‘I wouldn’t rule out a return to playing’ – Goalkeeper-turned-coach Ben Heald reflects on successful career

PICTURE by Llanfairpwll FC

OVER the years, Anglesey has had a reputation for producing some fantastic goalkeepers.

From the likes of Alex Lynch and Tony Roberts to current Wales number on Wayne Hennessey, who is just five caps shy of joining Chris Gunter in the ‘100 club’, there’s been an endless stream of shot-stopping talent.

Among some of the best to have played locally in recent times is non other than Ben Heald.

The now 38-year-old, who is from Llanfairpwll, enjoyed a fantastic 20-year-long career both with clubs on the island and beyond.

He began his footballing journey with Llanfairpwll Reserves in 1999 before short spells with Llangefni and Glantraeth. He then returned to the Reserves in 2002 before moving on up to Llanfair’s first team in 2003, spending three years there.

Ben then moved to Caernarfon Town in 2006, before going on to play for Llanfairpwll again (2006 to 2009), Bangor City (2008/09), Llanfairpwll (2009 to 2011), Rhyl (2010/11), Holyhead Hotspur (2011 to 2013), Glantraeth (2015 and 2017) and finally Conwy Borough (2017 to 2020).

And, despite now turning to the coaching side of the game with Borough, he hasn’t ruled out a potential return to the field in future. He said: “I try not to think too far ahead, and make decisions year on year. I have enjoyed the transition from player to coach with Conwy. Rory Crowther who has come in to take my place has been brilliant to work with. The club are literally in safe hands with him in goal. He’s one of the best I’ve seen at our level.
I’ve tried to retire previously but have always been persuaded to stay on, I blame Warren Gibbs for this. I still feel in good shape and wouldn’t rule out a return to playing again. Especially having gone a year without.”

Ben Heald’s career was one full of success. Here he is pictured with the treble he won with Holyhead Hotspur. PIC: Anthony Ward.

As number one at many a great club, Ben was selected as the Anglesey League Goalkeeper of the Year whilst with Llanfairpwll at the end of a memorable 2002/03 season. The talented shot-stopper has also represented his island on three occasions for the Ynys Mon men’s side which plays at Island Games Tournament.

He has also added the JW Lees Trophy (2000/01), the Elias Cup (2000/01), four Cookson Cups (2011/12, 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18), an FAW Trophy (2017/18) and three Welsh Alliance league titles to his trophy cabinet during a glittering career.

Talking about some of the highlights from his playing days, Ben said: “My proudest moments in football are, representing Anglesey in three different island games. It’s really a special feeling to be part of such a great competition. Some of the best memories I have from football are from these trips.
Also – winning the treble at tier three level with two different clubs, Holyhead Hotspur and Conwy Borough. Winning the FAW Trophy with Conwy in 17/18 after losing in the final with Holyhead 11/12. I’m proud of all the trophies I’ve won over the years, but this is one I really wanted to win.
One of the best performances from me personally in a match, was the Elias cup final vs Gwalchmai in 2001. Gwalchmai were champions that year and we were struggling near the bottom of the league. Nobody gave us a chance and we beat them on penalties after being bombarded for 120 minutes. The game finished 1-1, I lost count of the amount of saves I made but I remember the three I made in the shootout.
There were other games where I played really well. Mynydd Isa away and Denbigh away with Llanfairpwll were just a couple. More recently, in the derby between Conwy and Llandudno last year, I saved a penalty and then assisted the winner with a massive boot upfield to win 1-0 away from home. I enjoyed that one.
“Another memorable one was with Glantraeth vs our title rivals Trearddur Bay. I scored from a free kick from my own half. We won 6-2 I think. That was as good as any save I’ve made!”

Ben celebrates THAT goal for Glantraeth FC.

On the flip side, talking about the low points of his career, Ben added: “Losing that FAW trophy final with Holyhead Hotspur in 11/12. Had we won we’d have won every competition we entered that year. In the end, we had to settle for the treble.
“Getting relegated from the Cymru Alliance with Llanfairpwll was a tough one to take too. We were competitive in that league for many years before the restructure meant we had to finish in the top 8 to stay up.”

With many pieces of silverware and many great moments enjoyed during his career, Ben must surely have played alongside some big names too, right? Well, yes that’s definitely the case as he’s shared a pitch with great defenders such as Hotspur’s Alex Jones and prolific goal-getters such as Mel McGinness of Hotspur and Corrig McGonigle of Conwy Borough.

But which ones stand out the most for him?

Ben said: “Over 20 years of senior football I’ve played with some great players. Too many to mention on here. I’ve played with some very good defenders over the years, Gareth Owen was with me at both Holyhead and Glantraeth. He was a big part of the winning mentality we had at both clubs. Others include Alex Jones (Holyhead) Rhys Roberts (Anglesey) and Chris Williams (Llanfairpwll and Anglesey).
Further up the pitch there’s Jay Gibbs, Kev Roberts, Dave Evans, Gaz Owen (Rhyl). In terms of Goalscorers, again too many to mention. The two who really stand out are Mel McGuinness and Corrig McGonigle. If you’re going to win silverware you need a striker who demands the ball and is always looking to score. In the seasons I’ve played with these two, they were absolutely unplayable at times. Mel bagged 50 the year we won the treble at Holyhead and Corrig hit 59 at Glantraeth in our double winning year.
Other special mentions go to Billy Evans and Neil Hughes at Llanfairpwll. Two really experienced forwards who fired in goals in the Cymru Alliance for many years.

Heald with Hotspur team-mates including Alex Jones (third player in from right on back row) and Mel McGinness (furthest right on front). PIC: Anthony Ward.

In terms of the people who have had the biggest influence on making him the goalkeeper he was during his playing days, Ben lists four figures in particular who created a lasting impression on him.

He said: “I’ve worked with some great managers and players over the years. Darren Moore at Llanfairpwll was one of the best I’ve worked with. He knew the game better than anyone and knew what it took to win. Warren Gibbs was another who was very influential as a coach, and a top bloke off away from football as well. In terms of goalkeeping, there’s a couple who deserve a mention.
Merv Williams coached me and all the other Anglesey junior goalkeepers. He taught me a lot about the position and helped me progress in the game. I worked with him again as our GK coach at Holyhead. He always set high standards, even in training. Rich Partington was the goalkeeper at Llanfairpwll for years. I succeeded him as the clubs No.1 and he stayed on to coach me after hanging his gloves up. He was always there to give advice, I learnt a lot from him.”

Having been involved with local football for more than two decades by now, Ben will have certainly seen big changes take place both on and off the field.

Commenting on what he believes has been the biggest change, he said: “I believe the standard overall has improved somewhat. Especially in Tiers 1 and 2, though generally there’s a more professional attitude to the game these days. Another big difference is the spotlight on the game at grassroots level. My scrapbook is all newspaper cuttings, the modern players have blogs such as this one and websites to read about their games. It’s a big positive that there’s a bigger focus on football locally.

Like all of us who love football all across Wales, Ben is eagerly awaiting the return of the beautiful game – so that he can continue coaching with Conwy Borough and potentially make a return to the field.

When asked what he’s missed the most about football, he replied: “I think, like everyone, it’s just that feeling of stepping over that white line on a Saturday. It’s a big part of people’s lives that has been taking away. Not to mention the social aspect, there’s something great about a few drinks after a match, either in celebration or trying to figure out what went wrong in the match.”

Anyone following local football these days will most likely know that Ben’s son is now involved on the local scene and is steadily making a name for himself in the game.

Aaron Heald in his Bro Goronwy days. PIC: Paul Scholes.

Despite only being 18 years old, Aaron Heald (above) has enjoyed a great career already. The defender has caught the eye with several performances which are beyond his youthful years whilst playing for Bro Goronwy and Bodedern Atheltic.

Aaron made his Welsh Alliance One league debut with Boded against Greenfield in January 2020 and became a first team regular before the Covid-19 pandemic struck and brought the season to an abrupt end. He then moved to Gwynedd League champions Bangor 1876 last year and will no doubt be a quality addition to an already fantastic side then when football returns in the near future.

Talking about his son, Ben said: “He’s a fantastic footballer with a brilliant attitude. He’s always been very good but excelled at both Bangor and the Wrexham academy. He reads the game really well and never shirks a tackle. He did pre season with us at Conwy and did not look out of place. He’s now with Bangor 1876 and I’m looking forward to see him develop and enjoy his football.

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