In his latest exclusive blog for Prostate Cancer UK, Jeff Stelling delves into the histories of some of the fiercest footballing rivalries he'll be encountering on his March for Men in June, and reacts to press reports that he's set to retire from Soccer Saturday.
When I first unveiled the route for my March for Men, a few eyebrows might have been raised when it headed into enemy territory. On day 14, we’ll start out at Darlington, fierce rivals of my club Hartlepool United.
I joked at the time I’d need my tin hat! There is, and always will be, a huge rivalry. But when Darlington have been on their knees, we’ve helped fundraise for them and been very happy to. It sounds a ridiculous thing, but at one stage Hartlepool gave Darlington a lawnmower so they could cut the pitch!
When Darlo went down to Step 5 of the Non-League Pyramid – through no fault of the fans or the players – it was a case of 'there but for the grace of God' from a Hartlepool fan's perspective. (Or any lower league football fan for that matter.)
We all look at those clubs and know it could easily be ours. Look at the current plight of Leyton Orient, Coventry City and Newport County, for example. But you’re always encouraged by the way they fight back.
Coventry were victorious at Wembley last weekend, winning the Checkatrade Trophy (their manager, Mark Robins, was pictured above holding our scarf at the occasion). And look at Darlo now: they’re not all that far away from the EFL. Renewing that rivalry would be fantastic. I would love to have that local derby back.
Liverpool took the honours in the 228th Merseyside derby last weekend. But the oldest rivalry in domestic football will be put aside on Wednesday 7 June, when we make the short walk between Anfield and Goodison Park.
Stanley Park remains the great divide between the two. But – and here’s a good quiz question for your mates this weekend – did you know Anfield was actually home to Everton before Liverpool? They won the league championship back there in 1891.
Contrary to common belief, I wasn’t around that season. But a quick glance at that 12-team league table showed seven clubs that are on our route to St James' Park this year. They include a healthy batch of rivals from the North West too: Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Burnley and Accrington.
Speaking of Burnley, it was great to hear that Clarets manager Sean Dyche is aiming to join me on Day 11, when we head from Turf Moor to Huddersfield Town. He also rightly pointed out that we’ll be breaking new ground when I walk away from the club. I walked for 10 consecutive days last year; so my first step on 12 June will be a step into the unknown!
Sean’s done a tremendous job at Burnley this year, learning quickly from the previous stint in the top flight a couple of years ago and building them up with passion, patience and prudence. Michael Keane rightly took the praise after his England debut recently. But off the field, Burnley's sparkling new training complex in Gawthorpe is evidence of their progress.
I was humbled by the reaction to news of my impending retirement a few weeks ago. And although it’s great to know people will miss me, I’m not planning to hang up the microphone any time soon. There’s much to play for as we enter the run-in, but it’s now also less than two months before we set off from Exeter.
I’m absolutely thrilled at the support, with more than 350 walkers now confirmed to join me over the 15 days. They include former Clarets striker Ade Akinbiyi, who lost his father to prostate cancer, and ex-England players Ray Wilkins and Trevor Sinclair, who are back for more after joining me last year. Plus former England cricketer Dominic Cork, former Liverpool players Mark Lawrenson and Neil Mellor, and Colin Murray.
It may be in June, but it's going to be a March to remember.