Published: 12:00, 15 January 2021
| Updated: 13:26, 15 January 2021
Les Riggs' dad was killed in the Second World War but that early blow was to help make him the man he was.
Riggs played professionally for Gillingham, was Margate's manager for their biggest ever game, and became an inspirational character for so many that met him. He died on December 29, at the age of 85.
His wife, Georgina, says Les made the most out of everything that came his way. The pair went on to run a guesthouse in Broadstairs, a sports shop in Cliftonville and became trustees of an animal rescue charity.
Riggs played for the Gills in two spells, starting out as a junior before making his debut as an 18-year-old at the end of the 1953-54 season.
Famed for his long throw - the longest in football at the time - he was a tough tackler too. A newspaper report from his debut game described him as playing with a "calm assurance, brainy positioning, resolute in the tackle and one who uses the ball well".
He would go on and enjoy a long professional career, playing more than 150 games for the Gills between 1953-58 and a handful more towards the end of his career. He also played for Newport County, Bury - where a long-standing friendship with one of the game's greats, Bob Stokoe, began - and Crewe Alexandra.
Following his return to Kent he went onto manage Ramsgate, whose more recent manager Jim Ward commented that Les "was an inspiration to many young and old in the Thanet area".
"Most of the advice he gave me [when I first took the Ramsgate job] has stood the test of time," he added.
Les also managed Margate and was in charge during their biggest ever game. A third round FA Cup match against Tottenham in January 1973 attracted a record crowd of 14,169 at Hartsdown Park for a match that received national attention.
The star-studded Spurs team, then managed by Bill Nicholson and holders of the UEFA Cup, included a plethora of greats, including Pat Jennings, Alan Gilzean, Steve Perryman, Martin Chilvers and Martin Peters, up against a Margate side that featured Deal carpenter Barry Brown upfront and London cabbie Chic Brodie in goal.
The visitors won 6-0 but Margate had enjoyed the occasion.
Les had been pictured relaxing on a deckchair outside Dreamland prior to the match for an article in the Daily Mirror. His sports shop in Cliftonville had been inundated by national reporters, all keen to get a new angle on the big match.
"The press was ringing up day and night - it was like cup final day!" Georgina recalled.
Working behind the shop counter back then was Norman Fusco, a 17-year-old who Les took to Margate after the player broke his leg as a junior at Charlton. Fusco had the job of marking Peters.
In the 33 years that Georgina and Les ran the shop they helped many people realise their potential, including a head chef in London, one who has his own hairdressing business in Minster and another with a thriving upholstery business.
His wife, who had grown up in Medway, recalled a comment that one of those youngsters was told by Les, saying: "Don't take any notice of anyone who tells you that you are lucky. You are not lucky - you make your own luck in life. George and I have not had a dad but where we have got is through sheer hard work, and if you work hard you will get there."
His wife added: "It is nice to know that we have helped put some people on the right road."
Les would always help out people whenever he could, particularly youngsters, having lost his own dad when he was seven years old - killed when his boat was sunk during the war. The Riggs family had lived on a Naval estate in Portsmouth but several years later his widowed mother, who had five children, got a job at the Naval, Army and Air Force Institution (NAFFI) club in Chatham, now the King Charles Hotel. Les was then 14, the youngest child. He didn't have much of an education, but as a sportsman he managed to do well in any field he turned his hand to.
Gillingham signed him up as a trainee at the age of 16 and he progressed through their youth team to earn a professional contract a year later. He stayed there until being sold to Newport County for a fee of £1,750. The Priestfield club honoured Les in 2014 in their home game against Crewe Alexandra - another of his former sides - taking the applause from the supporters as a chosen Gills legend for the day.
Football wasn't the only thing Les was good at. A former captain and chairman at North Foreland Golf Club, he could also play squash, table tennis, tennis - he was a master at restringing rackets - and could have even been a professional cricketer. He went onto run a guesthouse with his wife, a place where they could entertain. Ian Botham was one of the many guests who enjoyed a weekend on the Kent coast.
The sports shop - which had been opened by former Chelsea player John Hollins - may have changed hands but it is still named after Les Riggs and the current owners remain friends of the family. There has been a school cup played in his name by juniors in Thanet for the last 45 years, with the finals played every year at Upton Junior School, Broadstairs. The cup was won in 2020 by Ramsgate Holy Trinity Primary School.
Les spent a year at the Maurice House Dementia Care Home in Broadstairs before his passing and by a twist of fate he ended up there at the same time as another former player Don Townsend - father of ex Irish international Andy Townsend.
Don and Les faced each other during a 1963 match between Crewe and Crystal Palace, named on opposite teams in the football programme that day. Fifty-seven years later, on Les' 85th birthday, they got to have another kickabout, when a football and goalposts were taken to the home they shared. Don sadly died in July.
"It's the most magnificent place and I can't thank them enough, they were wonderful," said Georgina, of the home where her husband spent his final days.
Les may have been known for his tough tackling as a player but he was also a big lover of animals. Both he and Georgina have run the Thanet Cat Club for many years, rehoming strays and always on call.
One of the many cards of condolence that his wife received came from the head of the former Royal School for Deaf Children, where Les had often attended along with former Gills director Brian Moore and John Hollins, to help encourage those that were there. The old headmaster commented about how rewarding it had been for the children to see them.
His god-daughter Vanessa Webb, who recently held the position of president of the Kent Lawn Tennis Association - the first woman to hold the post in its 127-year history - was first introduced to the sport by Les.
His wife, who admits she's struggled to answer all of the many messages she has received in the last fortnight, said: "Because Les had been left without a father, he always tried to do things for children in Thanet. If you could see the number of cards I have got, they always say what a kind, helpful person he had been to everyone. That sums him up. I feel proud of him.
"He would always do things for those that were less fortunate than him. I don't think anyone could have said a nasty thing about him.
"He was into everything and he enjoyed everything he did. He was always happy."
His funeral will take place on Monday, January 25, at Margate crematorium, where because of lockdown restrictions the service is limited to family members only. The family plan to host an occasion for his many friends at a later date.
Family flowers only. Donations can be made Dementia UK or Thanet Cat Club sent to: Gore Brothers, 51, High Street, Broadstairs, Kent. CT10 1JL.