As a sports fan, working in sports marketing was a dream for Mike Reilly. After selling his business to a top 20 marketing firm, he went on to work with some of the biggest names in English football. With his CV containing the likes of Manchester United, Fulham and Watford, it may have seemed a curious decision to take on a non-executive director role at a little known national governing body (NGB).
“A close friend of my wife’s mentioned to me about the position as a non-executive director at Goalball UK and I was rather hesitant at first. I had no idea what the sport was and really didn’t know if this type of role at an NGB would be suitable for me.”
But Mike was persuaded, and he quickly attended a training session.
“I had the same response that so many people do when they first experience goalball, I was completely engrossed by it. The players caught my attention the most, their talent and passion for the game was incredible. I was hooked!”
Mike joined Goalball UK nine months after it was formed in 2010. But in the early stages of the NGB it was experiencing numerous growing pains as it looked to establish itself. Within a year the then chairperson and chief executive had decided to move on and the organisation was at a point where it needed stability and guidance.
“On behalf of the board I met with our two key stakeholders – UK Sport and Sport England – to discuss how we could get over the present predicaments and ensure the sustainability of Goalball UK. Three parts of the organisation urgently needed addressing – financial systems and processes, governance, and internal communications. This was one of the most important meetings that we had in this period as it gave us a common goal to work towards to attempt to get everything on track.”
Mike quickly did some firefighting and then got a call from Sport England to ask if he would consider being joint chairperson and chief executive to get the organisation on a better footing.
”I was again initially reluctant to take on more responsibility at Goalball UK, but at the same time I did feel like it was something I had to do to take the organisation forward. Thankfully things progressed very quickly, we gained the confidence of our two critical stakeholders and they became willing to support us.”
“Governance, not my favourite subject, was an interesting one. After a lot of hard work, we managed to jump from red, with the danger of being closed down, to a greenlight status, which was the envy of many other sports. It was curious to be approached by much more established NGBs for advice on how to improve their own practices!”
Shortly after steadying the ship, another colossal task was on the horizon for Mike – the London Paralympics.
“It was imperative that there was a Great Britain team at the Paralympics on home soil. We knew that we had the talent within our ranks, but the performances leading up to the Games hadn’t really represented that. The British Paralympics Association (BPA) needed assurances that the teams were not going to be out of their depth on the biggest stage of them all.”
“I recall producing many presentations for the BPA about the progress both the men and women were making and why they deserved to be in the competition. We really did everything we could to convince them of the quality in the squad. All the hard work of the Goalball UK staff and players came down to a simple yes or no from the BPA.”
“I was told that we would be informed of their decision at noon on a certain day. As soon as the clock struck midday my phone rang and I will never forget that phone call, it was one of the most nerve-racking moments in my career.”
“Before I could speak, they said, ” Mike, I have two pieces of good news for you… ” and at that moment the sense of relief I felt was not like anything I had ever experienced. All the hard work everyone had put in had paid off and we were going to the Paralympics with two teams!”
For Mike, being at the Paralympics with the Great Britain goalball teams was one of the highlights of his tenure. However, in typical British fashion, the teams did not go about it in an easy way.
“We proved many people wrong at the Paralympics and showed that we can compete with the best goalball teams in the world. The women’s side, in particular, exceeded all our expectations making it into the quarter-finals.”
“The drama of that quarter-final game was incredible. The team was so close to progressing but were eventually undone by a golden goal. At the end of the game I was initially deflated, but also filled with such an enormous sense of pride, not just because of the sensational performances, but for the entire organisation that had got us to this point.”
“Hearing the immense crowd packed in the Copper Box cheering on our teams and our sport was a real vindication of what we had been striving to achieve. What we managed to do in such a short space of time was a mammoth effort. But it is something I would happily do again to see the look on the players’ faces as they walked out on to the court to represent their country at the world’s biggest competition.”
Alongside the highs on the international stage, Mike knew that to grow goalball in the UK and to have another shot at Paralympic glory, the grassroots side of the game needed to be reformed to give better stability and the best opportunity for talented athletes emerging from their local clubs.
“After the exposure we received from the performances at the Paralympics we knew that there could be a boost in people wanting to take up the sport. It was important to give the best possible experience to those people that came into goalball. We wanted to create a legacy and needed them to continue playing after the buzz of the Paralympics had died down.”
Mike and the Goalball UK team also introduced the End of Season tournament, which to this day is a staple of the goalball calendar.
“I loved the End of Season tournament we introduced for all the clubs across the country. It gave each player the opportunity from all levels to come together to celebrate everything goalball was about. The annual event also allowed us to reflect on how the game was growing, share what was going on regionally and offer ideas about what else could be done.”
Looking back on the last decade of goalball in the UK, Mike notes how much the game had changed for the better, from the grassroots to the elite level.
“Goalball appears much faster and more competitive than I imagined it would be when I started working in the sport. The teams and structure that are now in place mean we can get more people playing and nurture the talent coming through. My overall ambition when I started was to boost the numbers playing because I saw early on what a positive impact it can have for those with no or limited sight.”
“I’m proud we came up with the tagline ‘Transforming People’s Lives’, it really says it all. Goalball provides such a fantastic opportunity for visually impaired people to connect with each other alongside keeping fit and active. To see the foundations that we put in place, how the NGB has developed and expanded is so satisfying.”
“Of course, it is fundamentally all about the participants – incredible individuals passionate and awe inspiring. I still keep very much up-to-date with everything that is going on within the world of goalball and I love hearing about the amazing achievements of the clubs and players up and down the country”
When the time came for Mike to move on from his role and pass over the reins, the VI community made a lasting impression on him. This led him to start volunteering with The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.
“Even though I am not involved with goalball anymore, the community of remarkable people continues to amaze me. I still wanted to give back, so I decided to volunteer as a sighted guide. So, once a week I take a person that has issues with their sight out and about to help them to become more active and independent.”
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