Frequently an overlooked county, Norfolk is one of the most beautiful places in the UK. Situated in the often-forgotten East of England, it is neither part of the ‘northern powerhouse’ nor the wealthy south, it is not the multicultural midlands nor the famous South-West. What Norfolk is, is a county of young and ambitious people wanting to succeed in whatever their desired field. It may not be somewhere you would think of when looking for young sporting talent, but in fact there are many successful and up-and-coming youngsters ready to make a name for themselves on the main stage.
The first, and arguably most well-known by the general public is Alfie Hewett. Born in Norwich in 1997, Alfie was diagnosed with Perthes Disease aged 6. Despite having a reasonable excuse not to participate in sport, Hewett began playing wheelchair tennis in 2005, competing in his first tournament 3 years later.
Having grown up in the city, his passion for tennis is only rivalled by his passion for Norwich City. However, it’s not only the team that he supports, as it was announced in 2017 that Alfie was to become an ambassador for local charity Open Norwich. The organisation offers assistance and help such as free CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to those in need. But for someone who could so easily be the person needing the help, Hewett has achieved a lot at the young age of 20.
Only a few weeks ago, newly published world rankings revealed that he was the new world number one, following consecutive Wimbledon Men’s Doubles Championship wins, and winning his first Grand Slam in May last year. Wheelchair tennis varies from the non-disability version of the sport in that often players can compete to an older age, meaning Hewett can only have a long career ahead of him. Already being a huge ambassador for the sport and inspiration to many, Alfie Hewett is a brilliant example of never letting a so-called ‘disability’ get in your way.
The profile of Women’s football is continuing grow, with more and more young girls deciding to take up the sport. Flo Allen was born and raised in Norfolk, spending her childhood on her family’s farm. After starting to play football at the age of 6, she continued through her teens as a hobby until the age of 16 when she decided to pursue it as a career.
Flo moved to Bristol where she signed for the city’s women’s football team. At the time, Bristol City WFC were in the FA WSL, the second division of women’s football, however later the same year were promoted to the top tier. Allen made 11 appearances during the season aiding her team to finish second and secure promotion. But it’s not only domestic football in which she has participated, as the 18-year-old has also represented England at Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19 level, being part of the FIFA 2016 U17 Women’s World Cup team who reached the Quarter-finals of the competition.
Progressing through the ranks in the England women’s team has stood Flo Allen in good stead to continue her rise through the age levels and hopefully to make the senior team. Although only the very best make that progression, having played in the FA WSL1 aged only 17, Flo knows how to deal with the pressure of important matches, a key skill for any player hoping to make it on the world stage.
Formula One has long had a connection to Norfolk with Lotus F1 team having been based in Hethel, Brazilian World Champions Ayrton Senna and Emerson Fittipaldi having lived in Norwich, and former driver and now-commentator Martin Brundle being born in King’s Lynn. But there is now a new name to add to that list with George Russell being signed to reigning World Champion Mercedes’s Young Driver Programme.
Born in King’s Lynn in 1998, Russell started karting aged 8 and in the years that followed worked his way through many karting series and championships. In 2014 he made his single-seater debut in the Formula Renault 2.0 championship, before competing in Formula 4, European Formula 3 and last year GP3. The GP3 series is a feeder to F2 (previously known as GP2), the championship directly below Formula One. Racing with ART Grand Prix, George won the title, and hopes to replicate the success of previous ART drivers, and now F1 World Champions, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
In 2017, it was announced that Russell had joined Mercedes’s Young Driver Programme, and with only 3 participants, became part of a very select group of young racers. Fellow members Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehlein have both raced in Formula One, with Ocon being particularly highly rated, meaning George will be expected to perform well this season in F2.
Being signed to a prestigious academy can give young drivers an extra boost, both in their career and in their confidence. George Russell now has the backing of an extremely influential force in the sport which can only benefit his future. Whilst all this may sound glamourous and hugely exciting for the 19-year-old, his roots and background based in Norfolk will surely keep his feet on the ground.
Someone who will be particularly well-known to local football fans is Angus Gunn. Currently Norwich City’s first choice goalkeeper on a season-long loan from Manchester City, Angus was born in the city. His father Brian is a Canaries legend having both played for and managed the team.
In 2011, Gunn moved to Manchester City from Norwich City, signing his first professional contract 2 years later. However, to gain experience and more playing-time, he was loaned back to his home team for the 2017/8 season. Much like Flo Allen, Angus has also played internationally with England having represented them at several age levels. He has competed with his country from Under-16 level up to Under-21, and even received his first senior call-up last year.
Goalkeepers are known for not being in their prime until later than outfield players who tend to peak in their mid-to-late 20s, with goalkeepers peaking in their late 20s and early 30s. At 22, Angus Gunn is still in the early stages of his career and playing in his particular position means he has a long career ahead. Playing for a team with such a strong emotional link can be both a help and hindrance, with the highs being particularly special, but the lows especially frustrating. However, it appears Gunn has been thriving on playing for Norwich City having impressed fans and pundits alike, as well as Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
Only 4 have been mentioned here, but there are many more young sporting stars ready to break into national teams and international sports. But let’s not forget that as well as sport, the region is known for historical figures as well as national treasures such as Sir John Hurt and Stephen Fry, who may not have been born here, but who certainly made Norfolk their homes.
Many say that where you’re born can affect your future prospects, and although the region may be rural and it may not be the epicentre of big business, there are still thousands of young people who are hungry for success and vastly ambitious. Norwich is a city buzzing with creative talent as well as that of sporting prowess. The big opportunities, particularly in sport, may lie elsewhere in the country, but people never forget where they call home.
(heading picture credit: Norwich Cathedral)