Team players

18th April 2003 at 01:00
Combining a full-time teaching job with a demanding sporting career is no mean feat. Janet Murray meets Steve Ward, a semi-professional footballer who does just that, while David Newnham talks to England fast bowler Lucy Pearson, an English teacher who took 11 wickets in one match - against Australia.

It's every schoolboy's dream: hoisting a trophy aloft in front of television cameras to a backdrop of cheering crowds. For Steve Ward, PE teacher at St John's comprehensive in Gravesend, Kent, the fantasy became real. The 31-year-old Canvey Island defender has been playing semi-professional football for more than 10 years, and two years ago appeared live in an FA Cup game on BBC1's Match of the Day, when Canvey Island beat Nationwide second division team Northampton. In the same year, his team also won the FA Trophy, a national competition for semi-professional clubs screened by Sky Sports, playing the final in front of more than 10,000 people at Villa Park, home to the Premier League's Aston Villa.

Football has always played an important role in Mr Ward's life. Before starting at St John's in 1999, he played as a teenager for Chatham youth team in Kent, and, while he was studying for his education degree at the West London Institute of Higher Education, for Canvey Island's Essex rivals, Grays Athletic. "I enjoyed playing for the club," he says. "And the extra cash supplemented my student drinking."

But after playing more than 300 games for Grays, he was starting to feel restless. In 1996 he was spotted by Canvey and signed for a fee of pound;4,500 - a handsome sum in non-league football circles. "I couldn't believe anyone would actually want to pay money for me," he laughs. "But I'd spent five years at the club and it seemed the right time to move on."

Canvey Island play in the Ryman League Premier, just two divisions below the professional Nationwide League. In recent years, the club has enjoyed considerable success, winning the FA Trophy and the Ryman League division one and two titles. The club has recorded FA Cup triumphs against professional teams Port Vale, Wigan, and Northampton, and played in front of 11,000 fans at Burnley.

As well as getting paid by Canvey, Mr Ward was last year selected to play for the touring side Middlesex Wanderers, which meant visiting Vietnam and Indonesia to play against the national teams. "This year I've been asked to go to the Gambia. It's during term time, so I'm just waiting for the right moment to ask my head."

Mr Ward plays as much football as Premier League big shots such as David Beckham or Michael Owen, while teaching full-time. He trains with Canvey four hours twice a week and has a match every Saturday and occasional midweek games. "It's a big commitment, but I usually cope. The problems arise when matches are cancelled and we have to catch them up later on," he says. "One season, I had to play seven games in seven days, which was exhausting."

It is no surprise that injuries are commonplace, but Mr Ward has been fortunate that they have never affected his job. "Last year, I was injured for seven weeks but luckily I was still able to teach. A few seasons ago I broke my foot in a game and had a couple of weeks off, but accidents happen everywhere - not just on the football pitch. Fortunately, my head is very supportive. He's let me leave school early to get to games and he takes an interest in how I'm getting on."

His students also take a keen interest. "Playing for Canvey is a great rapport-builder," he says. "The students will often call out to me in the corridor, asking how the club is doing - or, more frequently, to give me grief if I've conceded a goal. Last season, we were narrowly beaten to promotion to the Conference league by the local team, Gravesend - where I teach. We were neck and neck in the league for months, and more than 6,000 fans turned out to see our game against them. The students enjoyed teasing me about it afterwards."

This year, he faces a nail-biting run-up to the end of the season on May 3.

As The TES goes to press, Canvey Island are second in the Ryman League Premier, six points behind leaders Aldershot, who have a game in hand. At stake is promotion to the Conference League, where football is big business and many teams are professional. The club has already finished runner-up in the Ryman Premier, missing out on promotion for two years running.

But Mr Ward is not enticed by the life of a professional footballer. "I enjoy teaching too much," he says. "I particularly like taking extra-curricular activities, and coaching the girls' football is great - some of them are really skilful and receptive to advice. It's so rewarding."

He has no doubt about the biggest moment of his footballing career to date.

"Getting to the FA Cup third round and being on Match of the Day was a dream come true. You don't expect to see people you know on programmes like that, but there I was. It was fantastic."

Scan the bookshelves in Lucy Pearson's office at Solihull school and you could be in for a surprise. Ms Pearson is head of sixth form and teaches English at the independent school for boys, so the juxtaposition of Coleridge and Marlowe with the Sixth Form Housemaster's Detention Book is only to be expected. But a Key Stage 3 Framework For Teaching English sitting alongside an England and Wales Cricket Board coaching manual - now there's something you don't see every day.

Only when you learn that, a few weeks ago, this sober-suited English teacher was out on a blazing hot cricket ground in Adelaide demolishing the Australian batting and winning herself the accolade Player of the Match do the pieces fit together.

For at 31, Ms Pearson is an accomplished teacher and a deadly bowler - so deadly, in fact, that in Adelaide she took seven wickets for just 51 runs in one innings and a further four for 57 in the next, making her only the second player in the history of women's test cricket to take 11 wickets in one match.

Ms Pearson's cricketing career had an inauspicious start. She recalls as a six-year-old being roped into a match with her brother and his friend in the garden of their home near King's Lynn, Norfolk. "My brother was bowling and I was put in as wicketkeeper. His friend went to hit the ball - it was a hard ball, too - and missed it completely. I also missed it, and the ball broke my front two teeth. It really hurt, and I thought, 'I don't want to play this stupid game'." It was, quite literally, her first taste of cricket. But while it gave her a marked preference for being at the delivery end of the process, surprisingly, it wasn't her last.

At Taverham Hall prep school, outside Norwich, Ms Pearson, who at 6ft 2in has been described as a talismanic figure in the England team, was already tall for her age, and soon found herself playing again. "The girls were forced to do ballet, which to me was a nightmare because I'm not built to be a ballerina. So I was asked to leave that little group, and the only other options were football or cricket.

"I did a year of cricket then, but didn't touch it at all at Oakham secondary school, which is in the Midlands. At 19, I went to Oxford, and from there on, it just flew." Ms Pearson played for the Oxford University side and was one of the first women to play on the university Parks pitch, the first-class ground that had traditionally been an all-male preserve.

After Oxford, Ms Pearson seemed set for retail management. She worked for six months at a mail order company and was about to take a year out in Australia when her brother announced that he was getting married. "I decided to delay the trip for 12 months. Then my mother saw a job advertised at a local school - Downham Market high - and suggested I try that for a year. I taught there for a term, did another two terms at King Edward VII high in King's Lynn, and was amazed.

"I realised that teaching was the right slot - I loved it. And when I did go to Australia, expecting to do odd jobs at a school, they employed me to teach English and Australian history." It was while she was there that she found herself, quite by chance, working alongside Dirk Welham, a former Australian test cricketer, now a teacher. While she didn't play any matches, she managed to put in some work in the nets.

Returning to England in 1996, Ms Pearson took a full-time teaching job at Wolverhampton grammar school, where she remained until moving to Solihull last September. In the summer, she played cricket for Cambridge Ladies, and that was when she got her big break. "I was invited to play in a game against the Kiwis, and I took two wickets. Everyone was saying, who the hell's that? I'd just been telling a friend that I didn't know if I was going to carry on with cricket because it took up so much of my time, and literally a moment later, the phone rang and it was the England selectors."

It's six years now since they made Ms Pearson their opening fast bowler, and in August, she takes on the South Africans.

While summer tests usually fit neatly into the holidays, the winter tours take her out of the classroom. But the ECB helps out with the cost of providing cover, and Wolverhampton and Solihull have both been proud to have an English international on the staff. Although Ms Pearson does not receive a salary, she receives sports costs from the ECB via lottery funding which covers, among other things, coaching, gym membership and buying of equipment.

This summer, she will add two afternoons of cricket coaching to her timetable. "Much of teaching is based on relationships and interactions with the students," she says, "and it helps having equalled a world record because suddenly your profile is 10 times what it was."

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