The walk is something we all do, whether it's to the hallowed arena of Elland Road, towards a stadium in opposition territory fuelled by blind faith and high spirits, or even up Wembley Way - it’s part of our matchday experience, and it’s something most of us take for granted. At times, I feel I may have included myself among that number, but no longer.
For those of you who don’t know me, or are unfamiliar with my story, my name is Martin Hywood and I'm a 40-year old Leeds United fan, living with and adapting to, a life with Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy. That common passion I have for my football club and those great, good and often heartbreaking experiences, I share with you all. However, because of my condition, I'm also starting to realise that this great big thing that is such a large part of all our lives, and has been for all of our lives…for me, it’s going to change, it has to.
In all my years as a Leeds fan, I have enjoyed and will remember so much. Those early days of going to football, the enthusiasm and camaraderie of your peers, passing on the knowledge and sharing your predictions of what's to come; the drinks, the laughs, the mates. On other days, I would have nobody to go with and I would make my own way. At such a young age I felt like a stowaway, not many friends had any affection or affiliation with Leeds; sometimes it was just me, alone - it was like my own statement of independence - and it felt brilliant!
A bus from my place to Milton Keynes, the National Express 561 service to Leeds, then a walk from the coach, down to Elland Road with just enough cash for a pint in The Peacock, before that familiar journey back down south, with the thoughts of the game rattling around my fuzzy head. Often, I would have shouted myself hoarse and by the time I got home I would be absolutely shattered, but I'd still be unable to resist the lure of Match of the Day, savouring the chance to go over and analyse what I'd seen that afternoon. Gary Speed's goal against Derby to make it 3-0. Those moments.
The away days were a different proposition altogether; it was like being let off the leash. As a supporter, many such trips were the best of days, I even had the added luxury that at times, I didn't have to travel as far. So whether it was getting off early at West Brompton tube to go for drinks before a Chelsea fixture, invading the pitch dressed as a banana on a final day trip to Highfield Road, or the short trek from the retail park in Northampton to get to Sixfields, twice in one week. Those away days, and so many more were ace, and I walked to every one of them.
But times are changing for me. The spontaneity of the walk to the game is no longer a viable option; there are no more pub crawls or relying on public transport to hop on and off of. Practicality dictates my plans these days. Every home game, I try to get to the Wesley Street car park early and secure a spot as close to the bottom as possible, just so I can get to my seats in the East Stand quickly, and in the fewest number of steps possible.
These days I also find myself the mentor. I'm a Daddy and I have my girls looking up to me as the one to tell them all that’s going on at the football. I'm the man, apparently. I've always been a big advocate on social media about getting young ones to football regardless of club, so to abandon Elland Road would go against everything I feel and stand for. Nevertheless, I do travel there now in the knowledge that my match day experience can no longer be what it once was.
In truth, I wasn't the first to notice the profound effect my muscular dystrophy was beginning to exert upon me, it was my eight year old daughter, Olivia. It was earlier this year when Huddersfield were the visitors; for many it was a game that evokes fond memories, a five goal victory representing a high point in a largely desperate season. Olivia was very much of the same mind; as the goals flew in, she was going crazy, absolutely loving it. Up and down she was, singing and dancing - a fantastic sight to behold.
Then, after Mowatt's goal, the fifth for Leeds, she turned to me and said:
"Five goals, Dad…and you haven't stood up once! You've always said Leeds fans stand and sing, they never sit down!”
The fact of the matter was, I simply wasn't physically able to do so. I felt that all the energy I had, I needed to preserve, just for our walk back to Wesley Street. Olivia’s comments…they were not something I reacted to on the day, but those words have since gotten under my skin, have kept me thinking and ultimately stiffened my resolve to remain determined and persistent, regardless of my circumstances.
Sadly, I have to accept that those cherished away days are something that I must now almost totally consign to the past. I cannot predict that other grounds will have handrails en route to the seats, or something for me to lean on - simple things like that. Not every club has such an accommodating disabled liaison officer as Leeds United do either. I have still had a few away trips in recent times, thanks entirely to friends and contacts at other clubs knowing about my condition, but the undeniable fact for me is that climbing steps is just no longer a practical option. Abandoning Elland Road however, that remains out of the question.
I refer to my own condition as 'My Muscular Dystrophy’, because from what I've seen, many other people with the same condition have been affected in far more debilitating ways, so a lot of the time I actually feel extremely fortunate. While I have no idea what the future holds, what I do know is that right now, I have an opportunity, a chance to raise awareness of this condition for younger families, and in turn, raise some funds for vital research.
Between the 24th and 30th August, people all over the UK will be volunteering and fundraising as part of the ‘Move a Mile for Muscles’ campaign; those involved will be doing so in a multitude of different ways, whether swimming, juggling, rowing or whatever else they should choose.
Inspired as I am by my daughter’s words, to not give up on watching Leeds United, I only felt it appropriate that my own challenge should represent that. So for one day, I plan to abandon the relative comfort of the short journey from Wesley Street to the East Stand and instead, walk a mile to Elland Road, to watch my beloved Leeds United, and I want to embark on that trek with as many of my friends and fellow fans as possible.
it takes 200 muscles to take one step, what if those muscles are deteriorating or maybe not there at all any more? I can hardly walk 10 steps without feeling the pain immediately. The fear of falling, fatigue and burning I feel in my thighs, hips and lower back is indescribable and there will be so many messages from my body telling me to stop... I won't.
This will be my marathon, my Iron man, my Mile for Muscles.
I really would appreciate it if you could do this with me… Marching On Together!
You can read my JG page and donate here
Join us at Holbeck Moor park, 12:45, Saturday 30th August. One mile walk to Billy’s statue, Elland Road.
You can read my blog at http://martinhywood.blogspot.co.uk/ also you can follow me @HywoodMartin and The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign @TargetMD on Twitter.