The club and Community Sports Trust staff came together to hold a surprise thank you and farewell breakfast event for popular CST manager John Halpin, who retires this month following 38 years of excellent service which has included spells as a player, coach, assistant manager and manager on the football side of the business, and as a wonderful ambassador and focal point for the Football In The Community and Sports Trust work done across the city and county for close to 20 years.
The morning event was somehow kept secret, with his wife Ann and family part of the conspiracy, with the club’s board and staff joined by colleagues old, current and new, with the former head of the EFL’s community branch Mike Evans also in attendance.
Ian Milburn of IM Events hosted the breakfast, with incoming community manager James Tose chief conspirator in making sure that Halpy was first kept away from, and then delivered to, the gathering in Foxy’s Restaurant thinking that he was attending a bog-standard weekly meeting, only to be greeted by a sea of familiar faces.
It’s not often that a standing ovation opens an event, but that was the case when the star of the show walked through the door with a genuine look of shock on his face … and an argument was clearly in the offing when he spotted wife Ann and his daughter looking rather sheepish with the part they’d played in the subterfuge.
“It’s fantastic for me to be part of this,” Ian Milburn told the assembled guests. “On a personal note, I signed schoolboy forms with the club back in 1986 and part of that was getting to watch the games for free, so I was actually in the Warwick the first time John broke his leg.
“He worked so hard to get through that, and not only was he an amazing player but he was an unbelievably good influence in the dressing room. Like a lot of the young lads I was really shy, and it was down to him that I came out of my shell.
“It was because of what he did for me and the impact he had on me as a person that I invited him to my wedding.”
Next up to speak was chief executive Nigel Clibbens.
“It’s a privilege for all of us to be here this morning to show John just how much he means to us,” he said. “For so many years he has been inspirational, no matter what the circumstances.
“All football clubs go through peaks and troughs, and it can’t be understated just how much he’s done to help to bring a feelgood factor, and that’s consistently day after day after day.
“I’ve been involved in football for just over 10 years now and I’ve met all kinds of people, from so-called superstars to those who come and go, and those who talk a good game.
“In this business you can count on one hand people who are like John. He’s been involved in this industry through his whole working life and what we’ve found is that nobody has anything but a good word to say about him.
“That’s unheard of, and it reminds us why he’s special and why we’ve been lucky to have him. It’s also why it’s important to let him know how much we think of him.”
Vice chair of the Trust, Jemma Nicholson, then spoke on behalf of the Trustees, who have all worked closely with John for a number of years.
“On behalf of all of the Trustees I would like to say thank you to John for the hard work he’s done to make the Community Sports Trust what it is today,” she said. “He’s been a role model and a fine leader, and the success the organisation has enjoyed has been down to his input and guidance.
“Our chairman Jim Mitchell would have loved to have been here, but he has sent this message – Halpy, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity of giving you my heartfelt thanks.
“As Trustees we have all seen the passion and commitment you have brought to your role, and everybody connected with the Trust owes you a huge debt of gratitude for the way you have developed the activities we participate in by facing the many challenges of changing times and needs with enthusiasm and vigour.
“You will be greatly missed, but both you and Ann deserve the chance you now have to enjoy life away from football.”
Director John Nixon, who was previously chairman of the EFL Trust, spoke about the importance of the club’s vibrant outreach programme in terms of building links around and within the local community.
“I’ve worked closely with John for many years, and it’s a privilege to be able to say thank you to him on behalf of the staff for everything he’s done for this club,” he said.
“What a lot of people may not see are the invisible lines that are built between the club and the community through the work the Community Sports Trust does.
“John has built that from an extremely small base back in 2004 to what it is now, with the soccer camps and schools now augmented by a very wide range of activities and programmes, from mental health, work with veterans, futsal, NCS, and a wealth of educational provisions all the way up to degree level.
“Under his management it has become a fantastic organisation and its positive impact is immeasurable.
“I’ve seen first-hand the impact it can have, and this is the greatest tribute I can pay to John and the Trust. I have a grandson who has been diagnosed as autistic, and he comes up to Carlisle twice a year.
“We took him along to a soccer school at Harraby and attending something like that is a big thing for him, because it’s high levels of noise that can sometimes be overwhelming for him.
“When we first arrived we could see it was too much, and he said he wanted to go home. I said ok, let’s go, but he’d left his rucksack with all of the others.
“We had to walk back into the wall of noise to get it, so I decided to see if he wanted to have a quick look at the pitches, where the rest of the children were playing.
“It was at that point that one of the coaches came over, started to talk to him, and persuaded him to kick a ball. I quietly sneaked away and left them to it, fully expecting to receive a call at some point during the day to go back and rescue him.
“The call didn’t come. The little fella stayed, and when I picked him up at the end of the day he was full of it. He insisted he was going back the next day because he’d scored two goals and had three assists.
“He explained that he was part of a team – Germany – and that they were doing well in their own World Cup competition. If they kept winning, there was a chance he was going to be getting a medal on the Friday.
“So, that was a problem, because the family were due to travel back home that day. Having seen how happy he was, they changed their tickets to Saturday and sure enough Germany got all the way to their final and he got his medal.
“I have to say, that experience for my grandson was transformational. It won’t cure his autism, but the community coaches and Halpy have made his life better, because of that experience and the way it did wonders for his confidence, and he now looks forward to the soccer school every time he comes up.
“This type of thing is happening all the time and the Trust just quietly gets on with it. They really should be proud of how they go about their business. John Halpin should be proud of creating that kind of thriving environment.”
“I’ve been asked if Halpy was the best signing we’ve ever made,” chairman Andrew Jenkins commented. “It has to be said, for an outlay of £10,000 back in 1984, and to get this number of years of service in return, I think he has to be right up there.
“Our chief scout Jack Watson advised Bob Stokoe to take the plunge, John was on-loan at Sunderland at the time, and we found ourselves with a really fast winger who was great on the ball – his pace was phenomenal.
“He was targeted because he used to give defences a torrid time, and unfortunately that was what led to the injuries he suffered.
“I’m very proud to say that I can take credit for one of the best goals we’ve ever seen scored here at Brunton Park. We were due to play Blackburn and we were expecting a lot of their fans to travel, along with our own home supporters who were geared up to come along.
“It was unusual back in those days for referees to show any kind of concern, but the pitch was in a terrible state. At midday on the day of the game I was asked by the ref to go onto the pitch – he wasn’t happy at all, he felt it was so boggy and soft with all the rain we’d had that it was going to be a farce.
“I had Bob Stokoe in one ear saying it should be off, and the match officials in the other saying the same. I told them that with so many fans coming we had to keep it on, and that it needed to be played.
“The game was kept on, and Bob was furious. He wouldn’t even look at me. Well, Halpy got me off the hook. He picked the ball up in our own half, went round I don’t know how many players, and scored a wonderful solo goal.
“At the Monday board meeting Bob told the directors that if we’d lost he was coming for me! And he would have as well.
“As a footballer and a person John is a real example to us all. I’m grateful to Paul Simpson for bringing him back all those years ago, and he is now well and truly part of the Carlisle United family.
“I’m delighted to confirm that Halpy has agreed to act as an ambassador for the club, which means we’ll be seeing him here with us on match days.”
Manager Paul Simpson was next to speak.
“I think it’s important for me to point out that we’ve all heard how great he’s been as a player, assistant manager, manager, coach and community representative, but nobody has mentioned the fact that, if the stories are true, and I’m sure they are, he’s also the entertainments lead on nights out!” he joked.
“The best thing anyone can say about John, and we’ve heard it already from everybody who has spoken so far, is that he’s just a bloody good bloke that we all feel a positive affinity with.
“When we brought him back to the club in 2004 there was absolutely nothing in place on the community side that could compare to what it is now. John and his staff have done a wonderful job, and the really impressive thing is that they’re always looking to do more.
“The focus at any football club is always on players, but without the rest of the staff the club simply can’t function. The community work is a huge part of that.
“John has been at the forefront of building it up and he knows he now leaves it in good hands. For us, I spoke to the chairman about the importance of having good people around us, and I’m delighted to hear that he will be acting as an ambassador. It’s a role he’s made for.”
A series of video messages followed from his grandchildren and former colleagues including Graham Anthony, Ian Bishop, Ian Dalziel, Paul Gorman, Brent Hetherington, Nigel Pearson and Paul Proudlock – with some really interesting anecdotes shared, to say the least!
A very emotional John Halpin was then invited to take the floor.
“Where do I start, this is just amazing,” he said. “I need to say thank you to my wife Ann, who has put up with me for 38 years [spontaneous applause], she’s been magnificent for me.
“I’d also like to thank the chairman for bringing me here – I always knew he could spot a player! He’s been there for me on a personal and professional level, and he knows how highly I think of him.
“That’s the same with Tony Bingley, who is sadly no longer with us. He stayed with me down in Cardiff after I broke my cheekbone and I had to go to hospital, and a lifelong friendship was sparked on the journey back up.
“To the Trustees, they have given me the licence to do what I do, and the CST wouldn’t be what it is without their guidance and support.
“The staff at the Trust, old and new, they’re the ones I really need to thank. I do the moaning, they do the work. They’re a wonderful bunch of people.
“And James Tose, he’s been right beside me for so many years and I know he’ll take this forward even more now that he’s at the head of it.
“There are still people like Sarah McKnight, Dave Wilkes and Dolly who were here when I was here in the 80s and 90s, they’ve become real friends.
“Thank you to Paul Simpson and Fred Story for believing in me, they talked to me in 2004 and I have to be honest and say that I had no interest in coming back to the club at that point. I actually really didn’t want to, but Paul took time to speak to me and it ended up being the best decision I ever made.
“It’s been a privilege to work here. Every day you wake up wanting to go to work, and I don’t think there are too many people who can say that.
“I wish everybody the best of luck, I look forward to seeing you around the place on a match day … and please don’t believe anything you heard in those video messages, it was all a load of nonsense!”