By Rod Gilmour
Dave O’Brien, who works as a Royal Mail postman alongside his tireless hockey volunteering, is telling a Jane Sixsmith anecdote, one of many no doubt recounted in the Midlands area where the Olympian is revered as a true sporting great.
It came during a routine training session, when the former Great Britain forward asked O’Brien, by no means a hockey specialist, for his opinion on certain Sutton Coldfield HC players.
“You’re Jane Sixsmith, and you’re asking me?” countered a surprised O’Brien, who then asked her why she had sought a response. “She said that anyone who has a passion she always asked, even though she may not agree,” recalled O’Brien. “Really, you couldn’t meet a more humble, genuine person.”
It was Sixsmith who then encouraged O’Brien to branch out as a volunteer coach on his own at a nearby school, Oasis Academy Short Heath in Birmingham, where his committed skills have been rightly recognised.
He may not actively seek public attention, but as the season closes – where he has no doubt influenced more kids to take up sport – let’s give him some anyway.
O’Brien, who describes himself as a ‘committed, passionate’ volunteer, used to be a level 2 cricket coach, but two bad experiences at local clubs thrust him into the world of hockey.
He starts work at 5am, six days a week at Royal Mail. With early finishes, it means he can return home for a swift change of clothes before focusing on his volunteering work, which stretches to six days a week.
He assists with Sutton Coldfield’s under-10 side, videos the Ladies’ first team home fixtures, oversees weeknight training for four other sides and umpires the Badgers’ sides at weekends.
The double workload can be tiring, but not when O’Brien sees kids far from downtrodden when it is raining or a cold front sets in.
Oasis, though, is where his selfless work on the school playground shines through. “The school is in an area designated as high deprivation and I usually get 24 kids, a mix of year five and six boys and girls all abilities and disabilities,” he said.
“I have been humbled by the feedback from the headteacher, Michelle, telling me how two kids with severe behavioural problems have been transformed by their increasing involvement in hockey and sport in general.”
The school was so lacking in equipment that O’Brien was forced to send off emails to Investec and England Hockey asking for help.
He was left “in tears” at the response, which included signed hockey sticks from the GB women’s team, while the school became the first recipient of the Birmingham Council-led initiative Reclaim Sport, where old sports’ kit is recycled for community projects. Meanwhile, the signed stick went to auction and it paid for new shin pads and team kit.
“I know what sport has done for me as I didn’t have a straightforward home life either,” O’Brien added of his work with the Oasis schoolchildren.
Furthermore, such has been Sutton Coldfield’s rise in junior membership that O’Brien has been in touch with Streetly HC, close to Oasis School, with the club offering seven weeks of free hockey as a taster. Sutton Coldfield’s junior set up is now over 270 members, whereas pre-London 2012 it was below 90.
“I don’t do this for the ego,” added the 53-year-old. He simply does it for the passion.