I was always a cantankerous little so and so at school. Did I find myself in detention much? Probably. I guess I was challenging. I was in the top set for a lot of subjects and I guess that kids in top sets are supposed to be the goody-two-shoes, who knuckled down with their work, but I was keen to question things.
If I didn’t agree with something, I would tell a teacher I didn’t but, being a youngster, I didn’t always vocalise it in the right manner. Actually, I think I was the first person to be sent off in a football match for the school – a straight red card for teaching the referee the offside rule with some choice words. I was that sort of a kid, so I don’t really have an array of teachers who had a positive impact on me to pick from. But there was one.
Mr Nicklin, a PE teacher, came from a military background. Picture a typical 1980s soldier and you’ve pretty much got him. Pencil-thin moustache, short back and sides. I don’t think I ever saw him in a shirt and tie – it was always a polyester Adidas tracksuit.
He was an interesting guy. His ethos was that you’ve got to show up and try – if you did that, you were alright by him. But he also understood that winning was important. That there was nothing wrong with it. More than that, that winning was a good thing. Being the best at a sport was an achievement, be it individually or as a team. This was during an era when non-competitive, all-inclusive sport was very much in vogue and I never understood that. I don’t think he did, either.
The kids that didn’t want to participate in PE, those that turned up with excuses or turned up without kit, pretending they’d forgotten it, he’d send them to lost property to cobble something together and – in hindsight I’m not sure how right this was – he would stick them all on one rugby team. And those of us who were prepared and wanted to take part and were, often, the fitter, stronger lads, he’d put on the other. There tended to be only one winner.
His point was: you don’t have to be amazing at sport, but what you do have to do is turn up in the right gear and make an effort. And if, when you made an effort, you were good at that sport, you would find yourself in the A-team. You won’t believe how many teachers – back then – wouldn’t allow the best sportsmen into the top school teams because of some bizarre belief that everyone should get to represent the school. Sport should be fun, absolutely, but when it comes to a competitive match, you should play to win. He got that, and I sure as hell got that.
I think that’s a valuable life lesson – not just a sporting lesson. If you’re prepared to show up, do your best, put the hard work in, then you tend to do alright for yourself.
I never got to tell him what I thought of him because I never went back to the school. I didn’t even show up, on the day, to pick up my GCSE results, because I was already off to play football. I never got the official certificates and never got to tell him he was a really good teacher who taught me, quite simply, that working hard is important. That’s a pretty good lesson, is it not? And that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win.
Danny Mills was speaking to Tom Cullen. Danny is running the Virgin Money London Marathon for The Bobby Moore Fund, which supports Cancer Research UK’s work to beat bowel cancer. To support The Bobby Moore Fund’s London Marathon team, visit cancerresearchuk.org/marathon
On the ball
Born 18 May 1977, Norwich, England
Education Sprowston High School, Norwich
Career 101 appearances for Leeds United, 51 for Manchester City and 19 for England, he was the national side’s first choice right-back at the 2002 World Cup, playing every minute of England’s five matches.