A chat with Lawrie McMenemy MBE

In the modern day, it is rare to pick up a newspaper or visit a sport-related website without seeing a footballer making the headlines for all of the wrong reasons.

Whether it is Joey Barton and another fight which could land him with a visit from a police officer or Ryan Giggs and his affair with Imogen Thomas, the behaviour of footballers away from the field of play has taken precedence instead of what they do on a weekly basis for their employers during the football season. The game has been changed because of these stories and the good guys have been forgotten.

The beautiful game has not always been played by those who tarnish the image of the sport, though.

The 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games begin at Croke Park, Dublin.

There are footballers and managers alike that are genuinely good people. There are those who achieve success at club level and gain international acclaim that also work with the community and furthermore, work with those who have a disability to get them to a standard which enables them to achieve their goals.

Meet Lawrie McMenemy MBE.

He is a man who took charge of Southampton Football Club in November 1973 and then led them to glory in the FA Cup, a competition which is held in high regard by football clubs and fans alike, in May 1976 against a Manchester United side who played in a league that was one above that of Southampton’s, he is a man that has managed Northern Ireland’s national team in the later stages of his managerial career and since December 2010, he is the president of the honorary board of Special Olympics GB.

Encouraging others to get involved with football by meeting top players and also imparting his own wisdom is something that is extremely important to McMenemy, and his passion for the game and those who play it was clear to see when I spoke to him on his involvement with the Special Olympics.

As a man who hails from Gateshead, a town in the north-east of England, he grew up with football being the main sport of choice amongst young boys and with television being something that wasn’t in fashion at the time, he relished the chance to play.

On his experiences of playing as a youngster, McMenemy says: “There was no television and boys kick balls, so we played with lampposts for goals and moved on to parks as we grew up.

“There were no cars on the roads back then (the 1940’s in Gateshead), so you could play for a long time without anything spoiling your fun. It’s how you were bought up in the north.”

Unlike most youngsters that dream of having a career as a footballer who fail to make the grade, McMenemy moved on from his beginnings as an eager child and began his playing years at Newcastle United, a club which he supported and could identify with as the Sports Direct Arena, also known as St James’ Park, was not too far away from Gateshead as the home of the club.

Despite this move, he never appeared for the side and with a two-year spell at Gateshead Football Club being ended by injury in 1961, management became the area of football where a reputation would be boosted by success and a desire to open up the game to the local community.

Throughout his career as a manager, he welcomed people with disabilities into training sessions at the clubs that he was in charge of and by doing this, offered them an opportunity to train with stars of the English game such as Alan Ball MBE, a World Cup-winning England international who was part of the team in 1966 that also featured legends such as Bobby Moore CBE and Geoff Hurst MBE, and Kevin Keegan OBE, an icon of the 1970’s at the height of his own career.

This decision to work with disabled lovers of football has moved on as McMenemy is now a prominent part of Special Olympics GB, and is proud to be associated with them as disability sport has yet another chance to thrive.

From being invited to get involved with the Special Olympics, a global sports competition which is similar to the Paralympic Games in terms of the wide range of activities that are contested between athletes with disabilities, as the 2003 World Summer Games took place in Dublin, Ireland, he took on a role as a football ambassador to Great Britain through the national association that is part of the International Special Olympics Movement while also assisting the Greek and Turkish football teams.

As the 2007 World Summer Games began in Shanghai, China, a role as the chairman of Special Olympics GB greeted McMenemy as he took the opportunity to take a greater responsibility and finally by way of moving through the positions of authority, he became the president of the association in December 2010 with Paul Anderson OBE, a bronze medal-winning sailor at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico acting as a vice-president.

During the time in which McMenemy has been involved in the Special Olympics, he has noticed how the competition has grown in popularity and has therefore began to build as each edition of the games is held.

By saying that “people truly wanted to help” in 2003 and that volunteers were recruited in large numbers throughout Ireland, he believes that by competing in the Special Olympics GB’s National Games and then the global competition, whether Summer or Winter sports are targeted, offers athletes an opportunity to take part and with this, his own experience can help.

McMenemy says: “The national games are a chance for disabled athletes to show off their talent, though they will not be elite athletes.

“There is a chance for people to play and enjoy doing something that they love.

“I bring experience to Special Olympics GB and to the national games. Everybody can play and by giving them the opportunity to take part, I try to help them and let them enjoy it.

“As a manager, I excelled at Southampton which was a great accomplishment. I also won league titles with Doncaster Rovers Football Club and Grimsby Town Football Club but with regard to Special Olympics GB, I cannot pinpoint any accomplishment.

“I encourage. I turn up. I’m happy to turn up and I feel like I have put something back into football by helping others.”

It is clear to see that McMenemy has a real passion for helping sportsmen and sportswomen with a disability to excel and where the Paralympics can help athletes with physical disabilities to compete in an activity of their choosing, the Special Olympics offer the same chance for athletes with mental disabilities that include the autistic spectrum and a wide range of varying learning difficulties, providing that their IQ is 75 or lower.

Offering a final word of encouragement to people who may feel that opportunities are restricted for those with a disability, there is only hope for the future in the eyes of a man who strongly believes what he says.

Pride and hope should always be felt in life as McMenemy says: “Where there may not be an immediate disability, Special Olympics GB is beautiful and you can always achieve.

“One example of this is from the Special Olympics GB’s National Games in Leicester in 2009. An autistic lad who could hardly leave the house had made a speech at the opening ceremony of the competition, after watching a game of basketball and developing a love for sport.

“It really helped his confidence and whether I am talking about him or anybody, there is something special in everyone.

“All you need to do is be positive, not negative. Always be positive.”

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