Sunday, 16 July 2017

Right to the top...

While 1975 can be looked upon as the year in which Daley Thompson made an impact on the decathlon event, the scene was in fact set four years before, for as early as 1971 Bob Mortimer had through necessity been forced to encourage his young team to tackle unfamiliar events to fill the gaps and earn valuable match points. Junior Tony Benton had that year competed in the Southern Junior Decathlon event which saw the emergence of Pan Zeniou later Thompson's training partner, but the first signifrcant
result came when vaulter Tim Brooking scored over 5000 points: this was in May 1974, three months before Thompson joined the club. Joining Thompson and Brooking in the four-strong Beagles' decathlon group which trained under coach Bruce Longden were John Davis and jumper Ian Welsh. The achievements of Daley Thompson in 1975 which gained him a full international vest and a UK junior record at the age of 17 perhaps overshadowed the scores reached by his fellow junior decathletes: Welsh scored a useful 5165 points, Brooking 5232, while John Davis' superb 5862 points score brought him third place in the AAA junior competition and a junior vest in the bargain.

At the same time that the decathlon squad were mastering the ten disciplines of the event, the Beagles' young athletes ranks gained another major find. At a schools cross country race in early 1975 Tony Wadhams noticed the raw talent of a tall Hainault schoolboy - Colin Reitz, who had only recently taken up running to keep fit after giving up football. The coaching of Dave Green helped Reitz blossom that summer to rank sixth in the youths 1500m steeplechase a few places above club mate Graeme Fell, but he made an excellent start at the senior 3000m 'chase with a UK age-15 best of 9 minutes 41.8 secs. Reitz went on in subsequent years to set an age-16 best in 1976 and an age-17 record the following season. Reitz and Fell both figured in the Young Athletes Team which again reached the National final in 1975.

The Beagles introduction to British League athletics in May 1975 was hardly auspicious. The torrential rain which washed out the Division Three fixture at Luton that day flooded the Brighton cinder circuit so badly that the track had to be remeasured so that the 5000m race could be run in the fourth lane. But the Beagles beat both the elements and the opposition to win their league debut and they went on to complete the season as convincing Division Four champions. Useful additions to the team that season were Newham long jumper Trevor Wells who set a league record of 7.30m and the experienced former Hadleigh javelin thrower Brian Fuller.

The progressive rise of the Beagles continued over the next seasons, winning Division Three in 1976 and taking the Division Two title in 1978 after just missing out on promotion the year before. Success was not just confined to the summer season for in March 1976 the Youths cross country squad of Phil Kemp (23rd), Graeme FeIl (37th), Ray Chapman (49th) and Colin Reitz (51st) placed third in the 'National' event.

The field events received a massive boost when in autumn 1975 the giant Crawley shot and discus thrower Richard Slaney joined the club - an outcome of his friendship with Daley Thompson who attended the same college. Slaney was a formidable asset to the Beagles over the next decade, achieving a consistently high level of performances including his UK best of 65.16m in 1985, a shot put of 18.34m (over 60 feet), and innumerable international vests. He settled in America after attending college there and went on of course to marry US track star Mary Decker.

Daley Thompson - the supreme competitor (Ian Welsh)
The Beagles rise to top class was not only due to the impact of Daley Thompson, now firmly on the road to international stardom, but owed a lot to the strength in the field events. Apart from Thompson, the club could boost three other seven metre long jumpers under coach Ray Power: Trevor Wells who achieved a wind aided best of 7.50m in winning the 1976 'Essex'; Ron Martin the former Southend athlete who joined the Beagles at the end of 1976 and went on to leap a legal 7.52m in 1979; and Ian Welsh who exceeded the 7m target as a junior in 1975 before suffering a succession of foot and ankle injuries. In addition Terry Collins, a regular jumper, was able to drop the event once the squad was established. In later years there was the talented Hadleigh teacher Neils Etgqu, who had a baffling choice of Dutch, Norwegian, English or Swiss nationalities. coached by Ian Welsh, Neils jumped a tremendous wind assisted 7.80m backed up by a legal 7.47m when placing third in the 1982 AAA's. On the verge of selection for the European championships he sustained a serious leg injury which effectively ended his career; he now lives in Switzerland.

In the throws a talented group developed in the late 1970's. Gary Curtis under the guidance of his father, senior coach George Curtis, progressively improved the club hammer best while still a junior, achieving 52.04m. Discus thrower Adam Garforth also figured prominently in the youth and junior rankings, as did Chris D'Arcy, an English Schools discus champion.

On the way to the top the Beagles youthful squad made the 1977 GRE Cup Final while still in Division Two. Good performances from recent recruits Paul Batter in the 400m and Peter Rafferty, runner-up in the 800m, helped the Beagles to sixth place, but the match was perhaps noteworthy for the 400m hurdles debut of Daley Thompson whose 52.6 secs clocking (a club junior record) remained his best until he next tackled the event nine years later in the 1986 GRE Final when he recorded 12.14 secs.

The fine performances of the British League team during the 1978 season brought them promotion to the country's elite competition - the highly competitive First Division in 1979. As a curtain raiser to that season in March 1979 the junior cross country team repeated the success of the 1953 squad by lifting the National title at Luton with one of the lowest scores (72 points) ever recorded in the event: Graeme Fell (8th), Phil Kemp (12th), Colin Reitz (20th) and Eddie Emms (32nd) combined to give Beagles success. Another example of fine team work was the superbly drilled relay squad of Pat Metcalfe, Tony Baptiste, Phil Dominique and Gary Watennan whose time of 41.9 secs in winning the Southern junior 4 x 100 m event in 1979 was a club record and one of the fastest ever performances by a UK junior club team.

A useful signing during 1977 was the Cambridge University middle distance expert Martin Wilson who went on to record a club record in 1982 of 1 min 49.4I secs in the 800m, and in the same year he just failed to break the four minute barrier with a mile time of 4m 00.60 secs. Wilson's colleague the Southend hurdler Tony Shiret came to the Beagles late in 1978 and competed in the first Division One season, and he has remained with the squad ever since, latterly combining the difficult role of active athlete and team manager.

Hammer thrower Martin Lewis, a teacher at a Kent school, talent spotted two outstanding finds for the club: javelin thrower Colin MacKenzie and the multi-talented Eugene Gilkes both of whom joined the squad for that 1979 season. The blend of locally reared talent and recruits from further afield produced a powerful team which fully deserved the runners-up spot which they achieved in their first season in the premier league in 1979. The result was the perfect accolade for manager Bob Mortimer whose vision and energy had made it possible for the club to get back among the greats where they belong.

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