Men United March
More than 400 people walked the Men United March alongside Jeff Stelling, trekking 262 miles from Hartlepool to Wembley in just 10 days, from 21 to 30 March 2016. This is the story of how Britain’s favourite TV sports presenter brought together football clubs, fans and families affected by prostate cancer to raise money and awareness of the UK’s most common cancer in men.
But it could so easily have all fallen apart at the end of a punishing second day in Leeds…
21-30 March 2016
West Bromich Albion
St Albans City
The support vans are loaded with blistered, burnt out and disappointed marchers.
Even the irrepressible Chris Kamara, who couldn’t see what all the fuss was about his Sky Sports colleague just walking, is unusually quiet for the last few miles.
But Russ Green is still battling on. The CEO of Hartlepool United and Jeff’s good friend is the only person signed up for all 10 days of the challenge. When he finally emerges at Elland Road, limping beside Jeff, his face is wracked with all the strain and fatigue his friend’s famously ever-present smile struggles to hide for the first time.
They embrace at the finish, and the emotion is palpable. They’ve got through this toughest of days together, but the daunting scale of the next eight has become all too clear. The stakes for both of them – their friendship, the charity, and all the other marchers and fundraisers depending on them each day – are incredibly high.
During a tense and sombre post-walk rubdown, they contemplate the worst before pledging to make it to Wembley, whatever it takes. Together they stand and united they’ll fall across that final finishing line – with the support of everyone who joins them along the way.
From Tadcaster United to Chelsea FC, 33 clubs pulled out all the stops for Jeff and his marchers.
They opened up their pitches, canteens and physio rooms to parade, feed and recuperate them. Club executives, managers and players past and present lined up with four-figure cheques in hand, while their fans cheered and gave generously from their pockets.
Graham Alexander even made it his first official task as new manager of Scunthorpe United to escort Jeff with special guest Sir Ian Botham into Glanford Park.
Such is Jeff’s stature in the game, bitter local rivalries were set aside. Wolves personnel were welcomed at the Hawthorns, and Wednesday players and supporters applauded at Bramall Lane. “You're on enemy territory here, mate,” Jeff said to die-hard Owls fan David Blunkett MP.
Perhaps nothing illustrates Jeff’s harmonising powers more strikingly than the menagerie of club mascots he had in tow. From Harry the Hornet to Filbert the Fox, they all came together for the cause armed with collection buckets. Even Scunny Bunny and Donny Dog set aside their League One differences to cheerfully gather donations, offer supportive hugs and chase each other around Doncaster Racecourse.
But for one mascot, there was far more than club pride involved. Dressed periodically as Sammy the Saint from St Albans City FC, Phill Coates walked the last four days to show his gratitude for Prostate Cancer UK’s support after his diagnosis in 2014. “The awareness that this March is raising has been simply brilliant,” he said from underneath the mane of his lion costume.
And there were many more from the footballing world with very personal reasons for joining Jeff. Premiership referee Andre Marriner was supporting his dad, Lester, who had previously been diagnosed with prostate cancer (“Surely Andre’s best decision all season,” jibed Jeff). While Matt Le Tissier signed up for his driver, who was recently diagnosed. The Wolves’ doctor, Matt Perry, even used his participation to go public with his own prostate cancer struggles for the very first time.
The world of football was like family to Jeff, turning out to support their favourite son at every waypoint along the March.
Similarly, the marchers’ families were supporting the most important men in their lives going through prostate cancer, while enjoying a shared love of the game.
Marian Davis walked alongside her husband Mel in memory of his younger brother, who devastatingly succumbed to the disease the same year Mel was diagnosed. They proudly represented their local non-league side, Coventry United FC, while their football-mad family waited in pubs and lay-bys to cheer them on.
For Aberdeen fan Alan Sterling, it was his son Mark who was there for encouragement. He was determined that the money he raised would mean Mark and his three sons wouldn’t have to fear the disease he’d been diagnosed with three years earlier.
While Danny Bolton juggled treatment for his advanced prostate cancer to walk with his wife, Tracy Fletcher. Both are avid fundraisers for Prostate Cancer UK, having sold over 5,000 of our pin-badges like the ones Jeff and his Soccer Saturday panellists wear on their lapels every week. Danny’s granddaughter made clear what she thought about him when she joined them, too.
Others were walking for husbands, fathers, brothers and other relations no longer with them but still vividly remembered every step of the way.
From the 70 or more on the opening day to the 50 that finished the final leg, all 409 marchers who joined Jeff over the 10 days helped him and Russ to reach their goal.
Not for nothing did Jeff close his end-of-day speeches to his fellow marchers with the heart-felt tribute: “we couldn’t do it without you”.
Their group spirit lifted them over challenging terrain, past the flooded country lanes of Northamptonshire and up what Jeff called the ‘Kilimanjaro-like’ pavements of Sheffield’s seven hills.
It spurred them on through the howls of Storm Katie, too, which gatecrashed Bank Holiday Monday. Muddy fields and towpaths sucked at the soles of their boots afterwards, and freakish hailstorms and torrential downpours continued to plague them until the final day.
At these low-points, the fresh legs and good humour of new marchers arriving each day were vital to keeping Jeff and Russ going. Chris Kamara, in particular, distracted everyone from their aches and pains on the longest day with his constant joshing and unique dance.
More Sky Sports colleagues were on hand to support Bill Arthur. Undergoing treatment for advanced prostate cancer, he walked side by side with his fellow rugby league presenters and former playing legends.
But there were so many other examples of marchers helping each other along. After breaking his ankle on the final day, prostate cancer survivor Mike Perry was literally carried to the finish and up the Wembley steps to the Royal Box for his medal.
Whether it was the NHS urologist supporting the male patients she sees every day or the contingents from RAF Leeming and Carlsberg HQ raising money for a cause they feel passionate about, no one was walking for personal glory. Crossing the finishing line together was what mattered.
And so it was for Russ and Jeff. Every morning, Jeff shepherded Russ past his doubts to the starting line, then geed him on through the pain of blistered feet and an aching back. While Russ would return the favour by distracting Jeff with the latest Hartlepool United scoreline, and even organised a surprise appearance by Jeff's boyhood team to lift his spirits.
Their hug at the end of each leg became an emotional daily ritual that summed up how every marcher felt about their day together.
With donations exceeding £150k before a step had even been taken, Jeff’s 10 marathons in 10 days had clearly captured the public’s imagination.
Wherever they went, passing cars honked their horns in support of Jeff or a footballing legend they’d spotted among his ranks.
At Scunthorpe, the Humberside fire brigade turned out in full regalia, parading alongside their Prostate Cancer UK-branded fire engine. While cheering masses of schoolchildren and a local brass band tooting the Proclaimers’ 500 Miles greeted the March’s arrival at Marske.
But it was the fanfare at Tadcaster that was most unexpected. Not only did the manager of Sainsbury’s hand out goody-bags of refreshments. But just a few doors down, the local butcher had created the Stelling Sausage in honour of the great man. For once, Jeff was lost for words. (Well almost.)
From the Coffee Pot Tavern to the Reindeer Inn, the great British pub provided essential pit-stops. While the marchers refuelled on the landlady’s complimentary tea and sarnies, Jeff would often be whisked away to do a live link up for Sky Sports News or talkSPORT from a nearby field or carpark.
Legions of politicians, sports stars and celebrities were eager to talk to him, too. On just one day MP Nick Clegg, darts player Dennis ‘The Menace’ Priestley and boxer Kell Brook all made an appearance; on another it was Pointless presenter Richard Osman, cycling pundit Ned Boulting and the Mayor of Brent in attendance.
And every day, everywhere, the donations kept coming. Flushed-faced fans would hand over whatever money they had after posing for selfies with Jeff. And numerous times, people came running out from a high-street shop or village pub laden with the proceeds from a quick whip-round of staff or regulars.
But one encounter at York particularly affected Jeff and became his favourite moment of the March. “Standing at the side of the road was a little boy and a little girl aged around five or six,” he told the Sun newspaper. “Each of them pressed their £1 pocket money into my hands to give to the charity. And if that was not enough, they then gave me a packet of strawberry bon-bons. I still get emotional just thinking about it.”
Rocky-like, Jeff and Russ bounded up the steps outside Wembley to huge applause, and even managed a sprint through the finishing tape.
But inside the stadium, the 107 steps up from the pitch to the Royal Box to receive their medals were taken much slower as the adrenaline faded from their weary legs.
Fellow finishers Derek Moss and Kevin Webber were naturally more sprightly, having just done the final day of the March. But both had been through a far more demanding journey, dealing with prostate cancer.
Derek had survived after a radical prostatectomy 10 years earlier, and Kevin was in the middle of treatment for advanced prostate cancer after being given just two years to live. Both talked excitably afterwards about how the March had connected them with other men with the disease and rallied their spirits to keep fighting it.
In his valedictory speech, Jeff acknowledged it was men like Derek and Kevin – with their “humbling, uplifting and unforgettable” stories – who gave him the inspiration to keep going. And of his friend and constant companion on the March, Russ, he simply said: “he is the most determined, gritty and lovely bloke”.
Having raised more than £350k, they – and everyone who marched with them – were walking proof of the extraordinary things Men United can achieve.
Images by: Mike Cullis, Joe Eley, David Holbrook and Jeremy Banks.