Footballer's wife is living the dream
Mar 31 2003 By Jane Hall, The Journal
Signposts seem to be an endangered species in rural Northumberland.
I have driven past footballer Robbie Elliott's house at least half-a-dozen times before an elderly gentleman taking his afternoon constitutional points his walking stick towards the Newcastle defender's home, hidden away from public gaze behind a bank of trees.
But once through the gates, there can be no mistaking who owns the Victorian mansion that was once home to the millionaire house-building tycoon and philanthropist Sir William Leech.
A silver Mercedes sports car parked on the gravel drive features a personalised number plate bearing the letters `ROB', while two football nets mark each end of one of the sizeable lawns that surround the three-storey country house.
It is not Robbie Elliott who is the centre of attention today, however. That honour falls to his wife, Justine, mother of three and now a fledgling businesswoman.
She opens the huge double front doors, her daughter Sukie nestled into her neck.
The Elliotts' two sons, Max, 23 months, and Ethan, four, are in their play room.
It is just seven weeks since Sukie was born but Justine seems to have had no trouble getting back her pre-pregnancy figure. Dressed from head-to-toe in black, the blonde haired 30-year-old is slim and trim.
Her new lifestyle may explain this. In the week she gave birth to Sukie she took over the reins at Just Kidding, the children's clothes shop in Gosforth, Newcastle. It has been a baptism of fire for Justine; looking after her children's needs, keeping the family home running and learning the pros and cons of being a shop owner.
But running Just Kidding is a dream come true. And it has seen her life come full circle.
As a child, Justine and her friends used to model for the designer children's wear outlet which has been on Gosforth High Street for more than 30 years.
Many women would be tearing their hair out at opening a new chapter in their life so soon after giving birth. Yet Justine takes it in her stride.
With a smile she says: "I wanted to take Just Kidding over. It has been there for 30 odd years and I have very fond memories of it. I can remember asking Carol Grainger (the previous owner) a few years ago if I could take the business off her hands but she wasn't ready to sell.
"Then we moved back to the North-East about a year ago and last autumn Carol asked me if I was still interested in taking on the shop. I jumped at the chance."
This despite being heavily pregnant. But as Justine says: "I couldn't turn it down."
While stock for the spring/summer had already been bought, Justine has not been able to sit on her laurels. Within days of Sukie's birth she was heading off with her daughter to Birmingham to attend a children's autumn/winter clothes fair, and hopping on the London-bound train.
She might have succumbed to fatigue if she wasn't so excited at the unexpected twist her life has taken. But she says Ethan and Max are well behaved. And she is indebted to the support she has received from both Robbie and her mother, Judith Jewitt, who is helping run the shop until Justine feels she can leave her children full-time.
As she talks, she cradles Sukie on her knee. A door leads into a huge, stone paved conservatory with a tree growing in the centre. It is an original feature of the house owned by the Leech family for more than 40 years. Ethan and Max, bored with being in the play room, come bounding in and give their sister a kiss. The pair, Justine says, adore Sukie, a Chinese name she and Robbie spotted in a book and fell in love with.
The boys are closely followed by Robbie. He plonks himself down in one of the three, large brown leather chairs and Max snuggles up for a cuddle.
Justine explains that she used to work in Fenwick's shoe department in Newcastle as a teenager before studying for a combined arts degree split between Northumbria and Sunderland universities.
She had intended to make a career in retail, but became pregnant with Ethan and has devoted the last five years of her life to her expanding family.
Now the time is right for her to step out from her husband's shadow. Robbie is understandably proud of his wife. "She is incredible. She keeps everything together. The fact that she looks after the children would be enough, but to have taken on the shop as well; it's a heck of a lot of work."
Surely there can be no need for Justine to work? Couldn't she have settled back and enjoyed the perks that come with being the wife of a well paid footballer?
"We have to think about the future," Justine says. "About what we are going to do when Robbie retires from football.
"Robbie's currently studying for a sports science degree at Northumbria University, so he will probably go into that field. He started doing it when he was playing at Bolton and is in his second year now."
As Max squirms on his knee, Robbie says he hopes to work for a football club on the fitness side when his playing career is over. But couldn't he just retire and spend time with his family?
"I couldn't imagine at the age of 35 not doing anything. I couldn't just sit around the home everyday. Being a manager doesn't interest me and neither does going into the media but the fitness side of sport is something I enjoy.
"Hopefully I will get a job with a club. Ideally I would like to stay with Newcastle." Football has been kind to him since he signed his professional forms with Newcastle United as a 17-year-old. Apart from a short spell at Bolton Wanderers, the Gosforth-born player has spent his entire career with the club he has supported since a child. He is anxious to put something back into the game.
Robbie is the first to admit he is privileged to be able to spend time with his young family in a house that he and Justine adore in a part of the world they all hold close to their hearts. "It is fantastic to be able to spend so much time with the children. That is something I know wouldn't be possible if I had a nine-to-five job.
"It can be a bind if you have two away games in a week as you can go for a few days without seeing your family but that's nothing compared to what some people have to put up with.
"I feel very lucky to be able to do a job I love - and get well paid for it. I have seen people who I grew up with who were just as good, if not better than me at football, who haven't had the luck I have had."
He pauses and smiles before adding: "I have to admit I just assumed when I signed my professional forms with a club that was going to be it. It is a case of once you start playing you expect to be doing that for the rest of your life, which is very arrogant.
"I have every respect for the players who have had knocks and been released." Both Ethan and Max love kicking a ball around with their dad in the garden, and they also go to all Newcastle's home games. "From the age of 10 months Ethan used to carry a ball around," Robbie says.
"At 12 months old he would sit through a game. But we haven't made either Ethan or Max play football. Both just love kicking a ball around."
Robbie would be happy for either of his sons to follow in his footsteps. But he will be telling them of the pitfalls. "You look around and more money than ever before is going out of the game. There are 500 players going out of the game every year.
"You can't take anything for granted."
Justine and Robbie don't fit the flashy image many have of a footballing couple; an image reinforced by the outrageous and risqué storylines of cult ITV1 drama, Footballers' Wives, with its mock-Tudor mansions, fast cars and even racier women.
What do Justine and Robbie think of the show? "I don't know anybody in the profession who goes on like that," Robbie says. "Everybody is so exaggerated, but I can see people I know in the show."
Such as? Robbie tactfully refuses to say.
He likens Footballers' Wives to Bad Girls. "When I watched that I thought that was what prison was like, but I have a friend who works in the service and he said it was all a joke."
Obviously, the couple have sat down and watched Footballers' Wives then? "For a laugh," Justine says with a grin. Looking guilty Robbie adds: "I nearly asked Justine to tape it when I had to go to away games. How sad is that?"