FIVE years ago Bobby White was diving around in the mud for Newport Pagnell Town – this year he’s going to represent Great Britain at the London Olympics.
The 28-year-old is the goalkeeper and captain of Britain’s Handball team and is counting down the days until he leads his side out in front of 7,000 fans at the ‘Copper Box’ arena in the Olympic Park for the first time in late July.
But White says he’s determined not to get too carried away with the excitement of the Games, and wants to make sure he helps to leave a legacy of handball in the UK long after 2012.
“Being able to call myself captain of my country is a dream come true,” said White, who currently plays his club handball for Valence in the south east of France.
“We’ve heard a lot about the Olympics leaving a legacy for sport in this country, and with handball we have a real chance to do just that.”
White’s journey from playing United Counties League football for the Swans to travelling all over the world with the national handball team is a remarkable one.
Back in 2007 he was in his early 20s when he watched Sir Steve Redgrave on the BBC trying to recruit players for the team, and ticked all the boxes – over 6ft 3in tall, under 25, and with experience of playing sport to a high standard.
He was soon whisked off to train full time in Denmark and never looked back, going on to play for two clubs in the very popular Danish League before moving to Greece and then to France to further his career.
This season he’s helped Valence to the top of the French Third Division, but while they look on course for promotion, White’s greatest achievement came last summer when he was made captain of the British team.
And the timing really couldn’t have been better with a place at London 2012 almost guaranteed. The team didn’t automatically qualify as a host nation having never been to a Games before, but after proving to the British Olympic Association that they were capable of competing against some of the more established handball nations, that place was soon confirmed and planning could begin.
The team’s attempt to qualify for the 2013 World Championships in Spain has ended in disappointment, but White says his side are capable of pulling off a shock or two in London.
“The Austrian team really taught us a handball lesson,” he said. “But they’re the best team we’ve ever played and I’m sure we can compete better against some of the other sides we could face in London.
“For us getting to the quarter finals will be a success – the competition is split into two groups of six teams and I’m hoping we will win at least one, maybe two games and go through to the next round.
“So we’ll play a minimum of five games which is going to give us great exposure in the UK. There will be around 7,000 people watching each game and leading the side out there as captain is going to be a great privilege for me.”
The draw for the group stage of the competition hasn’t yet been made, but when it is White is hoping to avoid the big handball powers of Europe – namely Spain, Denmark, Austria and reigning Olympic champions France who beat Iceland to gold in Beijing in 2008.
“We hope to play the likes of Tunisia and Argentina,” said White. “If I could play any side I’d like to play the French, but if we’re being realistic our chances of winning a game are far higher against the non-European sides.
“Handball really is big in Europe. And to be honest the people I’ve introduced it to back home really enjoy it. But you can only learn to enjoy it if you learn more about it, and get the chance to play with local clubs in your area.
“With the Olympics we have a chance to bring handball to people’s attention. It’s been selected as a ‘key legacy sport’ and I hope we can do it justice on the big stage.”
White spent two years playing in goal for Newport Pagnell, and football was always his favourite hobby – that and delivering the Citizen after school in his early teens.
However, after taking up handball he insists he could never go back – indeed he played a couple of South Midlands League games in goal for Winslow United in 2009, but didn’t enjoy it like he did before.
“To be honest it was boring,” he said. “I would stand there for ages just waiting for something to happen.
“In handball you are far more involved in the game as a keeper, and rarely get time to blink.
“There are obviously big differences between the sports – not least that I’m pretty sure I have balls thrown at me a lot harder than anyone could kick them.
“The balls we use are very hard, and it can hurt getting hit by them.”
White was an obvious choice to take over from Ciaran Williams as captain of the British side. He has a degree in sports science, is extremely motivated, and he demonstrates good leadership qualities.
He’s also not afraid to stand out from a crowd – going it alone in Denmark, Greece and France without being able to speak the language is not easy and life can be difficult at times. Living in the south of France might sound glamourous, but sharing a flat with a couple of French students in a fairly industrial town an hour’s drive south of Lyon can be stressful.
He depends a lot on British team-mate Sebastian Prieto who speaks fluent French and joined him at Valence late last year.
But White is adamant that the testing times of his career will be worth enduring, and he’s determined to give something back to the sport when he finishes playing.
“I want to get into coaching goalkeepers in the UK,” he said. “Everything I’ve done will have been a waste of time if I don’t give something back.
“Sometimes I wake up and forget where I am – it’s incredible how much my life has changed over the past few years.
“I can see myself as a coach – maybe even for the national team, who knows what could happen. But before then we have the Olympics and I can’t wait.
“We have a couple of months training together before then and our first match on July 29 is going to very special.”