63-year-old Stephen Cowell (third from left) has been the full-time kit manager at Championship football club Preston North End for the past two seasons, and during this time he has taken part in parkrun before every match – both home and away.
Along the way he has inspired players, staff and supporters to join him on his travels, shared amusing parkrun banter with fans from other clubs, and discovered that taxi drivers in Newcastle and Sunderland have something in common.
My dream is for football clubs across the country to incorporate parkrun into their pre-season training. Let me explain…
Running is unique among sports in that you can participate in many of the same events as the best athletes in the world. When it comes to football you can’t have a kick-about every week with your heroes, but how good would it be if players, staff and fans were all running and walking alongside each other in something that is positive, accessible and free?
I haven’t always been a runner but I do try to keep fit. In 2014 I was jogging through my local park and saw a group of people running towards me. A woman said ‘you’re running the wrong way’ so I asked her ‘which way is the right way?’.
‘The parkrun way!’ she replied. That’s something I’ll never forget. The next Saturday I was on the start line of Preston parkrun, barcode in hand, and was bitten by the bug there and then.
I have supported Preston North End since 1964 and two seasons ago I landed a dream job as the club’s full-time kit manager. As a committed parkrunner I didn’t want to forego my weekly parkrun, so I spoke to the (then) manager and explained that I wanted to take part in parkrun before every match of the season. He gave me his blessing, as long as it didn’t interfere with my work. I was no stranger to attending every match of the season – having done so in 1970-71 when we won the Third Division title – but incorporating parkrun added an extra challenge!
Most kitmen set up on a Friday and I am the same. I often travel ahead of the team to lay out the kit, boots and warm-up gear in the dressing room, which means I am organised enough to get to and from parkrun on Saturday morning. I find the nearest parkrun to the team hotel, or the easiest one to get to, and off I go.
I am a very proud parkrunner because of the way that it unites communities, and having visited 36 parkruns over the past two seasons I am lucky to see so many examples of it bringing out the best in people. Everywhere I travel I hear incredible stories and meet inspiring people, and I go back to the club and tell the staff and players about the 82-year-old who has started running because of parkrun or the person who has used it to help overcome a serious illness.
This began to resonate with people involved with the club and several of them have since joined me at parkrun. Eight members of staff have run their local parkrun, and the manager loves the fact we are getting involved – he and I now run together before work. He wants his staff to have energy and enthusiasm because he believes that the players feed off that. Perhaps it’s no surprise that we’ve just had our best season in nine years!
This extends to the players too. For example, when we travelled to play Brighton and Hove Albion two seasons ago, defender Greg Cunningham wasn’t included in the team, so the fitness coach suggested the three of us and the assistant coach all run together at Clare parkrun. They thought it was brilliant.
Over the past two seasons my travels have attracted local media coverage and I now have fellow Preston North End supporters joining me for parkruns around the country. I always do parkrun in my Preston kit, which makes for some fantastic banter, particularly when I’m at an ‘away’ parkrun or when travelling supporters visit Preston parkrun before a match at Deepdale. I’ll never forget running at Catton parkrun before a game against Norwich when a fellow parkrunner joked that I should enjoy my parkrun because it was the best result I would get all day. If it wasn’t for a late equaliser he would have been right!
There have been a couple of occasions where my streak would have come to an end if it wasn’t for the generosity of the parkrun community. One weekend I was staying about seven miles from Graves parkrun in Sheffield and my ride didn’t turn up. So I phoned the Run Director who arranged for someone to collect me on their way past and drop me back afterwards. I was completely overwhelmed and for me it summed up everything that is great about parkrun. Thank you Roger!
In March when we had those horrendous blizzards, the nearest event ended up being Riverside parkrun 14 miles away. Thankfully the parkrun community helped me out and I managed to get to parkrun and back to the ground early to get the kit sorted. And we won 2-0 that day!
The taxi driver who took me was a Sunderland fan who said he would never drop off a fare at Newcastle’s ground – he would pull up nearby. On the way home it was a Newcastle fan driving the taxi who told me he never dropped off next to Sunderland’s ground!
I would love to think I have started a trend in the professional football world that sees more supporters productively using their energy by taking part in parkrun before matches rather than just going to the pub. Football and parkrun can definitely be integrated, and as a fan you always know that each season will give an opportunity to visit different parts of the country. For me, next season will involve trips to parkruns in and around Stoke, West Bromwich, Swansea, Wigan and Blackburn.
Of course I would love to see Preston North End in the top flight and be taking part in parkruns before Premier League matches. But what’s far more important is getting as many people as possible involved in parkrun for the first time, and if being a football supporter is what drives this then that is a great thing.
Finally, I would like to say a massive thank you to every event I have visited. See you next season!
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