Johnny Phillips: Legends turn out in force to boost charity’s coffers

Last week many legends of Midlands football congregated to help raise funds for Smile for Joel, the charity set up by Suzy Richards and her son Owen after the 2015 Tunisia terrorist attack in the resort of Sousse.

Carol Bailey
Carol Bailey

Suzy lost her son Joel, 19, brother Ade, 49, and father Pat, 78, in the attack on a tourist resort which killed 38 people, including 30 Britons.

The Dining With Legends event was also a poignant reminder of the career in football that Joel was pursuing. As a talented young referee and inspirational first Chair of Birmingham County Football Association’s Youth Council, there was every reason to hope he could fulfil his dreams of making it in the professional game.

Former Premier League referee Andy Hall was among the guests in attendance for the fundraiser at the Copthorne Hotel in Dudley.

“I was running the Birmingham Country Referees youth development programme when I met Joel,” he explained.

“He came to us as a young, up and coming referee in grassroots football. He always had a smile, which was one of those things you’d never forget.”

Another former colleague of Joel’s, Lisa Rashid, is currently an assistant referee working in Leagues One and Two, with ambitions of being selected for the Women’s European Championships in England this summer.

“I met Joel when he was an active referee like myself,” she said. “Through my work at Sandwell Leisure Trust he used to participate in some of our tournaments and was also one of our young volunteers. In the last few years I’ve managed to progress to the Football League as an assistant referee and I think Joel would have been a Football league referee by now, too.

“I’m an assistant referee to some of the colleagues he covered tournaments with prior to the attacks. In my mind he would have made it onto the Premier League in time, as he took every bit of advice on board and was prepared to work hard and develop.”

Andy hopes that this and similar events organised in Joel’s name will help inspire other youngsters to become involved in officiating, particularly in the West Midlands.

“We were on our own 30 years ago and now there are a lot more avenues for support and development,” he added. “We watch the game from the best seat in the house. It takes a lot of commitment but if you start young enough you can reach the top.”

On a night when local rivalries were put aside guests mixed with stars like Johnny Giles, Gordon Cowans, John Richards, Steve Bull, Bob Taylor, Kenny Hibbitt, Tony Morley, Ally Robertson and many more who carved out successful careers in the region.

Joel’s name also lives on through a youth football competition under the umbrella of the Birmingham County FA. The Joel Richards Memorial Cup is for youth teams at U18 level that play midweek and are in the FA Youth Cup. This year’s final will be between Solihull Moors and Boldmere St Michaels.

There was a moving speech from Joel’s brother, Owen, before dinner which highlighted the work of Smile for Joel.

“We’re so proud of the impact we’re having on families,” he explained. “You can’t change what’s happened, but you can let people know someone is there to create a smile and a bit of hope.

“We recently had a situation where a father killed the mother and the children had to go to live with the grandparents. We were able to pay for them to have a holiday in the UK.

“During Christmas alone we were able to help 63 families, sorting out Christmas presents for the children. To be able to do that in the names of Joel, my uncle Ade and my granddad Pat means the world to me and Mum.”

The event was superbly organised by Steve Saul and his team from Route 39, with a headline stage routine from former goalkeeper Mark Crossley, who regaled the audience with a series of stories about his time playing for the legendary Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest.

The excellent comic Ivan Brackenbury brought the event to a close, with over £13,500 being raised for the charity on the night alone.

Paul Merson will headline the next dinner event at the same venue on 19 May.

Visit https://smileforjoel.com for more information about how you can support and donate to the charity.

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