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Heaton Olympians

It’s late June 2021 and Team GB for the 2020 Summer Olympics has just been announced. Such are the strange times we’re living through. But amidst ongoing uncertainty about the next games, let’s celebrate Heaton’s distinguished past Olympians.

No 1 Harry Askew

Harry represented Great Britain in the long jump at the 1948 London Summer Olympics. 

Born in Barrow-in-Furness on 31 December 1917, he excelled in sports at school, particularly as a sprinter, only moving to long jump while at Cambridge University. Pre-war, he won the 1937 Oxbridge Sports long jump and 2 years later the UAU title and was second in the AAA Championships. The war interrupted Harry’s career. He spent six years in the army with the Royal Corps of Signals, achieving the rank of captain.  After the war, he moved to Jersey to teach.

The Olympic champion and world record holder in the long jump was famously the great Jesse Owens, who had won 4 gold medals in Berlin in 1936. Because of World War 2, it was to be 12 years before the next games and so the American didn’t get to defend his title. Harry was one of 21 competitors to take part in the qualifying round on 31 July 1948 and comfortably made the final in 6th place with a jump of 7.14. He was 9th in the final with a jump of 6.935m. The medal winners were all from the USA, the winner, Willie Steele, achieving 7.825.

Harry Askew

Harry’s son, Roger, told us that Harry stayed in Hammersmith during the games and travelled to White City, where the athletics took place, by bus, even on the day he was competing.

Askew went on to teach and coach in Essex. He improved his personal best to 7.29m in 1949 and in 1950 won the AAA title, the British championship, aged 32. In 1958, the Askew family moved north in order that Harry could take up a position as head of Heaton Grammar School, which is what makes his name so familiar to many older Heatonians. Despite being a vociferous opponent of comprehensive education, he was appointed head of Heaton School, Heaton’s  new coeducational comprehensive in 1967.

Askew achieved more national and even international fame than for his Olympic achievements in 1976 when his controversial response to the newly enacted Equal Opportunities Act was to announce  that, henceforward, girls would be subject to corporal punishment on the same basis as boys ie liable to receive it. Parents and pupils organised a protest and alerted the media. There was damage to the school, assaults, expulsions, court cases.

The dust settled, however, and Harry Askew eventually retired in 1979 after 21 years in post. On his retirement he told the ‘Journal’.Do you know, I still have my jumping shoes, my England vest and tracksuit? I couldn’t bear to part with them, although today I can hardly get my feet off the ground unless it’s to put them up in front of the television set!’ 

Harry Askew and his wife moved south on his retirement to be closer to family. He was looking forward to having more time for his passion for jazz music – he was a talented pianist – and for gardening.  He died on 31 October 1986, aged 68.

No 2 Alan Lillington

Alan represented Great Britain in the 100m at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki.

Born in South Shields on 4 September 1932, Alan grew up in Heaton and attended Heaton Grammar. His mother and father were steward and stewardess of Heaton Liberal Club at 25 Heaton Road, the building with the stone lion above the bay window. He continued to live there until he married local girl, Eileen Murray, in 1955. After their marriage, the couple lived with Eileen’s family at 14 Cloverdale Gardens, High Heaton. 

Alan was an all round sportsman and is reported to have played for Newcastle United as a junior as well as rugby for Northern. The first mention we have found of him in the local press, however, was in August 1949 when the ‘Evening Chronicle’ reported that the 16 year old Elswick Harrier, already the champion at 100 yards, had been set to miss competing for the Northumberland and Durham 220 yards title at Cowgate because of plans for a holiday in Portsmouth. He and a friend had seats booked on the night bus departing at 7.15 until his father stepped in with a more costly rail ticket, which left three hours later, allowing him to race earlier in the evening. In the article, Lillington was described as a ‘young sprint star’. The following July he won the All England Schools’ Silver Jubilee Intercounty AA championships in a time of 10 seconds dead and was in the victorious 440 yards relay team too. And in August he won the junior 100 yards at White City, London.

By 1952, Olympic year, Lillington, now a medical student at Durham University, was second only to Trinidad-born Emmanuel McDonald Bailey, the joint 100m world record holder, in the senior AAA Championship and so was deservedly selected for Helsinki, aged 19, as the ‘baby’ of the team.

Helsinki had originally been chosen to replace Tokyo in 1940 after Japan announced two years before that it would be unable to host the games because of the ongoing Second Sino-Japanese War. In the event, of course, the 1940 games were cancelled because of World War 2. London, which had been selected for the also cancelled 1944 event, was awarded the first games after the war with Helsinki getting its turn four years later.

None of the medallists from 1948 were competing in the 100m this time round and so McDonald Bailey, who finished 6th in London was favourite along with American, Art Bragg, and Jamaica’s Herb McKenley.

Young Alan Lillington was drawn in the first heat on 20 July, from which he qualified in second place behind Australia’s John Treloar, but in the quarter finals, he finished in 6th and last place to Lindy Remigino of the USA and so failed to qualify for the semi final or final. It was nevertheless a magnificent feat for a teenager.

The final on 21 July was one of the closest races imaginable with all six runners separated by only 0.12 seconds, hand-timed. A photograph showed Lindy Remigino to have finished first, Herb McKenley second with GB’s McDonald Bailey in bronze medal position.

Much later, Alan said the games brought back fond memories but that he was sorry that Great Britain recorded its lowest medal total with ‘its only gold medal winner a horse!’ (In fact, three horses and their riders in the team show jumping).

After the Olympics, Lillington continued to perform at a high level. He represented England in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.

He remembered celebrating his 21st birthday at an event in Stockholm where he was carried around the room on the stroke of midnight by his mentor, Harold Abrahams (1924 Olympic Champion, whose story was told in ‘Chariots of Fire’) and Chris Chataway (5,000m finalist in Helsinki, pacer for Roger Bannister’s 4 minute mile and, later, minister in the Heath government). 

But soon, Alan Lillington’s mentions in the press were mainly in connection with his work as a doctor and for charity. He worked at Newcastle’s RVI and General before becoming a consultant paediatrician in Sunderland. He was also a director of St Benedict’s Hospice in Sunderland, as well as a committed Freemason, and he helped set up Sunderland Sports Council.

Alan Lillington (centre)

Lillington was appointed a Deputy Lord Lieutenant for Tyne and Wear and, in 1995, Sheriff. He was awarded the MBE for services to the community in Wearside in 2006.

Alan and Eileen’s son, Peter, played club rugby for Harlequins and toured New Zealand with Scotland in 1981.

No 3 Maurice Benn 

Maurice represented Great Britain in the 1500m at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Born in Wallsend on 9 November 1946, Maurice was a member of Heaton Harriers. The first mention of him we have found in the press so far was on 7 January 1966 when the  ‘Evening Chronicle’ reported:

‘Heaton’s boys proved their worth by finishing second team on Boxing Day and with Dick Balding, Joe Hawes and Maurice Benn in their senior line up, the ‘East Enders’ if they can find a couple of useful youths, must be among the medals again on Saturday.’

A month later, the future Olympian was referred to as having the best time for a youth over a Team Valley cross-country course and was expected to take his place in Heaton Harriers’ senior team in the race for the Royal Corps of Signals (coincidentally Harry Askew’s old regiment) Trophy over the same course.

But it wasn’t until 3 June 1968 that Maurice came to national attention during the inter-county finals at London’s White City. The Birmingham Post summed up the media’s surprise:

‘Perhaps the biggest shock of all was the entry of 21 year old Maurice Benn into the ranks of Britain’s sub-four-minute milers. An “unknown” from the north east, Benn had a previous best of 04:04.8 and he beat the established international, John Whetton of Nottinghamshire into third place.’ 

Benn’s time was 03:59.9. He was the first north-east athlete to achieve this feat. It transpired that he had recently teamed up with north-east based national coach, Peter Harper, after being coached for the previous two years by letter by the AAA’s travelling coach, who was based in Glasgow. No Zoom back then!

And so on 5 August 1968, Maurice Benn of Heaton Harriers, received a letter signed by Prince Philip inviting him to compete in the games. With the times he had achieved that summer, Benn’s selection was certainly merited but Maurice himself later said that he had really gone to Mexico for the experience. The Birmingham Post called his selection ‘controversial’.

Maurice struggled in the altitude of Mexico City. As he later recalled ‘I shouldn’t have gone to Mexico. I had a history of anaemia and didn’t acclimatise well… I trained with Ron Hill and I was panting like an old bloke’.

The reigning champion was New Zealander, Peter Snell, who had won in Tokyo four years earlier  with a time of 3:38.1, but he wasn’t competing in Mexico. Here, the favourite was the USA’s Jim Ryun, the world record holder. Maurice was drawn in the first heat on 18 October along with Ryun and, although the Heaton Harrier achieved a time of 3:56.43, a personal best, it was well behind the qualifiers. Ryun went onto win his semifinal ahead of Kenyan, Kip Keino, but in the final Keino, who was paced by his compatriot, Ben Jipcho, won gold in an Olympic record time. John Whetton, beaten by Maurice at sea level, just a few months earlier, was a creditable 5th.

Maurice Benn

After the games, Benn went to study in the USA where, representing the University of Nevada, he won the USA National Collegiate cross-country championship. The university won the team prize as well and they were welcomed home in style with banners, a motor-cavalcade and television interview. It was said to be the first national victory by any Nevada team at any time in any sport – and led by a former Heaton Harrier. But anaemia continued to dog him in the states – Nevada is at altitude too.

By 1970, Benn was back in Britain but had moved away from the north-east. He continued running for Cambridge Harriers. The following year he ‘surprisingly won the Southern Counties 10,000m’ in cold and blustery conditions with a ‘staggering time of 28:53:08, which is top international standard’ but by the time of the 1972 games his training had become spasmodic, his form had dipped and he was out of contention for Olympic selection.

Maurice went on to work as a finance worker for British Rail in London, where he represented Woodford Green athletics club for many years. He has a permanent place in the pantheon of Heaton sport.

No 4 Derek Talbot

Derek Talbot represented Great Britain at badminton at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Heaton’s Derek Talbot (right)

Born in Newcastle in 1947, Derek grew up on Etherstone Avenue in High Heaton and attended Heaton Grammar, where he first played badminton.  He went on to study metallurgy at Newcastle University, where, after doing well with the British Universities’ badminton team, he was spotted by the England selectors. He then moved to London for five years to establish himself in the sport.

Talbot’s first major title was Commonwealth Games mixed doubles gold with Margaret Boxall in Edinburgh in 1970 and in April 1972, he again won mixed gold with Gillian Gilks and bronze with fellow Heatonian, Elliot Stuart, at the European Badminton Championships in Sweden.

Badminton had been chosen as a demonstration sport for the 1972 Olympics so medals did not count in official tables. The intention was to promote to a global audience a sport which was, and is, very big in some parts of the world but unknown, at least as a spectator sport, in others. Some years later, Talbot summed up the different levels of fame top players enjoyed in different countries:

‘In many parts of the far east, we were recognised in the streets and invited to meet presidents in their palaces. But I could always come back to Newcastle and be inconspicuous, which I prefer. So I got the best of both worlds’. 

The demonstration sports rules allowed for doubles partners of mixed nationality and the medals awarded were slightly smaller replicas of the official ones. The entire tournament took place on a single day, 4 September.

Derek competed in the men’s doubles, partnered again by fellow Heaton Grammar old boy, Elliot Stuart. They beat a German / Canadian pairing in the1st round before losing to the eventual winners, Indonesians Ade Chandra and Christian Hadanata, in the semi-finals. Thus they were bronze medallists.

In the mixed doubles, he again partnered fellow Britain, Gillian Gilks, one of the most decorated British badminton players of all time. The pair beat Japanese, West German and Danish opponents to win gold.

The Munich Olympics are remembered, of course, for the events of 5-6 September. Eight members of a Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, took nine members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, killing two of them. Five terrorists and a German police officer were also killed during a rescue attempt.

Speaking some years later, Talbot said that he witnessed the  start of the incident first hand:

‘I went out on the town celebrating and came back at 4.00am to what seemed like fireworks just 20 yards away. I walked right past and thought how inconsiderate it was of people to let off fireworks that time of night when many others had important events the next day. It was only later that I realised that I had almost stumbled across the terrorist attack.’

He went on to represent his country 83 times and won a total of four Commonwealth golds, one silver and two bronzes; three European golds, three silvers and two bronzes medals. He also won three All England Open golds and three silvers; a gold with Elliott Stuart in the Indian Open; a silver in the World Championships and a bronze in the World Cup. 

Derek retired from international badminton in 1981 and became a successful businessman, running a sports shop and having his own brand of badminton racquets, alongside coaching, commentating and property development. He continued to serve his sport as a selector and an administrator.

He didn’t always speak well of Heaton, however. Having bought a £95,000 house in Jesmond Park East in 1986, he reportedly sold it a matter of months later, allegedly because ‘couldn’t make a right turn at the end of the street.’

‘It was impossible. If I wanted to drive to Newcastle I had to take a two mile detour to get on my way. I also found the neighbourhood lacking in facilities like shops, open space, a library, cinema and swimming pool’.

Perhaps Brian Johnson of AC/DC fame, who is said to have bought the house, found a quicker route west and also realised that High Heaton Library, Biddlestone Road baths and the shops of Heaton and Chillingham Road were just a twelve minute walk away and the open spaces of Jesmond Dene barely six.

After a spell in Jesmond, Talbot, who had had a longstanding interest in alternative medicine, moved to Ibiza in the early 1990s where he practised homeopathy. He later returned to Tyneside. In 2013, he received an MBE for services to badminton.

No 5 Elliot Stuart

Elliot represented Great Britain at badminton at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

Like Derek Talbot, Elliot attended Heaton Grammar. He lived with his parents on Kingsley Place and, after leaving school, also like Talbot, he studied metallurgy at Newcastle University because, he said,’dad worked in Vickers and Armstrong shipyards on the Tyne, and he thought it would be interesting – he was wrong.’

Stuart joined Barclays as a computer operator, later becoming a programmer, systems analyst and project manager. He said that he moved to London because he was on the verge of playing international badminton and ‘because it was easier to fly from Heathrow (regional airports barely existed then) to the many badminton tournaments throughout Europe and the world.’ In 1969, after he had been at Barclays for just a year, the company gave him ‘six months a year paid leave, without contractual obligations, except to spread the name of Barclays, whenever appropriate at events across the globe’.

In April 1972, Stuart won bronze with fellow Heatonian, Derek Talbot, at the European Badminton Championships in Sweden before representing Great Britain in the Olympic Games in Munich  some four and a half months later. Although, the bronze medal the pair won doesn’t count officially, it was nevertheless a great honour to be chosen to represent their sport in the biggest event on earth.

The Heatonian went on to win gold at the 1973 Indian Open with Derek Talbot, 1974 Commonwealth gold, again with Talbot, and bronze with Susan Whetnall. In 1975, he won the All England mixed doubles title with Nora Gardner. But he says that his biggest badminton success was marrying Swedish World Singles Champion, Eva Twedberg!

In 1996, aged 50, Elliot took early retirement so that he could help top level badminton transition from an amateur to a professional sport. He continued to coach and mentor and became Performance Director for English Badminton. After retirement. he went to live in Portugal. 

No 6 Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan represented Great Britain in the triple jump at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.

Born in London on 10 May 1966, Jonathan was the son of Jill Edwards and her husband, Andy a clergyman. He was brought up to have a strong Christian faith which included preserving Sundays as a special day. The family didn’t watch television, work or study on the Sabbath. Jonathan remembers watching his mother prepare the vegetables for Sunday lunch on Saturday evenings.

Jonathan went to school in Devon, before coming north to study Physics at Durham University. While a student, he began to be coached by Gateshead-based, Carl Johnson, and, after graduation, decided to remain in the north east so that they could continue to work together.

It was the faith that Jonathan had inherited from his parents that brought him to Heaton.  He began to worship at Heaton Baptist Church and took advantage of a book held at the back of the church listing local people with property available for rent.

His biographer writes of Edward’s  first impressions of Heaton when a prospective landlord took him to view the King John Street property that became his first Heaton home:

‘Edwards confesses that as the car drove into Heaton his heart missed a beat. As rain drilled against the windows, all he could see was street after street of dreary-looking terraced houses. For a young man spoiled by the wild, rural beauty of the north Devon coast and the quaintness of Durham, this urban landscape was a culture shock. Still, Edwards needed a roof over his head and the accommodation was clean and affordable. He was to discover that his first impressions did not necessarily provide a fair reflection of the area. He found a friendliness and warmth in Heaton and, with his wife Alison, later established their first marital home in the street that had provided him with such an unflattering view of the suburb on the day he came flat-hunting’. They went on to live at several other Heaton addresses including on Heaton Park View.

Edwards recalls his early days, newly unemployed and alone, in Heaton: ‘I cried my eyes out’.

‘I’d never experienced life, real life, like this. After I’d moved into the flat in Heaton, my first attempt at cooking involved making an omelette and putting it on a lettuce leaf. Grotesque.’

Soon, however, Edwards got a job as a maternity cover scientific officer in the cytogenetics laboratory at the RVI. After work, he would go to Gateshead to train and then catch a Metro back into town. From there, he’d catch the Number 1 bus back to Heaton or walk if one didn’t arrive. We’ve all been there!

But soon Heaton and particularly Heaton Baptist Church became the focus of a national media storm. Improving performances meant that Edwards was selected for the 1988 British Olympic trials. The first two in the trials were guaranteed selection for the games and there would be a third wild-card place. Unfortunately for Edwards, the triple jump event was scheduled for a Sunday and so the young, unknown Edwards declared that he could not compete. The media had already besieged the RVI and on the day of the event itself, television crews turned up at the church on Heaton Road hoping to film Edwards going in to worship. However, Edwards’ gamble paid off: he was selected for Seoul anyway. It was never expected that he would achieve a high place but he would gain valuable experience. In fact he finished 23rd in qualifying with a best jump of 15.88.  Bulgaria’s Khristo Markov won the final with a new Olympic record of 17.61.

By the time of the Barcelona games, 4 years later, Jonathan Edwards had married Alison Briggs, a physiotherapist at the RVI, at Heaton Baptist Church. Expectations, including his own, were high. His father was in the stadium to watch him qualify and his mother and Alison would be there for the final. Except, for Jonathan, there was to be no final. He fouled his first jump and messed up his next two as well. His position of 35th was worse than Seoul. His best distance of 15.76 almost two metres shorter than that of the eventual winner, USA’s Mike Conley, who achieved a new Olympic record of 17.73. Edwards was distraught.

By the time of the next summer games in Atlanta in 1996, Edwards was a full-time athlete, having been able to give up work at the RVI thanks to a grant from the Great North Run Trust. He had also changed his coach and adopted the jumping style of the Barcelona gold medallist, Mike Conley. And there were new names in the Edwards’ family, Alison having given birth to two sons, Sam and Nathan, in 1993 and 1995 respectively.  Most importantly from an athletics point of view, he was now world record holder.

In the European Cup Final in Lille on 25 June 1995, he had jumped a huge but slightly wind-assisted 18.43. A legitimate world record of 17.98 in Salamanca followed, and then on 7 August  two more massive world record breaking jumps of 18.16 and 18.29 metres during the World Championships in Gothenburg while his wife Alison was back in Heaton, trying to take her mind off things by gardening. When the media converged on our area again, a home made banner outside the Edwards’ flat read ‘Simply the Best’. That Edwards was now a sporting superstar was confirmed when he won the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He went into the 1996 Olympics as hot favourite.

The triple jump event in Atlanta took place on 26 July. In qualifying, Edwards struggled, as he had previously, while reigning champion Mike Conley and former world champion, Kenny Harrison, both on home soil, along with Cuban Queseda, Bermudan Wellman, and Bulgarian Georgiev, all reached the automatic qualifying distance on their first jump. Edwards eventually qualified for the final in sixth place. 

In the final, Harrison set a new Olympic record with his first jump and bettered it with his fourth. Edwards struggled with two red flags before managing a legal jump which put him in third place and entitled him to a further three attempts. His fourth effort was the longest jump ever not to win gold but the Briton had to settle for silver. (This was Heaton’s first official Olympic medal!)

Four year’s later in Sydney, the now Gosforth-based Edwards was determined to better that. Harrison wasn’t competing and so when qualifying began on 23 September 2000,  the British athlete was favourite again. This time he achieved the required distance with his second jump, although his British team mates, Onochie ‘Larry’ Achike and Phillips Idowu, were in first and second place, both with personal bests, and Edwards in fourth going into the final two days later.

In the final, Achike led after the first round and Russia’s Denis Kapustin after the second but in the third round Edwards jumped 17.71m and took gold (Heaton’s first!) He was awarded a CBE.

Jonathan Edwards

Following his Olympic success, Edwards won gold at the 2001 World Championships. At one point he was the reigning champion in the Olympics, World, Commonwealth and European Championships. At the time of writing, he still holds the World Record with his jump of 18.29m on 7 August 1995 in Gothenburg and his wind-assisted 18.43m on 25 June the same year, while not counting in the record books, also remains unsurpassed. He is also Heaton’s most successful Olympian.

No 7 Freya Ross née Murray

Freya represented Great Britain in the marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Born on 20 September 1983, Freya grew up in Temple, Midlothian and was a successful runner as a schoolgirl, winning the Scottish Schools 3,000m title in 1999 and 2000 and Scottish Cross-Country Champion in 2001.

Her progress continued into senior athletics and she won the Scottish 10,000m in 2009 and the 5,000 national title in 2010. She represented Scotland in both the 5,000m and 10,000m the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, finishing 7th and 5th respectively. 

In 2006, after studying structural engineering at Heriot-Watt University, Freya moved to the north east, initially to Sunderland where she ran for Chester le Street. She joined international engineering consultancy Cundall and able to work part time for them, while pursuing her athletics career. She describes how she often ran to and from their Regents Centre office from her home in Tosson Terrace. She has also described how she used to like running at Rising Sun Country Park and along the wagonways. The flexibility of her employer also meant she could train for part of the year in California. 

Freya didn’t originally originally make the London Olympics squad. She had been pipped to the final marathon place by Claire Hallissey who had beaten her in that April’s London Marathon and she was picked only when injury forced the withdrawal of Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder and one of the favourites. On 29 July, only a week before the event, Freya was at home in Heaton doing table plans for her wedding when she got the call to pack her bags. Nevertheless, the following day, she went into work as she ‘had a few bits to finish off’. It wasn’t until the Thursday that she flew down to London.

Freya Ross née Murray

The London Olympics women’s marathon on 5 August 2012 began and finished on the Mall and took in iconic sights such as Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. Unfortunately for both athletes and spectators, the race began in heavy rain and so Paula Radcliffe’s world record was never in jeopardy. It was nevertheless a dramatic contest. The eventual winner, Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana, fell at around halfway, trying to negotiate a water station but fought back to power past the bronze medallist, Russian Tatyana Arkhipova and silver medallist, Kenyan Priscah Jeptoo. Freya was the best placed Briton in 44th place from 118 starters in a personal best of 2 hours 28 minutes 12 seconds.

Following the Olympics, Freya got married as planned, became a full time athlete for a while and moved back to Scotland. She continued to compete, winning the Scottish National Championships 5,000m in 2016. She now has two young children, works as an events coordinator, has written a recipe book ‘Food on the Run’ and coaches at her local running club. 

She has a permanent place in Heaton’s history as our first female Olympian.

No 8 Brazil, Spain and Gabon Football Teams, 2012 Summer Olympics in London 

The previous athletes all were either born in, lived in, worked in or represented Heaton. But we must also reserve a place for the footballers who trained here before and during the 2012 games.

It was announced a good year before the event that the Brazil and Spain football squads had been allocated training facilities at the Newcastle University sports complex at Cochrane Park. The facilities underwent a half a million pound revamp in preparation for their illustrious visitors, the most famous of whom was to be Neymar, who at that time still played for Santos in his home country but was the hottest property in South American football. There was disappointment as a high fence appeared around the sports ground but excitement as it was discovered that good views of the pitches could be obtained from the first floor café of the High Heaton Sainsbury store across the road. The Geordie public had a chance to watch him properly in the quarter final v Honduras where he scored a penalty and registered an assist in Brazil’s thrilling 3-2 win v Honduras.

On 17 July 2012, Gabon became the first team to train on the university facilities but it was their warm-up match five days later that has gone down in local folklore. Former Newcastle United star Nobby Solano’s agent was drafted in to help the African underdogs find opponents to play in a friendly. He’d tried the Magpie’s Under 21s to no avail so he got in touch with the Heaton Stannington manager requesting a game the very next day. It was July. Some of the squad were on holiday, none were in training but it felt like too good an opportunity to miss, especially as Gabon boasted another of the most promising players in the world, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, then of St Étienne in France but soon to sign for Dortmund and later Arsenal. A team of part-timers was scrambled together, word was put out on social media and the game was on.

But not before the Stan assistant manager had made two mercy dashes to the African team’s base at the Gateshead Hilton, firstly to reunite Aubameyang with the boots he’d left behind and then to pop back for the sort of match balls they’d be playing with in the tournament. Aubameyang was marked by captain Joe Wear who had run the Great North 10K that morning ‘so I was a bit tired’. He scored two first half goals in Gabon’s 4-0 win before being substituted at half time.

Pierre-Emerick Aubeyang at Grounsell Park. Photo: Simon Hobson/Newcastle Chronicle/NCJ Media

The Africans turned down the Stan’s offer of a pie and a pint after the game but hung around to chat and pose for photographs. Their signed shirt still hangs in the clubhouse. Four days later they stepped out against Switzerland at St James Park with Aubameyang scoring their only goal of the tournament in a 1-1 draw. Their next opponents Mexico beat them 2-0 and went on to win the tournament, beating Neymar’s Brazil in the final. 

Can you help?

So they’re the Heaton Olympians we have discovered so far. They all deserve a commemorative postbox! Please let us know if you know more about the Heaton connections of any of them. And we hope you can help us discover more Olympians or connections between Heaton and the Olympic Games more generally. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

Updated on 15 July 2021 with details of a recently rediscovered Heaton Olympian, Alan Lillington. Thank you to Arthur Andrews of Heaton History Group. Updated on 20 July 2021 to include Heaton Park View as a Heaton address for Jonathan Edwards. Thank you, David Faulkner.

Sources

Ancestry

British Newspaper Archive

‘The Eastenders: Heaton Harriers 1890-1990’ by William Allen; Heaton Harriers, 1990

‘A Time to Jump: the authorised biography of Jonathan Edwards’ by Malcolm Folley; Harper Collins, 2000

Other online sources

Acknowledgements 

Researched and written by Chris Jackson with additional material supplied by Arthur Andrews. Thank you to Roger Askew for personal information and photos of his father and to Freya Ross and Jonathan Edwards for confirming their Heaton addresses.