A FORMER Manchester United player has been recognised in the New Year Honours list for passing his passion for football on to thousands of children.

Paul Anthony Bielby, 51, is founder and secretary of the Darlington Primary School Football Association and founder of the Master Skills Football Academy, in Darlington, which coaches more than 250 youngsters aged five to 14 each week.

He has been made an MBE for services to young people.

The former professional player is on a mission to improve football facilities in the region and is striving for Darlington to become a centre for sporting excellence.

On learning of his honour, he said: "I found out about it on Thursday.

"I told my children that night and they were thrilled about it.

"I am very happy, but being modest, I am not the type to shout about it."

Speaking about his work, he said: "We are sports fanatics in this country, yet we have poor sporting facilities.

"We need to make sport a part of children's lives. We have growing obesity problems, so the answer is prevention rather than cure."

His father was a big Manchester United fan, so at the age of only five, Mr Bielby pledged his allegiance to the Red Devils and so began his love affair with football.

As a former pupil of Longfield School, where he is now a governor, he played for Darlington Secondary schools and for the county before he was headhunted by Manchester United as an apprentice.

He said: "I worked harder than anyone else and got a lucky break when I made my first-team debut for Manchester United at 17.

"When I walked out in front of 51,000 fans at Manchester United, I was passionately proud to be from Darlington."

He went on to play as an England youth international at 18 and looked set for a glittering career until he suffered a knee injury.

He then played for Huddersfield and Hartlepool, but recurring ligament problems forced him to quit aged 23.

Such a setback would have proved difficult for many, but Mr Bielby took the mature approach.

He said: "I watched television and saw lads I had played with at youth international level become household names.

"But I decided that I had to turn that competitive spirit into something else. You get nothing without hard work, so I knew that I had to be positive and get out into the real world of work."

He became a sales representative and worked his way up to become one of the directors of Hazlewood Foods, where he worked for 14 years. When his daughter started dance classes, he noticed boys kicking balls around outside.

Parents came to him suggesting that he set up a football academy.

He said: "There is nothing more important as a parent than the health of your child.

"Sport instils self-esteem and confidence.

"If you can harness that, it cuts out so many other issues."

Mr Bielby lives with his wife, Christine, in Harrowgate, Darlington, and has two children, Michael, 24 and Helen, 22.