Not your average kit man: A major brain surgery survival story

James Knell is the head kit man, stadium announcer and mascot at Northern Premier league football club Bamber Bridge FC, In November 2023 he was told he had a lesion and required a suboccipital craniotomy to allow resection of a cerebellar cystic lesion (major brain surgery). 

A lesion is an area of damaged tissue or organ, which in this instance was on the brain.

Suboccipital craniotomy is a surgery that means removing a piece of bone at the skull’s base, In order to access the brain and remove the lesion. 

James sharing the results of his scan in November

A large tumour is considered to be 2-3 cm, James’ was a 6×5 cm lesion on the back of the head / brain. 

James initially seeked medical help when he started vomiting daily from May until November, he was sent for an MRI scan on the brain and less than two days later he was rushed into hospital where he was told he had a golf ball and a half size lesion. 

With a quick turnaround from the scan to the surgery there wasn’t much time for James to think about and understand what was about to happen. 

James said: “I was shocked, I went a bit dizzy, but it was that or death at the end of the day.

 I didn’t have much time to think about it or get to know much about it but it just happened.” 

Major brain surgery can take up to 5 hours to complete and as of 2021 there are only 362 consultant neurosurgeons working for the NHS

“When I got into the pre-op room I started to get a bit anxious and started to be a bit worried.” James said. 

The recovery from the surgery was the most difficult period for him, saying it was the “aftermath that was more scary, the recovery but that was expected and we smashed it.”

The first 48 hours post surgery were some of the toughest for James, but he was full of praise for the team that helped him through it. 

He said: “The first few days were hard, I couldn’t get out of bed, it took a lot of physio but the team I saw were brilliant especially the nurses.” 

The first time James managed to get out of bed after the surgery – Image from James Knell

Although he is through the toughest period he is still affected by the surgery on a daily basis. 

He was recently discharged from speech and language therapy but was still very much of the impression that there’s still a long way to go. 

He received an abundance of support and encouragement from the club he supports, Preston North End, and Bamber Bridge. 

He said: “The club got me a nice card, and I had lots of messages on Facebook and Twitter.” 

He also explained he received a good luck video from North End goalkeeper Freddie Woodman and former PNE midfielder John Welsh. 

He was eager to get back to Brig as soon as possible and is very fond of the club and the people there. 

“I love it, I love the place, all the management staff, the other volunteers I’ve spent ages here.

“I love it all and don’t ever plan to stop.” he explained. 

Everyone at the club is also keen to ensure his recovery goes as well as possible.

“People are still a bit wary making sure I don’t get back to being injured, I’ve still got a bit of a lump on the back of my head which is going down over time in fluid” he said. 

He was back to kit man duties a matter of months after his surgery, but it hasn’t been as simple for him and his family, as it was before. 

He said: “For the first few weeks, what would take me an hour took me an hour and a half or two hours because I was a bit more wary.

“I think it has taken more of a toll on my family members because they’ve got to give me lifts here or walk here, which is half an hour so I feel a bit sorry for them.” 

James announcing the teams prior to kick-off against Whitby Town – Image from Ruth Hornby

Before the surgery James helped out with the goalkeeper coaching at Brig, one of the things that he is still not able to do, post surgery. 

“I’m still not back to full fitness now football wise, I still can’t play in net, I still can’t drive which is frustrating because I love driving,” he explained. 

Bamber Bridge manager Jamie Milligan has known James since he took the dugout hotseat and knows just how vital his work for the club is. 

Jamie said: “He does a great job with the kit, he’s enthusiastic, helps us with the warm-ups making sure the lads have got everything they need and he’s a massive help to the club, he’s a really valuable member of staff.” 

He commended James’ grit and determination throughout his recovery and the road back to the changing rooms. 

He said: “He’s come out the other end of it really well. He’s cracked on with his job like normal but it must have been a tough time for him. 

“But fair play to him he’s just got on with it.” 

James is one of many hardworking volunteers at Brig, a vital part and the backbone of any non-league football club. 

The return of the Brig Cat – Image from Matt Grimshaw

Jamie said: “At most non-league clubs the volunteers are the heartbeat of the club. If it wasn’t for them there would be no club.

“The amount of work that goes on behind the scenes from the tea lady to people sorting out the kit, it all makes my job easier. 

“The volunteers at non-league clubs and especially ours are unbelievable.” 

He admitted that there was a void to be filled while James was unable to fulfil his usual matchday duties. 

“He was a miss while he was away because he is so valuable, those people like him who help out behind the scenes make things tick over. 

“It’s good to have him back round the place and doing what he’s really good at,” he said.

A TikTok or Instagram reels video explaining James’ story