One of the unsung heroes of the Chester football scene has retired after a long and distinguished career which saw him work with a whole host of Blues managers, from the late Cliff Sear to Neil Young.
MARK DOWLING reports
GARY Kent has been with the Blues through thick and thin during nearly 30 years as the club’s groundsman.
The Blacon resident potentially holds a unique record in maintaining three different pitches for the same team at Sealand Road, Macclesfield Town’s Moss Rose ground and the Exacta Stadium.
But now Kent, who won awards for ensuring the pitches were in tip-top condition throughout his time at the club, has retired from the role.
He said: “It feels right for me to step down now. I could have retired last year when Chester City were liquidated but Cheshire West and Chester Council rang me and asked if I could keep the ground going over the summer.
“There was a lot of work that had to be done to get the safety certificate, but I oversaw it and then Chester District and Housing Trust paid my wages the past 12 months.”
Kent recalled how he first got the job at Chester thanks to former player and then manager Cliff Sear in 1982.
He said: “I had known Cliff for years and I’d had an accident at work which meant I had been off for 12 months. I said to him I was a bit fed up, so he offered me work at the club. I spent the first year doing unpaid jobs there and when the club’s groundsman left I was offered the role.
“Cliff had contacts with Manchester City, who he had played for, so I got some knowledge from their groundsman Stan Gibson.”
Kent got to know many managers throughout his time at the club.
“It was nice working with Kevin Ratcliffe, Mark Wright, and I had a good working relationship with Keith Curle,” he said. “Graham Barrow was great for Chester, he really had the club at heart. I worked well with most of them, although one or two were a bit of a pain in the backside!”
But one manager that stood out was Harry McNally.
“It was never a dull moment with Harry,” laughed Kent. “He wanted me to be involved, even in the two years when Chester played at Macclesfield’s ground. They had their groundsman but I would sort out the pitch for the Chester City games as Harry wanted it.”
The opening of the new Deva Stadium in 1992 was also a highlight for Kent.
“It was quite exciting and I was very much involved in the laying of the pitch,” he said. “Contractors J Mallinson laid it out. They went on to sort out the new Wembley Stadium’s pitch problems.”
One of the famous faces Kent met at the Deva Stadium was Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
He recalled: “I made tea for Alex as he came for a youth match against Chester in the early 1990s. I had a chat with him and he was a top man. The players he had in the squad that day included Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham.”
Kent remembers one memorable example of a race against time to get the Deva Stadium pitch ready for a match.
“It was against Scunthorpe United and it had been raining heavily,” he said.
“I got my assistant, John Hipkiss, and a few members from a golf club to bring four water hogs – rollers with sponges attached – and spent hours clearing the rainwater. The referee was there, saw we were shifting the water and told us we had done wonders.”
At 2.30pm – half an hour before kick-off – the referee asked Kent when he would have the pitch ready.
“I said about half an hour,” recalls Kent. “We finished at 3.05pm – after the players did the coin toss – and Chester ended up winning the game, so it was well worth it.”
Among those Kent has thanked for their support over the decades are his family and especially wife Liz: “I’ve put in some ungodly hours trying to get matches on – missing Christmas dinners and the like – but she’s always been very, very supportive.”
He also thanked assistant John Hipkiss – “a big part of my football life” – and former Blues defender Andy Holden – “a good friend who has always kept in touch. He always gives me good advice”.
Kent will now turn his attention to maintenance of a different kind by tackling a number of decorating and cleaning jobs around his home as he looks forward to his retirement.