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Former Leeds United defender becomes Norfolk detective

PUBLISHED: 15:00 30 August 2011 | UPDATED: 09:18 31 August 2011

The horrific rape of a 71 year old woman at West Harling woodland 12 years ago is being featured in a new ITV crime series 'Reward' this week offering a £10,000 to catch the rapist.  Det Chief Insp Neil Firm, who is leading the cold case investigation, is hoping the show will lead to new information. Pictures:SONYA BROWN Copy: For:EDP ©Eastern Daily Press 2006

The horrific rape of a 71 year old woman at West Harling woodland 12 years ago is being featured in a new ITV crime series 'Reward' this week offering a £10,000 to catch the rapist. Det Chief Insp Neil Firm, who is leading the cold case investigation, is hoping the show will lead to new information. Pictures:SONYA BROWN Copy: For:EDP ©Eastern Daily Press 2006

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He used to be responsible for shutting out strikers but it is a whole new ball game now for Neil Firm who is more concerned with shutting in villains.

From centre-back to detective chief inspector is some career change, but Bradford-born Mr Firm – an aspiring defender at Elland Road in the late 1970s and early 1980s – has no regrets about making the transfer to the boys in blue.

He said: “I really enjoy my job and enjoy it as much now as when I first joined. I joined the police because I thought I could make a difference to other people’s lives, I think that’s what we all try to do – to make it better for people to live.

“When I joined the job it was all about helping people and that’s what I still say now – it’s all about making life better for people and locking up the baddies.”

Mr Firm first came to Norfolk in 1986 and for a year or so ran the Horseshoes pub in Billingford, near Diss.

But with friends in the force it was not long before Mr Firm had called time on his career in the pub to pursue a future in the police.

He joined Norfolk Constabulary in 1988, initially being posted to Thetford as a PC, rising to the rank of detective within three years.

Mr Firm then became a detective sergeant and detective inspector, serving on the serious crime squad, moving to the force’s headquarters in about 2000.

Now Mr Firm, 52, is a detective chief inspector in the Local Delivery Unit (LDU) serving the whole of the county and attempting to crack some of the region’s most serious crimes, involving everything from murder inquiries to high-profile theft and fraud cases.

Mr Firm, who lives with his wife Jane and black labrador Seb in mid Norfolk, has been involved in several high profile cases over the years including the killing of Graham Rayner, 64, of Sandy Lane, Taverham, whose decapitated body was discovered by police in the boot of a car.

Paranoid schizophrenic Garnet Hooper, of Attlebridge, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of his friend on the grounds of diminished responsibility at Norwich Crown Court in 2006 and was told by Judge Peter Jacobs that he should be detained indefinitely in a secure hospital under the terms of mental health legislation.

Mr Firm said: “I’ve been involved in numerous cases and each one has its own challenges – every one that we deal with is a challenge and you try and do the best that you can.”

Mr Firm loves Norfolk for its “relaxed atmosphere”, “pace of life” and “beautiful countryside and coastline”.

He said: “Norfolk is a fantastic county – extremely low levels of crime and anti-social behaviour and what we all want is to keep it like that.”

But keeping the peace in Norfolk is a long way from his previous career when he was a tough-tackling defender rising through the junior ranks at Don Revie’s Leeds United in the early 1970s.

He said: “I was at Leeds a fair while and it was enjoyable and an eye-opener.

“I got involved with the club from an early age and have followed their fortunes right through.

“I first went there as a schoolboy when I was 14 or 15 and (Don) Revie was still there. I used to go on a regular basis in the school holidays.

“I think the biggest thing I remember was just how much of a family-orientated club it was. It was very much a close-knit set-up, where you really were part of a team – from the person who cleaned the boots to the first-team players.

“It was a very well-run, well-organised, family-orientated club.

“On the pitch, the great players as such were coming to the end, but as a team they were still absolutely awesome.

“I managed to come through the ranks – Billy McGhie, Neil Parker, Glen Letheran and Byron Stevenson were in the same group as me – and established myself in the reserves and broke through into the first team.

“The likes of Paul Hart were there and others such as Derek Parlane, Brian Greenhoff and Tony Currie and later Frank Worthington came.

“I do remember my debut at Manchester City away at Maine Road (February 1980), who were a big-spending side. But unfortunately I couldn’t become a regular.

“In terms of myself as a player, what I’d say is I could kick those who could play!”

Mr Firm, who played nine times at Oldham Athletic during a loan spell a few months prior to his release by Leeds in the summer of 1982, ultimately found a soccer sanctuary in the Fens at Peterborough United – then struggling in the old fourth division – that August.

And a well-known face was there to greet him in the shape of Posh boss Martin Wilkinson – assistant-manager under Allan Clarke at Elland Road – who signed him for £15,000.

He was a regular for much of his time at London Road, where he played alongside David Seaman, before a prolonged knee injury forced him to end his professional career in January 1986 when he was in his 20s.

Spells in the non-league at East Anglian duo Ramsey Town and Diss Town did follow, by which time Firm had also switched his attentions to the licensed trade, but he soon called time on that enterprise to enter the police force – and it has proved a rewarding career change.

Mr Firm said: “It’s a chapter of my life that I enjoyed, but unfortunately due to injury it ended and another chapter opened with joining the police and I’m really enjoying that.”

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