The town lost a great man at the end of last year when Ken Johnson, the former Hartlepool United player, died.
This week was Ken’s funeral at the beautiful church in Seaton Carew and, as I expected, the church was packed as many, many people wanted to pay their respects.
I’ve been proud to know Ken Johnson, and his wife Olwen, or Olly, all of my life. My nana, Joyce Harland, worked for many years in the launderette at the Fens Shops. The launderette was next to Ken and Olly Johnson’s fish shop, and as far back as I could remember and as soon as I could climb out of a pushchair, I recall running back and forth from the launderette to the fish shop.
Ken stood at the back of the fish shop, frying the fish, and always had a kind word to say to me and to everybody else.
The demeanour of this kind and generous gentleman always seemed somewhat at odds with the egos and prima donnas that were even at that time starting to infect the beautiful game and were beginning to be seen on Match of the Day.
I think many of today’s Premiership footballers could learn a lesson or two from Ken’s passion for the game combined with manners, modesty and decency.
Every time I saw Ken, I always said something like: “How do you think Pools are doing, Ken?”, or words to that effect. Of course, it wasn’t just me who said that – people who met Ken everyday said something about Pools.
It must have been draining, somewhat similar to a comedian constantly being asked by strangers to tell a joke. In every case, however, Ken commented not just with great grace, insight and humour, but took an interest in the person asking the question.
I speak as I find, and I will always remember Ken Johnson, in my conversations with him spanning over 30 years, with affection and respect. I particularly admire the fact that he treated everybody the same, regardless of age or status.
He was as polite, courteous and interested in me when I was a 10-year-old kid, blocking the entrance of his shop with my bike and no doubt stopping customers getting fish and chips, as when I became Member of Parliament, bringing a Secretary of State to Pools to watch a game. There were no airs and graces or false sides to Ken and I really admired that.
Since Ken’s death, I’ve looked again at my copy of the official history of Hartlepool United, published a few years ago to celebrate the club’s centenary. There is a lovely picture (on page 166 – please go and have a look if you have the book) of the team on the front page of the New Year edition of the Soccer Star of 1960 and Ken is the first person you see when you look at the picture .
That pride and sense of service never left Ken Johnson. It is difficult to think of another individual who has served Hartlepool United so well for such a length of time. I’m sure Ritchie Humphries, who has just achieved a remarkable 500 appearances for Pools, won’t mind me saying that Ken’s 106 goals in 413 appearances, and then his commitment to the club for decades after his retirement, will never be bettered. Ken scored on his debut, 62 years almost to the day when 17 year-old Luke James scored a fantastic goal against Rochdale, which would have made Ken proud.
At the funeral, the Rev Captain Paul Allinson said that he would look to place a permanent memorial to Ken in the church. I think that is a touching gesture.
But given the unparalleled level of service to Pools, I hope something will be done in Victoria Park. I think the club should formally re-name the Town End as the Kenny Johnson Stand.
My love to Olly and the family.