Paul Bickerton (CEO) – Muhammad Ali
When I was asked who my sporting hero was, without a doubt I had to say Muhammad Ali. As a kid, I had a short stories book and the first one was about Ali’s win over Sonny Liston. This was for the World’s Heavyweight Championship which was one of the most anticipated, watched and controversial fights in the sport’s history. It was reading this which led me to research about Ali and watch back on his career. It was not only his fascinating introduction into the world of boxing, but also his religious conversion and opposition to the Vietnam war which interested me. His nickname as The Greatest is what describes him the best and he is one of the most significant and celebrated figures of the 20th century.
Neil Twitchett (Head of Football Development) – Michael Johnson
The last 3 Olympic games have brought such joy to all British fans with a pleather of Gold, Silver and Bronze across a vast range of sports and top of the medal table performances. I remember a time when this wasn’t the case. Back in 1996 – 2000 there wasn’t much to cheer from British perspective at Olympic games. To fill this success void we were all looking further afield for heroes and champions, step forward Michael Duane Johnson. Looking like a statue chiselled from granite, his upright running style was effortless but rapid. A steely look of determination gave an aura of invincibility which proved to be true. Johnson won the 400m and 200m in a World Record time. This was backed up at the 2000 Sydney games with a Gold medal in the 400m. Michael for me was the ultimate professional who inspired a generation of sprinters and sports people across the World.
Neil Fowkes (Coaching Coordinator) – Muhammad Ali
It was unsurprising when asked who our black sporting heroes were that Muhammad Ali would be featured more than once. Without a doubt, Ali is my black hero. He was the greatest entertainer and was such an ambassador for all his fame, his Philanthropy and making awareness of Parkinson’s disease to congress is a personal thing as that is what some of my family members passed away from.
He was a great sportsman, character, and an incredible human being that transformed a sport and changed the mindset of perceived religions which transcends today.
Conor McBrearty (Disability Development Officer) – Paul McGrath
Paul McGrath is one of the greatest footballers to ever play for the Republic of Ireland soccer team. The fact that he managed to perform so well for so long for his clubs and country is all the more remarkable because he was beset by ongoing injury problems and off-pitch issues. McGrath suffered many injuries to his knees over his career and the effects of his alcoholism caused him to miss matches for football club and country on occasions. McGrath was a natural and magnificent athlete with outstanding soccer talent. His preferred position on the football pitch was at centre-half however the Irish soccer manager Jack Charlton, often deployed him with great success in midfield. From an Irish perspective two of his greatest performances for the Republic of Ireland soccer team were both against Italy and both at World Cup finals. His performance in Rome in 1990 and particularly in New York in 1994 are the stuff of Irish football legend.
Shannon Hyner (Football Development Officer) – Alex Scott
Alex Scott has just gone from strength to strength, all throughout her time as a player and since her professional career ended. With her 140 caps for England and several trophies with Arsenal, including scoring the winning goal in the 2007 UEFA Women’s Cup Final, she has fully cemented herself in football history and will go down as one of the legends in both the female and male game.
I think what makes her my hero is her determination to prove everyone wrong. How she battled the critics with her punditry during the Men’s 2018 World Cup and continued to climb in the industry to make herself a household name. She is known for being knowledgeable, forthright, and insightful, becoming a breath of fresh air in the world of sport punditry. Seeing her heading the Football Focus programme proves she is at the top of her game. Alex Scott is not a token or tick box exercise; she is an intelligent presenter who deserves to take her seat amongst the greats.
Jordan Crichlow (Football Services Administrator) – Anthony Joshua
One of my favourite athletes, inspirations and heroes is without a doubt Anthony Joshua (AJ). I remember watching him win gold at the London 2012 Olympics in the men’s super-heavyweight boxing competition and was amazed at how talented he was at only 22 years old. A year later he turned professional and has gone on to be one of the most successful heavyweight boxers of the 21st century.
From defeating the likes of Dillian Whyte, Alexander Povetkin and Wladimir Klitschko, AJ has risen to the top of the heavyweight division. I’ll never forget his fight against Klitschko in 2017, where he was roared on by 90,000 fans inside Wembley Stadium. Even watching it on television the atmosphere was electric and was my favourite moment in my years of watching boxing.
AJ has had to recover from setbacks however, which only makes him more of a hero in my eyes. After losing his four heavyweight titles against Andy Ruiz Jr. in Madison Square Garden in June 2019, a lot of people wrote AJ off and predicted him to either retire or fall further down the card. He proved all of his doubters wrong by winning his rematch against Ruiz, thus showing his ability to rise to the top even after suffering the worst moment of his career.
By the time this article comes out he will have faced Oleksandr Usyk for the heavyweight titles at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and I have full confidence in AJ to win. It’s been great to watch his growth in boxing over the past ten years, and to see a fellow black man as the face of heavyweight boxing makes him of my favourite sporting idols.
Jaewon Huh (Football Development Intern) – Didier Drogba
My hero is Didier Drogba, all time top goal-scorer and former captain of the Ivory Coast and his illustrious career with Chelsea, for whom he has scored more goals than any other foreign player and is currently the clubs fourth highest goal scorer of all time.
But what really makes him a hero for me is his drive off the pitch for his country. When Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history, in a particularly dramatic style, it was not just about the win. Civil war was eminent however, in a post-match prayer, Drogba said these important words:
"Men and women of Ivory Coast," he began. "From the north, south, centre, and west, we proved today that all Ivorians can coexist and play together with a shared aim - to qualify for the World Cup."
"We promised you that the celebrations would unite the people - today we beg you on our knees."
This seemingly stirred something as in the following weeks, the video was shared relentlessly, and both sides took to the negotiation table and a ceasefire was signed. Drogba showed that you can just leave everything on the pitch, and you can use your voice to enact change. Read more about this here.