Young cancer patient interviews ex-Newcastle United goalkeeper

Gareth Williams, Ben Wickens and Steve Harper.

A young Rothbury goalie who has undergone a number of surgeries since his New Year’s Day cancer diagnosis has interviewed one of Newcastle United’s former keepers.

Ben Wickens, who turns eight on Saturday, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) on January 1 this year.

Steve Harper giving Ben a pair of goalkeeping gloves.

He had been fit and well up until that point and even made a double save at a football match the week before Christmas.

His diagnosis came out of the blue for his parents Claire and Mark and his 11-year-old sister Ellie.

Claire said: “Before his diagnosis, Ben was very sporty, fit and healthy. He never missed a day at school.

“We’ve only had a few days at home since New Year’s Day and it has been so difficult with Ben in and out of theatre.

Ben Wickens and Steve Harper.

“He’s been so brave and never complains but it’s very hard on him.”

Sir Bobby Robson Foundation patron and former Magpies stopper, Steve Harper, recently visited the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle to find out more about a new project funded by the charity.

While there, as well as meeting a number of other young patients in the two paediatric cancer wards, Steve was interviewed by fellow keeper Ben, who plays for both Rothbury and Morpeth Town Juniors.

The youngster had prepared his questions in advance with the help of Gareth Williams, project coordinator within the children’s cancer wards – a new role which is funded by the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and delivered in partnership with the Newcastle United Foundation.

The 37-year-old works closely with hospital staff and uses the power of football to engage, inspire and motivate children – like Ben – to take part in tailored sporting and education activities and programmes. He also works with the siblings and families of the young patients.

Steve, who is also a patron of the Newcastle United Foundation, was very impressed by Ben’s interview technique and said: “It was a pleasure to visit Ben and be interviewed.

“Some of his questions were pretty difficult and I had to think hard about how to answer them. The best was probably ‘what is my favourite emoji’ and I think I said the thumbs-up. In fact, I think he could probably teach a few journalists a thing or two about interview techniques.

“The work Gareth’s doing is incredible. Every boy or girl we went in to see, when we mentioned his name, it put a smile on their face. And on the faces of their parents as well.

“It makes you consider how important this funding for his role is, when you think what it would be like if Gareth wasn’t there and working with the kids every day.

“Helping with their school work, playing games and things. It’s been great speaking to him and hearing just how much he loves the work he does. That shines through.

“When you see kids suffering from leukaemia, from cancer, it puts things in perspective. It really does ground you in what’s important in life. I first met Ben at a football tournament and I hope to see him back in goal soon.”

Claire added: “Gareth has such a positive effect on Ben. He’s amazing and even managed to find us last week when we were moved to a surgical ward while Ben came round from his operation.

“When Gareth walked through the door Ben’s face lit up. They just talk about football, it’s relaxed, but there’s also a structure to it because he has his workbook to go through.

“It just massively helps having Gareth around. Even on the most horrendous days, even if he spends half-an-hour with him, 10 minutes or however long, it just gives Ben a boost and motivates him.

“I don’t know what we’d do without Gareth. Ben sees him most days and, even when he’s not 100%, he always wants to do some work with him.”

Gareth works closely with Newcastle United and also finds ways to inspire the children who support other clubs or have passions away from football and recently organised a ground tour of the Stadium of Light for a young Sunderland fan.

“It’s a real privilege for me to work with the children in the GNCH’s paediatric cancer wards and it means a lot to have the support of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation,” he said.

“I’ve met some amazing families who are facing difficult times and Newcastle United Foundation is proud to be helping make these young people’s stay in hospital a little more bearable by creating unforgettable experiences for them and their families.

“It’s great to have both Foundations working together making a real difference and having such an impact through the power of football.”

Sir Bobby Robson launched his Foundation in 2008 and it has gone on to raise more than £11million to find more effective ways to detect and treat cancer. The work funded directly benefits cancer patients in the North East and plays a significant role in the global fight against the disease.

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