Sunday, 16 July 2017

On the way up...

Bob Mortimer's impact on the Essex Beagles track and field team was profound: taking over the squad early in the 1971 summer season when they were languishing in Southern League Division Three (East), by the end of 1.974they had gained promotion to Division Four of the British League, from where their meteoric rise continued until they reached the highest standard possible - Division One British League - for the 1979
track season.

The introduction of a nationally organised system of League athletics brought with it a new competitive edge to the sport and the need for administrators and coaches like Mortimer who could bring their professional skills to bear. His training as an accountant and his knowledge of athletics made him ideal for the task which faced him when he stepped into the breach. Compared to the team that Mortimer had known as a junior in the fifties the Beagles' ranks were sadly depleted. The two most successful athletes left in 1971 were 2l year old Steve Black, AAA Junior L20 yards hurdles champion in 1967 and holder of the British under-19 440 yards hurdles record, and Eddie Coffey, English Schools 400m winner in 1969. The field events performers were lacking in numbers, and while there was enough talent coming through the young
athletes ranks to offer some hope for the future it would take a few years to mature.

During his first season at the helm Mortimer called on old loyalties recalling former stars George Knight, Mike Leary and Charles East, although the club still missed out on promotion to the reshaped 25-team First Division of the Southern League. The open throws competitions which Mortimer had instituted to attract talent into the club had started to pay off, and the throwing section had been strengthened by the signing of Pete Hallett and Joss Sandhu in the shot and discus. By the end of the l972track season the rapidly maturing team were starting to get useful results with a win and two seconds in their last three league fixtures. The find of the season had been junior sprinter Terry Collins whose talents unexpectedly came to light in February 1972 when he came to Mayesbrook with a friend who was taking part in one of Mortimer's throwing sessions. The novice Collins startlingly clocked 10.8 seconds for 100m, 22.0 for 200 m and long jumped over 6.70 m in his first season, and was virtually unbeaten in league and trophy competitions. The league debut of first year youths Mick Eyres in the shot, John Davis in the triple jump and Tim Brooking in the pole vault were also significant: after less than two seasons Mortimer had gathered around him the league team which were to fix the club on the promotion path over the next few years.

Tony Wadhams (Ian Welsh)
The 1973 season brought the first taste of success for many years - promotion to Division One Southern League as runners up to Shaftesbury with five out of six league wins, losing only to hosts Plymouth on the long trek to Devon. Collins and Coffey were the individual stars in an all-round team success achieved without the help of international Steve Black, himself in peak form with a best mark of 50.7 seconds for the one-lap hurdles race that year. Mick Eyres was a superb victor in the AAA Youth and the English Schools shot events and triple jumper John Davis, vastly improved under the eye of coach Ray Power, also placed in these championships.

Perhaps the greatest tonic to the club that season was the signing of international Triple Jumper Tony Wadhams who was still close enough to his best form to carry off the AAA title that year and break the championship best in the Southern event. The red-haired Dagenham Priory P.E. teacher, who started his career as a schoolboy pole vaulter, was still ranked second on the UK all-time list to the great Hornchurch jumper Fred Alsop with his jumps of 16.49 m 'windy" and 16. 18 m legal, and he recorded 16.06m in his first season with the Beagles - still a club best. Two new juniors, jumper Ian Welsh and hurdler Roger Honey, also joined the Beagles' ranks that year and were to figure in Mortimer's squad for many years.

Daley Thompson, Dave Baptiste and Bob Mortimer (Ian Welsh)
The youths of 1973 moved into the junior ranks in 1974, sufficiently talented to hold their own in senior competition. The Beagles' league squad whitewashed the opposition that summer, becoming the first team to finish the season unbeaten in all six Southern League Division One fixtures. On the way they set two league records with Tony Wadham's 15.39 m triple jump at Oxford and the sprint relay squads 42.0 seconds
clocking at Portsmouth, which still remains a league record. Other Beagles to figure prominently in a successful squad were Peter Cheatle in the 1500 m, Les Gough in the 5000m and 'chase, Dennis Browne also in the chase, George Curtis in the hammer, and Terry Paget 440m hurdles. At the end of August the Beagles travelled to Liverpool for the British League qualifying match at Kirkby stadium and, although not victorious, the runners-up place was enough to clinch promotion to Division Four.

A few weeks earlier Bob Mortimer had travelled to Crystal Palace for the AAA Under-20 championships to watch the core of his young team - Honey, Brooking, Welsh, Eyres and others - in action. As always Mortimer was on the look-out for new talent and as the world knows he found it for that weekend marked the "discovery" of the 16 year-old Daley, or as he then was known Francis, Thompson whose best success had been a fourth placing in the English Schools 200 m event. Joining Mortimer's squad for sprint sessions at Mayesbrook Park, Thompson immediately felt at home in the youthful group which was enjoying its first taste of success. While the club was still celebrating promotion to the British League, the Young Athletes team competed in the first ever National final at Haringey. Wins from Thompson in the 100m, a double win for John Lay in the 400/800m and success for first-year youth Graeme Fell in the 1500m steeplechase, were backed up by a strong team performance which was rewarded by an excellent third place.

Weeks later there was another significant addition to the Mortimer squad: Dave Baptiste at 15, six months Thompson's junior, but already with a long pedigree of success - holder of UK age 15 best for 100m and English School Boy champion in 1973. As 'Athletics Weekly' noted, Baptiste was "physically mature with a bushy beard and an explosion in mid race". His power carried him to the AAA indoor Youth 60m title that winter, while Thompson carried off the equivalent junior crown. Baptiste was to go on to gain other titles indoor and out, including the sprint double in the 1975 AAA youth event, in a career which brought him an indoor international vest whilst still a junior and best legal marks of 10.47 secs and 2L.2I secs for the sprints, which only Thompson amongst Beagles has beaten. A pelvic girdle injury prevented him from making the impact on the senior ranks that his talent deserved.

Richard Slaney, holder of the British discus best (Ian Welsh)

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