Back in my days at Everton I once received a call from an excited man asking for the club’s support, like hundreds of similar requests we received each year, except this time something felt different.
An obviously nervous, yet effervescing character called Mal Lee excitedly accepted my offer to come to Goodison Park and explain exactly what we was looking for. As a local junior football team manager he had had enough of witnessing the at times appalling behaviour of a minority of parents towards, referees, team coaches, other parents and worst of all to young footballers themselves.
Mal had become exasperated with all the official bodies expecting everybody else to take responsibility. Referees were leaving the game in droves and who would blame them when many had been regularly verbally abused and others threatened with violence or actually physically assaulted. Children were also walking away in tears never to return. With no referees there are no games. Without players there is no future.
Liverpool in particular, is a city that has football coursing through its veins. It’s not a question of if you support a football team, but which one, the red of Liverpool or the blue of Everton? It’s an often used cliché that football is like a religion, but one previous legendary Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, is famously quoted as saying “Football’s not a matter or life or death. It’s more important than that.”
Anybody with any experience of junior sport, never mind just football, will have probably seen or heard behaviour that crosses the line of acceptability. What did you do about it at the time?
I’m personally dreading the day my 3 year old son begins enjoying junior football and his ex-England manager dad having to bite his lip on the sideline, but at the end of the day it is only game no matter what Bill Shankly says.
Mal created his ‘Dont X The Line‘ campaign back in 2003 to educate and liase between referees, parents, leagues, players and coaches. His system of reporting, pre-match talks to players and managers, liaison and education has spread well beyond his home city boundaries to include the Football Association of Ireland. For most of the time he, like countless millions of grassroots sport volunteers does it for his love of the game, no pay and never enough appreciation, until 2pm on Saturday 15th May 2010.
Today in the magnificent setting of Wembley Stadium only minutes before the English football season finale FA Cup Final between Chelsea FC and Portsmouth FC, Mal has just been given the recognition true grassroots champions deserve but seldom get, receiving the prestigious inaugural FA Respect Bobby Moore Award, earning individual praise from FA President, His Royal Highness Prince William.
I’ve been helping Mal whenever I can, or when he asks, which he is very good at. I’ll never forget the moment outside the Mocha Lounge coffee bar in Liverpool last week when we met to discuss the latest Don’t X The Line developments. “Give us a hug Dave!”‘ was the unfamiliar greeting I was treated to before he blurted the good news about winning the award. He was visibly stunned, shaking and breaking into occasional giggling smiles “I’ve only gone and bloody won haven’t I!”
His campaign in many respects is only just beginning, but after today receiving the highest award available, presented by his biggest hero’s widow, at the home of English football; the future Mal is going to take some stopping, once he comes down from cloud nine!
Congratulations Mal. Dreams do come true.
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