The Rev’d Tony Ford took up his post as Priest in Charge of St Mark’s Church in September, having made the move north from Rochdale.
Remarkably as a child, Tony battled back from severe birth defects caused by the drug Thalidomide and which affected his feet, to be signed by Manchester United as a young boy.
Tony explained: “When I was born my feet were up on their heels and virtually back to front. I had to have surgery and spent much of my time in special shoes which had metal bars in them to help correct my feet. By the age of nine my feet were virtually as normal. I was running around and playing football.”
His talent and determination led to Tony joining the Old Trafford club for seven years. Aged 16 he turned professional, playing for Canadian team, The Whitecaps, and later semi-professionally for an Australian team in Wollongong.
Returning to the UK, where he worked in warehousing and later as a buyer in the electronics industry, Tony was eventually persuaded to try out rugby league.
He laughed: “I was told ‘Come along you’ll love it. You won’t get hurt.’ I was picked as hooker and was promptly kicked all over the park! I loved the physicality of it all, though, and the social side. It was great fun.”
His love of the sport saw him turn out for Salford Rugby League’s first team and reserves before a return to Oldham where, again, he represented the reserves.
“For my mum and dad, Oldham Rugby League was a big club so playing for their reserves was a huge thrill for me,” Tony added.
It was the birth of his daughter, Nicola, 25, which proved the catalyst for Tony’s faith journey. He and his wife Denise wanted her to be baptised but the vicar insisted they had to attend church regularly.
“We went along with the intention of doing a runner after the baptism but we made friends there and kept going,” he said. “There were times when the vicar would be preaching on a Sunday and I would be squirming in my seat. His words really impacted on me.”
Tony eventually attended an Alpha Course and gave his life to Jesus. He added “I remember someone saying that sin was living your way instead of living God’s way and I thought ‘That’s me!’”
Tony was eventually appointed Children and Families Worker at his home church before later being chosen for ordination and training at Oak Hill Theological College. He returned to Oldham for a three year curacy before taking up a seven year post as a vicar in Rochdale, prior to his move to Barrow.
Now Tony has been named as the new chaplain of the Barrow Raiders Rugby League club, meaning he can maintain his close ties with the sport, having previously served for eight years as chaplain of Oldham RL.
The role involves supporting the pastoral care and welfare across the whole Barrow Raiders’ community including the players, staff, directors, and, of course, the fans.
Director Denis Fay said: “In our development planning for season 2018/19 we recognised that the club needed to do more in its welfare provision for its players and staff and we were pondering a response when, almost by divine intervention, the opportunity to appoint Tony as our chaplain came along!
“He is ideal for the role and much more, as he has a fantastic back ground in rugby league as a player and as a chaplain for Oldham RLFC. He has already met our Board of Directors, a group of our fans and our players including the youngsters of Furness Raiders.
“Having met Tony I am convinced he will do a great job not just for Barrow Raiders but for his parishioners at St Mark’s. Barrovians will take him to their hearts.”
And as for any return to the pitch, Tony joked: “There are plenty of exciting things God wants me to tackle in my new role supporting our church and community, rather than tackling somebody on a rugby pitch!”