The Lion who roared back - a footballer's triumph over illness, poverty and war

Julie Ryan was only a toddler when her father's football career was drawing to a close, too young to know anything about the goalscoring feats that made him a favourite with fans at Millwall, Brighton and Gillingham during the post-War boom years of the 1950s.

But as she grew up it became clear that the story of John Shepherd, who scored 121 goals in his nine seasons in the professional game, was a particularly exceptional one.

Barely 18 months before making an extraordinary Millwall debut in which he scored four times, Shepherd had been admitted to hospital in Cornwall suffering from poliomyletis, a dreaded disease of childhood and adolescence that claimed thousands of victims in the first half of the last century.

Shepherd, who contracted the paralysing illness while on national service with the RAF, lost all feeling in his left foot and doctors warned him he might never walk again, let alone realise his dream of professional football.

The dark days spent in an isolation ward hundreds of miles from his London home, the gruelling road to recovery and, against all odds, the fulfilment of that dream added up to a remarkable story, one that Julie felt for many years would make for a fascinating book.  But, as she was to discover, there was another part of her family history that was equally extraordinary.

Author Julie Ryan - John
 Shepherd's daughter
Her Madrid-born mother, Esther, had been only a few days old when the man Julie would later know as her Spanish grandfather had left to fight for the republican side against Franco's fascists in his country's horrific civil war.  It prefaced an upbringing defined by the heartbreak and anguish of separation that went on for so long that the family were not reunited until 10 years later -- in London, where they would settle and, of course, Esther would meet John.

It was a passage in their lives of which Julie knew only patchy details but which she realised, as she researched her father's life, could form a narrative just as compelling, if not more so.  It was a story, she decided, that had to be told and these two gripping and parallel threads of her family history, adroitly set in social and political context, have been brought together in a wonderful just-published book entitled In and Out of the Lion's Den: Poverty, War and Football (CreateSpace).

Julie, who now lives in Switzerland -- her husband, Andrew, is executive director of ASOIF (Association of Summer Olympic International Federations, based in Lausanne -- told The Sports Bookshelf how a long-nurtured idea eventually came to fruition.

"This book was something I had had in mind for a long time," she said. "They say every family has a story to tell, but I did think the story of my father growing up in poverty and overcoming polio to become a successful professional footballer was worth writing.

"It took me some time to get it started. But after moving to Lausanne in Switzerland I found I had more time on my hands and so the research finally began.

"The book took almost four years from the start of my research to publication. For the football side of things, I spent many hours talking with my father, often using his old scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings and match programmes to help piece his story together. I was also able to speak to some of his former team-mates, and this enabled me to offer a real insight into the life of a 1950s footballer, an interesting comparison to that of a professional footballer today.

"The other part of the book, which relates the story of my maternal Spanish grandfather who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, involved more extensive research.  He died some years ago, so I was reliant on stories handed down through the family, which I found can lead to many contradictions and inaccuracies that therefore needed extensive research to separate fact from fiction. My research took me to France and Spain, so my language skills proved useful."

John and Esther still live in Brighton, John now in his 81st year.  For Julie, piecing together the details of their lives was both a fulfilling and, at times, emotional experience.

"It was definitely a labour of love, and quite moving at times," she said. "My father had grown up in relative poverty, in overcrowded conditions in a house with no electricity, no heating and no bathroom.  He was evacuated during the Second World War, and later, at the age of 18, was sent off to complete his obligatory national service.

"It was during this time that he contracted polio, and doctors feared he would never walk again. The thought of my father lying in an isolation ward at such a young age, not knowing if he would walk again, let alone play football, still brings a tear to my eyes.

"Likewise, for the story of my grandfather José. I managed to piece together a very personal account of his suffering both during and after the war which I didn't fully appreciate or understand whilst he was still alive.

John Shepherd scoring for Brighton against Sheffield
United at the Goldstone Ground in March 1959
"I was too young as a child to know that my dad was a professional footballer, though one of my earliest memories is being at the Goldstone Ground -- Brighton's old ground, now demolished.

"In those days, the life of a footballer wasn't much different to that of the average working man. Whilst I was growing up, my dad was always involved in football and well respected on the Sussex football scene. I always felt a surge of pride when articles appeared in the Sussex newspapers about 'former Albion favourite, John Shepherd'.

"He went back to help at the Goldstone during the 1970s when he set up the first ever Brighton and Hove Albion youth team when Alan Mullery was manager.  Alan kindly contributed a foreword for my book."

John Shepherd's story is good enough -- and told well enough -- to warrant a publisher's attention even in the current, challenging climate.  Interestingly, Julie chose the self-publishing route, via the Amazon platform, CreateSpace.

"I contacted several publishers and received a fair bit of interest and some very useful feedback," she said.  "But the publishing world has changed so much so I decided to self-publish using modern technology, new media and direct routes to market.

"After extensive research, I decided that Createspace provided an independent publishing platform that was easy and economical to use, particularly for someone with computer skills.

"Luckily, I was able to do my own formatting and my 14-year-old son Nathan created the cover for me, which I was delighted with. Then it was simply a matter of using Createspace tools to upload the manuscript and cover and request a proof copy.

"I would certainly recommend Createspace to any aspiring self-publishing authors.   A big upside is that books ordered from are printed on demand in the U.K. and are eligible for free postage under the Amazon 'super-saver' delivery scheme."

There are downsides to going it alone, however. Having a good grasp of grammar and spelling is vital if the end product is to look suitably professional, as is having some idea of how to market the book on a low budget.

"I worked as an administrator at the University of Gloucestershire for many years, where I also completed some courses on writing which ultimately helped me with the book project," Julie said "I was also fortunate to have the help of a retired professor from the university, with whom I had worked, who helped by reading my manuscripts and giving me invaluable feedback.

"My dad's former clubs, Millwall, Brighton and Gillingham, are all helping to promote the book via their websites, social media and match programmes.  In particular, Chris Bethell at Millwall was very encouraging and helpful during the writing of the book, and he is now helping promote it. I have been given a slot on Lions Live Radio to talk about the book.

"The Sussex Argus and South London Press are running articles and competitions to win signed copies. I am also promoting the book using social media and networking sites and websites, and my parents and brothers are proving themselves to be useful salespeople in Brighton!"

In and Out of the Lion's Den: Poverty, War and Football -- follow the link for more information and to buy.



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