IT is impossible to ignore the irony in the timing of last night's Local Heroes Awards 2001.

While The Northern Echo was celebrating the stars of grass roots sport - those who compete for the sheer love of it - footballers earning fortunes are threatening to go on strike for a bigger slice of the ultra-rich cake.

At the opposite ends of the sporting scale, the contrast could hardly be more stark. At the top level, footballers can earn an obscene amount of money, while fellow players in the lower leagues struggle to make a living.

While the arguments rage over how the TV millions are divided up, it is worth remembering that a tiny fraction of that cash mountain would make a huge difference to sport at the grass roots.

Our purpose, through the Local Heroes Awards, is to put the unsung stars of sport on a pedestal to celebrate their selflessness, dedication, passion, commitment and humour.

Our overall winner, the Reverend Kip Watson, symbolises all that is good about sport at the most basic level.

He launched a football league for the over-40s, and nurtured it until it flourished into something which gives pleasure to 1,500 people every week.

Even at the age of 83, and despite suffering from a stroke, he remains league secretary and a regular spectator at matches.

Others on the winners' rostrum last night were also inspirational. They included 18-year-old David Clark, from Middlesbrough, who excels in swimming and football despite being a triple amputee.

But his award is about much more than his own sporting performance. David also spends a lot of his time talking to disabled groups about the benefits of sport, engaging them in activities they might have believed were out of reach.

Last night was a wonderful, moving, unforgettable experience for all those who were there. We hope it may encourage others to compete at the grass roots.

Who knows, it may also make those who are banking their fortunes think about the imbalance that exists in the very different worlds of sport and remind them just how fortunate they are.