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Meet the real-life hero helping inspire England's World Cup stars

9:19 pm AEST 18/6/18
Andy Grant
Andy Grant has a remarkable story to tell - and Gareth Southgate asked him to tell it to his players and staff at St George's Park recently

The challenge for Gareth Southgate and his England players as they prepare for their World Cup campaign is a simple one.

Make yourself heroes.

Success in Russia, in whatever shape that was to arrive, would be life-changing. Footballing glory, after all, is what this country longs for. How many ‘years of hurt’ are we up to now?

The pressure will be huge, no doubt. Expectation heading into the tournament may not be as high as in previous years, but watch how quickly that changes. Boom or bust is what the national team deals in, with little in between.

If there’s one thing football can never have too much of, though, it is perspective. Perhaps that can help explain the role Andy Grant has played in England’s World Cup preparations. Footballers as heroes? Real heroes? Have a word.

Andy is a 30-year-old Liverpudlian with a remarkable story to tell; one of terror and misfortune, courage and determination, darkness and light. One he was invited to tell, earlier this month, to Southgate and his squad at St George’s Park.

“It was surreal, to be honest,” he tells Goal. “The England team have developed a relationship with the Royal Marines – they came to do some training last year – and on this occasion [Southgate] thought it’d be a good idea to get a few of us in to talk to the squad and spend the day with them. Who's going to say no to that?!”

Andy was just 20 when he awoke in a Birmingham hospital bed, following 10 days in a coma. He had blown up during a routine foot patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, suffering the most horrific of injuries. He had a broken sternum, a broken leg, a broken elbow and shrapnel lodged in both forearms. He had a severed femoral artery, nerve damage to his hands and feet and deep, gaping wounds in both of his cheeks. How he had survived is anyone’s guess.

After 18 months working his way back towards health – growing back six centimetres of shattered bone in his leg in the process – Andy took the biggest, most incredible decision of his life. He would, against his dad’s wishes and doctor’s orders, have his right leg amputated below the knee.

“It was obviously a big decision,” he says with unintentional understatement. “But for me it came down to the way I wanted to live my life.

“I’d always prided myself on being fit and active, being in the Marines, running, swimming, climbing mountains, you name it. The reason I joined the Marines was because they said 99.9 per cent of people need not apply; I wanted to be part of the 0.1 per cent.

“So to go from that to being happy just to be able to walk again, it wasn’t me. I wanted to live the life I’d had with two legs, so I chose to go with the amputation.”

That was in November 2010, and in the seven-and-a-half years since, Andy’s life has come full circle. There were the initial bouts of depression, and a spell where he admits he drank and gambled too much – “I felt I had no worth,” he says, “nothing to get up for” - then a period of introspection. “Taking ownership of your own life,” he calls it. He certainly did that.

In 2013 he became the world’s fastest single-leg amputee, setting a new 10km record of 37 minutes and 17 seconds. The following year he won two gold medals and a bronze at the Invictus Games for injured servicemen and women, held in London.

Now, he is a motivational speaker and has just released a new book. It’s title ‘You’ll Never Walk’ is a reference to both his love of Liverpool Football Club, and the tattoo on his leg which was cut short by the 2010 surgery.

His first public speaking gigs, he tells Goal, came courtesy of his former school, St Wilfrid's. 

“They used to ask me to go in and give a quick talk about being in the Marines,” Andy says. “It’d be dead informal, jeans and T-shirt, 20 minutes and away you go.

“Then after what happened to me, they asked me to give another but to wear my medals and my uniform. This time it was in Bootle Town Hall in front of 700 people! I thought I’d better get practising for this one!

“The main thing for me is that I never want to sound like Uncle Albert off Only Fools and Horses, always giving it the ‘during the war’. My story is one of tears and laughs, and I admit that I enjoy taking people on that journey. It gives me a buzz, an adrenaline rush if you like, and I never thought I’d get that kind of thing.”

Football was, and remains, a huge part of Andy’s life. He remembers Jamie Carragher, one of his idols and a fellow Bootle lad, being among the first to visit him after his return from hospital. Carragher remains a good friend, while the likes of Jordan Henderson, Robbie Fowler and Steven Gerrard have all lent their support.

At St George’s Park, Andy and two other former Marines were asked by Southgate to give a 20-minute talk to his squad and backroom staff.

“We’d all lost a leg in different circumstances,” he says. “Two of us had been blown up and one was in an RTA, but the thing was that we’d all taken ownership of our lives and gone on to achieve X, Y and Z.

“We gave our speech and then we went out on the field and did a few warm-ups with the players, jogging and stuff. Then we had another 15-minute session in smaller groups, where the players could ask us anything they wanted about our lives or our situations, a bit more informal. At one point, I took my leg off and passed it round so they could have a look. It was pretty relaxed.

“Then came a game of football. I don’t think the players were necessarily expecting me to be able to play, but when I did a rainbow flick I saw the looks on their faces! There was a point where me, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford were playing two-touch, keeping the ball in the air for a couple of minutes. Like I say, a bit surreal but a great experience.”

The perception of young, millionaire footballers is not always a positive one, but Andy speaks highly of the way in which Southgate and his squad treated him during his day with them.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” he says. “The barriers were broken down pretty quickly, and they were comfortable asking me about what had happened. It’s not always easy for people to ask, but I’d rather they did.

“What came across to me most was that these were just young lads, pleasant lads who were interested in finding out a bit more about us. I enjoyed it.”

He describes the process of writing his book, along with local journalist Phil Reade, as “cathartic”.

“I didn’t realise how much I needed to talk about these things until I started,” he said. “Once I got going it just came flooding out – Phil and I would be sat crying our eyes out in pubs across Liverpool! But I owe him so much, he’s helped me massively and I can’t thank him enough.”

The pain and the loss will always be a huge part of Andy’s story, of course, but there is much more to it besides. His three-year-old daughter Alba, for example, is a shining light.

“I was told when I came round in hospital that I would never be able to have children,” Andy says. “I never told anyone that for a long time, maybe because of pride or something.

“But I was lucky enough, through IVF with my former partner, to find a sperm donor and incredibly it worked. Now Alba is growing up knowing only a normal life.

“The kids in the street ask why I only have one leg and she tells them ‘he got blown up by the baddies!’ We go swimming and she holds my leg while I get in the pool. She knows no different, and I love that.

“She inspires me to live my life and to try and show her there’s no limit to what you can achieve. I hate people who have excuses and blame other people. I hope that she sees how I live my life and it can give her a similar kind of mentality.”

As for the future, that remains something of a blank canvas right now. Andy ran his first marathon earlier this year, and this week is walking from Liverpool to Leeds. Both are to raise money for a friend’s son, Mark, who was born with a birth defect and, like Andy, had his leg amputated.

“I was lucky in that I got the best care and the best prosthetics,” Andy says. “Not everyone is quite so fortunate, so I’m hoping, with the small platform I have been able to get, we can raise awareness and a little bit of money to help the family. At present, we’ve got just over £5,000 in donations, which is incredible.”

He's not wrong. Andy's story serves as an inspiration to all - he has been inundated with messages since the book was released - and hopes his honesty and openness will encourage others to share and to strive to be the best they can be, regardless of circumstance.

“I want the book to be as successful as possible,” he says. “Then after that, it’s back to the drawing board I guess! I don’t want to stand still, I want to keep pushing myself and moving forward.

“The message in the book is this; you don’t have to go to Afghanistan and get blown up to realise life can be sh*t. It throws all kinds at you, every single day.

“But you can overcome it all. If telling my story can inspire people to believe they can overcome obstacles, and that they can achieve things no matter what, then I’ve done my job.”

He’s a remarkable man, is Andy Grant. And if Gareth Southgate and his players can show half of his courage and character over the next few weeks, then England could be in for a very good summer.

Andy’s book, ‘You’ll Never Walk’ is available now from deCoubertin, priced £15.99.