Published: 05:00, 28 May 2022
| Updated: 16:54, 29 May 2022
Sheppey Rugby Club’s departing president Gerry Lawson isn’t short of memories after 58 years with the club - but one that stands out is how a flip of a card changed their history for good.
The club were homeless but an opportunity to buy the piece of land that has now been theirs since the mid-1960s was, as Mr Lawson recalled, decided on with a bet down the pub.
A fee of £1,500 was eventually paid for the land on Lower Road, known affectionately as The Ditch or Stupplefield in recent years, but the farmer who owned it only agreed to enter negotiations if he lost a card game - which he did.
In March, Lawson - known to many as The Colonel - announced his decision to stand down as president, which will be formally ratified at July’s annual general meeting.
Speaking about his time at the club, he recalled that historic night at the Ferry House Inn when Harold Smart (the old headmaster of the secondary school) persuaded the local farmer, Mr Sturgess, to give him the chance to buy a piece of land.
“It was all on the turn of a card,” said Lawson. “Harold Smart won and the farmer had to give in and give us a chance to buy the land that we have got now.
“The agreement was, if my card beats your card, you will sell us a piece of land and that’s what happened. We bought the land with a loan from the RFU.”
Once the club bought the land they still had plenty to do. Lawson had grown up playing for the club but with no land and no clubhouse they lived a nomadic existence. Another piece of good fortune landed them a clubhouse.
The old Civil Defence Hut in Sheerness wasn’t needed any more and the club were invited to take it away.
“It took a weekend to take down and five years to put up!” said Lawson. Helpers spent their free time putting up the hut which was replaced in 1981 with the current structure.
“A lot of work went into that,” he said. “We had many good times in there, then one Bonfire Night after we got the new one we burnt it.”
Two people were instrumental in the building of the current clubhouse, Malcolm Grundy and Ken Cooper, with Mick Wells doing the building work.
There are too many people Lawson could name that have helped Sheppey Rugby Club over the years but there were several he highlighted, such as the Stupple family and Lin and Dave Neal.
The ground is named in honour of Alf Stupple, while Alf’s wife, Agnes, was also on the committee and her gruel was always memorable, according to Lawson - “It was strained through her tights,” he joked.
Andy Hosken was described by Lawson as the “heartbeat of the club” and “one of the great members”. He died a year ago but leaves a legacy of his organisation of the Wooden Spoon charity that has raised thousands for disabled children.
Lawson took over the presidency from popular Irishman Fergus Clune, who was the local dentist - quite a handy profession to be associated with the club. He would often open up his surgery to help with the weekend injuries.
Geoff Hyde has been another key figure - a man Lawson said “put his life and soul into the club.”
He added: “I could name so many people who have contributed over the years but if you tried to name everyone someone would be missed out!
“I extend my thanks to everyone who has been part of the club over the years, so many people have given up their time, it has been a labour of love, it takes up a lot of your time but I made many, many friends through rugby and many business contacts, people I would never had met otherwise.
“At the rugby club, if you are standing in the bar you are standing there at the same level whether you are a solicitor, a doctor, an undertaker or a bricklayer. We were all the same in the rugby club.”
During his earlier years at Sheppey, when Lawson was in his 20s, things were in decline, but he teamed up with Mike Wells and the pair helped turn their fortunes around.
Lawson went on to be team captain during a successful era, benefiting from an influx of talent. George Bond, Jim Hunt, Richard Hartley, Dave Dyson and Lee Gubb joined while Jock Easton arrived as a coach from Canterbury and they had French coach Claude Cremont assisting.
“We lost just two games over two years,” recalled the old captain, who had a number of committee roles, including 21 years as a fixture secretary.
While committed to the rugby club, he grew his successful engineering business now run by his son. G&P Engineering’s website says the company evolved from a “very modest beginning in 1980 operating from the proverbial ‘back of a van’ to bespoke built workshops, catering for all types of fabrication, machining and engineering”.
Highs during his time at Sheppey included reaching the finals of the Calais 7s, a semi-final place in the Kent Cup, beating Sevenoaks in a Kent Cup game at the Ditch - a David versus Goliath fixture - along with trips to Twickenham with the lads.
After more than half a century with the club, it was a chance encounter with a plumber that made him think it was time to hand over the role.
During the Covid pandemic he moved to Malta, where wife Vona is originally from and where he has a property, and that meant he was no longer a regular face.
“I had been thinking about it for a long time because I hadn’t been down there for a while,” said Lawson, now 73.
“When I was at home last time I had some work done in my house and I got talking to the plumber there and he said he played a bit of rugby, I asked him where and he said Sheppey.
“I told him I was the president and he didn’t know me. That brought it home to me; it isn’t doing me or the club any good if I am not there, it is not right.
“It is sad, it is part of my life that has gone. I think about it still, when I am home. I visit the club but things have to move on.
“I had some great times, some hard times, some disappointing times, but in the last couple of years when I packed up playing we ran a fifth team with all the old boys from the first team.
“We had one or two young lads just started or never played. We put them in, looked after them, paid their subs and bought them a pint. That was a great way to introduce young people to rugby and we had a wonderful couple of seasons with the ‘famous fifths’.”
Lawson is now enjoying his retirement in Malta but with a grandson in the junior set-up at Saracens, the family’s association with the sport goes on.