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A Lunchtime with Footballing Legends

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Year group football teams and elite athletes at Bolton School were joined by pupils from nearby Gaskell Primary School as they enjoyed an engrossing lunchtime with Manchester United football legend, Ryan Giggs and Joe Thompson, former Rochdale, Tranmere, Bury and Carlisle player, who has twice fought off cancer. The former players generously gave up their time and the event marked the latest addition to the Elite Athlete Programme coordinated by Bolton School’s Mr Hughes and arranged with the kind help of Lisa Forshaw PR.

The two players were interviewed ‘on stage’ about their life and career by Mr Hughes. Ryan Giggs, who is the current Welsh coach, spoke about his early life and how his family moved to North Manchester from Cardiff when he was 7 years old. He told how he met his first friends through playing football on the street. His father played rugby league for Swinton (and Wales) so the young Ryan was exposed to professional sport from an early age, watching training sessions and games. He told how he played for Salford Boys and was initially on the books with Manchester City. However, after Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Kidd had been to watch him, he switched his allegiances to United on his fourteenth birthday. He quickly progressed from the youth team to training with the first team and by the age of 17 – just one year out of school – he was in the starting eleven. 

Joe Thompson told how he moved to Greater Manchester at the age of 9 and initially found it tough to integrate into primary school but, again, football allowed him to make friends. He went to secondary school at St Cuthbert’s in Oldham and joined Man Utd aged 9 – Ryan Giggs was his hero! He was released just before he sat his GCSEs. However, he worked hard for his exams and stressed to the young audience that it is important to work hard and to have a back-up plan. 

Ryan took the audience back to 1992 when United came second to Leeds United in the Premier League – with grown men crying in the dressing room, this had a massive effect on him and on the team as a whole. There was a determination that they would not experience that feeling again. Giggs then went on to become English football’s most decorated player, winning 13 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, 2 Champions Leagues, a FIFA Club World Cup, an Intercontinental Cup, a UEFA Super Cup and 9 Community Shields, and to play 64 times for Wales. During his 24 seasons with Man Utd, he was never sent off. Casting his mind back to the treble winning season of 1998-99, he told them that the only time he cried on a football field was after their two late goals, which saw them snatch victory from Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. By 2008, when United won the Champions League again, Ryan said he felt he could “take a step back” and savour it, enjoying other young players like Rooney and Ronaldo winning it. 

Talking about Sir Alex, he said that whilst he was a manager who was huge on discipline and standards, he did get to know all his players, staff and their families – he knew everyone’s name. He had a great aura about him and the last thing he would say before the players went on the pitch was “enjoy yourselves”. 

Picking up his own story, Joe told how, aged 16, he had trials with a number of northern teams including Liverpool, Wigan and Northampton. His PE teacher suggested trying out at Rochdale (where Keith Hill, the current Bolton manager, was youth team manager). Joe was successful and he came to realise that this was a competitive business, with grown men scrapping to get into the squad because they had families to look after. After playing for Rochdale for six years and seeing them promoted, he moved to Tranmere where he played 20 or so games in his first season. In his second season – and with a little girl ‘on the way’ – he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, which he said was a ‘mind-blowing’ experience. He took a break from football and successfully fought off the cancer – whilst it was tough he said he felt the need to be a role model for his one year old daughter. He made his footballing come back in 2014-15 at Bury. By the following season, he was fully trusting his body again and moved to Carlisle and then back to Rochdale. On Christmas Eve 2016, a routine follow-up scan revealed that the cancer had returned! This time he said he was angry and tearful. He was given lots of support from family and friends but said, even though he likes to be ‘the rock’, he was crumbling inside. He talked about fighting the illness and how the doctors ‘strip you down and build you back up’. Having fought cancer off a second time, he made a fairy-tale return, coming on as substitute in the last game of the 2017-18 season and scoring the winning goal with his second touch which meant Rochdale were not relegated. The audience watched a moving Sky Sports film about Joe’s career and battle with cancer, which can be viewed here

The two former players answered a wide variety of questions. Asked whether young children are under too much pressure these days, Ryan said he is ‘old school’ and remembers running home from school and banging a ball against a wall and training as much as he could. He also recommended playing other sports and recalled how he enjoyed rugby, basketball and athletics; he felt you can learn different skillsets in other fields. To a degree, he said, it is good to take people out of their comfort zone.

Joe advised that balance is important. He told how he always enjoyed school and how he did well in his GCSEs. He said his mum did not believe him when he told her his marks and thought they had confused him with another pupil! Ryan said he 100% regretted not putting more time into his schoolwork but all his energy went into football.

Both players talked about the importance of resilience and having good support around you when things don’t go your way. Ryan also spoke of stacking the odds in his favour by taking care with his diet, practising yoga, seeing an osteopath and even changing his bed and car to better suit his body.

Asked about the current Liverpool team, both players complimented them on being a great team with an outstanding manager – and afforded the same praise to Manchester City.

Talking about the best players they played with and against, Ryan said Cristiano Ronaldo went on to be the best but that Paul Scholes was the most consistent. Even though he played against Messi, he said Zinedine Zidane was the best player he ever played against (in a match v Juventus in 1996) – saying he did not give the ball away once in 90 minutes. Joe said the best player he had played with was Craig Dawson and the best player he played against was probably one of Kane, Dembele, Song or Dele Ali when he played against Tottenham. He also recalled playing against Phil Neville, who was another player who never gave the ball away.

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