Fighting cancer and winning awards: Football manager Will Andrew's remarkable season

Last season Will Andrew had surgery for cancer to remove a lung after staving off pneumonia. He missed one match and won a league award. Here is his remarkable story.

Will Andrew is determined to go as high as hard work and tactical acumen will take him in football management EMN-180724-124721002
Will Andrew is determined to go as high as hard work and tactical acumen will take him in football management EMN-180724-124721002

“Commitment and dedication is nothing compared to what it was.

“When I played I wanted to train every week and play every week, but kids aren’t like this anymore.

“They can take it or leave it, but for me it’s all in or not at all.”

The new Dunkirk manager spent the vast majority of his playing days at Holwell Sports' Welby Road home EMN-180724-124220002

To cut today’s generation of footballers a little slack, going up against Will Andrew for dedication to duty and pure fascination with the game is an unfair fight most of us would have no chance of winning.

You will hear similargrumbles from managers and fans at every level of the game, from plush Premier League stadia to the parks.

But the last 18 months in the life of this particular grassroots manager grant him the room to talk.

During a traumatic run of pneumonia, cancer, the removal of a lung, and a blood clot in the remaining lung, Andrew missed just one pre-season match.

Andrew was named Coach of the Year at this year's Melton Times Sports Awards. Pictured with fellow finalist Clare Marlow and sports editor Chris Harby EMN-180724-124155002

And he had that fixture recorded to watch in his hospital bed.

If any of his new squad at Dunkirk plan to declare themselves unavailable, they’d better make their excuses good ones.

In his own playing days Andrew was a dependable centre-half, reliable and committed enough to lead Holwell Sports’ reserves side.

Yet while his team-mates were striving for marks out of 10, or dreaming of scoring a cup final winner, he had other goals. The skipper was already looking ahead.

Receiving the United Counties League Premier Division Manager of the Month award last season, with co-manager John Love (right), and UCL chairman John Weeks EMN-180724-124141002

“I knew that I was going to manage long, long before I finished playing; I was always more interested in the tactical side.

“By the time I was 30, I’d just had enough of playing. I wanted to get involved in management and decided I couldn’t do both.”

On the brink of becoming an old player Andrew instead evolved into a young manager, heading just a few miles down the road to become co-manager at Asfordby Amateurs in 2013.

There he found a club still struggling to get back on its feet after a mass walkout by management and squad a few seasons earlier.

In his first managerial job at Asfordby Amateurs with co-manager Nigel Shaw EMN-180724-124207002

While gaining a grounding in the uncomfortable realities of make-do-and-mend management, Andrew grasped the chance to earn his first coaching badges.

After two seasons he left Hoby Road with nothing lined up, but was handed an unexpected offer from higher up the non-league food chain at step five for the 2015/16 season.

“When I left Asfordby I was just hoping to coach somewhere and went round a few clubs offering myself about.

“I had a chat with Kirby Muxloe and went in as assistant manager with another.

“I did all the coaching and warm-ups and football-based stuff.”

After helping the side achieve its highest-ever finish in his first season, ninth in the United Counties League Premier, the demands soon became more intense.

Having managed at step five clubs Kirby Muxloe and Dunkirk, Andrew is believed to be the highest-placed Melton boss EMN-180724-124607002

Soon there were echoes of his spell at Asfordby when the reserve team manager left just a week into the new season.

“I moved up as joint manager and had to find a whole new reserve team.

“At one stage I was managing the first team and reserve team, doing the training and keeping both teams going.

“I did every job from putting nets up to washing the kit. I don’t think I’m too big for any job.”

The footballing challenges were considerable, and enough to have convinced the less devoted to walk away.

But what was going on in private, book-ended either side, put these challenges into their true context.

With grim irony, one of life’s most joyous moments – marriage to fiancee Sarah-Jane – was immediately followed by one of its bleakest.

“I’d been a little bit ill before the wedding, but the day after I couldn’t get out of bed, and that turned out to be pneumonia.

“It wasn’t clearing up so after another couple of weeks I went back and they sent me for another X-ray.

“My left lung had collapsed and the whole of the bottom of the lung wasn’t functioning.”

The pneumonia, however, would turn out to be a blessing, albeit one wearing a heavy disguise.

“I went back again for a third X-ray and was told it was getting worse so they sent me for a CT scan at Glenfield Hospital and then called me in to talk with the consultant.

“I was just expecting to find out how they were going to re-inflate my lung and clear it up.

“Instead they said, ‘We have found a tumour; we’ve found cancer’. That’s everybody’s nightmare.

“You don’t realise that world exists.”

The scan had revealed a carcinoid tumour, a very rare form of lung cancer, virtually unheard of for a non-smoker in their early 30s.

The diagnosis had come at the end of the season and he would only break the news to his players when it became a need-to-know basis, while wishing to keep his fight a private battle.

“I brought the lads together after one training session and told them I would have to have a bit of time off.

“I didn’t really want people to know apart from close friends.

“There will be people reading this who won’t know I’ve been through any of this; even people I know well.”

One of the most anxious moments in Andrew’s private battle came during a test to see if the cancer had spread.

Then, still glowing from the injections of cancer-detecting radioactive sugar, he sat in an adjoining room, waiting for results which would determine his chances of survival.

“That was the hardest time.

“Only twice was I scared: once when I had to wait after the radioactive test to find out where the cancer had spread, and then literally five minutes before I went under for my op.”

Crucially, investigating the pneumonia had flagged up the cancer in its early stages and it was operable.

“They made it sound like they could save half the lung, but wouldn’t know until they cut me open.

“My surgeon was one of the top surgeons in the world for lung issues and told me there was a three to four per cent chance that we wouldn’t see each other again.

“But he said that if it went right I wouldn’t have to have chemotherapy.

“They told us a two-hour operation would be the best-case scenario, and five if it hadn’t gone to plan.”

The surgery lasted eight hours. The awkward position and size of the tumour meant the whole lung had to be removed.

But aside from the mental anguish the extended surgery gave loved ones, the operation proved a success.

“I was so lucky that the cancer caused the pneumonia because if it hadn’t blocked my lung they would never have caught it so fast.”

It seems staggering that with both major surgery impending, and then in its direct aftermath, Andrew still had room in his thoughts for the upcoming pre-season.

But then, it was also entirely understandable as a distraction from his private battles.

“My friend recorded a pre-season friendly against Oakham and that was the only game I missed. I just needed something to keep me going.

“Having football and other things like that to focus on meant everything.”

It also gave him an extra incentive for a swift recovery.

“They said to me, ‘You’ll be in for 10 days’, but I asked them what was the quickest anyone had left hospital after this surgery.

“They said five days, so I told them I would be out in four, and I was.

“I’m quite good at getting on and dealing with things.”

The motive behind the unlikely record bid?

You’ve probably already guessed.

“We had Dunkirk on the day I came out and I went straight to the game 
which, looking back, was a mistake.

“I was in no fit state to be at a football match. I had crutches holding me up. But I was still able to give the linesman some grief!

“When I was in hospital I had an epidural at the top of my back to cancel out the top half of my back.

“They wouldn’t let me out until I was off the epidural and morphine so I was dropping down massively on them both so I could leave.

“The doctors weren’t over the moon about it.

“They were very happy with my determination to go out, but they wanted me to go home and rest.”

To give up medication, masking the considerable pain of major surgery, is another test of commitment and passion that 99.9 per cent of us would likely fail.

But this would not be the last time Andrew’s body was given the hurry-up to heal for football’s sake.

That autumn, and now with greater responsibilities at Kirby Muxloe since his elevation to joint manager, his health suffered another sizeable setback.

“In October I was struggling to breathe one day and went to the doctors again.

“They sent me straight off and found a blood clot in my other lung.

“They said I had to go back into hospital, but I told them I had to be out by 2pm the next day so I could go straight to Kirby for a home match against Wellingborough.”

The date was Friday the 13th, an apt date for the superstitious, although Andrew’s request may have left medical staff checking the calendar for April Fool’s Day.

“They agreed as long as my results were better by then and the medicine was starting to take effect,” he explained.

“I’m on a new kind of warfarin and will be on that for the rest of my life now, but we won 3-1 so it was worth it!”

Perhaps Andrew’s fight and example helped inspire the win.

Whatever the reason, it proved no flash in the pan.

Following the express trip to hospital to deal with the blood clot, Kirby went on a run of nine wins in 10 matches.

The hot streak earned him and co-manager John Love the United Counties League manager of the month award for November.

The team would eventually go on to finish the season comfortably mid-table in 12th, a triumph considering the upheaval of the opening weeks.

But rather than rest on his laurels, he has opted – typically – for a fresh challenge, flying solo for the first time after landing the Dunkirk manager’s job in June.

He will lead a side newly-promoted into step five, just as Kirby had been on his arrival.

“Having been at Kirby for three seasons, it was a difficult decision, but I already knew it was time for me to move on.

“Dunkirk have spent a lot of money in the last three years doing their ground and facilities up.

“This, along with the amount of people up there behind the scenes, wanting to move in the right direction is what sold it to me.”

While football will remain his highly- demanding part-time job, the career that actually helps pay the household bills is as an IT teacher and duty manager at Melton Learning Hub.

He has ploughed 11 years into the Hub, initially as PE teacher, but if ever his own schoolboy’s dream of a full-time job in football management came up, his loyalties to education may be stretched.

“I like to put hours of effort into tactics; teaching fits in around it.

“It’s just that buzz and excitement, that feeling when you win, and how much goes into it.

“I will go as far and high as I can in football and keep working through my badges; I like challenging myself.”

The next target for Andrew is the UEFA B badge, but before that, and like last season, there will be further draws on his time off the field.

This time, however, they’re welcome ones: the couple’s first baby is due in late September.

Add on the latest piece of good news that his blood clot has cleared up, and with the cancer more than a year in remission, summer 2018 appears a tantalising time of fresh new starts for Andrew.

Football may only earn the new dad partial leeway from nappy-changing and night-time shifts with his new daughter, but Mrs Andrew at least understands, better than most, the source of her husband’s other devotion.

“Luckily my wife’s very understanding. Her family have always been into football in a big way, both playing and managing at a high level.

“She just can’t have the baby on a Saturday.

“It’ll have to be Monday, Wednesday or Friday so it doesn’t clash with training.”