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12th Dec 2016

Leighton Baines on the very personal reason he takes his Alder Hey Children’s Hospital role so seriously

“It’s part of my family story”

Tony Barrett

The four teams, each captained by a patient from Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, go to opposite corners of the gym at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground.

Their task is simple – retrieve as many pieces of training equipment from the centre of the hall as they can in a relay. When the final whistle blows, the referee, in this case Father Christmas himself, asks the team which has accumulated the most items whether they’ve been cheating.

“No” chorus six members of Everton’s under-23 squad, incredulous that their integrity is being questioned by Santa. But unbeknown to them, they are about to be let down by their skipper. “Yes we have,” says a boy in a wheelchair, his honesty only surpassed by a sense of pride at how his team had beaten the system. Unsurprisingly, all present dissolve into fits of laughter.

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It is at such moments that football’s capacity to reach out to its own community and for its community to impact positively on them is at its most undeniable.

Few Premier League players embody that ideal more than Leighton Baines. A left back by trade, one good enough to represent Everton and England, it is the role he plays for Alder Hey which sets him apart.

As patron of the children’s hospital, Baines has taken on a responsibility that he has an absolute commitment to, regardless of how much he attempts to play it down, but it is also one that he takes a great deal from.

Arriving in the gym after the equipment game has ended, he participates in a seven-a-side match featuring a mixture of young patients who have been nominated by nurses from Alder Hey and some of his Everton team mates.

None of the youngsters had known in advance that they would be heading to Finch Farm. They only discovered what lay in store for them after a video message from Baines inviting them to the training ground was played at the hospital atrium that morning.

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On this occasion, the work that he and his club are involved in is seen by JOE.co.uk, but more often than not it goes beneath the radar, known only to themselves and those whom they support at Alder Hey.

Baines may have added incentive, he owes his health if not his life to the doctors and nurses who treated him for a chest condition as a baby, but it is a sense of social conscience that fires his efforts more than anything else.

Before going into his own reasons, though, the defender feels the need to defend someone of a similar ilk who found himself at the wrong end of a negative news cycle recently.

“There’s a lot of this kind of work that goes on but someone doing a good deed isn’t sexy news is it?” Baines says by way of standing up for his profession and questioning the priorities of those of us who are responsible for reporting on it.

“Football can get portrayed in a negative light at times and particularly recently but just to give you an example, not many lads to more work for under privileged kids and charities than Wayne Rooney.

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“He does so much for people who are less fortunate than himself and unfortunately he gets more negative press than he does positive, all he has to do is step out of line in the slightest.

“That tends to be the way it is for footballers, it’s unfortunate but people don’t really want to talk as much about the good things that people do in comparison to how much they want to talk about the negatives.”

This, then, is an opportunity for Baines to set the record straight for football, for Everton and for himself. In respect of himself and his club it probably isn’t necessary. While Baines’s support for Alder Hey has earned him the widespread respect of those who run and those who use the hospital, Everton’s status as one of the country’s most forward thinking community clubs is also undisputed. But, in general, there is a case for him to make and it starts with an acknowledgement of his own personal debt to Alder Hey and why he feels the need to repay it.

“I know lots of people from Liverpool can recall when they first went to Alder Hey and what they were there for but in my case it was when I was first born so my mum tells me about it,” he says.

“I was quite ill. I had a problem with my chest and I was in there for a few weeks which meant after I was born it was quite a bit of time before I was well enough to go home. I was a worry at the time. My mum was a young mum, she was only 18 or 19, so it was a really worrying time for her. It’s obviously not something that I remember but the rest of the family does because there was quite a bit of genuine concern.

“That’s part of my family story and I suppose that makes it easier for me to have empathy with the kids at Alder Hey and their families because I know my own family has had its own difficult time in the past. But then again, empathy is a natural human reaction anyway and in my own case, I’m in a privileged position that I had to work to get to and now I’m there it probably becomes even more important that you have that empathy.

“It would be easy just to think of yourself and to look after yourself but at Everton we take our responsibilities seriously as a club. We pride ourselves on the work we do in the community and us players get the easy part really to come in and see the kids and they’re happy to see you; but it’s the people behind the scenes, the ones who you don’t see, who are doing the hard work.

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“It’s something that we’re proud of and something that the staff all work hard on to put together and as a group of players it’s also something that we buy into as a collective. The lads who’ve come in today are the lads who buy into it in a big way. A lot of them are fairly local to the area and they recognise the importance of it all and the things that they can do.

“There are kids there who have spent prolonged periods of time in hospital and this is a big day for them. It’s exciting for them to get out and from our point of view we get to come in and be the icing on the cake of the day which is a really privileged position for us to be in.”

A father of three, Baines is more than happy to give up his free time to support other people’s children not because he feels he has to, but because he wants to and he firmly believes that he gets as much out of what he does for Alder Hey as the patients he visits even if it can be emotionally trying on occasion.

“Honestly, it’s just being available,” he explains. “It sounds like it’s not much but that’s as simple as it is. Sometimes it’s just about popping in to the hospital.

“There might be special circumstances with a particular kid who’s going through a particularly tough time and in cases like that it really is just about going in and maybe sitting with them and playing a computer game with them.

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“It’s simple things. It’s just taking an hour out of your day, that’s all it is, but it can go a long way with the kids because they look up to us in the same way that we looked up to footballers when we were kids.

“There was one occasion when I struggled a bit with it. I won’t go into detail because that wouldn’t be fair but having kids of your own does make you more emotional and it’s not nice to see kids going through a hard time. Whether you’re visualising what it would be like for your own kids to go through that kind of situation or you’re empathising with thee kids and their families because that’s just basic human nature, it does hit home and it can be tough. But it also gives you that sense of perspective that we all need.

“People might look at us from the outside and look at the privileged lives that we lead and they’re right to do so but stuff like this can happy to any one of us. We are all just human beings and we go through suffering, hardships, highs and lows and so on. So although it can sometimes be tough it also makes you realise what’s important in life and how things like the health of our kids are the most important of all. There’s always a bigger picture and going to the hospital or the kids coming in here as they have today puts you in that bigger picture.

“Sometimes what bowls you over is the attitude of the kids. They’re so bubbly and so positive. Before I go in to see them I’ll be given a brief on what it is they’re going through and I’ll think ‘That’s not fair.’ That gives you an expectation of what the kid will be like and in a lot of cases I’m expecting them to be upset but then you meet them and they’re really bubbly. It’s inspiring to be honest.

“I might have just had a bad game or something and I’ll be down about it but things like this make me realise that I have to get a grip of myself. The kids inspire you in that respect. Whatever they might take from seeing me, I more than get back in return.”

Put up against his voluntary role, Baines’s day job might not seem so important but it does matter, just in a different way. The last 18 months have been testing for Everton and their supporters with the early promise of Roberto Martinez’s reign ultimately coming to nothing and the arrival of Ronald Koeman not yet prompting the kind of revival that many had hoped would occur. “I feel like it’s going pretty well but we’re at a bit of a crossroads now,” Baines admits.

BARNSLEY, ENGLAND - JULY 23: Ronald Koeman manager of Everton during the pre-season friendly match between Barnsley and Everton at Oakwell Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Barnsley, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)"n

“It started well [under Koeman] and then it dipped a bit. We need a few results ultimately. I don’t think the manager saw it as a quick fix but then we started well and that makes what followed that a disappointment. But we’re still not in a bad position with loads of football to play.

“This is the real, meaty part of the season and it’s going to shape everything that follows so we all need to be switched on and ready to apply ourselves fully to what is coming because it is so important.”

From his own perspective, having turned 32 yesterday, Baines knows that time is running out if his remaining personal ambitions are to be fulfilled and there is one in particular that he is hoping can be realised before the time comes when he has to hang up his boots. “Obviously, I’d like to be part of a trophy winning team. It’s been a long time since we had one of those here so we’re a bit success starved,” he says.

“Duncan Ferguson’s here as a coach now and we see the pictures of him with the FA Cup and stuff like that and that is a constant reminder of how great it would be to be a part of something like that. We’ve come up just short on a couple of occasions but the club as a whole is in a positive place at the moment; we’ve got a top manager, we’ve got new investment, the chairman is still here which is good in terms of understanding the club and so on.

“It is positive but now we need to have a good couple of months so that positivity can become something more tangible.”

Catch up with this week’s episode of Football Friday Live: