Neil Featherby: Here’s to the next 25 years of Sportlink

The opening of Sportlink at Drayton in 1998. Picture: Neil Featherby

The opening of Sportlink at Drayton in 1998. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

This weekend sees the 25th anniversary of the opening of my business Sportlink.

Team Sportlink and right from the start the business was fully behind local running with sponsorship

Team Sportlink and right from the start the business was fully behind local running with sponsorship of several local athletes. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

To say when I look back the time has gone so very quickly is an understatement.

However and when looking back, I can also see just how much I and the business have crammed in during just a quarter of a century.

When opening the door for the very first time in Horsford on November 16, 1994, I really did not know what to expect.

I was certainly very apprehensive. In fact after a morning of lots of telephone calls, unfortunately each time I picked the phone up it was someone on the other end of the line trying to sell me something.

The opening of Sportlink’s second unit also in Horsford. Picture: Archant

The opening of Sportlink’s second unit also in Horsford. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Then just when I thought that I was going to go home after that first day not having made a single sale, in walked my very first customer.

A gentleman by the name of Danny Kelly who despite not knowing each other before that moment, we are still good friends to this day.

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I was so desperate to make a sale, I ended up trading the shoes off his feet for a much better pair of New Balance running shoes and while I look back and laugh at it now, in many ways it did sum up the way the business was going to develop.

In other words, we started as we meant to go on i.e a business that was very much at home when not only offering expert advice on running and sports products, but also very much a business where people from all walks of life could walk in, immediately feel at home and realise that Sportlink was just that little bit different. What you see is certainly what you get, but most importantly from staff who are so very personable whilst also having a huge amount of experience and knowledge.

Danny Kelly the first customer. Picture: Neil Featherby

Danny Kelly the first customer. Picture: Neil Featherby - Credit: Archant

Needless to say, they, the staff, all have a good sense of humour as well.

For those who know us really well will also know that we can be a little zany at times too.

However and going back to those early days, whilst running was very much to the fore when it came to retail, we were also involved with many other sports as whilst running was very popular, its popularity back then is nothing like what it is today.

I may well be wrong, but I think it was the same year as when we opened for business, that The Race for Life was first introduced and the major increases in running during that time were coming from ladies who kept it going having done the event and realised just how much enjoyment they had got from it.

Nevertheless, the running scene in itself could still be a little up and down when it came to being a favourite pastime.

Needless to say the big events such as The London Marathon and Great North Run were always so very popular and closer to home The City of Norwich Half Marathon which was usually held around May or June time attracted and motivated people to train for a major race here in Norfolk.

So did many of the other local races of course, but on the whole most races were made up mainly of club runners whereas today amongst what is now the masses, there really are so many more unattached (non-club runners) who are all more than happy to put on a pair of running shoes and run side by side with the club runners in the same events.

At the same time, clubs have also benefitted from this and have also seen a dramatic rise in numbers too, particularly as those who might start out happy to just run independently do eventually realise that there are so many benefits from joining a running club.

Anyway and back to my 25 year journey, which not only saw the business move from Horsford to Drayton and then to Taverham and apart from all the awesome adventures which I have personally had through not just running, but football and boxing too, this column is of course about running.

Whilst I have just mentioned the running scene during the 1990s, the sports trade during this decade really was a fun time albeit at a much slower pace.

Mobile phones and emails were certainly not used for instant access as they are today, but as time has moved on, the pace really has increased at a rapid rate for which I suppose you could say it is still lots of fun, but in a different way and just like a competitive race, you have to always be aware of what is going on if you want to be at the front of the game.

Whilst shoe technology saw many changes and improvements right throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it was all pretty gradual.

In fact it was still all very gradual until the most recent running boom which really happened I personally think after the 2012 Olympics along with the introduction of the parkruns and of course the use of social media, for which technology is now leading to some huge advancements with not only shoe technology, but so many other items of running equipment too.

Being the shoe geek I am, I still have running shoes which date back several decades and to be honest, I like them far more than some of today's shoes.

However, that in truth is probably only because it reminds me of when I was a half decent runner myself.

Needless to say though, it is on the back of Eliud Kipchoge's sub 2 hour challenge and the special shoes which he wore, which is now going to be the catalyst of what will lead to some huge and dramatic advancements from all the brands as just like all elite athletes, the competition between all the major manufacturers is just as competitive.

As for Sportlink and the next 25 years, I would love to think that we will continue be a major player in local running and who knows maybe beyond, but in the mean-time, I really am looking forward to our birthday celebrations this weekend which of course will start at the Sportlink Norfolk GP Awards this Friday evening.

I must also just say, all the very best to City of Norwich Athlete, Gary Crush who will be representing England at the British & Irish Masters Cross Country International Races this weekend which are being held at the Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool.

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