Twenty five years ago today, 1st December 1996, I started my first job in Shropshire as Youth Sport Manager introducing BT TOP Sport and TOP Play in primary schools around the County. It was a dream job for me as I had trained as a primary PE specialist and after about 5 years teaching A levels and coaching courses I had spent the next two years working as a Community Sports Development Officer for East Staffs Borough Council. It was also a dream location as I had thought, when travelling through the County some years earlier, what a brilliant place it would be to live and bring up a family. So that’s what I did and now my three kids are all grown up and moving out.


By the way, and just to clear it up, when I talk of Shropshire I am including Telford & Wrekin – my job/s have always involved me working right across all the local authority areas – from the days when we had local district councils to today’s two authorities. So, when I say Shropshire I’m including T&W – apologies to councillors and colleagues in T&W – I know how passionate you all are to focus on the distinct needs of T&W people and in my day to day career I promise I do this too but it’s easier here to just talk of Shropshire I think.


So, back to 1st December 1996 and I remember driving in from Stafford where I lived at the time, and on the journey that morning I decided to listen to the local BBC Radio station to get a feel for the place. Eric Smith was the presenter, I’ve met him a number of times since – very nice man, and when reading the news, he announced that a ‘blue’ movie had been found on the top shelf of Albrighton Post Office.  I did think this made Shropshire sound a little sleepy and it strengthened my resolve to try to do something about it my new job. I also found it interesting in the next few weeks and months the number of times I heard people say to me that you moved to Shropshire and lost your ambition, again as people said this to me I gritted my teeth and thought – that’s not me. My post had been part funded by Sport England (in fact all my jobs over the last 25 years have, in the main, been funded by Sport England) and part of it meant meeting with others doing similar jobs all over the West Midlands and sometimes England wide. I came to realise that not many people had ever been to Shropshire and consequently many from further afield didn’t even know where it was. I also found that often Shropshire didn’t engage in regional or national discussions – at least not when it came to sport. So, I set my mind to doing something about these things and I hope that at least in sport and physical activity terms we are now better recognised both in terms of the jewels we have to offer but also in terms of the issues and challenges of our local communities. Although it is a wonderful County – with very distinct and engaging local communities  and of course some amazing countryside and heritage (Shropshire was the birthplace of the Olympics and the Industrial Revolution) there is also much social isolation and associated mental health issues – there are also some areas of urban deprivation and a great deal of hidden poverty – which of course we are seeing more of since the covid pandemic.


But anyway, back to the last 25 years. I realise I’m incredibly lucky to have worked in sport and physical activity development since John Major launched the national lottery, of which sport was one of the major beneficiaries and of course in those 25 years Great Britain has gone from an also ran at the Olympics and Paralympics to being a superpower as a result of this investment.  And although I was not involved in the elite end of sport I’m mindful that all champions start in the playground, at their local playing field or in a local sports hall – usually being coached by volunteers. I’m very proud of the growth of community sport in Shropshire and of course it isn’t all down to me – there have been lots of other professionals and volunteers that have helped to create the breadth of provision we have today.  To have been involved in pretty much every lottery funded community sport intervention in Shropshire for the last quarter of a century is something I have loved and never tired of – if you know me you will know I have a passion for sport and, alongside playing most sports, I have especially enjoyed meeting and working with some amazing people who usually share that passion.  When I think back the growth of junior club sport has been quite incredible – yes there have been improved facilities – but it has been the people and the enthusiasm that I have enjoyed most. From Netball, Basketball and Hockey central venue leagues to Archery in the School Games people always continue to inspire me so thank you to you all for this. I mention facilities and I’ve been part of teams planning for new and improved ones in Telford (especially the facilities at Langley and Abraham Darby Academies, Ellesmere, Oswestry, Bishops Castle, Church Stretton as well as the Sports Village in Shrewsbury). I’ve also supported Rugby, Football, Cricket, Netball, Archery, Tennis, Athletics, Hockey clubs and governing bodies to improve their facilities and provision over the years – I’m currently working with Crown Green Bowls too which is brilliant (fantastic people).


In more recent times I had the pleasure of leading Shropshire’s response to the Olympic and Paralympic Games coming to London and UK in 2012, trying to gain recognition for the Wenlock and Dr William Penny Brookes connection whilst also co-ordinating local activation like Community Games and torch relay activity. It was a crazy time and during the summer of 2012 I remember hoping the spirit of the Games could just continue on into the future. At the same time, I led Energize to become a new local charity (prior to this we had been a small business unit hosted by Shropshire Council) and I probably didn’t realise it at the time, but this has had a lasting benefit of connecting us much more to our wider local community and voluntary sector. We began to ask our purpose and realise that to have the greatest impact we must address the greatest inequalities and use sport / physical activity to improve lives. We began to work with a whole range of new partners who could help us reach people who were in most need of our help – mental health charities, substance abuse and alcohol addiction groups, refugee groups and more recently faith communities.  We stopped starting with sport and started putting the people and communities first. We’ve also been awarded local authority contracts to develop community falls prevention exercise classes for the elderly and improve community provision for children and families with special needs. It was and is very rewarding and has opened my eyes to the level of inequality there is – and especially how it can often be hidden away out of sight and potentially forgotten and further embedded unless we do something about it.  I have to be honest here and recognise that whilst this is good work, over much of the last 25 years I and we have been applying sticking plasters, at best, to the inequalities that exist locally, and I think that’s something that’s got to change.    


So, what now? It certainly seems like 25 years should be a moment for reflection and consideration of the future. I probably could just continue doing more of the same, getting funding for and setting up projects and it’s good and needed work as well as being recognised as important by local and national funders. Despite all the negatives associated with Covid I think there has been some mainstream realisation and recognition that daily exercise is good for our health and that things need to change if we’re going to afford the opportunity to be active every day to everyone. I’m not sure we’ve taken the next leap that humans must move in order to thrive, but I think we’re on the journey and my plan is to dedicate whatever is left of my career to helping that become embedded in our societal thinking. So that being active everyone is both achievable and part of normal behaviour for everyone. I think this accords with our need to level up and look after our planet for future generations too. We, at Energize, are beginning to talk about leading a Movement and that does feel like a next logical step. It won’t achieve change overnight, but I think it can in the long run if we start with an open, inclusive and learning approach.


P.S.  I’m not sure my career will last another 25 years but my belief in the power of being active most certainly will.