the County based women’s league. I also ran the annual female football festival, which still runs today under the stewardship of the Mid-West Counties League. What does this mean and what link has it to Neil? I have no idea how many players Neil, Natalie, Simon, or I will have directly or indirectly been connected to, possibly thousands, which makes for some legacy.

I now work for sports coach UK and am currently involved in training in the UK and Europe on the issue of gender equality in sport. I often think of those times 25 years ago when Neil treated Natalie not as a girl or a boy, but just a football player. I am sure it is not a legacy Neil would have thought of, but if others could follow his example in sport the world would be a better place.

I have spoken to a lot of people over the last few weeks about Neil and everyone replied with a smile – relaying a story or two. Although a sad time for the Hartles family, I for one would like to say thank you and I am proud to be one of Neil’s legacies.

My only regret? That I didn’t tell Neil this. So how about reflecting on a coach who has influenced you or your family. Yes that’s the one, the person who first came into your thoughts! Don’t delay, tell them what a difference they make. Then you too will become part of Neil’s legacy.

Julie Mackintosh, sports coach UK, Coach Education Advisor


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