Len Johnrose on his career, MND, and Finding a Way: "Sharing my experiences meant that I could give something back"

Following a 16-year career as a professional footballer which comprised over 400 appearances for the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Hartlepool United, Burnley, Bury, and Swansea City, Len Johnrose was working as a teacher in Blackburn when he realised something was wrong.

Len Johnrose (credit PA Wire)
Len Johnrose (credit PA Wire)

It was May 2015 and, having managed to convince the headteacher of the school at which he worked to purchase a trampoline for the students, Len was trying out some front flips. He'd mastered the technique before but, on this particular day, it just wasn't coming off. So he asked a colleague to film him to see where he was going wrong.

He jumped, tucked his knees, and extended into the landing. But he slightly overbalanced and put out his left hand to break his fall. He heard a crack, but felt no pain whatsoever.

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At hospital, doctors told him he'd shattered a bone in his hand. By November, Len's full range of movement still hadn't returned and he was beginning to drop things in the classroom. Physio didn't work. A nerve specialist realised the fracture hadn't healed and re-fractured his hand to reset it before giving Len a series of nerve activity tests.

Len Johnrose playing for Swansea City

"That was where it all started to go horribly wrong," writes Len in his memoir, Finding a Way.

Six months later in March 2017, Len Johnrose was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

"I already had in my mind that I had MND, so it wasn't the biggest surprise but, having said that, hearing the words 'you have MND' was still earth-shattering," says Len, who was born and lives in Preston. "When I was first diagnosed, I was actually quite pragmatic. I don't really worry; people overplay the importance of so many things [but] I've never really been like that.

"I don't get too excited if something goes well and I don't get too upset if things don't go my way," he adds. "From the minute I knew that I had MND, it was always my intention to try to do something to help others. I wanted to do something positive to raise awareness of the disease. I don't get any pleasure out of it, I just feel that it is a duty; it just has to be done.

Len Johnrose during his time as a teacher

"But it was 18 months before I was mentally ready."

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There is no cure for MND. It's a brutal disease which attacks a person's ability to move, speak, and - ultimately - breathe, slowly suffocating them. Half of those diagnosed die within two years. Knowing all this and, having only told his wife Nade of his diagnosis, Len says that the issue was 'too big and too raw' to discuss. But eventually, it became too much.

"I'm a talker," says Len. "If I have an issue that I can't solve, I sometimes feel the need to discuss it. I decided to speak out on local radio; that way, everybody would know about it. There would be fewer funny looks from people who knew that something was wrong but didn't dare ask and, ultimately, it meant that I no longer had to carry around this guilty secret."

Len went public with the news in August 2018, opening up about how he had even gone as far as to research the possibility of assisted death. But anger or thoughts of 'why me?' never entered his mind. Instead, his reaction has always been 'how can I help?' Which is where his memoir comes in.

(From left) Paul Wignall, Peter Jones, Byron Gregory and Len Johnrose at a MND Association golf tournament at Ashton and Lea Golf Club in Preston a few years ago
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"Although I am typically a bit of an introvert, I've done a little bit of public speaking and media work - so basically, I've always had a lot to say for myself!" says Len. "But, to be honest, I never really thought that anyone would be interested in reading what I had to say.

"Writing the book enabled me to share my experiences in the hope that others can relate to my situation," adds Len, who called the process 'cathartic'. "Being a former professional footballer meant that there was a lot of media coverage and public attention for my announcement and the wealth of support was overwhelming.

"Sharing my experiences - not just of MND, but of my whole life - meant that I could give something back to those who supported me and, hopefully, inspire others who are trying to overcome difficult situations."

In the almost four years since his initial diagnosis, Len's personal freedoms have become severely restricted as his everyday movement became increasingly affected. He made sure to bank his voice whilst still able to speak and wrote Finding a Way using voice-recognition technology as he can no longer control his hands.

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Len Johnrose at Swansea City

But the title of Len's memoir reflects his outlook on life, with the book detailing not only his time as a professional footballer, but the power of the human spirit, which can help a person overcome even the most seemingly-insurmountable barriers to happiness and the satisfaction of prevailing regardless of the challenge.

"I've always been a deep thinker - someone with a lot of opinions - so writing the book meant that I was able to be as expressive as I wanted," says Len. "I suppose that I did it more for myself than for anyone else."

Six people are diagnosed with MND every day in the UK, with the disease impacting one in every 300 people. And - while research is still ongoing - there is also evidence that professional footballers are up to four-times more likely to be diagnosed with MND than the general population, with other high-profile sportsmen such as rugby league's Rob Burrows, football's Stephen Darby, and rugby union's Doddie Weir all diagnosed with the disease in recent years, too.

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"All of those guys and their families are incredible, they really are," says Len of Stephen, Rob, and Doddie, all of whom have dedicated themselves to raising funds and awareness of MND. "Between us and so many others, we have to keep banging the drum."

Keen to do his part, Len himself launched Project 92 alongside the Motor Neurone Disease Association. An initiative uniting football in the hope of spreading awareness and funding research into the disease, Project 92 - also supported by Stephen Darby - has seen Len travel around the 92 clubs in the Premier League and the Football League to speak about MND whilst also aiming to raise £92,000.

The opening lines of Finding a Way sum up Len Johnrose and his outlook better than anything else.

Len Johnrose at Tranmere Rovers as part of Project 92
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"Life throws up an array of obstacles to overcome, and puzzles to solve," he writes. "How you approach them defines you as a person. Fight or flight? Sink or swim? Some decisions are easy, and some are taken out of your hands. But somehow, you have to find a way.

“Motor neurone disease is brutal. It does not discriminate, nor does it spare," he continues. "It strips you of your ability to walk, of your ability to move your arms. It strips you of your ability to cough, to swallow, and, ultimately, to breathe. You are consigned to live in a body that does not work.

"But I have the last laugh, because it cannot strip me of my dignity, my pride, or my spirit.”