Building Blocks at Crawley Sportscentre

With the opening of a comprehensive range of indoor sport and recreation facilities in November 1976, which had been bolted on to their existing Pools complex, Crawley Borough Council found themselves operating one of the most comprehensive sports centres in the UK at that time. The facilities comprised – two Court sports hall, small multi-purpose Hall, 4 Squash Courts, 4 rink indoor bowls green, basement range for archery/air rifle/cricket practice activities, gym suite, sauna, social  bar/dining area and local Sports Council Office  An athletics track and floodlit two full size pitch “redgra” multi-sports area also completed outstanding provision, albeit pre the emergence of synthetic surfaces.

The local authority was fortunate to have appointed Jack Fidgett (FBF) as their manager for the new pools complex in 1964. An IBM trained and enlightened professional, Jack Fidgett made a seamless transition to the new position of Sports Centre Manager. Jack  became a leading light in the Association of Recreation Managers – Southern Region offering much to young upcoming sport and recreation managers, new to an emerging profession..  Jack Fidgett appointed Roger Luke as his assistant and both the brief for the new build as well as the programming philosophy started to gather pace. The Borough Council architect’s department involved the Sports Council’s Technical Unit for Sport from the start. A key priority was to produce a high quality lighting solution for the Sports Hall with facilities for badminton receiving a high priority status.  The solution saw a unique translucent roof emerge, the first in the country.

The programming exercise must have been one of the most comprehensive undertaken by any sports centre management team at the time. The consultation with clubs and leagues was time consuming but the needs of the casual user remained paramount with members ensuring this had to be one of  the Centre’s highest priorities. Crawley New Town,  at this time, politically, had become a one-party labour run Council and no way did they want an emphasis on elitist sportspeople ruling the roost.

As the Centre took shape Roger Luke took off to a Leisure Officers post in Swansea and John Pegler who had joined the Crawley team straight from his DMS course, moved to the Mid Sussex DC. Mike Halpin replaced Roger Luke and Rod Saward replaced John Pegler. The senior management team were supplemented by five Supervisors who were earmarked to manage the day to day operation of the centre. However, the change of senior management personnel, at a critical time, may have resulted in some of the decision making processes going awry. Some of the early problems that manifested  themselves as “difficult” user groups were as follows –

A “free week” as the opening launch of the Centre saw the building over-run by local youths causing trouble despite large numbers of families and others taking the opportunity to play various sports for the first time. The Centre’s fabric took a beating. A new “condition of use” was quickly introduced – Any youth had to be accompanied by an Adult and a youth sports evening was introduced.

At the end of the free week Jack Fidgett had been persuaded by the local British Legion branch to host their annual ball. Somehow 2000 tickets were sold (500 over the agreed number) and on the night the Centre Management team saw their facilities completely abused and misused with supper buffets and alcohol being consumed in some unusual places ! Worst of all were chairs being hurled over the balconies to those on the Sports Hall floor below.

Things did settle down eventually over the following weeks but the arrival of Harold Wilson*, the Prime Minister, to officially open the Centre on the 30 November 1974, saw Nissen, the doyen of the Recreation Management industry, highly embarrassed, when some of the floor plates, anchoring the Volleyball net, were ripped out of the floor with the two best teams in the country (and the National Coach Roy Pankhurst – later to join the SW Sports Council) warming up and poised to perform in front of the PM ! Quick thinking by one of the management team saw four recreation assistants dispatched to the adjacent building site to purloin some breeze blocks. These were used to anchor the posts with two Recreation Assistants sitting on them either side!

Mentioning the Centre’s recreation assistants, four were aspiring Decathletes training under Bruce Longden their National Coach, resident at the local FE College. These athletes were given the use of the Centre’s training facilities at off peak times and in particular the pole vault box which had been specially cut out of the Sports Hall floor was in constant use ! Daley Thompson, soon to become the Decathlon Olympic Gold Medallist, a full time athlete, also got in on the training act.

Crawley Sports Centre went on to perform an excellent job in most respects over the years. Some of the very early international gymnastics events were hosted at the Sports Centre and eventually BAGA’S efforts paid off in recent times, developing superb world champions

Crawley Sports Centre, the architectural exercise and its management were pioneering at that time. Did the Council miss out in creating a Leisure/Recreation Department, which could have underpinned and expanded all Jack Fidgett’s excellent work ?

Mike Halpin 2015

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