When people hear Wallsend Boys Club their minds understandably drift off to seeing images of a young Peter Beardsley, Alan Shearer or Michael Carrick. The club have nurtured some wonderfully gifted players who have gone on to have impressive careers at the very top. Those that have attended Wallsend Boys Club speak fondly of it, even those who've fulfilled their dreams of becoming a professional football player and the thousands more who have gone on to have a positive impact on society. It is at the Boys Club where their journeys began, providing life skills, high standards, a sense of belonging and a love of football - All part of the fabric of this great club.
The Boys Club isn't just about football, it has and continues to give people a place to go and be welcomed. A chance to socialise and to belong somewhere. John Percival, the general manager of the club is keen to stress the strap line of 'More than football.' "It's not just about professional footballers, it's about providing young people with opportunities and to develop their aspirations within North Tyneside and beyond." Times have changed since the Alan Shearer and the like were all in attendance, the Boys Club have stayed in touch with the ever-changing lifestyles and cultures of society. The North East is a hotbed of footballing talent, where many of us love the beautiful game and there are many other grassroots clubs that continue to thrive.
"We try to do our utmost to do things properly and right, how we do our day-to-day business within the club and the community, we know that because we have such a strong reputation that we need to uphold certain standards and values that we all hold as club officials. We want to pass those things on to the volunteers, players and members that come through the doors... When you put on that shirt or when you enter those gates to Kirkley Park, you know what it means. Yes, it's about enjoying your football, but there's also key life lessons in there around values like discipline and respect, respecting your opponent."
Peter Kirkley set those high standards in 1965 which have continued to be maintained. Alan Jarvis, the club secretary recalls a story "A policeman came into the club and Peter Kirkley was in, he asked the policeman if there was any trouble outside on the streets. The policeman replied, no because they're all in here!" Back then it was a sense of open access at the club, it didn't matter who you were or where you came from, you were welcomed. The Boys club are striving to get the same feeling with the new facilities.
In 2012 disaster struck as strong winds had damaged the Station Road site, where many famous names began to show their potential. Alan recalls that devastating day "I was a keyholder at the time and I got a call in the morning, someone had just told me that the wall had fallen over due to extremely high winds. I thought, it must just be the car park wall which is about three feet high. Turns out it was the gable end of the building had gone down! I didn't really twig on straight away, I just thought that we could just rebuild it. The structural engineers came in and they said it wasn't going to be possible (To rebuild). Thankfully, we had taken ownership of where we're based now, at Kirkley Park. It was a devastating thing and we knew we couldn't provide that Youth Club setup that we had before. Even now, when I drive up Station Road, there's a lovely, little bungalow estate there now but I still can't get my head around the fact that the Boys Club is no longer there."
People still talk about the distinctive smell at the Station Road site and the old wooden floor. John spoke about the nostalgia of the site having played there himself when he was younger. "People talk about that smell when you walk through the front door and you give your membership number and your forty or fifty pence fee to go and play. You would be hanging on the cargo nets watching the game that was on before it was your turn. All those things, I would argue that you probably couldn't recreate. During the first lockdown, Alan came across some old photos of the Station Road site, we put it out on social media and we were absolutely inundated with replies. People were sharing their memories of the place or sharing what team they were in... Bob Sloan's Brazil and things like that. There were mentions of the famous smell and although we can't recreate that, it's still etched in people's memories and hearts."
Over eighty-five players who played for the Boys Club have gone on to play a professional game of football. Alan talks about how a lot more have been signed by professional clubs but haven't appeared for the first team. "There are probably thousands and thousands of others who've been signed by professional clubs be it YTS, scholarships or played within the reserves but haven't gone on to play for the first team. The scouts will always be around because they know the standards of players are going to be good. We also work with the local clubs to give the players an opportunity to enter the professional game. Last year for instance, our ex-member Sam Fishburn who went to Carlisle United in the summer of 2020, he's been training with the first team now and scoring regularly in their Youth Team. There was also Elliot Anderson who was a ex member and he recently made his first team debut for Newcastle United. Shola Shoretire has just made his debut for Manchester United and there's a few other ex-members at Sunderland as well who are playing regularly in the U23’s and pushing towards the first team."
The likes of Alan Shearer, Peter Beardsley and Michael Carrick still hold the club close to their hearts. John talked about how the Boys Club helped players like Carrick and Shearer get prepared for the professional game. "When they talk about the Boys Club that they were a part of, they talk about the discipline, the values and the key life-skills that they gained to prepare themselves for the professional game. Those standards and values that Peter Kirkley set, we'll keep striving to keep them in place, but those standards and values are things that Shearer and the like hold quite close to them now when they talk about the club twenty or thirty years later. The more recent success stories are built on the reputation the club has had from older success stories. It sets a conveyor belt of talent but it also makes sure that those standards are maintained and those key life skills and being coached, learned or developed along the way."
Those who don't make it all the way with a professional club are supported by the Boys Club, Alan describes it as picking up the pieces. "We pick up the pieces, the relationships we have with the pro clubs is that if a player is released, we often get a phone call and we'll offer the player an opportunity back in. Whether they like it or not, in the professional game it's a bit like a cattle market, you might be flavour of the month but then the opinion changes and you're out. This is happening with kids as young as ten years old, clubs will release them. It's not as bad as it used to be as they now have officers in charge who help soften the blow of the player being released. There are examples where they're told that they're not good enough and not needed for the following year, the poor kid is devastated and they don't know where to go. Thankfully, the relationships we now have with the clubs has improved and we'll look after the player and take them back in."
It's the personal side that sets Wallsend Boys Club apart from the rest and Alan shares his experiences. "When a player signs for a professional club and it's done properly and I know the details like their trial period etc, I will write a letter to the parents and send them my congratulations but also add that if things don't work out, they'll always be welcomed back here."
Football and the whole world are in unprecedented times and the impact that COVID-19 has had on clubs up and down the country has been devastating. John acknowledged that the support from parents and carers has been tremendous, "We've had unbelievable support from parents and carers who've continued to support the club throughout three lockdowns now. It's hit us financially, as it has every club up and down the country. The first lockdown, it was new wasn't it? And a sense of what's this all about? The weather was nicer and there was always that hope or expectation that we would get to September and everything would be back to normal! When we did get back and jumped through many hoops in terms of being COVID secure, lots of signs up and lots of tape on the floor, risk assessments and social distancing... All that sort of stuff, we wanted to make Kirkley Park as safe as possible, getting the kids back was brilliant. Seeing them run down the path and onto the 4G, seeing their smiling faces and being back with their teammates and for that to be taken away again just after Christmas in two of the worst months of the year in January and February, when it's dark cold and wet was very hard."
There's a real mix of people who come and use the facilities at Wallsend Boys Club and the staff crave to see Kirkley Park buzzing again. John shared his thoughts on being able to see the club full again. "We've got girls, boys, private bookings, Sunday pub teams, we get a real mix of people here which is great. There's also disability and amputee football that we run in partnership with Newcastle United Foundation, let's get those sessions back and people loving the game again. The long-term goal is to get the developments done at Kirkley Park, at the moment it's just a changing room block and the plan is that we develop on top of that changing room block. That will become a community hub where we will offer activities to support mental health wellbeing, sport in general or community activities where the community can come and use it. Again, it goes back to the club's slogan of 'It's more than football.' If you want to come and play football for Wallsend Boys Club, absolutely come and do that, that will still be the main activity but if you wanted to do Zumba, yoga or whatever it maybe then come and use the community hub. It will be a real asset for the people of Wallsend and North Tyneside. We've been fundraising for about eighteen months and we're about halfway there, so all being well construction will hopefully start within the next six to twelve months."
It isn't just about football at Wallsend Boys Club, they do a lot of work in the local and wider communities to help those who are less fortunate. Alan discussed the various community work. "During the first lockdown we filled our van up with meals, sandwiches there was all sorts in there and we went to the local park, we advertised it on social media for anyone who wanted to come along and take what they wanted. There would be kids out there who don't get a meal because of the schools being closed. The other things that we do is our old strips for instance, go to Africa, we got some photographs back the other day and it's brilliant to see people in these villages with the yellow and green strips on. We do the same with football boots and trainers, where people can drop of their old ones and we will clean them up, put new laces in and donate them back out in the community. We donated some to local schools in Wallsend and other local organisations. It's all about trying to emphasise that ethos of 'More than football' and being that community asset that people can come to if they need things that are beyond access to a football activity."
"We've done a few things during the lockdowns, with ball mastery sessions or agility that we've posted online for people to then have a go at. We'll look to continue to do things like that while the restrictions are in place to help keep people active. We also have three ex-members of the club who are out in Hong Kong, they've opened up a branch of the Wallsend Boys Club in Hong Kong. One of the things they do is they bring kids in from the local orphanage and give them an opportunity to play football, Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan have been out there in the past promoting and supporting the club. The kids get coaching lessons as well and that's all from the three lads coming from the Boys Club and giving something back."
The club will continue to support the local and wider communities in any way they can. It is a true testament to this club that they continue to stick to their ethos and their values. It is perhaps easy to take their work for granted, however, Wallsend Boys Club have and will continue to change people's lives for the better.
This uniquely, wonderful club will remain at the top because of their work ethic and the tremendous people involved. From the volunteers all the way up, there is a passion and a fire in the belly to keep making a difference and to keep that conveyor belt of success stories moving.