Neil Loughran: Never meet your heroes? Don’t believe a word of it

Euro 2024 will add new names to lips, but inspiration can be found all around

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Cristiano Ronaldo bagged a brace (Luis Vieira/AP)
Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in Tuesday night's victory over the Republic of Ireland, and remains a key part of Portugal's team as Euro 2024 gets under way. Picture by PA (Luis Vieira/AP)

OVER the course of the next month, a whole host of heroes will be made.

All eyes will be on the tried and trusted talents of Kylian Mbappé, ‘Arry Kane and ageless Ken doll Cristiano Ronaldo. But while the shiny Portuguese maestro competes in his 11th - and almost certainly not last - major international competition, there are always new names ready to snatch their 15 seconds of fame.

Who could forget Roger Milla? Okay so the 38-year-old Cameroonian ace was then a year younger than Ronaldo is now, but his swivelling hips remain among the defining images of Italia ‘90.

USA ‘94 gave us balding Bulgarian midfielder Yordan Lechkov and compatriot Hristo Stoichkov. Shaggy-haired Czech Karol Poborsky scooped his way into our hearts at Euro ‘96. Wayne Rooney emerged like a teenage wrecking ball in Portugal eight years later while James Rodriguez’s brilliance had everybody buzzing in Brazil a decade ago.

But time has shown us that heroes come from all walks of life and, at the weekend, I was reacquainted with one of mine. Martin Waddell isn’t - and never was - a famous footballer, much as he might have wanted to be.

But it was his love of the game that enlivened my own every bit as much as those fleeting stars of summer, a young imagination fuelled by his series of books following the trials and tribulations of schoolboy Napper McCann.

The best thing about the Napper books was that they weren’t based on games at Wembley Stadium or Old Trafford. They didn’t require a huge leap of faith or stretch of the imagination to put yourself in the lead character’s boots.

Instead, Napper played for school team Red Row Rovers on muddy, uncared for pitches alongside the likes of schemer Harpur Brown and tough nut defender Harry Haxwell.

Euro 2024 will add new names to lips, but inspiration can be found all around
The Napper series was a huge success for Newcastle author Martin Waddell

They wore old grey school shirts with red numbers sewed on the back. Often they excelled in the underdog role; on other days they were simply run over. We’ve all been there.

The legend of bigger boys from other schools - “the ones who look like they eat P6s for breakfast” - were played out in mighty contests with Raven Boys Club and Red Row’s eternal enemies, Abbey Villa, against players with nicknames like Freckles and Chewing Gum.

Another team were known as ‘the stringy pants’ on account of their ungainly shorts which were all too easily loosened.

The struggles of the season, from training squabbles to tactics to the matches themselves were documented in minute, magnificent and utterly believable detail, Waddell’s story-telling setting Napper far apart from the rest.

Many of the ideas were drawn from his own playing days in the county Down town of Newcastle, then a year spent between the posts with Fulham’s youth team before returning home to pursue a different kind of career with his hands.

Because writing, and the ability to engage with people of all ages, was Martin Waddell’s true calling. When you meet him, it quickly becomes clear why.

He used to write the odd match report for the Mourne Observer newspaper and, decades down the line, I was doing the very same when pitching up at his Newcastle home for an interview.

It was June 2002, the day the World Cup commenced, and I was shaking like a leaf. Never meet your heroes, they say; there was no need to worry.

Inside his studio at the top of the house, a treasure trove of years committed to his craft, including some ideas that remained on the cutting room floor, he chatted at length about life, experiences and the books that have sold millions of copies the world over.

There was the instantaneous success of his first novel, Otley, which was made into a film. A move into children’s literature was interrupted when Waddell was caught up in an explosion in Donaghadee, leaving him unable to work for six years, before achieving stunning success with the likes of Owl Babies, Farmer Duck, Can’t you sleep, little bear? and, of course, Napper.

I could have sat all day as he articulated why finding the handful of precise words for a children’s book was infinitely more challenging than producing an 80,000 word novel.

In his gentle manner, he moved from one end of the room to the other, picking out lines and performing them in the way his words intended, voice and facial expressions in perfect harmony.

It was the same at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre on Saturday afternoon, where families filled the room to hear from a man who had made a magical impact on them at some point.

Now 83, his voice may not be as strong as it once was, but his presence and personality remain. Two rows of big, colourful cushions were laid out directly in front of the stage, young children spellbound as he spoke, with the adults that surrounded them similarly captivated.

When any curious souls broke rank and made a burst for the stage, they were greeted with a soft smile and some playful words.

Years after burrowing beneath a duvet, devouring the Napper series page by page, I was cradling our children at night, quietly reading Owl Babies, or Father Duck, or Can’t you sleep, Little Bear? to soothe them to sleep.

Getting big, nine and seven, they are too old for that kind of carry-on now. Life moves fast, with new friends and new interests vying for attention as their world widens out. On Saturday, though, they lay down on the cushions for an hour, and they listened.

I could have sat there all day.

Martin Waddell held his young audience spellbound at the Crescent Arts Centre on Saturday
Martin Waddell held his young audience spellbound at the Crescent Arts Centre on Saturday