Unsung Hero: Darren Warner

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No human is limited. The only limitation is our mind.

That was the message that record-breaking long-distance runner, Eliud Kipchoge, declared at the Sports Personality of the Year awards back in December.

He pushed everything to the limit when he became the first person to complete a marathon in under two hours last year. But he also acknowledged the team behind him who played a role in his miraculous feat.

“We don’t live alone in this world; we must support one another,” he said as he prepared to announce the winner of the BBC Get Inspired Unsung Hero award.

On the same stage in Aberdeen that night was Doncaster man, Darren Warner; a man for whom Eliud’s words articulate perfectly the moral behind the amazing work he continues to do for people with disabilities in South Yorkshire in the face of his own health issues.

Nobody should be constrained by a diagnosis.

Darren is the manager of Club Doncaster Titans, a pan-disability football club for children and adults which he started in 2014. A club that he dedicates seven days a week to despite having a life-limiting lung disease which he was diagnosed with soon after starting the club.

From the cold and miserable winter nights to the long, dry summer days, Darren strives to be there for his players 50 weeks out of the year, stopping to the end of training sessions in all weathers even when he’s feeling at his worst.

“I might as well enjoy life while I can. I will never be beaten by what it has in store for me,” he says.

His positive mentality drips down through the club to the players, many of whom face daily struggles or setbacks themselves.

Whether that’s hearing or visual impairments, learning disabilities or physical incapacities, the club is open to anyone who wants to play football but cannot join a mainstream team.

But it is the club’s reputation and commitment to giving people of all abilities the chance to stop being spectators and finally play the beautiful game that keeps drawing players in.

For never giving up on himself, his club or the players, Darren was nominated for the BBC Get Inspired Unsung Hero award by Chris Brook whose son Archie joined Club Doncaster Titans at the beginning of last year. Since then, Archie, who has autism, has been given opportunities he never imagined possible, going on to do a level one coaching badge to train the younger players under Darren’s encouragement.

Out of over 30 nominees from across the four counties, Darren won the Yorkshire award, with the judging panel highlighting how he has not only overcome his own issues, but also helped those who find it very difficult to access sport.

One of the five judges, disability development officer for Yorkshire Cricket Board, Rohan Randhawa, said: “I voted for Darren because of his commitment to not only improve his own life after battling a drug addiction but to then dedicate his time to improve the lives of others is truly inspirational.

“I believe Darren is a prime example of a role model that has the ability to have a major positive impact on all the participants he coaches.”

After winning the Yorkshire award, Darren was then up against 14 other regional winners hoping to be named the overall Unsung Hero at the televised ceremony in front of some of sport’s finest names.

On the night, the award went to Nottingham’s Keiren Thompson who runs the basketball-driven Helping Kids Achieve initiative aimed at keeping deprived children and young people away from a life of crime.

But regardless of bringing a trophy home or not, Darren is a true unsung hero who has worked tirelessly for the last five and a half years to set a precedent in disability football that other clubs are following suit.

It would be fair to say life hasn’t always played to Darren’s advantage; although he is now a beacon of light for so many people, he has tackled great darkness in his past.

But as they say, behind every great man is an even greater woman and it is a chance meeting with a great woman back in 2003 which first set the ball rolling for Darren’s bright future.

At that time, he was battling the demons of a drug addiction and was being chaperoned home from his job at the family business, Warner Fish Merchants. Whilst in the van dropping one of the lads off, Darren got talking to a lady called Sharon who lived next door to his workmate.

“Her youngest son, Cameron, came running out of the house saying, ‘do you fancy my mum?’ Sharon followed him apologising, we got talking, started dating and have never been apart since.”

Darren had met his match in Sharon. She gave him an ultimatum to finally kick his habit: her and the kids, or his friends and the drugs.

“She said, ‘I’ll love you forever, your friends wont.’ And that was an easy decision to make.”

The couple got married the following year and Darren has been in recovery ever since.

Like many young lads his age, when Sharon’s eldest son, Jordan, turned 14 he started showing an interest in football and wanted to train as a goalkeeper. Jordan has autism so Darren began looking for inclusive football clubs for him to join.

Even then in the late-2000s, disability football wasn’t as prevalent as it is now and Jordan never seemed to settle in the teams he tried out for.

“Things weren’t right at most of the clubs we went to but as soon as I started questioning things, relations soured. At Jordan’s last club, I’d had enough of poor management and asked a few of the players’ families if I put myself through my coaching badges – and promise to run a club how it should be run – would they support me.”

This was new territory for Darren having only ever played Sunday league football as an adult. His family are rugby fans so he’d never had the chance to train with a football club as a child.

But even in his eyes, he knew more had to be done to support vulnerable children and adults who wanted to play football.

Due to his history and the nature of disability football, Darren had to plead his case before a panel of County FA officials to give him a chance. He did everything by the book – appointing welfare officers, ensuring everyone was DBS checked and devising a club charter of standardised regulations.

After being given the go ahead, Darren started Doncaster Titans in June 2014, training eight players in Balby. They moved to Rossington for a short time but were quickly outgrowing their venue.

Darren contacted Doncaster Rovers FC in 2016 to enquire about the use of their community facilities for a cheap rate – he even offered to change the club’s name and branding in return.

Since then, Darren has worked in close partnership with Rovers’ community foundation, Club Doncaster to provide inclusive football to Doncaster and the wider area, changing their name to follow suit and now incorporating DRFC’s logo into theirs.

Along with help with social media and online content, Club Doncaster also grant Darren use of the excellent training facilities available at Keepmoat Stadium.

Today, there are around 140 players involved with Club Doncaster Titans, ranging in age from six to 56, with an equal split of children and adults.

But there is no real age limit.

“We used to have an old guy who played in the net and would use his walking stick to hit the ball back into play.”

Catering for all disabilities, there are 11 teams in total which train weekly.

Along with pan-disability junior and adult teams ranging from five-a-side to 11-a-side, there are also specific teams for people with down syndrome, mental health conditions, plus a Wildcats team for girls who don’t want to play in a mixed-sex junior team.

“The mental health team can be quite feisty and that’s where the management side really comes into play. They might get thrashed 16-0, they’re on a downer and that’s it – they’re giving up playing football ever again. But it’s how you move forward to keep them coming back that’s important.

“With the down syndrome team, every single player just wants to kick a ball at the goal so training them to understand the concept of football as a game has been a long process but we’re getting there.”

In the summer, Darren organises the annual tournament at Keepmoat and last year there were 60 Ability Counts teams that took part, coming to Doncaster from as far as Jersey.

Club Doncaster Titans also take part in other tournaments once a month, travelling to the likes of West Ham and Wales.

His devotion to the club has become a 24/7 job with Darren down at Keepmoat seven days a week for free, all while working full-time in his paid employment.

“I’ve missed birthdays and anniversaries, special family occasions, to be there running the club. But sometimes this is the only outlet these kids have.

“They come because they enjoy the camaraderie we have. They can have the craic with the managers or coaches that many said they didn’t feel like they could have at other clubs they may have been to.”

A lot of the coaches are the older players who become role models within the club, with Darren making a conscious effort to employ from within and give opportunities to those who may not have them at other clubs.

With Darren and Sharon having experience in raising children with disabilities, they are also able to help parents and families where they can, whether that’s signposting them to services or benefit entitlements, or even just being there for a cuddle.

Due to all this and more, the model that Darren has created is now being used by the FA as a benchmark for other clubs across the country to aspire to, with Club Doncaster Titans leading the way towards improving and developing Ability Counts football for vulnerable people.

It is clear to see why he’s a hero to so many, but Darren isn’t one to take all the glory. He isn’t in it for that. He is simply trying to open up the playing field to more and more people who never thought they’d pull on a kit, score a goal, or have the confidence to be there on the pitch as part of a team.

“We are who we are – we’re all people, we’ve all been frowned upon in life or judged. But we’re a team; one big family that supports each other no matter what.”