Goalkeeper has been an inspiration to many in the local communityFootballers and education are not readily seen as natural bedfellows. On the Fylde Coast, Fleetwood Town goalkeeper Chris Maxwell has radically changed that perception.
As the face of the club’s Community Trust Reading Champion programme, the 25-year-old has inspired hundreds of local schoolchildren to care more about reading.
Take this example.
In a discussion with a group of pupils aged 10-12 at one school in a disadvantaged area of the Lancashire town, one boy told Maxwell: “I don’t read because I don’t find it enjoyable.”
Maxwell asked him what he did enjoy. “I like superheroes, like Superman,” the answer came back.
“Okay, so have you ever read any comics? That’s reading. Why don’t you go to your local library because I know that they have got a lot of comic books there?”
“Okay, I’ll go there,” the boy promised.
Six weeks later at a home game, a Fleetwood fan approached Maxwell. He said: “Do you remember my son? You read to him at school. Well, after you read to him, he went to get some comic books and now he’s asking us to buy these comic books for him.”
The anecdote is just one reason why Maxwell has been named as the Sky Bet Football League Unsung Hero of the Month for April.
His work in articulating his role as a footballer and his experience of preparation, thinking clearly under pressure and decision-making to schoolchildren who are about to take exams is another facet of his educational impact around the town.
Then there are the times he speaks to 16-year-old school leavers faced with awkward choices of what to do after school about the BTEC education programme run by the club’s Community Trust.
“We are in such a privileged position being footballers in this country,” said Maxwell. “We’re almost idolised by youngsters in the community. Young people are not judgemental in the slightest, they are quite easy to influence for good or for bad.
“I feel as if the reputation that footballers have isn’t a great one. You get questions from kids when you go to schools like: ‘How much money do you earn?’ or ‘What car do you have?’
“It’s really important for lads in our situation to work hard to influence the kids in the right way so that they receive support from somebody other than their parents or their teachers, which isn’t very cool for some of them.
“My mum and dad were really big on my education as well as being heavily involved in the football side of things.
“I followed the system that most footballers in this country follow with an apprenticeship, as well as one and a half days a week at Yale College in Wrexham on a BTEC and National Diploma course.
“But then in my spare time, I had private tutoring in Spanish when I was down on loan at Cambridge for six months.
“I’m looking to do potentially a law degree around the age of 30 – and also maybe in the next couple of years to do an English A-Level just to further myself.
“I’ve done a few literacy discussions with kids at school as well as reading a bit of Harry Potter to 400 kids at one school.
“I spoke to the guys at the Community Trust before I went and they spoke about how few boys read compared to girls, especially in the local area.
“When we sat down with the kids, I said that I was going to read to them and they could ask me any questions that were to do with reading but not football.
“I was just trying to get across the point that reading is so important, especially at that age. It sets you up for life.
“With the lad who liked superheroes, it can be very overwhelming for kids to see so many pages without pictures, so even to read comics that they enjoy is really, really good.
“It helps their education and it keeps them out of trouble as well, which is perfect. Also to enjoy it. For instance, I can’t imagine going on holiday not having a book.”
The dozen or so school visits that Maxwell has made this season alone are just one of the ways in which he serves as custodian of the local community as well as of their football team.
Had you ventured outside in the coastal town on bitter Monday nights in December and January, you would have found him giving his time for free coaching 50 local boys and girls in special goalkeeping sessions laid on by a local club attached to Fleetwood Town.
Or last summer when footballers are not contractually obliged to make any appearances by their clubs, Maxwell drove up from his native north Wales to present awards to youngsters at evenings held by local sports clubs.
“I personally asked him to come along to one,” explained Matt Hilton, Director of Community and Education at Fleetwood Town.
“Chris wasn’t asked to do a speech, but he stood up and spoke about the valuable role that grassroots plays and how fantastic the coaches and the volunteers involved in it are for all of their hard work.
“It’s an overused cliché but Chris does go the extra mile - literally. He’ll think nothing of travelling a couple of hours in his car to do presentations.
“He will do anything in his own time, even out of season, to the benefit of the community. He gets asked to do an awful lot of things but he’s just so open to it. He’ll say: ‘Anything you want me to do, I’m here for you.’
“He’s very grounded, very level-headed and he knows about the importance of the community. He’s not forgotten where he’s come from and he just continues to do more and more. He has never once said: ‘Can’t you find someone else?’
“The club’s Community Trust has only been in existence for four years. Before then, there were no players going into schools, hospitals, hospices or any player engagement.
“What Chris has put in, he’s got out. The recognition of this award is testimony to what he’s actually done, above and beyond what has been asked of him.”
Like all of the players who been named Sky Bet Football League Unsung Hero of the Month this season, Maxwell is very modest about his impact, seeing it as a natural thing to do to help others.
His latest project will be a walk along the length of Hadrian’s Wall from Bowness-on-Solway to Newcastle this summer to raise money for two children’s hospices, Brian House Hospice in the Fleetwood area and Ty Gobaith in Conway, north Wales, the area in which he was brought up.
“After she stopped being a nurse, my mum used to work at St David’s Hospice for adults with cancer in Llandudno, so the whole hospice environment is really close to my heart.
“We haven’t set a target for how much we want to raise yet, but I’ll be doing it with another player, Simon Grand, who’s captain of Barrow and is my future brother-in-law, as well as Joey Newton from the Community Trust at Fleetwood.
“Winning this Unsung Hero award means that I’m doing something right. I’m not after any gratitude for what I do, it just makes me want to do it more.
“It shows that I believe in the community and the kids. Trying to help one per cent of the community to do the right thing is the right thing to do. This award shows me that I should continue doing it and that it’s working.
“When I was young, we had Neville Southall come and give trophies out at our local team - he’s from Llandudno, where I’m from. I couldn’t believe he was there. I thought it was amazing.
“I’m not saying I’m anywhere near his standard because I’m not. He was one of the world’s best goalkeepers, but I know that to have someone like that to look up to is amazing.
“I’m only 25 but I just hope that I can help other kids by passing on the experiences that I’ve had in my life and my career that made me the person that I am.
“If I can influence just a few people, then it will be job done.”