It is early July in the summer of 1991. I am 26 years of age, a qualified Chartered Surveyor but still an auctioneer learning his trade. My only hobby is playing rugby but last season was very hard. My right knee has been hurting badly for months. I am playing on a Saturday then hardly able to train through the week. My coaches think I am being lazy. In the end I decide to visit my doctor and I am referred to a specialist. He says I have cartilage damage and need surgery. There is a waiting list and I may have to wait six months. I tell him that I have private medical insurance and he tells me he can do it next week.
I am admitted to a private hospital in Carlisle in less than one week. The surgeon tells me that he will perform open knee surgery. I ask him why he can’t do keyhole as I know other rugby players who have had this type of non- invasive surgery performed and their recovery was extremely swift. That operation is not possible in this hospital or so I am told. I am then reassured that the operation will be straightforward and that my cartilage will be tidied up. I am guaranteed to be back on the pitch and fully fit by October at the latest.
I am pre- opped, anesthetised and sent down to surgery. The next thing I remember is waking up in a recovery room. My injured leg is elevated and wrapped in a huge bandage. A nurse is repeatedly smacking me on the back of my hand and telling me to wake up. My eyes focus and I see a large print on the wall. It is an old farmer pal of mine from Ennerdale called John Hind. He is pictured in a show line up, proudly holding on to a Herdwick Tup. I keep trying to focus on John but he is blurry.
“Adam, what are you looking at?” questions the nurse. I am still concentrating on John.
“Adam!” The nurse now has an edge to her voice.
“You see that man there” I croak. “I know him, he’s my friend”
“Yes of course he is” I sense her tone and realise she doesn’t believe a word I am saying.
“I know that man” I respond.
“Yes of course you do”.
“No… I really do. He’s called John”.
“Yes of course he is”.
Then the pain hits me. My knee is burning with pain. I can’t move my leg one centimetre without agony. I desperately need to pass water but I just can’t do it in to a cardboard bottle while lying down. I try and try but I can’t push water uphill.
Eventually I realise I must sit up and get my legs over the bed to do it. The nurse doesn’t want me to. I insist. So she and my girlfriend Paula, later to be my wife, drag me up and lift both my legs over the side of the bed. The pain makes me scream but I have to do it. I manage to pass water and the relief is fantastic but then my legs have to be lifted back on to the bed. I have to scream again.
I spend 4 days having to do this until eventually the surgeon arrives and removes the bandage. My knee is grotesquely swollen but the stitched up wound is clean.
“Bloody hell what happened?” I ask the surgeon
“Ah well when I got in there, your entire lateral meniscus was in flakes, so I whipped it all out”.
“But I didn’t ask you to do all that”
“Ah well I had to and you did sign the consent form. I’m afraid your recovery will take longer but when it’s healed you should be able to play rugby until you’re at least thirty. However you will most definitely suffer from ostio –arthritis by the time you are 40. I’m pretty sure we will have a cure by then” He smiles as he whips round and leaves the room.
Exactly one year later, my knee has not healed. I have not managed to run a step in that time. The pain never goes away. Any exercise produces massive swelling around the knee. I re- visit the surgeon and he tells me it is just one of those things. Some people heal and some don’t. Then he delivers a bomb shell. Unless this knee finally heals up in the next few weeks, I am going to have to accept that my rugby career is over.
He sends me on my way in shell shock. The following day I get a bill from him to add to the £4,000 paid out by my insurers. It is £1500 for rehabilitation and after- care. I write him a stinging letter telling him why he will not get another penny from me.
Two months later and my knee is finally feeling a little better. I pluck up the courage to go for a gentle run. I expect the worst but the next day, my knee does not swell and I am ok. I start to build up the runs and my leg is getting stronger. Soon I get back to training and eventually I start to play again. My knee never heals properly again. From then on after every game my knee swells to an enormous size. I keep persevering and I am getting through games and training but my knee is now permanently swollen, all the time.
I love my rugby so much that I play a few seasons for Aspatria in the National Leagues before returning to Penrith I keep on playing in to my late 30’s. By now my knee has deteriorated and I run with a permanently shortened stride but I can still play, so I keep going as long as I can. Eventually with a young family in tow, I give in. I hate not playing, sitting at home on a Saturday not able to visit the rugby club to watch games. I have started to sing in a band so that is an ocassional distraction.
It is the autumn of 2006. I am forty one years old. It is a Saturday morning. The previous day I sold several hundred suckled calves in Cockermouth market, a hard and long day’s graft. It is the last big autumn sale of the season. I could do with a release, may be a few pints in the pub tonight.
The phone rings and it is my old rugby pal John Sealby. He is the same age as me. He still plays rugby every week for Penrith 3rd XV. He tells me that they need a front row replacement for a league fixture away at Ambleside in the heart of the Lake District. They will only use me if they really need to. My heart begins to pound. A game of rugby, after all these years!
I am ratching about under the stairs when Paula catches me.
“What are you doing?”
Looking for my rugby boots”
“You’ve got to be joking”
“Well you are a …… idiot”
She doesn’t speak to me until I am picked up by the lads. The deal is supposed to be that if we are winning comfortably, they give me a 10 minute run out at the end, buy me a beer or two in the clubhouse and give me at least four stops on the drive home from Ambleside to Penrith. We settle on The Travellers Rest, Grasmere; the Kings Head, Thirlmere; The White Horse, Threlkeld and The Sportsman’s Inn, Penruddock. All of this is agreed. I have to be home by 8pm for X Factor or I won’t be spoken to for most of the following day either.
We arrive at Ambleside to find that there is no referee and three people haven’t turned up for Penrith. An Ambleside committee man agrees to Ref but admits he doesn’t really know a lot of the new laws. I am happy to hear it because neither do I. However the bad news is that we only have three front row players and one of them is me. So I am in the starting line-up. The day is now going downhill.
I struggle to lean over and tie my old boots that have not seen the light of day for four years. They are dried out and won’t bend. One is missing a couple of studs. My bad knee is locked at about 70 degrees because I have so much strapping on it.
The Ambleside captain comes in and asks for a word. He tells me they don’t have an experienced front row. They have a young boy barely out of school playing hooker. Can we have a gentleman’s agreement that we all just take it steady in the scrums? I nod my head in complete and full agreement. So we run out on to the pitch which after the incessant rain of last night is most definitely water logged. In fact the corner in front of the clubhouse is actually under water.
The first and only other time I played on this ground was for Cockermouth as an 18 year old, 23 years earlier in 1983. It was December and it snowed so hard on the way home that my pal Ray Faulder who was driving, actually turned off the A66 and in to The Pheasant Inn near Bassenthwaite without realising it!
Back to 2006. The teams line up, Penrith in their traditional myrtle green and white hoops, Ambleside or “Side” as the local supporters prefer to scream are in Black with Gold cuffs. I stand to receive the ball with my boots already full of water. I am at this point beginning to agree with my wife’s last comment to me.
The whistle blows and the ball is kicked to us. We gather the ball, there is a melee and I get elbowed in the face. Then we spin the ball down the backs. There is a kick and the ball sails in to the Ambleside half. I run across the pitch towards the ball. They retrieve and spin the ball down their backs. There is another kick and the ball is again in our half. I run back across the pitch and find myself back where I started. I’ve run two widths of the pitch and I am totally knackered. I stand with hands on knees fighting for breath.
The ball is now on the far side of the pitch. The whole Penrith pack bar one, is advancing. I walk up the wing in attempt to at least be in the same half as my team. Then the ball starts to spin through the Penrith backs. Now I may be old and fat, but I can still read a game. If I can keep up with our backs and they don’t drop the ball, then there is an overlap with me on the end of it. I run as fast as my stick thin damaged old legs can carry me and sure enough the ball is delivered to me, unmarked. I have a 20 metre run in to the near corner. I waddle over and dive head long in to a 6” deep pond of cold, muddy water. On the TV you see internationals players dive over the line and slide 10 yards. I belly flop to an immediate halt. It is my first touch of a rugby ball in four years and I score in the corner.
The team is ecstatic. I am embraced and slapped on the back and I hear words like “legend” and “superstar” being uttered. I’m so exhausted I can hardly walk back to the half way line. They kick to us and we immediately knock- on. “Thank God we are taking it easy in the scrums” I think.
So we form the scrum, make our binds and I gently lean in ready to lightly make contact with my opposition. Bang! He thumps in to me so hard that he knocks the wind out of me and I see stars. He then begins to wrestle my arm, and bore in to my head with his own, growling fiercely. The scrum breaks up and I look at their captain on the other side who just shrugs his shoulders.
“Right oh” I say “let’s have it”. So I spend the next 75 minutes battling for all I am worth in the most competitive scrummaging I have had since my first team days. My try scoring run is the only time I actually touch the ball during the entire game. I am there for nuisance value, nothing more.
Later in the game, I spy young Jonathon Benson playing for Ambleside. He is a farmer’s son from Langdale that I have watched grow up from a young boy. He is passionate about Herdwick sheep and he is a decent rugby player for an 18 year old. He is aggressive and good with the ball in hands. I decide to slow him down. I find him at the bottom of a ruck and manage to rub his face in the mud. Look, don’t feel sorry for him! I’ve had it done to me plenty, and I was smiling all the time to show there was no real malice. He gets up spitting mud out of his mouth and he is smiling too.
The game finishes after what seems like an entire day. We line up by the changing room doors, clap the opposition through our tunnel of players and shout the traditional “three cheers for Ambleside”. It takes me 20 minutes to get my boots, bandages and shirt off. By the time I get to the showers, they are cold and I can’t get the claggy Lakeland mud out of my hair. Back in the changing room it takes me another 20 minutes to get dressed. My neck and back have seized up after 30 scrums and my right knee won’t straighten.
In the clubhouse, there is pie and beans which is taken with my first pint. Across from our table I spy young Benno. I call him over for a pint. This is one of the best parts of the game of rugby. No matter what has gone on during the game, back in the clubhouse, it is all forgotten. We stand at the bar and down a few pints in quick succession. Benno is not a big drinker and he is getting fairly merry already. It is not the last time over the next couple of years that our paths cross on the pitch and in the auction. He is a likeable young man and I try and support him in his early farming career as much as possible.
Soon it is time to leave. We shake hands with the opposition and make our goodbyes. Four pub stops and a couple of hours later I am home in time for X- Factor. I am so stiff I can’t move and I’ve had a few pints. I am sound asleep before the first advertising break. Never mind X Factor, It is a big “No” from the Missus…
By the middle of the following week I am still as stiff as ever and I limp around the auction. I bump in to John Hind, who now works part time in Cockermouth auction as a drover. My sore knee and his presence reminds me all those years ago of my hospital visit. I tell him the tale. “I know that man”. He laughs and says he has a copy of the self- same print.
For the rest of the rugby season, I don’t miss a game for Penrith 3rd XV. I lose two stones in weight and feel great to be a rugby player again. It also gives me much pleasure to coach some of the young players. There are certain tricks to be used in the front row that don’t get taught at school! If wasn’t for that bad knee, I would still be playing now!