An ex-Manchester United player, who has nurtured the talents of countless youngsters over the past 25 years, is retiring from his football academy and handing it over to a former trainee. PETER BARRON reports

THE grass roots seeds were sown when Paul Bielby took his daughter to her regular dancing class back in 1997 and waited outside with the other parents.

A group of lads were kicking a ball against the wall while they waited for their sisters and one of the dads shouted: “Hey, Paul, you need to start a football group.”

“That was how it started,” recalls Paul. “I thought it was worth giving it a go and the first week 220 boys turned up – I couldn’t believe how much interest there was.”

The Paul Bielby Football Academy, based in his hometown of Darlington, is now in its 25th year, and with Paul reaching 65 later this year, it seems a good time to blow the final whistle.

“It’s been a privilege to be involved with so many children, their families and some fantastic coaches for all these years, but the time’s right to give it fresh energy,” says Paul as he watches his final training session at The Education Village before handing over to his successor, Tom Craddock.

Tom was still at primary school when he first attended one of the academy’s holiday courses, and he went on to become a professional footballer himself after signing for Middlesbrough.

The Paul Bielby Football Academy has officially become The Tom Craddock Football Academy, continuing Paul’s legacy of providing inclusive football coaching sessions that are open to all children.

The world has moved on since those days when football was just for boys, and there is now a healthy mix of both sexes, learning not just ball skills but how to be fit for life.

“It’s for everyone and the football has always come secondary to teaching them about respect, confidence, communication, teamwork and helping others,” explains Paul.

The son of a Darlington policeman – real name Arthur but affectionately known as ‘Bobby Bielby’ – Paul joined Manchester United at 17, rubbed shoulders with greats like George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton, and made his first-team debut in a Manchester derby.

He also played for England Under-17s, but his career was curtailed by a serious knee injury. After four first-team appearances for Manchester United, he went on to play 120 games for Hartlepool United before moving to Huddersfield Town and having to retire at just 23.

When his football career ended, Paul became an account manager for a major food company, but football has always remained his passion. As well as setting up his academy, he also formed the Darlington Primary School Football Association.

“I knew the time was coming but I couldn’t have walked away from the academy during the pandemic and left the children with nowhere to go,” he says. “Then, when the restrictions were lifted, I heard Tom wanted to set up his own academy and it felt like it was meant to be. I wouldn’t want it to go to anyone else.”

Paul and his wife, Christine, have two children – Michael, who co-founded the academy, and Helen – as well as four grandchildren.

“I want to make more time to spend with them, but I’ll never give up football completely because it’s been my life. I’ll still be involved in inter-school football.”

Paul is quick to pay tribute to the coaches who have supported the academy, particularly Tony Cox, who was with him from the beginning and only recently stepped down at the age of 80.

Now, it’s time for a new era and Tom is proud to be taking over. He signed for the Boro when he was in Year 6 and played six times as a striker for the first team under two future England managers: Steve McClaren brought him on as a substitute against Fulham, and he was given his full debut by Gareth Southgate against Manchester City.

Tom went on to play for Oxford, Portsmouth and Luton but, like Paul, his career was brought to a premature end by a knee injury. He took a teaching degree and, now 34, he is in his fourth year as a PE teacher at his old school, Carmel College.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that a generation of footballers in Darlington have been guided by Paul. They are big boots to fill but it’s a privilege to carry on his legacy,” says Tom, a father-of-three with another on the way.

He will be ably assisted by experienced coaches who all came through Paul’s academy – Liam Coates, Phil Park, Kevin Rissetto, and Paul Colgrave – with training sessions for four to 18-year-olds taking place all week and on Saturday mornings.

“Tom’s not only someone who knows about football, but he also understands the mindset of children,” says Paul as his last training session ends with a cheer from the children. “It feels emotional to be passing it on, but I know it’s in good hands.”

It might even be described as the perfect match.

  • To find out more about junior football coaching, go to Facebook and search for ‘Tom Craddock Football Academy’

A POSTSCRIPT to last week's column about Spennymoor Town Band, aiming for glory in the National Brass Band Finals of Great Britain.

Sadly, the band didn't come home from Cheltenham as winners after Sunday's contest, but finished sixth out of 14 finalists and did the region proud.

Cornet player Mike Johnson, who has been a member for 65 years, remained upbeat as he travelled home on the coach with the rest of the band.

"We've talked about it and we wouldn't change a thing. We trained hard, played our socks off on the day, and we're chuffed to bits with how we performed," he said.

"We were slightly disappointed not to be in the first three, but to be one of the top six brass bands in the country is something we can all be proud of."

Mike has now played in six national finals since joining the band as a little lad in short trousers, and he hasn't given up hope that it might yet be lucky seven one day.

Mind you, he'll have to fight hard to retain his place because the band has lots of young talent coming through. Michael McDonald, 12, who also plays the cornet, is one of the rising stars and won the "Youngest Player Award" in the finals.

"It's a fantastic achievement for Michael. I'll need to keep on my toes, but I'll keep going as long as they want me," said Mike.

He's not the kind to blow his own trumpet, but I have a feeling Mike Johnson's experience will benefit Spennymoor Town Band for years to come.

  • The band's Christmas concert takes place at Spennymoor Town Hall on December 4.