From the football pitch to the front line

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Ex-Manchester City footballer Lee Crooks has made a dramatic transfer from the football pitch to face the front line of operations in Afghanistan as he joins the elite team of the RAF Regiment.

Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Lee Crooks, 33, was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and was a professional footballer with Manchester City for six years. Over eight years later LAC Crooks decided to join the RAF Regiment as a Gunner:

My younger brother is in the Army, but when I looked into it I thought the RAF Regiment was the one for me and have never looked back,” he said.

They do a great job and the lads work really hard providing the force protection on the ground for the RAF. I’m very proud to be a part of the RAF Regiment.

Since graduating a few weeks ago, LAC Crooks has been put through his paces and is currently at Sennybridge Training Area in Wales for over two weeks, practising live firing drills as he takes part in Exercise Gunners Grip.

LAC Crooks draws comparisons between life as a professional footballer and as an RAF Regiment Gunner:

Both roles are about working as a team, being there for your team mates and moving forward as a team,” he said.

You have to be mentally and physically fit for both roles, but you train as a professional footballer for 90 minutes so the training is a lot more explosive, whereas being a Gunner you have to be robust and have a lot more stamina as you are carrying heavy weight over longer distances and over longer days and nights.

Leading Aircraftman Lee Crooks was a professional footballer with Manchester City for six years
Leading Aircraftman Lee Crooks was a professional footballer with Manchester City for six years [Picture: Sergeant Nigel Green, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Training to become an RAF Regiment Gunner is one of the RAF’s most physically demanding courses and recruits take part in challenging field exercises as they prepare to deliver air-minded force protection on operations. Sergeant Gareth Saunders, 31, is a basic training instructor at RAF Honington:

I got Lee from day one of his military career and he has been progressing well through the course. He’s a strong character and he has been a help to me as he took the youngest lad on the course who was 16 under his wing.

It’s good to have a cross-section of ages and he has got that natural leadership ability.

LAC Crooks is now looking forward to joining 1 Squadron RAF Regiment at RAF Honington and from there deploying on his first tour of Afghanistan at the beginning of next year:

Going back to life as a professional footballer, you train all week to prepare for the Saturday game and put everything that you’ve trained for in that game and it’s exactly the same as this,” he said.

I have done my training and am now really looking forward to putting it into practice.

Leading Aircraftman Gary Strickland, 28, went through training with LAC Crooks and will be joining II Squadron RAF Regiment, also based at RAF Honington:

Lee took me under his wing and showed me the ropes and gave me some pointers about physical exercise. I know the younger lads look up to him and he’s a valuable asset to us,” he said.

“I’ll be meeting up with him on ops in Afghanistan and I’ll be working side by side with him and I’m very confident he’ll have my back.”