RICHARD BEEDIE is up first in our new series of articles on stands named after club legends and interesting local folk. We go to Gigg Lane, Bury and a man who gave 44 years of service to get the South Stand renamed in his honour…
It was 1936, and the spectre that Adolf Hitler created was casting its dark shadow across Europe as Germany openly prepared for war. Back in England, in the old Lancashire cotton town of Bury, 19-year-old John Leslie ‘Les’ Hart was preparing for a career in professional football. The Ashton-in-Makerfield born right back had signed for the Second Division club from Newton-le-Willows side Earlstown White Star, rejecting the then not so mighty Liverpool to sign for the Shakers to embark on what would become an unprecedented 44-year connection with the club.
It would take him two years to break into the first team at Gigg Lane, getting his chance following the sale of the club’s record international cap holder, Bill Gorman, the Irish right back moving to Brentford for £7,000. Les, as he was always known, made his league debut on the 17th December 1938 in a 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur and would not miss another game that season, but would soon find his career on hold as the fragile peace that existed across Europe was shattered as Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland and plunged the continent into another World War in September 1939. Les played his part in defending his country in the conflict serving with the Royal Engineers down on the Suffolk coast, laying bombs and mines, protecting the country from possible Nazi invasion. Whilst serving it was not uncommon for players to continue playing with the Wartime Leagues in place designed to keep the spirits of the public up. As a consequence, Les remarkably managed to fit in over 200 appearances for Bury during that period, also turning out for his home-town team, Wigan – winning a runners-up medal in the Lancashire Senior Cup whilst with them.
That was as close as Les ever got to winning anything as a player with club honours something in thin supply during his playing career with not even a promotion to his name. The majority of his playing time at Bury, both pre and post war, was spent battling at the wrong end of Division Two, with a mid-table finish in 1949 as good as it got. With the restoration of peace in 1946 he returned to the club full-time very much a senior professional despite his lack of official appearances – wartime games considered to be little more than friendlies and therefore not counting towards official records. He was, unsurprisingly, a regular in the side in those post-war years, and it came as no shock to see this club stalwart made team captain in 1948. His playing career lasted just another seven years when at the end of the 1954-1955 season at the age of 38, he called it a day on that front having made 291 appearances for the club, scoring just 2 goals. Had it not been for the war years interrupting his career, and probably robbing him of his best years as a player, it is not inconceivable that he could have passed Norman Bullock’s club record of 506 appearances. His retirement from playing did not mean his retirement from the club though; Les, with one eye on the future, had completed his coaching badges and physiotherapy qualifications at Lilleshall whilst nearing the end of his playing career and subsequently took the role of assistant trainer in the then Shakers manager Dave Russell’s coaching team.
Les would go on to fill a variety of roles on the back-room staff over the next 14 years, turning down an approach from Leeds United to join their coaching staff during that time, and finally finding success too. As part of Russell’s back-room staff, Hart would see Bury promoted as champions of Division Three in 1961, one of only three divisional titles the club has ever won, breaking several club records along the way. Another promotion from Division Three followed in 1968 before Les found himself thrust into the limelight once more amid a boardroom wrangling the following year.
Previous manager Les Shannon had left the club that summer to take up the equivalent role at Blackpool and with the club’s A.G.M. looming the then chairman Sam Lord, against the wishes of other members of the board, appointed Jack Marshall as the club’s new manager but the former Rochdale, Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn boss would not last long. Following that A.G.M. in September Lord was replaced by former chairman – and future club president – George Horridge, who immediately sacked Marshall and his assistant Jimmy Meadows, citing financial reasons for relieving him of his duties. Horridge turned to Hart to fill the gap, the wages paid to him and his assistants considerably less than the unfortunate Marshall and Meadows.
Despite guiding the team to a club record league win, an 8-0 over Tranmere Rovers, in the January of that season – a match which saw the league debut of future Liverpool legend Terry McDermott – the side largely struggled that season finishing 19th in Division Three. A poor start to the following season, which saw just one win from their opening six games, saw Les leave as manager and ultimately be replaced by former Aldershot and Crewe manager Tom McAnearney. The club claimed Hart had resigned from the role but Les always maintained they had sacked him; either way, so began the longest continuous period Les had away from the club.
For the next nine months Les kept himself busy tending the greens and fairways at Bury Golf Club before his love of Bury F.C. saw him back at Gigg Lane as part of McAnearney’s backroom team, this time putting his physiotherapy skills to use.
Les would continue in various back-room roles once more for the next nine years, serving under six different mangers during that time, before finally calling it a day in 1980. At the age of 63 he left Gigg Lane for the last time as a club official, leaving to look after his ailing wife May. Bar the nine months after his sacking as manager, Les had served the club for 44 years – including returning to play in the war years – but despite this level of loyalty a testimonial was not forthcoming from the club. A mere on pitch presentation of a silver salver and a watch in front of what seems a largely disinterested bunch of players seemed meagre recognition for such service for the man dubbed Mr. Bury F.C. by many. With that Les slipped into obscurity without ever getting the recognition he deserved, before his death in 1996.
It took the National Football Museum and his daughter, Joy Hart, to eventually shame the club into recognising its most loyal of servants. The museum, then based in Preston, put on an exhibition celebrating Les’ longevity at Bury with the help of the memorabilia lovingly kept by Joy, also a lifelong Bury fan – not surprisingly.
A couple of years later, Joy then set about campaigning her club to have a stand named after her father in recognition for his services. A meeting was arranged with the club’s then new commercial director, Mark Catlin, in the hope that a new person would listen to her, where others hadn’t. To Joy’s relief, Mark did and agreed the club needed to recognise Les as the club legend he was. Mark was fully behind the idea and set about looking for a sponsor to back it. Mark Coyle of MCA Accountants saw Catlin’s plea and agreed to back it so that finally, almost thirty years after he left the club and over 13 years after his death, the South Stand of the ground was renamed the Les Hart Stand on the 17th January 2010.
It was a long overdue honour for a man who had shown such devotion to one club. It is a feat that will never be repeated in the modern age but reminds us of a time when football was simpler game, where players played the game for the love of it rather than for the fame, fortune or success it brought them. There are few men like Les Hart in the history of the game and it is fitting that however late it was in coming there is a lasting monument to this former player, coach, physio and manager of Bury at his club.
FOLLOW RICHARD ON TWITTER @richbeedie