Track Stats - Ken Wilcock

Britain’s “fourth man” in the era of Metcalfe and Brightwell

Bob Phillips interviews relay international Ken Wilcock, published in the September 2011 edition of “Track Stats”.

One of the very best of the histories of British athletics clubs which has been published in recent years is that of Sutton Harriers & AC, in the town of St Helens, which is now part of Merseyside but for most of its existence has been in Lancashire. The merit of this book is that, though there are plenty of results to be found in its 144 pages, there are also detailed pen-portraits of many of the club’s best athletes and first-hand reminiscences from some among them which tell us so much more about what athletics was like in previous generations. All credit, then, is due to the editor, Mary Presland, and her associates, Ken Wilcock and Allan Moore.

Sutton’s renown was founded upon its strength in cross-country, and in the years immediately after Word War II it was one of the most powerful clubs in the land. The inside cover of the club history features a photograph of a broadly smiling Bill McMinnis, one of the four Sutton men to run for England in the International Championship between the years 1947 and 1953, whose active career extended from 1936 to 1982 and who later became club president. Track successes for Sutton were rather more belated, and the first to be responsible was the same Ken Wilcock whose editorial skills would be subsequently put to such good use.

Wilcock, born 28 December 1934, joined Sutton Harriers in 1951 after leaving Prescot Grammar School and starting work at the local plant of the cable-manufacturing and construction company, British Insulated Callender’s Cables, promptly winning the 880 yards and mile handicap races at the annual works’ sports at the age of 16. Defying Sutton tradition that this sort of form should inevitably point towards a future over the country, he began racing at 220, 440 and 880 yards during 1952 and progressed so rapidly that he won the Northern junior 440 at Stockport the next year. With a diversion into serious half-miling for a couple of years, he would eventually develop into a British international 400 metres runner in an era when first John Wrighton and John Salisbury and then Adrian Metcalfe and Robbie Brightwell made places in the national team intensely difficult to secure.

Not only was Wilcock breaking something of a mould at Sutton, he was also striking a blow for the North of England in its entirety. Of the 103 Britons who had ever run 49.7 or faster for 440 yards by the end of 1957, only nine were members of Northern clubs, including Wilcock himself. Several others – most notably, Douglas Lowe, Alan Pennington and Peter Higgins – had been born in the North but had developed their athletic talents elsewhere, and there were, of course, half-a-dozen Scotsmen in the list, including the Olympic champions, Wyndham Halswelle and Eric Liddell. The lone Northerner, born and bred and permanently resident, who had reached the highest levels in the event was Bill Roberts, of Salford AC, one of the golden heroes of the 1936 Olympic 4 x 400 metres relay and British Empire 440 yards champion two years later.

Wilcock remembers very well his introduction to athletics, competing mostly on a 352-yard track at Allanson Street School which was more “clinker” than cinders: “There were other lads better than me, including a sprinter, Sam Clemson, and Jimmy Doyle, who had won the All-England Schools’ quarter-mile in 1950, but I beat Jimmy and that came as a shock to everyone. I went down to Sutton with a friend at the end of September of 1951, and you have to remember that Sutton had been national cross-country champions in 1949, 1950 and 1951. I thought, ‘I’m a track runner. I’ll come back in April’. Oh, I didn’t like the idea of cross-country ! I ran handicap races during 1952 and 1953, and I particularly remember an evening medley relay in Bolton where the rays from the lighting only just about met. Then at the Northern junior we had the heats, semi-finals and final of the 440 all on the same day”.

But let’s for the time being move ahead eight years to see where Wilcock’s career would eventually lead him. In 1961 Britain had the fastest 400 metres runner in the World, Adrian Metcalfe, aged only 19, who had improved out of all recognition to 45.7, and only a stride or two slower was Robbie Brightwell, at 45.9. Then came a gaggle of others in the 47.2-47.3 bracket – John D. Cooper (not to be confused with the future Olympic silver-medallist hurdler, John H. Cooper), Norman Futter, Malcolm Yardley and Barry Jackson. Yardley was 20 and Jackson not 20 till August.

The results in the profusion of international matches that summer showed the quality:

21-22 July (White City), GB v USA: 440 yards – 1 Ulis Williams (USA) 46.3 (British All-Comers’ record), 2 Metcalfe 46.4 (British record), 3 Adolph Plummer (USA) 46.8, 4 Brightwell 46.8. 4 x 440 yards – 1 GB (Futter 48.5, Jackson 46.9, Brightwell 46.3, Metcalfe 45.3) 3:07.0 (British record), 2 USA 3:07.4.

5-7 August (White City), GB v Hungary: 400 metres – 1 Brightwell 47.0, 2 Metcalfe 47.2, 3 Imre Nemeshazi 49.6, 4 Mihály Majorcsik 50.4. 4 x 400 metres – 1 GB (Jackson 47.2, Yardley 46.8, Brightwell 46.0, Metcalfe 45.8) 3:05.8 (British record), 2 Hungary 3:15.5.

2-3 September (Dortmund), West Germany v GB: 400 metres – 1 Metcalfe 45.7 (British record), 2 Brightwell 45.9, 3 Manfred Kinder (West Germany) 45.9, Gerhard Weinmann (West Germany) fell. 4 x 400 metres – 1 GB (Jackson 46.0, Yardley 47.2, Brightwell 45.8, Metcalfe 45.9) 3:04.9 (British record), 2 West Germany 3:05.3.

6-7 September (Warsaw), Poland v GB: 400 metres – 1 Brightwell 46.7, 2 Jerzy Kowalski (Poland) 46.9, 3 Metcalfe 47.2, 4 Ireneusz Kluczek (Poland) 47.9. 4 x 400 metres – 1 GB (Jackson, Wilcock, Brightwell, Metcalfe) 3:09.3, 2 Poland 3:13.4.

19-20 September (White City), England v Russia: 400 metres – 1 Metcalfe 46.5, 2 Brightwell 46.7, 3 Valentin Rakhmanov (Russia) 47.8, 4 V Lyubimov (Russia) 49.2. 4 x 400 metres – 1 England (Jackson, Yardley, Brightwell, Metcalfe) 3:06.9, 2 Russia 3:13.1.

23-24 September (Colombes), France v GB: 400 metres – 1 Metcalfe 46.4, 2 Brightwell 46.9, 3 Jean Bertozzi (France) 47;1, 4 Jean-Pierre Vitasse (France) 48.0. 4 x 400 metres – 1 GB (Jackson, Yardley, Brightwell, Metcalfe) 3:06.8, 2 France 3:10.6.

Individual races – five wins out of six. Relays – six wins out of six.

Ken Wilcock’s 1961 season had begun excitingly with a win in 48.2, beating his previous best by one-tenth, and this was achieved against the odds in pouring rain at the Cambridge University-v-AAA match on 4 May. A lot of attention was paid to Herb Elliott that day, running and winning the 880 for Cambridge, but the more knowledgable spectators would have noted that Wilcock had equalled Arthur Wint’s Fenners track record from 1950. At the Inter-Counties’ Championships at the White City later in May Wilcock was 2nd to the precocious Jackson at 440 yards, 47.8 to an equal personal best 48.2. This was followed on 10 June by a Lancashire county title in a championship record 49.0 at Bolton and then a storming victory by a full two seconds a fortnight later in the Northern Championships in Manchester in another meeting best (and personal best) of 48.1.

For the AAA Championships on 14-15 July Adrian Metcalfe was the very clear favourite for the 440 yards, having startlingly broken the British 400 metres record with 45.8 in Oslo the previous weekend. Metcalfe was a Northerner, having been born in Bradford, and had been an All-England Schools’ 220 yards winner, but as a quarter-miler he was really an Oxford University product, having run 48.4 in the freshman’s match the previous November, and then 48.1 in the Inter-Varsity match in May to beat a meeting record set by Godfrey Brown 24 years before, and 47.3 in Canada in June with the Oxford-Cambridge combined team. John D. Cooper, of St Albans, had won the Southern 440 in a personal best 47.5 and Jackson the Midland 440 in 47.6. Brightwell had opted to run the 220 at the AAA Championships.

The heats and semi-finals of the 440 were held on the Friday evening. Metcalfe won the first semi-final in 47.7 from Brian Morris, of the Metropolitan Police (48.2), and Brian Davis, of South Africa (48.3). Norman Futter, a London University student, won the second from the outside lane in a rather extravagant personal best 47.5 from Wilcock, setting yet another best of 48.0, and Jackson (48.1). Malcolm Yardley withdrew injured and John D. Cooper was the surprise elimination. Unfortunately, the weather was miserable and the track flooded by the next day, and so Metcalfe won in 47.6 from Jackson (47.9) and Wilcock (48.0).

The British team selectors seemingly set more store by Futter’s running in the semi-finals than the final, where he was 5th, because he was the one who was given the lead-off relay stint against the Americans … and did well enough in that match, holding Dixon Farmer, who had run 47.1y earlier in the year, to two yards. Wilcock did get a phone call, “Can you come to the White City next weekend as we’re adding you to the team of eight versus the USA for the relay ?” The same happened for the match with Hungary, and Wilcock at least had a run, finishing 2nd to Barry Jackson, 47.8 to 48.3, in an invitation 400 metres.

Representing Britain at last, and an easy win against the Poles

Wilcock finally got his chance on the British team’s tour to Germany and Poland, having run yet another personal best (his fourth of the year) of 47.8 in the Lever Trophy meeting at Port Sunlight, on the Wirral, on 12 August. His international debut was not a taxing one as Britain beat the Poles by some 30 metres in the relay. Reserve again for the relay in the England-v-Russia match, he rounded off the year a good 3rd to Metcalfe and Brightwell at the Birchfield Harriers’ floodlit meeting on 30 September: times of 47.4, 47.5 and 48.0 respectively.

The British top 10 at 400 metres at the year’s end were as follows (* 440 yards time less 0.3sec): Metcalfe 45.7, Brightwell 45.9, Cooper 47.2*, Futter 47.2*, Yardley 47.2, Jackson 47.3*, Wilcock 47.5*, Morris 47.7*, David Brown 47.8*, Mike Potter 47.8*. The leading two must have seemed out of reach to the rest, but the attractive prospect for all of those in the rankings was that in 1962 there would be both a European Championships and a British Empire & Commonwealth Games, and therefore plenty of individual and relay places up for grabs.

Wilcock soon found his form in 1962, winning the Lancashire title again at Blackburn on 2 June, beating his own championship best with 48.1, and the next weekend he was 2nd to David Brown in a modest Inter-Counties’ final, 48.5 to 48.7, but two hours later won an international 400 metres in 47.6 from strong Czech and Hungarian opposition. Then came a 21.6 personal best for 220 yards at the RUC meeting in Belfast and another Northern 440 title in a record at 48.0 at Billingham, but the pleasure derived from those performances was more than offset by the tragic news that David Brown, who was a Flight-Lieutenant in the RAF, had been killed in an aircraft accident in Cyprus.

By the beginning of July five Britons had broken 48sec for 440 yards. Brightwell, having earlier set ground records at Loughborough and Edgbaston, won the Midlands-v-North-v-South 440 at Wolverhampton on 30 June by a full second from Wilcock, 46.6 to 47.6, but Wilcock could take satisfaction from having himself finished a full second ahead of the Southern champion, Futter, and then adding a 46.5 relay stage later in the afternoon. Metcalfe had run 47.0y so far, Jackson 46.9m and Bob Setti, of Herne Hill Harriers, 47.8y. Next in the rankings, and ahead of Futter and Yardley, was the Scottish champion, William Campbell, who had won his title in a record 48.0. Campbell would become better known as “Ming” Campbell, a future British record-holder at 100 metres and later an eminent politician.

Brightwell shows majestic form, and personal bests for all

The finalists at the AAA Championships on 14 July were Brightwell, Jackson, Setti, Wilcock, 19-year-old Nick Overhead (Watford Harriers) and the South African, Davis, who had also been in the previous year’s race. Brightwell, looking absolutely majestic, won in a British and British all-comers’ record of 45.9, from Davis (46.5), Wilcock in the outside lane (47.2), Setti (47.7) and Overhead (47.8) – all in personal bests. Jackson pulled a hamstring when in 3rd place. Metcalfe did not take part in any event at the Championships. In his report for “Athletics Weekly”, Mel Watman offered the opinion that Wilcock “must have clinched his place in the British relay team”, and a week later, during a Lancashire-v-Staffordshire-v-Yorkshire match on the Pilkington’s track in his home town of St Helens, Wilcock produced an even better performance, losing by the narrowest of margins to Metcalfe at 440 yards, 47.0 to 47.1.

Wilcock was now the 10th Briton to have broken 47sec for 400 metres, as follows: 45.6* Robbie Brightwell 1962, 45.7 Adrian Metcalfe 1961, 46.3 John Wrighton 1958, 46.5* Ted Sampson 1958, 46.5 John Salisbury 1958, 46.6 Malcolm Yardley 1960, 46.7 (46.68) Godfrey Brown 1936, 46.8 (46.87) Bill Roberts 1936, 46.8* Ken Wilcock 1962, 46.9 Barry Jackson 1962.

The 400 metres and the 4 x 400 at the GB-v-Poland match at the White City on 4-6 August were a reprise of the previous year: Brightwell won the individual race in 46.6 from Kowalski, and Metcalfe, suffering from knee problems, was again 3rd; while the same quartet as before won the relay in 3:11.5. There were understandable concerns about Metcalfe’s fitness and these were added to when he finished only 4th in a 400 metres at the British Games on 18 August – Jackson 47.0, Wilcock 47.8, Overhead 48.3, Metcalfe 48.3. Before the month was out, however, Metcalfe improved immeasurably, beating Wilcock at 440 yards, 46.8 to 48.2, at Blackburn on 27 August, and so kept his place safe for the European Championships in Belgrade, 12-16 September.

On the opening day in Belgrade Brightwell won his 400 metres heat in 46.6, breaking the track record held by Herb McKenley since 1952, but seven men, including Brightwell himself, did even better in the semi-finals and all three Britons got through. The final on the third day went to form – 1 Brightwell 45.9, 2 Manfred Kinder (Germany) 46.1, 3 Joachim Reske (Germany) 46.4, 4 Metcalfe 46.4, 5 Jackson 46.6, 6 Andrzej Badenski (Poland) 47.4.

The relay heats on day four were won by GB (3:09.4) and Germany (3:08.8), with France, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland as the other qualifiers. The season’s best times for the four Britons added up to 3:05.4 and for the four Germans to 3:05.7, and the actual times for the first two in the final were 3:05.8 and 3:05.9, but it was the Germans who won. Jackson led after the first stage (47.5). Germany went ahead when Wilfried Kindermann (47.0) overtook Wilcock but not by much, and even after a poor baton change because Metcalfe (46.6) was not standing in his proper position Brightwell started the anchor only two metres down on Kinder. Brightwell ran 44.8, but Kinder was still a metre ahead at the finish.

Brightwell could then begin to think about completing the individual double at the Empire & Commonwealth Games in Perth, Western Australia, in November, and Wilcock and the others could reasonably hope to do better in the relay than they had in Belgrade. For the England-v-Finland match at the White City on Friday and Saturday 28-29 September Brightwell and Jackson comfortably (very comfortably !) took 1st and 2nd in the individual 440, and the relay team of Jackson (47.2), Wilcock (48.3), Overhead (47.1) and Setti (47.6) had over seven seconds to spare at the finish. The England squad for Perth was chosen that weekend and published on the following Monday, and it would seem that the selectors had decided that the relay result against the Finns – no Flying Finns, to be sure – was significant.

Controversial selections for the Commonwealth Games in Western Australia

There were four places available in the individual 440 in Perth, and those chosen were Brightwell, Metcalfe, Jackson … and young Nick Overhead, with Bob Setti sent for the 880 yards and the relay, and the other two half-milers, Sid Purkis and Mike Fleet, on relay stand-by. It was understandable that with the cost of transporting the team to Australia a major factor should be economies, and Setti’s combination of 47.7 for 440 yards and 1:50.8 for 880 yards must have looked appealing on paper as a way of saving money, but Ken Wilcock had every good reason to feel aggrieved at his exclusion, and remains so almost half-a-century later. England had a very reasonable chance of winning the 4 x 440 but no chance at all of winning the 880.

The individual 440 in Perth suggested that the season had simply been too long for the Britons representing the various home countries because Overhead and Metcalfe were both 3rd in their heats and eliminated, and then Jackson failed to finish his semi-final because of a toe injury. Brightwell was 2nd in the final to George Kerr, of Jamaica, 46.7 to 46.8, with Amos Omolo, of Uganda, 3rd also in 46.8. A time of 47.9 was good enough to make the final and 47.7 good enough for 4th place. The relay was another anti-climax as England were still only 3rd to Jamaica and Ghana after Metcalfe and Setti had run the first two stages, and though Jackson moved to 2nd place Brightwell had no hope of making up 10 yards on Kerr: Jamaica 3:10.2, England 3:11.2, Ghana 3:12.3.

Wilcock, discouraged by the attitude of the selectors, decided that he would no longer aspire to international level, and then illness in April of 1963 caused him to miss that season and he retired from competition altogether, turning his attentions to administration instead and taking up the post of assistant team manager and then team manager for Lancashire. He was later to become insurance manager with BICC, and his employers had been generous with allowing him time off over the years for his athletics commitments, but he had been competing for 10 years and it was time to do other things.

His track career had been one of steady progress. After his success in the 1953 Northern junior 440, he had begun to make his mark as Sutton’s half-miler in the medley relays which were such a feature of Northern sports meetings, and in 1955 he took 3rd place in the Lancashire 880 to Derek Lovelady (Sefton Harriers), who set a meeting record of 1:54.8, with Ernie Gallagher, of Liverpool Harriers (the future coach to Curtis Robb), 2nd. At the Northern Championships Wilcock was 3rd again in 1:54.8 to Gallagher (1:53.6) and Ronnie Henderson (Elswick Harriers), who would run for Great Britain against France and the USSR later that summer after finishing 2nd to Derek Johnson in the AAA final.

Wilcock’s training facilities then were typically makeshift: “I was self-coached and I mostly trained round the edge of a local football pitch, running 220s, 440s and 660s with people who were not as good as me, but it served its purpose. The Pilkington glass company in St Helens did not have their cinder track built until 1959. I was married in 1958 and I did my weight-training in the front room of our house as we had no furniture there, anyway”. At the Northern Championships of 1957 Wilcock was the victim of a bizarre incident in the home straight of the 880 when he was impeded by an illegal runner who had been eliminated in the heats but joined in the final after it had started ! Wilcock ended up 5th. Wilcock’s thoughts were turning elsewhere, as he remembers, “I thought to myself that if I was doing quarter-miles there would be more of a chance of international honours as they always needed a fourth man for the relay”.

The end of an era for athletics in the North of England

In 1957 Wilcock had improved his 440 time to 49.7 and was unbeaten at the distance in local meetings, but the character of athletics in the North of England was changing significantly, as the Sutton Harriers history records: “Up to this time an athlete could usually attend around 15 sports meetings from early May until September, but by 1958 many of these had been replaced by scratch meetings and representative matches because spectators were becoming used to seeing top athletics on television and wanted to watch live the best athletes in competition. This resulted in very few handicap meetings remaining until they ceased to be held at all by 1960.

The 1958 season brought Wilcock further 440 successes in the Lancashire and Northern Championships, both in 49.3 and on the latter occasion inches ahead of Olympic relay bronze-medallist Peter Higgins, who had won the Northern title in six of the preceding seven years. Switching to the 880 for the North in the Inter-Area match at Wolverhampton on 14 June, Wilcock improved his previous best from 1:53.4 to 1:51.6 for 6th place as Brian Hewson broke the Commonwealth record with 1:47.8 and Mike Rawson and Mike Farrell were both under 1:50. A personal best 49.0 clocking in the AAA heats was not fast enough to qualify for the final, and Wilcock finished the year ranked 15th = in Britain at 440 yards (with Rawson and Tom Farrell) and 9th= at 880 yards. Wrighton, Sampson and Salisbury were sub-47 that year and Hewson, Rawson, Johnson, Farrell and Ted Buswell sub-1:50.

In 1959 Wilcock again won the Lancashire 440, beating Tom Farrell and John Holt on the new Pilkington’s track and was 2nd to Jack Mitchell (Elswick) in the Northern at Manchester’s White City. There was a match between a Great Britain “B” team and Holland at the Pilkington’s track on 25 July, and it seemed rather a pity that Wilcock was not included in the relay as the fixture was practically on his doorstep. Mitchell won the individual 440 very easily from Brian Morris, and the relay team of Mitchell, Ronnie Thomson, Morris and Peter Higgins won by almost five seconds. A fortnight later Wilcock ran a personal best 48.8 at Port Sunlight. In Olympic year of 1960 he won the Lancashire and Northern 440s but had the misfortune to be eliminated in the AAA heats despite running the 5th fastest time overall.

Never quite in the very first rank of British quarter-milers – but then that was nothing to be ashamed of in an era when the event was at its strongest in this country for a quarter-of-a-century – Ken Wilcock has plenty of worthwhile memories to look back on. None of them, perhaps, match the intoxicating moments he experienced when he was leading the Olympic 400 metres champion, Otis Davis, of the USA, in a race under floodlights at Manchester’s White City Stadium in September 1960. “Coming into the straight I was about three yards up”, Wilcock happily recalls. “Then he went into over-drive and he beat me by about five yards. But I made him run”.

“From Acorn To Oak”: A History of Sutton Harriers & Athletic Club (St Helens)” was published in 2007. It is available from Mary Presland, 19 Millbank Lane, Eccleston, St Helens WA10 4QX, cost £9.99, plus £1.50 postage and packing. Cheques payable to “St Helens Association for Research into Local History”.