IT hasn’t been an easy year for anyone, but when you’re blind, a father-of-two little boys, and striving to run your own business, life might seem especially daunting.

But Owen Bainbridge, County Durham lad and local hero, isn’t the kind to dwell on his challenges – he simply knuckles down and meets them head on.

Owen has spent a year of lockdowns redoubling his efforts to hold on to the treasured shirt he's worn in the England blind football team for the past 11 years.

“Playing for your country is an unbelievable feeling,” says Owen, who celebrated his 31st birthday this month. “The pandemic has put into even greater perspective how lucky and privileged I am – underlining the importance of cherishing every single moment.”

Having played 70 times for England so far, he has realistic ambitions of reaching the magical milestone of 100 caps, but he’d swap them all for one thing – a gold medal in a major tournament.

He’s won silvers and bronze medals, but gold has eluded him, and he’s determined to put that right before he finally hangs up his boots.

The next European Championships are on the horizon in 2022, followed by the World Cup on home soil, in Birmingham, in the summer of 2023, and then the Paris Paralympics a year later.

“It’s definitely doable to reach 100 caps, but I’d give them all back to achieve my biggest dream of a gold in one of those tournaments,” says Owen.

He was born in Cockfield, the son of Stewart and Mandy Bainbridge, and has a younger brother, William. Due to congenital glaucoma, Owen had minimal sight in one eye, before going totally blind when he was seven.

However, despite his disability, he was brought up with a love for football. His dad played at centre-half for Cockfield, and Owen loved going to matches, getting as close to the pitch as possible so he could hear the action.  A keen Sunderland fan, he also went with his dad to The Stadium of Light, relishing the chance to soak up the atmosphere.

Owen attended mainstream school until he was 16, before studying for his A-levels at a college for the blind or partially-sighted in Worcester. It was there that a friend told him that the University of Worcester had a blind football team. They needed players, Owen shone during a trial, and a glittering career had begun.

Blind football is five-a-side, with sighted goalkeepers. The ball contains ball-bearings to make it rattle, and the skill and fitness levels have to be seen to be believed.

Owen was soon spotted by scouts and made his first appearance for England in a victory against Germany when he was 20. After spending a year back home in Cockfield, he relocated to Hereford to attend the Royal National College for the Blind  – “The Home of Blind Football” – where he combined studying sports massage with building up his tally of England caps.

Owen is keen to acknowledge the pivotal role both his dad and grandad, Colin Bainbridge, played in his development: taking him for training at Cockfield recreation ground, and indoor football pitches at Shildon, or driving him to Hereford.

“No matter how terrible the weather was, nothing was ever too much trouble, and I owe them so much,” he says.

His career blossomed until 2017 when he ruptured the cruciate ligament of his right knee in the first match of the European Championships in Berlin. Within a week, he’d had reconstruction surgery, as well as an overdue cartilage replacement on his left knee.

“There were times when I thought I’d never play football again – and that terrified me,” recalls Owen.

But it was another case of battling through a crisis, and enduring hours of rehabilitation every week. Against the odds, he made his comeback in 2019, helping England to a bronze in the European Championships in Rome, and a silver in the World Grand Prix in Tokyo.

When the pandemic took its grip in March, the England players had to stop training together but carried on at home, making the most of technology, with online circuits, yoga, and regular team chats. Normal training resumed in July but it’s now back to working in isolation due to the second lockdown.

“I’m not getting any younger, so I have to put the effort in to keep my England place. I’ve probably trained harder than ever on the treadmill at home,” he says.

His wife, Anika – along with their two children Luke, eight, and Zachary, four – all play supportive roles. “Anika’s just amazing and I use the boys to dribble round!” he laughs.

So, how much longer can his professional football career realistically last? “I’ll know when it’s time to stop but I’m not ready to finish yet. I always love coming back to Cockfield, and I want to bring that gold medal home.”

In normal times, he’d have been playing two friendlies against France this month, but Covid-19 has scuppered the fixtures that were due to be played at St George’s Park, the Football Association’s national football centre at Burton upon Trent.

The second lockdown has also halted his sports massage business for the second time this year, although he continues to be paid as an England player by the FA.

“I’ll just do the same as I did in the first lockdown – focus on getting fitter than ever, so  I’m ready when the time comes,” he says.  “There’s no point sitting around moping, is there?”

“I also want to help grow the game and find new talent. Even if one kid reads about me and is inspired to take up football – whether it’s just for a hobby or they end up playing for England – it’ll all be worthwhile.”

IT'S great to see that Darlington is finally appreciating the importance of Arthur Wharton, thanks to the tireless campaigning of Shaun Campbell.

First, a magnificent mural of the world's first black professional footballer was unveiled in Widdowfield Street, and now it's been announced that a road will be named after him.

That's to be applauded but  Darlington should go further. Wouldn't it be a fitting tribute if the town's sports centre was renamed from The Dolphin Centre to The Arthur Wharton Centre?

It's where local people play sport, and it's a stone's throw from Feethams, where Arthur played in goal for Darlington.

Come on Darlington – be bold.

FINALLY, Donald Trump's a man who likes his grass roots sport – especially when he's in a foul mood.

The outgoing President took his mind off his election defeat by playing two rounds of golf.

Imagine how long it must have taken to check his opponents' scorecards until it was clear that he'd won – by a lot.