ANTON RIPPON interviews Ken Shearwood, a former footballer and first-class cricketer whose definitive history of a famous football club has been re-issued
As a child, Ken Shearwood would watch the final flicker of firelight before falling asleep at his parents’ house in Derby. Outside, the last tram would clang its way towards the terminus and on Saturday nights the shrill voice of a woman singing in the pub across the road would penetrate the darkness.
It was the 1920s, Derby was an industrial town struggling through a world recession, and as he drifted off to sleep before the dying embers, even a small boy’s imagination could not have dreamt up the remarkable life that lay head.
Decorated for bravery in the Second World War, inshore fisherman and successful author, first-class cricketer, a major role in one of the most romantic footballing stories of the 20th century, and 30 years as a teacher at public school, Ken Shearwood has packed more than most into his 92 years.
This week, living in retirement at Shoreham-by-Sea, he looked back on that remarkable life. “My father was a doctor who practised from our family home. It was an ugly three-storey house near the town centre. But we had a large garden with a tennis court and a greenhouse full of purple and green grapes. In the summer my parents would give tennis parties, their guests in white flannels enjoying home-made lemonade, thin tomato and cucumber sandwiches and sponge cakes. It was a most incongruous scene amidst the unattractive buildings and noisy road.”
In 1940, after Shrewsbury public school, Shearwood went to Liverpool University to study architecture but a year later he enlisted in the Royal Navy. He served on the lower deck in destroyers and then in tank landing craft at the bloody landings at Salerno and Anzio. Gaining a command, he was awarded the DSC.
Demobbed in 1946 and with no wish to return to architecture, a chance meeting in a Dartmouth pub led to him spending a financially unprofitable but far from unrewarding 18 months as an inshore fisherman off Cornwall. It gave him the ideas for his first two books, Whistle The Wind (1959) and Evening Star (1972).
Back in 1947, however, and with about as few academic qualifications as it is possible to imagine, Shearwood went up to Brasenose College, Oxford, to read history. One of the dons who interviewed him later told him that although he appeared to know no history, he had done a respectable General Paper and that, “combined with your close resemblance to a former pupil of ours who we greatly liked and who was killed in the war”, had got him in.
Shearwood captained the university at football. He also played first-class cricket for Oxford University and in 1949 played for Derbyshire against Gloucestershire at Bristol.
“It was the days of amateurs and professionals – the so-called gentlemen and players – and along with two other amateurs I found myself staying at a different hotel and using a different dressing room to the rest of the team. It was most odd.
“I hit a four off Tom Goddard, which prompted BO Allen, their captain who was fielding close to the bat, to belch loudly in my ear, whereupon I was bowled next ball.
“When we fielded, a swarm of bees descended about the head of Bill Copson, the great Derbyshire fast bowler, who set off for the pavilion, arms flailing and uttering the most fearful expletives as the home crowd called out, ‘Windy!’”
It was football, however, that reserved for Ken his greatest sporting moments. At centre-half he was for eight years an integral part of the Pegasus team, the combined Oxford and Cambridge side that won the FA Amateur Cup in 1951 and 1953. In these days of Premier League hype, it is hard to imagine a time when crowds of 100,000 packed Wembley to see amateur football.
The great Arsenal and England footballer Joe Mercer once introduced Ken Shearwood as the “best centre half in England” and although that might have been an exaggeration, he was certainly part of one of the game’s most romantic stories which gave Shearwood his third book, Pegasus, The Famous Oxford and Cambridge Soccer Side of the 1950s, first published in 1975 and now reissued with an afterword by award-winning sportswriter and SJA member David Miller to add to the original foreword by Geoffrey Green.
When Pegasus was first published, Shearwood was teaching at Lancing College, although when it came to maths he admits he was floundering.
“I managed to postpone teaching geometry for three weeks until the answers arrived. Then a know-all in the front row asked: ‘Can you do any problem in this book, sir?’
“I said that of course I could. So he said: ‘Well, can you do the one on page 180?’
“Summoning up all the nonchalance I could, I copied out the workings and the answer on to the board. It was as meaningless to me as it was to them but everyone seemed satisfied.”
Nonetheless, he survived at Lancing for the rest of his working life, serving under six headmasters, as master, housemaster, registrar and, eventually, a governor.
His fourth book, Hardly a Scholar, was first published in 1999 and takes his story from his earliest days in the industrial Midlands right up to retirement in Sussex where he lives with Biddie, his wife of 67 years blissful marriage. Again, the book has recently been reissued.
“I was part of the system but while I was proud to have been at prep school and at Shrewsbury, I was always conscious of the divide between those establishments and the little church elementary school on the other side of the glass-spiked wall of our garden in Derby.
“At Lancing, my class often asked if I believed in God. I told them that I didn’t disbelieve but they had to keep an open mind and remember that small, still voice that speaks at unexpected moments and in unexpected places. What I can say is that I’ve certainly been very fortunate in my life.”
Hardly A Scholar by Ken Shearwood (Kennedy & Boyd, £19.95)
Pegasus: The Famous Oxford and Cambridge Soccer Side of the 1950s by Ken Shearwood (Kennedy & Boyd, £16.95)
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