Sporting Stories writes: Tom Brennan is a former Lord Mayor of Stoke on Trent and was instrumental in developing sports facilities in the city. He also founded the city’s Sports Personality of the Year awards. At 82 he’s still active in championing sport in the city. We’re grateful to Anthony Bunn for capturing in this piece some of what makes Tom such a powerful advocate for Stoke on Trent. Thanks also to Tom for sharing the photos we’ve used here from his personal archive.
“Hi Anthony, I need around 2,000 words on Tom Brennan. Can you meet him at The Dudson Centre, around 4pm on Thursday please?”
2,000 words!??!?? Thanks, Peter.
If what you are finally reading here is limited to just 2,000 words, I’ll be amazed. There are some people, often connected with sport and this great city of ours, who you could simply listen to all day.
Before the interview had even started, we chatted about Michelin, snow and sledging, the Potteries dialect, the need for the city’s youngsters to be fit and active, my (mis) pronunciation of Cobridge, the benefits of a healthy lifestyle…. the last one being particularly apt, as sat in front of me was an 82 year old man who looked a great deal younger than his age, an amazing advert for athletics and running, and a man who spoke with unbridled passion and energy.
If ever you wanted someone to display the benefits of having an active lifestyle and love of sport, then Tom Brennan is it. I simply couldn’t believe he was an octogenarian, and I internally vowed to myself to get running again!
This wasn’t an interview or a chat. This was more akin to those after-game memories of my own sporting years – huddled around a table, listening to great stories from a superb raconteur. Because that is what sport is: friendship, stories, and memories.
But Tom is a raconteur who made a difference. A huge difference. And his memory for facts and figures is simply astonishing. He rolled off dates, places, times and names as though he was reading it from a sheet of paper.
But the overriding impression that Tom Brennan made on me was one of a fine Potteries man, a gentleman: one who did his very best for his city, and always put his city first. It seems that blood doesn’t run through Tom Brennan’s veins, but the River Trent itself!
That Tom Brennan’s name is not well known with every single proud person of The Potteries is both a crying shame, and also a testament to his selflessness. Tom Brennan served others; he loved serving others. In a career as varied as it was ultimately successful, Tom’s vision and dream were often met with brick walls. He simply found ways to get over, round or through them – and at the heart of this was a steely passion for furthering athletics and sport within this area.
“This is a fantastic city….”, he barked, his voice rising a few decibels. He didn’t have to convince me. I know it is, but it was simply a statement of intent before finishing his sentence, “….but for too long, when I was growing up, it was a very dark place. Sickness and poverty were rife, and it was hard to be healthy but we didn’t moan. Stoke has always been a hard working city that suffered in silence.”
But Tom has never really done silence. He has always had the courage of his convictions to say what he thinks is right.
Tom Brennan’s eyes never wavered when he spoke that day. He looked straight at me, ensuring that I didn’t miss a word. Not that I wanted to. “Stoke on Trent is about the people. Great people. No matter what anyone says about the city, my city – whatever has been said in the past – it’s the people that make this place a great place to be. A great city”.
I concurred. Stoke on Trent’s greatest strength is its people. Tom nodded in agreement before adding, “It’s the people that count when times are tough. I’m proud to call this city my home.”.
Tom grew up in a city where people worked hard to put food on the table and stay healthy, and his vision over the years was to improve its sporting opportunities and achievements, and by doing so this would hopefully improve its attitude towards sport and exercise. “It was hard at the time (in the 30s and 40s) because in every street in Stoke on Trent someone was always dying. I lost a baby brother. That was hard. It was a tough city to grow up in. There wasn’t much money about and sickness was everywhere.”
Born in 1933, Tom grew up in Burslem and attended St. Joseph’s RC School. He takes up the story, “I was taught mainly by nuns, and when I was about to leave school I knew I needed a trade. I went to night school to learn one - painting and decorating, but then I got my call-up papers through in the post when I was 18. I really wanted to be a bound apprentice until I was 21, but I wasn’t allowed, and so had to go in the forces. My dad had been a Coldstream Guard and I was asked if I wanted to go in the Guards like my dad and I said yes. I had to go in for the minimum of three years – they said that as my surname of Brennan was an Irish name they’d put me in the Irish Guards!”
Tom admits that the three years spent in the Irish Guards “toughened me up”, and it’s possibly this period which had the greatest effect on his outlook on life and also how to solve life’s problems? It certainly had a big influence on his love of running and it was apparent to everyone in The Guards that he had talent. “Discipline and respect were key in The Guards. I had ran in school, but I was given a real opportunity with my running in The Guards”, he states, before adding, “but I also learned there that I couldn’t do everything on my own, too. It’s important to get other people to help when you can, too.”
This didn’t stop Tom using an army Oxford Carrier to single-handedly (and without permission) build his own athletics track in the sand, mind, when he was stationed near the Suez Canal! “Yes, but the shifting sands ensured I kept on having to go round and round on a regular basis to get the track back to how I wanted it!”.
We both chuckle on a regular basis at Tom’s tales of life in the Irish Guards before we come on to the years that probably really moulded Tom – his 27 years at the Michelin, his position as a shop steward, and eventually as a councillor.
After coming out of the Irish Guards Tom’s first thoughts “were to get a job. We needed the money!” After working in the building trade Tom joined Michelin in Stoke in 1957.
“Yes, Michelin was a brilliant company that injected a new working environment into Stoke on Trent. I ended up becoming a shop steward there and it taught me a lot about people; how they worked, how to get what you wanted and how to get the best out of people”
It was during his years as a shop steward that Tom felt he could do so much more for other people. He joined the Labour Party, and later became a councillor for Bentilee at the age of 40 in 1973, which in his own words “was pretty young for a councillor back then”. At that time, athletics facilities in Stoke-on-Trent were pretty poor. There was no tartan running track, just a grass track at Cobridge. The nearest ‘proper’ track was down the A449 at Wolverhampton, to which Tom regularly ventured down to train.
It was a situation that Tom was desperate to change and it didn’t take long for his opening salvo. In fact, he set the cat amongst the pigeons at his very first council meeting…..
Rather than taking a back seat and gradually getting into the swing of things - as you and I would probably do - Tom started life as a councillor as he meant to go on. “Yes, I went to my first Labour councillor’s group meeting and dared to raise the issue of athletics and the lack of facilities. I was possibly the youngest there, and it the meeting was mainly focussed on problems in the city such as slum clearance, mineshafts, and sickness – and yet here was this young whippersnapper asking to improve athletics at his first meeting!”. Tom was a dog with a bone, and wouldn’t let it go when he was voted onto the Parks and Recreation Committee, either.
Tom took a sip of a his, by now, cold coffee – such was his attention to answering in huge detail and leaving no stone unturned – before we discussed his key role in two huge sporting success stories within Stoke-on-Trent: The City of Stoke on Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards and the building of Northwood Stadium; a facility that put Stoke on the athletics map.
As a person and councillor, Tom Brennan wanted to raise the profile of sport within the city and had the vision to see how sport and health affected a city on so many levels and he saw the opportunity to really make a difference to the sporting landscape within the city.
“After years of banging the drum on my own at meetings and getting nowhere, it suddenly dawned on me: that I had to get other people involved and that I couldn’t do it on my own”, commented Tom, before taking another sip of his drink before placing the cup carefully back onto the table and then fixing me a serious stare that I’m sure back in the day left no other councillor under the illusion that Tom Brennan wasn’t immensely passionate and determined in what he wanted….
“I went to the council and said I wanted a sports personality awards evening for this city. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t met with much enthusiasm, as I expected. But by then I had started to be a bit more thoughtful how I did things – I’ve already alluded to getting people on board, and this is where the support and help of others really helped me.”
Tom first went to David Denton, the Director of the Quality of Life project at Burslem Town Hall. “I told him what I wanted”, stated Tom before adding, “and The Sentinel also helped. In fact they were brilliant and on board from the off. They were amazing with all of this and have been ever since. They put it in their newspaper and publicised it. This was great for me as by doing this it weakened dissenting voices and also made the city aware that I had plans to really highlight sport within Stoke on Trent”.
As Tom agreed, “Finally, the penny had dropped with me that trying on my own wasn’t the answer”.
So 1975 saw the inaugural City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards. A rather humble affair upstairs at Burslem Town Hall, with beer procured from Elaine’s (his good lady wife) job at a brewery, sandwiches made by her own supportive hands, and music played from an old record player of Tom’s! Whilst it might not have been the lavish affair it is today, it could at least be said that the first ever Sports Awards in this city were quite prophetic, as the first winner was England cricketer David Steele, who won the national BBC equivalent later that year!
“Gradually over the years it has built and built up to a black tie evening with hundreds of guests and a host of awards”, says Tom with understated but evident pride, “and it’s seen the sports men and women from this city rightly recognised. And just as importantly, it recognises those that work tirelessly to make sport happen, too”. This annual glittering night, a jewel in the Potteries sporting calendar celebrating the great and good of Potteries sport, has also seen Tom Brennan rightly recognised, too. The Tom Brennan Service To Sport Award is quite rightly one of the awards on the night. With more than a hint of shyness, Tom comments when asked about the award, “I’m really pleased it’s awarded to the unsung heroes of local sport, too. It honours those who do the long hours, the hard jobs and the like in every club in this city. Those people that every club needs”.
Need? The city of Stoke on Trent needed Tom Brennan’s 21 years of sporting vision as a councillor and a Lord Mayor. It’s just a shame that it possibly wasn’t thought so or appreciated at the time?
But what the annual awards had done was to help to reaffirm to Tom Brennan the need to develop an athletics track and stadium at Northwood. He now had publicity and help on his side, too. People saw that Tom wasn’t just a talker; he was a doer. Tom had vowed to set up a sports awards event that the city would be proud of. He did it.
An even bigger accomplishment arrived ten years later; one that has served the city so well for over three decades now…..
“My plan, or aim, back in 1975 to get people on board was now working. I really had my eyes opened by the City’s Sports Awards. I can’t tell you how important and vital The Sentinel were in all of this. They saw the benefits of improving the city’s sports facilities and having sport in the spotlight and I’ll always have huge appreciation of what they did”.
At that time Tom was chairman of the Northwood Management Committee and used his negotiating skills and fierce, steely determination to keep banging the Northwood drum and most importantly, to unite key groups and people. “Yes, there’s no doubt in my mind that the success in putting on the Sports Awards led directly a decade later to being successful with Northwood Stadium. I’ve already spoken how it changed my mindset, but now sport really was on the agenda. The awards were a catalyst for change. We had momentum”.
I got the impression from our interview that Tom Brennan with momentum behind him would be a pretty formidable opponent and eventually an unstoppable force. His term in office as Lord Mayor saw no let-up in his crusade to produce an athletics facility to make the city proud and produce the athletes of tomorrow.
The start of the 1980’s was the period when Tom’s plan to get athletics facilities built to make the city proud, really started to blossom.
“I got myself onto the Northwood Management Committee, and the ball was finally rolling. I got the management of Northwood to draw up some plans and this looked great when we got The Sentinel to come along and take a photograph of us holding them. We were now working much more as a team and there was a lot more collaboration. I got people to work together with me: from the county, city, Sports Council, and borough, and also pestered the various organisations for monetary contributions. I now had a community of power behind me”.
Tom was elected Lord Mayor in 1982, and used his term in office to ensure that his Northwood Stadium dream’s weren’t allowed to go on the back-burner.
“When it became apparent that we could go ahead with building a track and a stand at Northwood Stadium, we had a photoshoot up there”, remembers Tom. “There were lots of powerful people there, all vying to be the person who dug out the first clod of grass. I suddenly looked over and there was a man with two young kids watching us; a boy and a girl. I shouted them over and asked if they wanted to dig the first chunk of turf out, as it was going to be part of their future. This saved any arguments, and also looked great in the paper, too!”
As PR exercises go, this was genius. The sight of two local youngsters doing the turf-digging honours was a masterstroke and captured the imagination and hearts of the Potteries people.
And so Northwood Stadium finally had an all-weather track and stand with all facilities and officially opened in 1985. Over a decade of heartache and constant battling by Tom Brennan ensured that Stoke on Trent had facilities to be proud of, ones to produce future generations of sporting stars, and ones that gave opportunities to tens of thousands of people.
Unfortunately for Tom, he wasn’t even invited to the official opening! Absolutely staggering…..
“Yes, I was eventually voted off the Northwood Committee. I didn’t get invited to the opening of the stadium, so I just took myself there for the day, lurking in the background, ha, ha! I never sought nor wanted power – I always just wanted what I thought was right for the people”.
Quite rightly, there is now a plaque at Northwood Stadium which commemorates Tom's tireless and selfless work there. And even more fittingly, Tom is a member of the Northwood Stadium Development Group, continuing to this day to work with the City to ensure the centre flourishes. “Every now and then the old Tom swings back into action, when I think things need saying….”, he states, before chuckling to himself.
Vis Unita Fortior is this proud city’s motto. United strength is stronger. It’s fitting as Tom Brennan learned to use to this as a mission statement to his and the city’s advantage in a remarkable career in local politics and sport. He learned to work with others and to see the bigger picture – that Stoke deserved the very best, but that he couldn’t do it on his own. That he galvanised the thoughts of so many of those who held power in Stoke and Staffordshire says everything you need to know about him.
Tom forged partnerships through skill, craft, persuasion, and sheer bloody mindedness. This was the key to ensuring Stoke on Trent eventually had an athletics stadium to be proud of and a prestigious annual sports awards evening, a bastion of civic sporting pride.
An immensely proud husband to Elaine and father of two, Tom has a rich, tonal Potteries accent that draws you in. He also has several stories for every question or observation, too. Throughout the chat, I didn’t see any sign of self-gain or personal glory in Tom’s work. He continually described his work as “serving the city and its people”. The advancement of the city was his singular aim.
Tom didn’t tire at all during our chat. The fire burned throughout, but never more so than when we talked about his family. He took out business cards and pictures of his two beloved children – John and Rachel – and spoke about them at length, and how immensely proud he was of them and the diverse careers they had chosen (not in sport).
But then the obvious emotion that he had displayed throughout the time I spent with him became even more visible when I questioned him about Elaine. Did Tom agree with the saying ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’? What did he really think his wife had thought about his work and what he had achieved, and how important was she in this story of one man’s sporting crusade?
Tears immediately rolled down Tom’s face and for once his gaze was downwards, not at me. He wasn’t thinking of an answer, as I knew that he already knew it just by looking at him. It was simply a sign of unconditional love for a strong, loving woman who had supported him through the dark days, the great days, over a number of decades.
Tom didn’t answer immediately. He gathered himself and his thoughts. At first I castigated myself for asking about Elaine, but I ended up really glad that I did…..it was obvious that Elaine’s support has never wavered. Her belief in him was, and is, infinite. And it really touched him on this dark February day in North Staffordshire.
“I’ll tell you this about my wife: she’s been a saint. An absolute saint. She’s seen me at my highest of highs and lowest of lows. She’s protected me.” It’s one of those moments where you want to hug a virtual stranger as words are never enough at certain times, are they? But Tom, after taking a breather to compose himself continues, “She’s seen me make countless mistakes, and yet she never once said I told you so”.
As stated before - Tom Brennan is a doer. He doesn’t just say or think, he does. Advancing the sporting landscape of Stoke-on-Trent has been a marathon for an athlete used to far smaller distances. But if anyone deserves a gold medal for what they have achieved for this city, then it’s this humble man. His legacy and attitude towards the advancement of sport in the Six Towns must continue long after the 2016 European City of Sport year has ended in The Potteries, and even long after Northwood Stadium and the City’s Sports Awards, too.
Politics, sport, life: It’s all about having vision, and then having the courage of your convictions to follow this vision through. Plus having the personal skills and qualities to bring/drag others through with you, too. Tom Brennan had all this. And then some. Stoke-on-Trent is a much better city for Tom Brennan being one of its sons.
So it’s not 2,000 words after all, it’s 3,549. And it was a privilege to write them.