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Jason Steele - The Manager
VERY few football stars are happy swapping the comfortable environment of their plush training grounds for the muddy pitches of a Sunday morning park, unless you’re Middlesbrough’s homegrown goalkeeper Jason Steele.
For the majority of full-time professional footballers, spending spare time running a pub team sounds like their idea of a nightmare; a busman’s holiday, at best. Steele, on the other hand, relishes a Sunday morning almost as much as a Saturday afternoon. When Sunday comes, he can temporarily forget about the pressures of winning precious Championship points for Tony Mowbray, and instead of pulling on the aluminous keeper jersey of the Boro, he gets his managers notebook out to pick a starting 11 for Newton Aycliffe Working Mens Club.
“We’ve got too many this week, 19 players, it’s going to be really difficult,” says Steele, who agonises over team selection with joint-boss Des Wood, a Sunday morning legend in this neck of the woods.
“Who doesn’t get stripped? It’s a toss-up between Wilson Wills and my younger brother, Jordan. I can’t choose... it’ll have to be both.”
Steele’s side, who are in the Premier Division of the Durham and District Sunday League, grind out a 2-1 win in the first round of the Heart Foundation Cup against local rivals the Huntsman, of the Spennymoor League. Goals from Liam Cooper and Lewis Wing seal it.
“We made it difficult for ourselves, we were trying too hard, said the gaffer, in his no-nonsense post-match analysis.
“The performance wasn’t one of our best, but as with us (Boro) on Saturday, sometimes you just need the result. It’s all about results.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking why, aged just 22, Steele is already having a go at management. Well, you’ve heard stories of footballers keeping their feet on the ground? They’re an all-too-rare breed, unfortunately. Yet Steele personifies level-headedness.
He took over the reins at Aycliffe about a year ago and already, somewhat ambitiously, has entered his team into the FA Carlsberg Sunday Cup.
Aycliffes first round tie in the Sunday Cup, at home to Winlaton Commercial tomorrow, will be their first-ever in the competition, and the towns Northern League club have agreed to host the game at Moore Lane Park. It promises to be a town affair, with a sizeable turnout.
Steele says he wants to give his mates a taste of being a footballer, so the game will be treated like a cup final. Chicken and pasta for tea the night before, plenty of water, and no alcohol. Absolutely no alcohol, Stuart Owen.
The boss, steely-eyed, looks determined. “It’s massive for us, it’s our first year in the competition,” he says.
“I want to give the lads an experience of what it’s like to play at a higher level.
“We’re going to get them warmed up properly before games, maybe even eat the right food and drink the right fluids the night before, treat it like a first team game.
“It can only benefit the lads in the long-term and give them a bit of a taste of what it’s like to be a footballer.”
As far as seasoned pros go, Hetton Lyons are the masters of the Sunday Cup. They’ve won it three times, including a 5-1 triumph over Liverpudlians Canada FC at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light in April, with striker Warren Byrne - another famous Newtonian - bagging a first-half brace.
Aycliffe are currently ahead of Hetton in the league, having won their first four league games as well as five cup games in a scintillating start to the season, but Steele remains cautious.
“I wouldn’t even dream of winning it at this stage,” he insists. I don’t think were quite prepared to win that competition. It’s just part of a growing process for us. We’ve only been together for a couple of years.
“It’s just good for all the lads to be involved and hopefully we can do well.”
Despite the serious side to Steele - he delivers a colourful pre-match team talk just before kick-off – there’s plenty of banter.
“It helps me let my hair down,” he says. “After the stress of playing in the league on a Saturday this gives me the chance to have a bit of fun and enjoy football with my mates.
“It’s a good laugh, but we take it seriously at the same time. Were a decent side, and it’s nice to be involved and hopefully help my friends to improve and become a good side.”
Steele seems to have reinvigorated a Sunday morning pub side just by introducing simple rules he has to adhere to every day. OK, the fines may be worlds apart, but the disciplines remain the same. A pound for being late, another quid for not wearing your club tracksuit. It not only instills discipline, it also chips into the Blackpool kitty.
Joint-boss Wood, the father of one of Steele’s lifelong friends Mark, has been involved with the club in varying capacities for 30 years, and he’s quick to laud Steele’s contribution.
“I’ve been disappointed with the attitude of some of the people involved over the last three or four years, with players letting you down week-in, week-out,” says Wood.
“But that doesn’t happen when Jason’s involved. His input is immense. If he’s training on a Sunday morning he makes sure our side is picked and he’s texted all the players to make sure they all know where were playing, and where were meeting.
“The organisation is excellent and having him involved is a major plus for the club.”
Steele’s work in the local community can only be commended. Other than helping to run his Sunday side, he regularly visits schools. He’s also a Sporting Ambassador for his old comprehensive, Woodham Academy, along with another famous ex-pupil, the Chelsea keeper Ross Turnbull.
Wood adds: “He does presentations for the kids in the town, he goes into the schools, he’s fantastic, and its great credit to the lad.
“He hasn’t forgotten where he came from and that’s important. He’s a top guy.
Aycliffe WMC entertain Winlaton Commercial in the FA Carlsberg Sunday Cup at Moore Lane Park on Sunday 21st October (10.30am kick-off), with admission 2 for all. Address: DL5 5AG.