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Patron Gareth Southgate has paid a surprise visit to the Armed Forces community to show his support for the 'Veterans War' - Help for Heroes’ new campaign to highlight the hidden wars UK veterans and their families are facing, long after a conflict has ended.

It gave the England manager the chance to reflect on the common ground between those coping with the end of a military or sporting career, and the devastating potential that can have for a loss of identity. Gareth said: “While the lived experiences are obviously different, there is common ground post-career in having to start again and find a new sense of belonging.”

Help for Heroes Ambassador, Gareth Southgate
Help for Heroes Ambassador, Gareth Southgate - Help for Heroes

He is the newest Patron to join forces with the Charity which says thousands of veterans are still struggling with painful injuries, mental trauma, isolation and more and is referring to the situation as the ‘Veterans War’.

As well as meeting veterans and their families, he put his sporting skills to the test by having a go at archery and firing a crossbow at our regular multi-sports activity day at the Anderton Centre near Chorley, Lancashire.

Meeting Geoffrey Hargreaves

One of the first veterans he met was fellow England player, Geoffrey Hargreaves, 73, from the outskirts of Oldham, who was a radio engineer in the Army and served three tours in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles in the 1970s.

Gareth Southgate meets veteran Geoffrey Hargreaves
Gareth Southgate meets Geoffrey Hargreaves - Help for Heroes

Playing in the big league

Whilst stationed at Catterick barracks in North Yorkshire, his Sergeant Major and football team manager, George Kyle, approached the manager of nearby Leeds United and the manager of Gareth's former club, Middlesbrough Football Club, to ask if his squad of soldiers could play against their youth teams.

An away game at Elland Road was followed by a match against Boro’s youth team and their manager, Jack Charlton, was presented with a plaque by the visitors from Catterick and a return leg was arranged, along with a tour of the camp. 

So in 1972, on a sports field in Catterick with no cameras or stands of supporters cheering, 22-year-old Geoffrey and his band of brothers were stunned when their opposition’s manager – and England 1966 World Cup winner - took off his tracksuit and played the second half to the delight of the home team.

George Kyle presenting Jack Charlton with the plaque
George Kyle presenting Jack Charlton with the plaque - Georffrey Hargreaves

Still got the skills

More than 50 years later, Geoffrey’s love of the beautiful game is just as strong – he now plays in the England Veterans over 70s and plays for Curzon Ashton Football Club against players in their 30s. “I still want to win and I’m just as competitive now, it’s all about the challenge,” he said.

Geoffrey was involved in a car accident six years ago when he was shunted from behind by a transit van travelling at speed which triggered flashbacks from what he’d experienced in Northern Ireland.

“From then I became very isolated, and I would disappear for days at a time,” he explained. He was introduced to Help for Heroes and is now a regular at its outdoor activity days in the North-West aimed at the Armed Forces community. “I really enjoy being outside, so I love these activity days, especially the camaraderie. Having Gareth Southgate turn up was fantastic, he was very interested to hear about my years of playing football and I think he’s a great signing for Help for Heroes.”

Meeting Anthony Cooper

Former Kingsman Anthony Cooper’s life changed forever in Afghanistan aged 22 when he lost both legs above the knee and suffered significant injuries to his brain, eyes and hands from a roadside bomb.

Gareth Southgate meets Anthony Cooper
Gareth Southgate meets Anthony Cooper - help for Heroes

“After I was injured, I felt like I was in hell. I attempted suicide maybe four or five times. It was a cry for help. I didn’t know what else to do,” said Anthony, 35, from Chorley.

“The country might not be at war anymore, but for me it is still going on. It will be going on for the rest of my life – what I’ve seen will always be in my head. I don’t think it’s possible to just wipe that out. People were telling me that I can’t do sport because I’m blind, missing limbs, and missing the fingers on one hand. But Help for Heroes really encouraged me.”

Anthony Cooper serving
Anthony Cooper - Anthony Cooper

“Through Help for Heroes I’ve become an archery instructor, wheelchair basketball instructor, I got into climbing and I play wheelchair rugby,” he told Southgate.

Meeting John Newcombe

John Newcombe, who was injured in a blast in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, challenged Southgate to a crossbow contest and won. He has developed primary progressive multiple sclerosis and now the infantry soldier for 34 years who once ran from Bosnia to Britain, uses a wheelchair and is losing the use of his hands. Like 28,000 others, John, 60, found the Charity, which is supporting him and his partner Claire, 44, who are from Preston.

Getting the right help

She told Gareth: “When John was diagnosed with the MS, he was doing quite a lot of lorry driving at the time and his income just stopped overnight. We just had nothing, nothing at all. I just thought: “John has worked since he was 16, he has served his country so we shouldn’t be in this position, we really shouldn’t be struggling. I started looking for charities that would maybe help and came across Help for Heroes. We really struggled for a long time and then all of a sudden it was like a family came along and said, “no this isn’t right,” they helped fund two wheelchairs to let us do all the things we wanted to do.”

Gareth Southgate meets John and Claire
Gareth Southgate meets John and Claire - Help for Heroes

John explained: “On a field, whether it’s with a rifle or a football, I think you’ve got to work together, you’ve got to have that camaraderie to make the team work. Whether you’re kicking that ball or squeezing that trigger it’s got to be right. We’re both representing the same thing - King and country.”

Gareth said: “There are lots of similarities. The consequences of us losing the game are nowhere near as important as what you do but, being institutionalised almost, your identity as a person was as a soldier as ours is as a footballer. Our lads have to stop in their mid-thirties but, for some of them, if they finish with injury earlier, all of a sudden they have no other skills. I know lots of them have struggled when they have finished or later on.”

In the UK today veterans and their families are struggling with painful injuries, mental trauma, loneliness, isolation, sleepless nights, disability, inaccessible homes, and poverty.    

This is the Veterans War.  

Find out more