Goodbye Gaffer – My tribute to Sussex football’s Ken Swallow, the man with the big heart

Posted: 6th October 2014

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If you ask me to remember one thing about Ken Swallow, immediately, I’d tell you about his smile.

It’s no surprise to me that the photo above (courtesy of West Sussex Today – see link below) is showing Ken with a cheeky smirk on his face.

Even when he was giving me a rollocking from the touchline during a match in my brief stay at Burgess Hill Town F.C., I’m sure he was actually smiling and afterwards, he was definitely all smiles as I came off the pitch to be greeted and hugged by him.

For some time recently, I had been trying to track down this really good man who had been my manager in a short but hugely enjoyable time playing football in the reserve team at the Hillians’ lovely ground, Leylands Park in mid Sussex back in the early 1980’s.

After re-telling the above tale on an internet forum about the dressing down against Worthing when he ‘inspired me’ in no uncertain terms to pull my finger out, as the saying goes, I decided once again to try to find him.

It was a Google search I wish I hadn’t made as immediately the results came up on the screen, I knew something was wrong and as my eyes scanned the links, I realised that I was too late. Ken had died last Christmas.

I found myself saying ‘NO’ out loud again and again, in the fruitless way that you do when you know it’ll make no difference to the truth staring you in the face but you keep doing it anyway.

But not only had Ken left us, it was the circumstances in which both he and his wife Dorothy met their demise which were so gut wrenchingly tragic as well as being very sad.

This much loved couple, both just into their 70’s, had lost their lives due to an incident with a generator after a festive season power cut last Christmas. Although turned off, the generator had produced sufficient carbon monoxide fumes to take them from us as they slept, thinking that everything was fine. Reports say that they had even mentioned the generator to family members before turning in. They were aware of possible danger but were sure that the risks had been minimised.

How had I missed this? Obviously, it had been longer than I thought since I had tried to find him.

Maybe I’d sub consciously given up in trying as various attempts posting requests for his whereabouts on various forums had produced nothing at all. Looking back, I should have just phoned Burgess Hill Town but in the back of my mind, something stopped me, I don’t know what and I just left it.

As I stared in disbelief at the links, how I regretted not making more effort to have found Ken. Now, quite simply, it was too late.

I feel that now, although there were some excellent tributes to this fine man and his popular wife written in the local press last January (see links below), it’s the least I can do to write a few words after the contribution he made to my time at Burgess Hill Town, an experience which fills me with satisfaction and joy all these years later, an acknowledgement to the wonderful and positive feelings which this man did so much to create.

In this photograph of Ken, for once, he isn’t smiling but that wouldn’t have been for long. This picture could even have been taken as he told me ‘what for’ in the Worthing match;

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In later years, Ken made his name as a manager but he started out as a player where at Senior level, he played with Eastbourne United.

A defender either at centre back or left back, he moved to Burgess Hill Town and helped them to get back into the Sussex County League First Division which the team then won in 1975/76.

By the time, I turned up at Leylands Park after moving down to Brighton with my job, Ken had retired from playing due to an eye injury and had started his career as a manager.

Due to his business commitments (Ken was Finance Director of Charles of the Ritz who would become Yves Saint Lauren), he wasn’t always at every training session or one early pre-season match we played on what seemed like a ploughed field outside one mid Sussex village. As I entered the changing rooms, John Hart, the man in charge, dad of one of the youth team players, asked me what my name was. Answering him, Mark Cripps, without missing a beat, he said, OK ‘Arry, you’re number 7’.

He’d assigned me the name of Harry Cripps, the well known Millwall left back and skipper.

A few days later, when it was clear I would start the season as a reserve team player and met Ken, he greeted me as ‘Arry Cripps’ as if it was one word.

Ken would use my name in clever ways and always at the right time, a skill he had with everyone. At the end of one team talk which often took the form of Ken asking a question, ‘Who’s taking corners?’ or ‘Who’s taking the free kicks?’, to which we’d all reply with the name of the appropriate player as if we were testifying in some evangelical chanting session, he confirmed to us that this was going to be a good day, he paused, looked at us all and then pointed at me and loudly exclaimed, ‘because ‘Arry Cripps’ has got a new car!!!’.

Somehow, he’d spotted my new acquisition in the car park, found out it was mine (without letting me know) and then celebrated the news with the team. It was a small thing but as has been pointed out in the newspaper tributes in the links below, Ken knew how to make you feel good. Dale Carnegie had nothing on Ken. In fact, Ken had probably been Carnegie’s consultant.

He was a man you wanted to play for.

In fact, initially, I was having more fun than I can remember for some time and I wasn’t even playing. I’d turned my ankle over badly in an early season training session but Ken created such a marvellous atmosphere, that even though I was new to the club and wasn’t required to be there, staying away from the matches was out of the question.

After I got fit again, I made a place for myself in the side. We also started winning.

As mentioned above, there was only one occasion when Ken raised his voice in my direction, during the League Cup tie against Worthing and even then his words were short and sharp, ‘Arry, we need 11 not 10’ he barked and they summed up perfectly that he wanted a greater contribution from me. I complied and again, it was all smiles as we won the game 5-3 against a team whose 1st XI were an Isthmian League outfit (their reserves played in the Sussex County League Reserves section) but it brought about a big one armed hug from Ken as we walked off the rain sodden pitch, victors again. I didn’t dare tell him that as I charged into some ferocious midfield tackles against some rather large Worthing defenders causing the water to spray up like the famous photograph of Tom Finney at Stamford Bridge back in the early 1950’s, my eyes were most definitely closed shut!

I was happy to have found a new club where I felt welcomed and happy. While I never actually asked Ken (or 1st team manager Colin Woofenden) if I had a chance to get into the 1st team, in the bar at Three Bridges FC one afternoon when the match was over and we were having a drink, Ken pulled me to one side and told me that a contact of his down at Shoreham FC was short of midfield players. Did I want to go down there and play for them?

This move would not only mean a 1st team place and regular 1st team football but would also mean that I was playing Senior Football (reserve football was Intermediate). I thanked Ken but rejected the suggestion without hesitation. How could I leave Ken and this team? I couldn’t.

He accepted my decision with another smile and a big pat on the back. I didn’t give it another thought.

Finally on the motivation front, at the end of the season, when fixture congestion meant that we were playing 3 matches a week in the League, League Cup and Mid Sussex Charity Cup, Ken was away on business for one of the matches. I had to come off with a muscle strain.

The next time Ken saw me, he asked me how the game had gone. After I gave him my view of another win, I mentioned that I felt bad about going off injured. Ken smiled and said, ‘From what I hear, the boys stopped playing after you went off’.

I’m not sure that this claim was true, strictly speaking but Ken was a smart man and a kind man. He knew that it would make me feel better, true or not and was a statement of his belief in me as a player, well that’s how I took it!

Who wouldn’t run through brick walls for a manager like this?

While we lost the final of the Mid Sussex Charity Cup, a strange thing happened in the changing rooms beneath Haywards Heath’s traditional old style grandstand. We were all down in the dumps and then assistant manager Kevin posed a question to us. Again, Ken had to be away overseas on business so was absent. How would that man (Ken) want us to be? Kevin asked us. Spontaneously, we all perked up almost ashamed to be acting so bruised. The collective unspoken view was that we should look for the positives, learn our lessons but move on as that was what Ken would do if he were there with us.

As I recall, a few of the lads even started up the well known football fan song, ‘One Ken Swallow, there’s only one Ken Swallow’.

This was a demonstration of our respect and affection for the man.

Shortly after, we won the Reserve Section East of the Sussex County League and after beating Worthing in that game mentioned above in the first round, we then went on to beat Portfield, Selsey, Shoreham and then Ringmer in the final to win the League Cup.

Here is the programme for the final against Ringmer. If you click on the image, the left hand side notes talk about this being our 40th game, Ken is listed as our manager, I’m still at number 7 and you can see the Ringmer manager is Stan Brown, the ex Fulham player;

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The following season on the strength of our success in the reserves, Ken was made 1st team manager for the 1983/84 season. He was positive throughout although it was a difficult season as the team was in a state of transition as Ken tried to bring through from the reserves, some of the lads who had done so well for him in that side. Those players would eventually settle down but in the competitive nature of the league, results suffered.

It seems daft to say so now when I am 58 years old but at 28, I was becoming injury prone and missed half of the 1983/84 season with a bad pelvic strain, possibly an after effect of all those matches on hard grounds at the end of the previous season as we contested 3 trophies.

In fact, maybe a bit strangely, I found my motivation had diminished by the time I was ready to start getting fit again and this was the time I decided to hang up my boots.

After I stopped playing, Ken continued as a manager with Haywards Heath, Ansty Rangers and back at Burgess Hill Town again. I moved abroad with my job and when I returned, I lived back in London again.

If you have time, dear reader, click on the links below which are full of marvellous tributes to Ken and Dorothy who will be very much missed by all who knew them.

Finally, my heartfelt condolences to their 3 grown children and their own kids who have had a wonderful Grandfather and Grandmother taken too early from them.

So goodbye gaffer. Thanks for the great time and all the joy. It was a short journey we shared in 1982/83 but it was a seriously fun one.

I was only one fortunate person amongst many others who were touched by these lovely people.

RIP Ken and Dorothy.

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Thanks to West Sussex Today and the Mid Sussex Times for the images above.

Here are links to the tributes to Ken and Dorothy on their websites;

http://www.westsussextoday.co.uk/news/county-news/latest-news/former-football-manager-found-dead-in-hurstpierpoint-1-5782234

http://www.westsussextoday.co.uk/sport/football/ken-swallow-the-man-with-the-big-heart-1-5794455

http://www.midsussextimes.co.uk/news/local/tributes-to-ken-and-dorothy-swallow-1-5795271

Finally, here’s a link to the excellent non league forum Non League Matters;

http://nonleaguematters.co.uk/forum/gforum.cgi?

Category: Football - Editorial

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