WHATEVER feats Andy Flintoff achieved in his cricketing career – and none were better than the historic 2005 Ashes victory that is permanently ingrained on the mind of any cricket lover – he reckons it wouldn’t have happened without a stay in St Annes.
Preston born and bred, Flintoff’s career began at Dutton Forshaw in the Palace Shield.
But things started to take off when he began turning out at St Annes.
He joined as a 13-year-old, and when he left four years later, he was already earmarked as one of the next big things.
The predictions weren’t wide of the mark.
He made his name at Lancashire, and then became England’s best all-rounder since Ian Botham, winning the BBC sports personality of the year award en route.
But despite retiring from the sport a couple of years ago, injuries finally taking their toll, Flintoff remains a national hero – recognition of the impact he made.
So it is refreshing to know that the 34-year-old is still as down-to-earth and approachable as he was during his teenage years on the Fylde, and he still hasn’t forgotten where it all began.
The Gazette caught up with Flintoff at the De Vere Heron’s Reach hotel, where – along with fellow De Vere Club ambassador Harry Redknapp – he was playing golf in the pouring rain, raising money for the Andrew Flintoff Foundation and the British Heart Foundation.
Sat in the clubhouse with his grandad, who lives in St Annes, it wasn’t long before Flintoff was reminiscing about the old days.
“I don’t get up north as much as I’d like to see Lancashire and my mates, so I’ve not been to St Annes for a while,” said Flintoff, who now lives in Surrey with his wife and three children.
“But I have such fond memories of those times at St Annes because, looking back now, it was such an important part of my development as a cricketer.
“I was playing against professionals when I was 14 and you can’t beat that for improving yourself.
“I got asked to go to a load of posh schools in the area on scholarship – not for academic reasons, obviously – but all I wanted to do was play cricket, and so I didn’t want to have to play schoolboy cricket on a Saturday afternoon.
“I wanted to play for St Annes, and being at a posh school would have got in the way.
“Those days were great.
“I was playing against the likes of Kenny Benjamin, and Malcolm Marshall at 14.
“So as a grounding, helping me move into county games, it was so important to me and a perfect stepping stone.
“I think someone like Steven Croft, who’s now doing really well at Lancashire, found it the same by playing for Blackpool.”
One of the toughest things for all athletes to come to terms with is retirement and building a life after sport.
Flintoff hasn’t found it a problem.
Although still a keen cricket watcher – he was at the first day of the England-South Africa Test today instead of the Open at Royal Lytham – and he has deliberately veered away from becoming a commentator or a coach.
Instead he’s embarked on a TV career, appearing in his own travel show and becoming a regular on Sky TV’s A League of Their Own. His showbiz mates include Jamie Redknapp and James Corden.
“It’s not a direction I ever thought I’d go in, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” Flintoff added.
“I’ve been to places like Tanzania and Borneo, I’ve got a Foundation that has raised money to build a rehab unit at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, and been given opportunities to do things I never could have done on a cricket pitch.
“But I still love the game, love taking my sons to watch it, and I can’t imagine a time when I won’t love it.”