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Much more than just a safe pair of hands! How Alec Chamberlain used the positive power of football to help my son

By Nicki Hattingh

In early 1998 my son, William, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Dyscalculia (inability to make sense of numbers in maths). Will was quite a handful and was unable to concentrate on anything. School was obviously a problem because of his erratic behaviour, he had few friends and very low self-esteem.

In April 1999 Will became interested in Watford (as the local team) at a time they were receiving much TV publicity as they challenged for a play-off place for promotion to the Premiership.

As a rugby family, we had very little experience of football - that was the game with the funny shaped round ball! - but Will was definitely becoming an enthusiast. He scoured all the papers for any piece of information on the Watford squad - which was good, because he'd read very little in the past, as reading had always been difficult for him.

We also discovered that Will could suddenly do maths! If we asked the goal difference between two teams, Will could work out the mathematics of it. Using football as a hook and a tool for learning became part of our arsenal of ways to help Will with his schoolwork.

It was at this point that we decided to bite the bullet and take him to his first football match to see the game at first hand. Watford had won the play-offs by then and so our first venture into the world of Premiership football was for the Manchester United away match, which was transmitted live onto a screen at Vicarage Road. Will was mesmerised by the crowd and the atmosphere, taking in several hot dogs and hamburgers as part of the package. It was on this day that Will decided he was a Watford fan and that he couldn't possibly miss another game.

Poor Mum! After re-arranging the lives of the rest of the family, we embarked on an exciting journey, which was to change the lives of our whole family and make us a family friend, to whom we will all be eternally grateful.

William soon discovered that our Season Tickets should be bought on the front row of the East Stand as close to the tunnel as possible. The reason? Will had a new hero.

Alec Chamberlain had impressed Will during those first few games at Vicarage Road and after one particular game, Alec threw his gloves into the crowd on leaving the pitch and Will caught them. That was it - his one ambition now in life was to be a goalkeeper.

William attended every training session and school holiday programme that the then Families, Youth & Community Department held. He quickly became well known throughout the club's staff, and Watford FC became his whole life.

An impending school project had Mum writing to Graham Taylor to ask if any information on Alec could be given to Will for his school assembly. William was not only given lots of information and photos, but also received a letter from the great man himself saying he would be pleased if William could go to the stadium to interview him.

The amount of research Will did on Alec before the interview surprised us all. He was focussed and worked really hard. He was so excited to go to the stadium and meet Alec personally, he could hardly eat breakfast.

Alec was wonderful. He patiently waited for Will to ask his questions and write down the answers and then he walked Will round the stadium taking photos in the dug-out, and took Will into the dressing rooms to show him around. All the time, Alec was asking Will how he was doing at school and encouraging him to work hard. Advice was given on how to be a good footballer and especially what was needed to be a great goalie.

From that day on, anything Alec said was gospel in our house. Matchdays became a day that Will could see his hero in action. Poor Mum had to be at the stadium with Will at 1.30pm for when the gates opened as Will didn't want to miss one minute of real football time. Alec would come out of the tunnel for his warm up and ALWAYS ruffle Will's hair and ask how schoolwork and the football team were doing.

The whole family, not just Mum and Will, had to watch Watford play whenever it was possible. Friends were recruited to join us on matchdays at The Vic and Will sold Alec and Watford to anyone who would listen.

Will's concentration and behaviour improved as he became absorbed in a hobby that kept him occupied every spare minute of the day. He became very knowledgeable on football and made friends at school because of his knowledge and passion for a game they could all relate to.

Will's friendship with the Watford keeper had his school mates in awe. Will sponsored Alec's shirt for a number of years and they all hang proudly, signed and with Alec's gloves, in the den at home.

Will's memory improved as he remembered key dates in Watford's history and the final scores of games gone by. He remembered Alec's birthday and made him a card every year. He also remembered to wrap a chocolate orange for Alec on the last home game before Christmas.

Alec was always the gentleman and appreciated everything Will did for him. He always had time. He always had a smile and a word of encouragement. He was always there for Will.

In January 2003 we received the devastating news that Will had a bone tumour and had to have a rib removed. During Will's stay in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, his room was draped in Watford flags and photos of Alec and the rest of the team.

After coming round from his anaesthetic on the Saturday afternoon, Will wanted to know if Watford had won their game that day. His overnight stay in Intensive Care was brought sharply to a halt when he insisted they return him to his room so that he could watch Goals on Sunday and see Alec in action.

Later that week, it was Alec that turned up at the hospital after training, to chat and give encouragement to this little Watford fan that loved him so much. Alec's wife, Jane, had bought Will a wonderful present and Alec brought cards signed by the whole squad to wish him well. This commitment to one little fan was always above and beyond the call of duty.

At a time of excess in football, when players are often maligned for their lack of integrity and loyalty, it is wonderful to find a player like Alec, who has committed so much of his time, energy and professional life to one football club. We, as a family, are really grateful that club was Watford.

Alec is not only a consummate professional, but a wonderful husband to Jane, and father to Natasha and Ryan - and a very much valued friend to William.

We are delighted that Alec has been awarded a Testimonial this year and we wish Alec, Jane, Natasha and Ryan continued success and happiness in the future.

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