Joe Rossiter discovers a supportive network, providing a valuable service at Lancashire FA.
A first-person view, written by Joe Rossiter...
It’s a crisp Autumnal morning in Leyland. The roads are quiet, people are busy away at work or in school, but the Lancashire FA County Ground is a hive of activity.
The Sporting Memories group meets every Monday at 11:30am and is best summarised by the words of volunteer John Kay, “Sporting Memories helps people through the power of sport. People whose lives have been impacted by Alzheimer’s disease, depression or loneliness. It brings them together on a weekly basis to talk about sport, hear presentations and visit places of interest. The aim is for people to enjoy themselves in their older age, and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.”
Sporting Memories is a charity that operates nationwide, with local hubs situated across England, Scotland and Wales. John tells me that the group here in Leyland is one of the best attended in the country, regularly attracting forty to fifty attendees on a weekly basis. This proves to be no exaggeration, as a stream of people make their way upstairs to the Sir Tom Finney room where the session is being held. Many of them join the queue for the coffee machine, making the most of the free refreshments on offer. The session today sees the visit of serial World Record breaker and renowned football freestyler John Farnworth, a local lad who grew up in Preston just down the road.
Volunteers like Howard Moorby are the heartbeat of the group. “I got involved four years ago, through my friend Stevie Elliott the ex-Preston North end player who sadly suffers from dementia now, and his wife Mags. I got invited down and I was amazed at the camaraderie and the impact the group has on people that live with dementia. I just love coming down, the help the people here can pass on to others who are going through the same experience is invaluable. It’s really great to see.” He adds, “We had a golf day yesterday at Preston Golf Club and we raised around £4000 towards Sporting Memories, it’s amazing to see people’s generosity towards the group. We have some great speakers too; Joe Royle was here the other week. It really does help and you can see the joy it brings, not just to the participants but the carers too. It’s only an hour and a half, but you can really see the relief it brings.”
The session begins with a nod to the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth, participants take turns sharing fond memories of her majesty and reminiscing about days gone by. The sombre tone doesn’t last for long though as a smiling John Farnworth takes centre stage. He gives a presentation about his experiences and freestyling career, and as humbly as is possible, recounts how he currently holds eight Guinness World Records. The surrounding area at the front of the room is then cleared, and loud music fills the room. John proceeds to give a football freestyle demonstration that I can say with confidence even the world’s top footballers would struggle to match. I find myself looking on with awe, along with everyone in the room, witnessing football skills I didn’t even know were possible. The conclusion of the performance is greeted by a rapturous round of applause, and the event transitions to a question and answers session with John taking time to carefully answer all of the group’s questions.
Subsequently an announcement is made that a number of the group’s attendees have had birthdays in the past week, and a variety of birthday cakes are brought into the room. Almost immediately, despite my feeble attempts to object, a large slice of cake on a paper plate is handed to me. Through mouthfuls, I engage in conversations with members of the group. The thought that many of these people are suffering from a terrible condition like Alzheimer’s disease couldn’t have been further from my mind as we talk candidly and laugh about all things football, and life in general.
I then meet another volunteer at the group by the name of Mike Jackson who tells me, “My mother has Alzheimer’s, so I know a fair bit about it. Volunteering here is a lovely way to give back to people who have been struggling through the years. It’s not just the dementia side of it, Sporting Memories is about wellbeing and loneliness as well. Throughout my life I have known people who have lived on their own and spent time with them to give them some assurance and let them know that people are interested. So Sporting Memories for me is great, I come here every Monday and enjoy every second of it. I get to know loads of people and they’re so friendly. It’s great to catch up and ask what’s going on? What have you been doing? You get to speak to them about their lives. Of course, me being a Preston supporter helps a lot as a lot of them are from the Leyland-Preston area. It’s great to talk about the games as a lot of them aren’t in a position to go to the games on a regular basis. I really enjoy it, they enjoy it and they really look forward to it. We work out a programme month to month to vary what we talk about. Sometimes we have people in to talk about their sporting career, ex footballers, ex managers, but there’s a wider field than just football. Anyone who’s got a sporting background we’re more than happy to have in. We also have local charities come in and talk about the help they can offer to the people here. It really helps because these people get to know about things they wouldn’t otherwise know about as they’d be at home, perhaps very lonely, not knowing what help is out there for them. Sporting Memories really helps to bring that to them.”
It's now 12:30 and as the session draws to a close John Farnworth happily poses for countless photos with his newfound fans. People make their way to the exit, stopping one final time at the coffee machine before they leave. Volunteers make their way around the room collecting up the remaining paper plates. As I make my way out I find myself in surprisingly high spirits. I expected attending the session would leave me in a sombre mood, however seeing the joy the sessions bring to the participants first hand has changed my perspective on Alzheimer’s disease. Despite many of the attendees suffering from this terrible condition, Lancashire FA and Sporting Memories keep its participants engaged, giving them a true sense of community and enabling them to make new friends. The knowledge that they aren’t going through their experience alone is extremely important not just to them but to their friends and family alike.
Despite the success of Sporting Memories so far, Leyland volunteer group leader Keith McIntosh is determined to grow the support networks across Lancashire. “I am very grateful for the wonderful support that we receive from the staff at Lancashire FA along with the fantastic support from the amazing volunteers. As one of the largest Sporting Memories Clubs we are always mindful of the growing need to offer more support to people and their families who are living with Dementia, loneliness or depression from around the South Ribble area. It would be great if other football clubs from around the county could be found to work in partnership with Lancashire FA and the Sporting Memories Foundation to offer additional Sporting Memories clubs in their local communities.”