Small Beginnings: Stretford AC in the 1960s
Stretford Athletic Club was the original name of what is now Trafford AC. I first joined the Club in 1967, and was an early holder of the Club junior mile and two-miles records, although many faster athletes have come along since then. I left in 1978, and although I have competed for various other clubs over the years, it is Stretford that has remained my spiritual home. Through recent reunions and social media exchanges, I have become intrigued by the realisation that many of the other early members of the Club still feel exactly the same way.
Less than a year ago, at the end of the big Covid lockdown, I brought my grand-daughter for her first training session with the Club, and I watched the years roll back before my eyes. Stretford athletes of my generation like Sue Exon and Neil Canham were still there leading coaching sessions, as was Mike Hutchinson from my daughter’s generation; Club Secretary Mike Harris is the spitting image of his father Jim, one of the Club’s founding fathers (I have more than once slipped into a time warp and called him by the wrong name); and those young athletes stepping out on the track in impressive numbers for their interval sessions were just as bright-eyed and eager as I was at their age.
At the time of the Club's formation, there was a widely prevalent view that “it would never happen” – that clubs needed to start with a group of runners rather than a stadium, and that there was no room for a new club so close to long-established clubs in Manchester and in Sale (only a mile away). So how did the Club come to defy the odds in such emphatic fashion?
I thought if I researched the Club's early history, to set alongside my own recollections, I might get somewhere near an answer to these questions. And perhaps someone from the next generation of athletes might choose to write the later chapters of a continuing story.
Rick Gwilt, August 2022
Back in 1960, local authorities had a strongly local focus, with little in the way of cross-boundary collaboration by today's standards. The then Borough of Stretford in Lancashire was just one of several small authorities in an area of Lancashire and Cheshire which, under the local government reorganisation of 1974, was to become the Metropolitan Borough of Trafford (Trafford in turn being one of the ten districts of Greater Manchester).
Stretford Council approved the decision to build an athletics stadium in Longford Park in April 1961. The report that led to this decision appears to have been lost, but circumstantial evidence suggests that the main driver was the need for a venue for school sports days. The project quickly became a political football, as Parks and Education committees tussled for control. Although Parks appeared to have won the formal battle, Education arguably had the last laugh in one respect, with the 500-seat covered grandstand being built half-way down the home straight – ideal for junior sprints but out of synch with senior races, which had long since adopted the end of the straight for their finish line.
Changing accommodation beneath the stand was specified for 100 male and 50 female athletes, perhaps a sign of the times, as this differential provision passed through Council unchallenged.
With Longford Park being located on the eastern edge of the Stretford Borough, road access would need to be from residential streets in Chorlton (Manchester), so an early challenge was to obtain planning consent from Manchester City Council. This was granted subject to provision of signage and a 120-space car park –with the stadium to be used for athletic events only. To this day, the stadium, although in Trafford, has a Manchester street address – and a bigger car park than most!
Finally, in 1964, the stadium was built, with a launch event held in September of that year, a month before the Tokyo Olympics. Among those competing for the last time before flying out east were two eventual gold medallists in Lynn Davies (men's long jump) and Ann Packer (women's 800m).
Not everyone though was carried away by the headlines. Circulating among the crowd was a small group of athletic coaches seeking to recruit local youth to train there: Bill Murphy and Ken Owen were established coaches with Sale Harriers who had tried unsuccessfully to persuade their Club to move to the new stadium; Roger Colson was a civil engineer with Stretford Council who, although then running for Manchester AC, had been persuaded by his employer to get involved to ensure the success of the new stadium. As Roger told me, “We knew we couldn't go straight into setting up a club. We needed to start with a group of athletes.”
Developing a training group based at the stadium with no prospect of competition was clearly not a long-term solution.
On 4 February 1965, the Mayor of Stretford, Councillor William Fearnhead, convened a meeting at Stretford Civic Theatre with a view to founding an Athletic Club for the Borough. The minutes diplomatically refer to “a certain amount of scepticism at the suggestion of forming yet another athletic club in an area such as this”, and “the ensuing discussion emphasised the considerable difficulties attached to such a bold venture,” or as Roger Colson told me, “a lot of people said it would never happen”.
Happily, there were 23 people present who did vote to pursue the idea, and a group of 11 people met again on 29 April, with Ken Owen and Roger Colson sharing the role of Club Secretary, and Bill Murphy taking responsibility for Fixtures. Councillors Fearnhead, Lord and Armitage also remained involved.
Distance runner Peter Doherty recalls: “The PE lesson had just finished at St. Mary's Secondary Modern School, Stretford. As we changed the Head of PE said, ‘Doherty, Foy, O'Horan, there is a meeting tonight at 7pm at the Stretford Civic Theatre ... As you three are the most interested in athletics in the school I would like you to attend to represent the school'. We felt important to be singled out amongst our peers and duly turned up. It never occurred to us that this was an invitation sent to him and this was a good way of passing it on! So we met up half an hour before opposite the Civic Theatre outside the old Essoldo Cinema watching all these ‘old people' traipsing in, ... We debated whether to go in but because we felt we would let Mr Smyth and the school down we reluctantly went in. We didn't understand much of the proceedings which consisted of a lot of discussions between the adults but we did understand that there was enough interest to form an athletics club and it was to be called Stretford Athletic Club and we all when asked signed a form to join when it came into existence.”
The Club organised its first home track and field meeting on 7 September. Although affected by heavy rain, it still made a small profit of £12 (a significant sum in those days) and was treated as a useful learning experience.
The Club Committee's work on fixtures and membership recruitment continued through the summer, with school visits, lectures on coaching, promotional club pens and a social evening. In the autumn Bill Murphy led on hosting a local Saturday morning cross-country league for young athletes. Each event was treated as an opportunity for recruitment, and a steady trickle of young athletes started to swell the membership of the Club. It was a slow process – an early club photo shows only 16 boys and 9 girls – but by the AGM in October the /club was able to report over 100 members.
Early in 1966 there was a major boost to the Club's development, when Cheadle and Gatley AC proposed a merger.
This Club had been going since 1962 and was based at Scholes Park in Gatley (now part of Stockport), some 5 miles from Longford Park. It had grown rapidly, largely due to the hard work of its dynamic founder and coach Jim Harris, a local school-teacher, and it boasted some quality athletes, including British international one-lap hurdler Peter Warden and Malcolm Arnold, who would later coach top hurdlers like John Aki-Bua and Colin Jackson.
Like Bill Murphy, Jim would recruit energetically at schools fixtures, signing up many promising young athletes from sprint hurdlers like Geoffrey Newton and Julie Wood to middle distance runners like Steve Dodwell and Roy Waters, all of whom subsequently made the switch to Stretford.
Jim was in many ways a victim of his own success, as the growth of the performance side of the Club threatened to outstrip its infrastructure. Most of the work feel on the shoulders of Jim and his wife Jean, who at the time had two young children. Years later, Bill Murphy fondly remembered the pram doubling up as recording desk at matches.
A secondary problem was the tendency of Scholes Park to waterlogging - the track's launch event in May 1962 had seen the home straight reduced to a giant puddle.
By August1964, Jim Harris was appealing for more event judges, complaining that the Club was “not getting the support it deserved from the general public”, that it was attracting “a mere handful of spectators”. The well-supported launch of Longford Park in September 1964 did not escape his notice.
Informal discussions about a potential merger (primarily between Jim Harris and Roger Colson) took place over the following months, and in February 1966 both clubs formally agreed to a merger. The pooling of resources saw Stretford providing the structures and facilities, with Cheadle & Gatley contributing a wealth of good young athletes, as well as the restless energy of Jim Harris himself.
At this stage, the Club's profile was not matched by the quality of its senior athletes, with Christine Perera (3rd in the 1966 WAAA 220 yard hurdles) its only top senior performer.
However, the club was growing rapidly and setting itself ambitious goals to raise the standards of inter-club athletics in the North of England to the levels already firmly established in the Midlands and South. The decision was taken to set up a summer programme of midweek (Tuesday evening) events, the Stretford Track and Field League, for which Roger Colson took lead responsibility. These meetings, which eventually attracted athletes from across the North of England, did much to raise the profile of the fledgling club.
Developing the Athletes
One of the first athletes to join the new Stretford Club in 1964 was Dave Telford, a local 15-year-old from Chorlton. He read about the launch event for the track and went down to watch along with his mate Mike Ratchford. As Club officials made their way round the spectators, both boys signed up on the spot. “I was pretty lightly built and I'd found football a bit too physical for my frame, but I thought running will do me nicely,” Dave told me. Dave became a stalwart of the men's team both on track and country, slotting in as a steeplechaser in National League and British Athletics Cup meetings through the 1970s and continuing to be a familiar figure training on the track and the surrounding parkland right up to his death in 2021.
The Club's star performer in its early pre-merger days was a multi-talented and highly photogenic schoolgirl called Lynne Davies, who lived in Salford – two bus rides away from the stadium. Lynne told me, “My PE teacher got me into Salford Harriers, but they didn't really have a girls' section, so they encouraged me to join Stretford”. Lynne used to sprint, hurdle and jump, often on the same day, and in one meeting at Bolton she was awarded the “outstanding performance of the day” cup even though this was normally reserved for a host club athlete.
Others signposted by local schools included young high-jumper Yvonne Saunders, who went on to win the 400 metres for Canada at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.
Jim Harris, whilst at Cheadle & Gatley, had been extremely proactive in recruiting young athletes. High hurdler Geoffrey Newton, a Bramhall lad who was at boarding school down south, recalls being approached by Jim at an English Schools championship in London.
Individual successes during the early years included:
- Yvonne Saunders won the AA High Jump at Intermediate Girls level;
- sprint hurdler Christine Perera (later Christine Bell) became a regular competitor for the Great Britain team, was a Commonwealth and European indoor bronze medallist and outdoor European Championships finalist in 1969, and set an early world best of 13.7 for 100m hurdles (then a new distance replacing the 80mH);
- in the 17-19 age group, shot-putter John Corbett, who broke the Lancashire senior shot put record as a junior, and one-lap runner Joe Kirwan competed for the GB junior team;
- in the 15-17 age group, Janice Murray became national champion in both long jump and pentathlon, whilst Paul Hambley achieved the same in the high jump;
- in the 11-15 age group, Nnenna Njoku became national champion in both hurdles and pentathlon, whilst Sharon Colyear did the same over 200 metres, both of them setting national age-group records for their events.
Overall, there was a sense of marking time and waiting for the younger athletes to come through.
The Management Team
The Club's rapid rise prompts the thought that it must have had an exceptionally effective management team in place. Who were these people and what were the secrets of their success?
Management guru Meredith Belbin and others have suggested that the key to successful teams is the extent to which they are able to blend people with different natural strengths. The nine Belbin Team Roles are: Resource Investigator, Teamworker and Co-ordinator (the Social roles); Plant, Monitor Evaluator and Specialist (the Thinking roles), and Shaper, Implementer and Completer-Finisher (the Action or Task roles).
I would suggest that, in its early years, the Club benefited enormously from having within its leadership several highly committed and energetic individuals who each brought something slightly different to the table:
- Bill Murphy, the “coordinator” (“needed to focus on the team's objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately”);
- Roger Colson, the “plant” (“highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways”);
- Jim Harris, the “shaper” (“provides the necessary drive to ensure that the team keeps moving and does not lose focus or momentum”).
To most of us who remember the Club's early days, Bill Murphy was “Mr Stretford”. He volunteered for major tasks from the Club's earliest days and remained a key figure for some 50 years.
On my first day at the Club in 1967, it was Bill who took me under his wing and led a group of us young distance runners out for an easy Sunday morning run over Turn Moss and the banks of the Mersey.
Originally from Teesside, Bill had a passion for running that dated from his own days as a middle-distance runner in the North East. He was a man seemingly without any ego or sense of entitlement. His delight in running seemed much more to do with participation than winning, and he meted out his encouragement and praise to all his runners, winners and losers, in equal measure.
By the early 1960s, Bill was working as an electrical engineer, living in Sale and coaching at Sale Harriers. When the decision was taken to build Longford Park, Bill tried to persuade the Sale club to move to the new stadium with its improved facilities, but the majority within the club preferred to stay at Crossford Bridge and preserve their history. For Bill (then and since) it has always been “now” that matters, and so it was that he transferred (together with fellow Sale coach Ken Owen) to the new Stretford club.
At the time I rather took it for granted that the Club was such a friendly place, with a sense of all being part of one happy family. It helped, of course, that the Club was so small initially, but in retrospect I would argue that Bill needs to take a lot of the credit for ensuring that Stretford became a Club so different from Sale. It may be that Sale athletes reserved their most competitive side for us renegades at Stretford, but my sense was always that Bill consciously strove to develop a club culture based on fun, friendship and collaboration.
Roger was born in 1931 in Middleton, where he was to live all his life. He was born into an entrepreneurial family, whose exploits included building water-mills in the Amazon rain-forest. At school, Roger was a multi-talented sportsman, with offers of football trials at Blackpool and Bolton, but he chose athletics as his sport, partly because he was able to combine it with training as an architect, and partly because he liked the idea of a sport where success is totally under the individual's control.
During his national service in the early 1950s, Roger was virtually a full-time athlete within an RAF athletics and cross-country team that included the great miler Derek Ibbotson. From 1957 he was working as civil engineer for Stretford Borough Council and running for Manchester AC as one of their top middle-distance runners.
In 1964 Roger was approached by Alderman Armitage of Stretford Borough Council for support in setting up an athletics club based at the newly-built Longford Park Stadium. Roger became the club secretary, initially sharing the role with another local runner, Ken Owen.
Roger displayed an insatiable appetite for new ideas, which far outlasted his Stretford AC years. It is perhaps significant that he seemed to value innovative projects in their own right rather than just as devices for raising funds for the club or its public profile. At various times he instigated the Club press cuttings files (assiduously maintained for over 15 years), paarlauf sessions at Longford Park, the Stretford Track and Field League (which eventually became a role model for promoters, with Roger writing a “how-to” guide on the subject), the Club Newsletter (which Roger wrote and printed at home on an old duplicator in his outhouse), sales of affordable athletics kit at the track (for which he set up his own sports goods business).
As Duncan McTavish (one of Stretford's top young athletes in the 1970s) later observed: “Roger was a massive help to me at the start as a 12-year-old buying my tiger Cubs etc. on the weekly as most of us skint kids did at Stretford AC.”
On a typical day during his Stretford years, Roger would rise early before commuting from Middleton to Stretford (initially by motor-bike, later by car), putting in a day shift as the Borough Engineer, breaking off at lunch-time to collect sports kit for resale, before spending an evening at the track in his multiple roles of club official, middle-distance coach, race organiser and kit supplier. In the early years, before Track and Field League meetings, he would take half a day off work to mark out the cinder track.
During this period, Roger also found time to build an extension to his house and maintain front and back gardens to impeccable standards. As a skilled landscape designer, his use of luxuriant bushes and an aversion to straight lines creates the illusion of space and depth in a small area.
Roger also managed to maintain his own running during this period, to a standard that the young athletes he coached may not have appreciated. At one evening coaching session in the mid-1970s, when I was struggling after a hard day at work, Roger joined in the repetitions with me, and I was most disturbed to find that I could not even keep up with my coach. Had I known that in 1972 he had represented the UK in the World Masters in Cologne (finishing 4th at 800 metres and steeplechase), I might have felt less put out.
In the mid-1970s, Roger (together with Eddie Powell) enlisted the involvement of the British Milers club in the Track and Field League, which further raised the Club's profile and resulted in the stadium regularly attracting top middle-distance runners from across the north of England.
Roger finally retired from Club duties around 1980, primarily because he had decided to train for the marathon. His aim to run under 3 hours was sadly thwarted by stopping to help a club-mate in distress in the closing stages of the race. Having taken early retirement from his civil engineer role, he set up a new running club in Middleton, where he introduced the age-graded racing that was to become a key feature of parkrun. He set up a gardening business alongside his sports shop. Later he took up bowling, as well as teaching himself to paint pictures and writing histories on everything from religion to royalty to astronomy.
Roger admitted to me that he seldom went to bed before 1am. “A busy man always finds time,” he told me.
Roger Colson and Jim Harris were the main architects of the merger between Stretford and Cheadle & Gatley in 1966 that gave the Club its first big surge in momentum. Jim, like Roger, displayed a restless energy that seemed to know no bounds. If Roger was the “ideas” man, Jim often seemed to make things happen through sheer force of will and personality.
I met Jim on my first trip to the Club, accompanied by his children, driving the camper van that perhaps epitomised his full-time commitment to athletics. We young athletes from the Cheadle area would rendezvous with Jim at Gatley and pile into the back for a lift to Longford Park. I found him a slightly daunting authority figure with his bushy eyebrows and his slightly nasal way of talking. He was a secondary-school teacher by day, and I suspect he had honed his “grunt and snarl” (as one athlete later described it) to keep adolescent boys in order. The girls seemed to bring out a softer side in him.
Jim's career as an athlete appears lost in obscurity, with football and boxing seemingly his main sports during his service in the Marines in the early 1950s. He seems to have become involved in coaching during this decade, having trained as a teacher at Didsbury College. After some involvement in nascent clubs in Sharston and Didsbury, he eventually settled on the new track at Scholes Park in Gatley as an opportunity to found a new club there in 1962. He was already active in schools athletics and missed no opportunity to approach promising young athletes and recruit them into the Club, a model he maintained throughout his coaching career.
Jim seemed to personify a drive for excellence in everything he did, but the downside of this, as Jim had discovered at Cheadle and Gatley, is that unless you can find a way to limit your commitments you can easily burn out. At Stretford, Jim quickly settled into coaching and managing the women's side of the Club and turning it into the best in the country.
Moving Forward into the 1970s
The 1960s came to a close in a spirit of optimism at the Club.
The Stretford Track League had become a key summer fixture for northern athletes on the track, putting both the stadium and the Club firmly on the map, and many of these visiting athletes would return for training sessions and join the Club.
Progress was less evident during the winter months, but there were strong signs of new growth coming through on the female side of the Club. In the Northern Cross Country League, the senior women finished 4th, the intermediates 2nd, and the juniors first.
Most significant of all, the Club had been invited to be one of six clubs in the West Pennine division of the new Northern Track League. This was to be part of a qualification system for entry to a new National Athletics League.
The 1970s did prove to be a decade of great success for the Club, but perhaps not quite in the way anticipated.
By 1970, high-jumper Yvonne Saunders' family had already emigrated to Canada, where she was to win Commonwealth gold over 400 metres in 1974.
Few of the promising young athletes of the 1960s were to become enduring senior members of the Stretford team, with promising young athletes like Joe Kirwan and Lynne Davies drifting away in their early twenties.
Chris Perera (by now Chris Bell) medalled at the 1970 Commonwealth Games and qualified for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Kevin Bell picks up the story: “She was one of only 3 qualifiers for the 100m hurdles but she wasn't picked, as the selectors in their ‘wisdom' thought by allowing Mary Peters to double up in the hurdles as well as the Pentathlon that could save money. In the end Mary pulled out of the hurdles citing fatigue after the Pentathlon, and that finished off Chris's enthusiasm. I had all my tickets for Munich on the strength of her qualification, but had to sell them at a knock down price!”
As a young entrepreneur John Corbett struggled to find time to train and was increasingly plagued by injury but was still able to compete intermittently at the highest level for the Club as late as 1977.
Nnenna Njoku competed in 3 events for Nigeria at the 1972 Olympics at the young age of 17 and won British universities titles, competing for the Club well into the 70s before disappearing from the scene;
Sharon Colyear did establish herself both as a star of the Stretford women's team and as an international athlete, competing at both the 1976 and 1984 Olympics, but her emigration to the USA in the mid-70s represented a big loss to the Club.
On a less exalted, personal note, my last outing for the Stretford first team was in the final National League Division 1 fixture of 1977 at Haringey Stadium in North London, where I contributed to maximum team points in the 1500m. By this stage, I was the only member of the 1960s cohort still in the men's team.
As a Club, Stretford did indeed fulfil its early promise in the 1970s, with the women's team establishing itself as the top club in the country for much of the decade, and the men's team also establishing itself in the top tier.
The story of this success appears to less about the development of individual athletes, but more about the development of the teams through a combination of club infrastructure (the stadium, the Track League etc), youth development and proactive recruitment. The unfolding of that story is still to be charted.
Rick Gwilt, December 2022