British Skating Legends

Unsung British heroes of roller speed skating

DENNIS STAFFORD

DENNIS STAFFORD

Dennis Noel Stafford (No.20 in the list of male British team members) was born in Groby, Leicester, on 2nd February 1933.  From an early age he and his older brother, Cliff, were frequently seen at the roller rinks in and around Leicester, most notably the Granby Halls.  Cliff was some 11 years older than Dennis but by the time young Stafford took to the rink it was clear that he would prove to be the more talented of the two.  Despite this, both would have their own important roles to play in the sport of roller speed skating throughout the following years.

At the age of 16 in 1949  Dennis joined the National Skating Association (NSA) of Great Britain.  Not only was he proving to be an accomplished speed skater he was also very adept at roller figure and dance.  In fact, by 1955 he had already taken and passed his First Class Speed Test as well as a Second Class Roller Dance Test and a Third Class International Roller Figure Test.  It was around this time that Stafford met Maureen Jackson.  Jackson was already an accomplished roller dance skater who had won numerous British titles and had already represented her country.  For a number of years the couple courted and were at one point engaged to be married.  As it was, the couple outgrew one another before wedding bells were heard although they remained friends.

Stafford, like his older brother and other Leicester skaters, joined the Birmingham Roller Speed Club.  Despite Birmingham being some 30 miles away, Stafford felt that the quality of training with the Birmingham club, and the use of the large Embassy Sportsdrome rink as a base, was well worth the journey.  Training was hard and with the likes of another up and coming speedster, Leo Eason, it was producing results.  In fact, as a direct result of this training ethic, Eason would get his first call up for the 1956 World Championships in Barcelona, Spain whilst Stafford was still trying hard to make his mark.  Stafford was exceptionally fit and as one friend, Roy Lowe recalls, he took his training very seriously:

"...we took over the Granby Halls in Leicester out of season and we all got quite fit, even Lennie (Law) managed to win a race because it finally dawned on him that fitness was the key.  The group included Den, Cliff, Geoff Mattock and lots of other skaters and cyclists that were all seriously fit people.  Lennie did not have much stamina so... whilst we were suffering having skated for a long distance swapping the lead as normal, he would be floating around the middle of the track waiting to rejoin the pack after dropping out and getting his breath back. When he was ready to rejoin the pack instead of dropping in with rear of the pack he went to the front and sprinted for about 5 laps and dropped out again.  Everyone was annoyed about this but none more so than Den.  This went on for a few weeks when Den finally lost it.  "If that little b*****d jumps the pack again he's going straight into the wall" and he meant it.  Here's the rub..on that particular training session Lennie stayed with pack which was unheard of and started to work his way up to the front where me and Den were sharing the lead.  Lennie passed me and Dennis as he had every right to do but Den thought that he was up to his tricks again and physically removed him from the track.  As we went past I saw Lennie go head first into a pillar.  "That'll teach him" said Den.  Lennie was in a bad way and was obviously concussed and started asking if his dog was ok.  He never had a dog!!  After we had finished I couldn't wait to tell Den that Lennie had stayed with pack for once.  He looked at me with that wicked twinkle is eyes..."

                                       EASON LEADS STAFFORD IN ANOTHER HARD TRAINING SESSION AT THE EMBASSYThe breakthrough for Stafford came in 1958.  On 22nd February of that year he, along with Eason, Les Woodley and Bill Hemming, won the Inter-Club British Relay Championships at Granby Halls and a week later Stafford himself was victorious in the Burditt Cup at Alexandra Palace.  Suddenly his results were starting to get him noticed and with the trials for the World Championships looming Stafford was invited to take part.  Throughout the following months Stafford proved himself to be worthy of a place on the British team. 

Between the 6th and 7th September the 1958 World Championships were contested on the road circuit at Finale Ligure, Italy.  These Championships saw the first outing for a young Danny Kelly who went on to secure two silver and one bronze medal from the four distances.  For Stafford, though, the Championships were to prove unsuccessful.  During the journey Stafford had come down with a severe stomach bug and was pretty much sidelined for the duration.  His one and only outing came on the second day in the 5000 metres where he would finish 18th.  His illness had certainly taken its toll on Stafford and through no fault of his own, his performance was well below his own expectations.  It was the one and only time that Stafford would wear a British race jersey in anger.  Coincidentally, it was also to be the only outing for the man who was the then Team Manager and who would give Stafford his shot at glory, Don Brown.  Quite ironically, and in a twist of fate it was also Don Brown who Stafford's ex-fiancee, Maureen Jackson, would later go on to marry.

DENNIS STAFFORD - BACK ROW 2ND FROM RIGHT - 1958 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

The following year Stafford secured his first and only individual British Championship medal with a bronze in the Five Mile Championship on the Birmingham Embassy.  Later that year, however, he cemented himself into the annals of British skating history when on November 29th he would become the first British skater to break a metric World Record.  Again on the Embassy he set a time of 9 minutes 16.60 seconds for 5000 metres - back then the fastest time in the world on a rink.

A month after that and again he was back on the podium with a bronze medal in the Northern & Midland Counties Championship.  It was to be his last major individual medal although he would be part of the Birmingham team that went on to secure the 1960 British Team Championship, the Chambers Trophy.

In the early 1960's Stafford's involvement with skating was starting to wane a little.  He was now in his 30's and a newly wed.  In 1966 he had his only child, a daughter, Delina.  (Although not a skater herself Delina would later go on to be involved with the sport by becoming Secretary of the Birmingham Wheels Roller Speed Club for a brief period and in the 1990's have two children, John Dennis and Emily Anne Fry with British and European Champion, John C. Fry, himself the son of skating legend John E. Fry).

Although Stafford's love of skating was dwindling his love of speed was not and he embarked on his next adventure - that of power boat racing.  Throughout the 1970's Stafford's love of all things fast was starting to take its toll, more so financially than for any other reason.  Power boat racing was by no means a cheap sport, and after some years on the open water Stafford also had to call it a day.  Still faced with the need for excitement in his life Stafford turned back to something he had once gotten so much pleasure out of, speed skating.

A week after his 47th birthday on the 10th February 1980, Stafford once more took to the track.  It was a return to Granby Halls (albeit the exhibition hall, not the rink) and a change of club.  Now skating for the nationally renowned Mercia club headed up by reigning European Champion, John E. Fry, Stafford took part first in a 1500 metres handicap and then a 10000 metres where out of a field of 41 skaters he would finish 4th.  Stafford's strength was always his strength and to finish 4th was no mean feat.  In fact it was quite remarkable.  Fry went on to win the event just ahead of European 10000 metres silver medallist Jerry McGrath and his McGrath's brother Kevin in 3rd.  But behind Stafford were the likes of current internationals John Mullane and Patrick Feetham as well as former international Tom Bartlett and rising stars in their own right, John Downing and Lee Macavoy.

Over the next 10 years Stafford continued to take part in races.  Obviously age had slowed him down but his competitiveness and desire to win was always strong.  His last gold medal was on the 10th April 1988 when he was victorious in the Category 4 race at Roller City, Southend.  Fittingly, his nephew, Chris Stafford (son of Cliff) stood next to him on the podium in third place - the young 16 year old taking his first steps to stardom and eventually becoming a legend in his own right.

His last race was on the 6th May 1990, taking part in a 10000 metres event alongside the guy who would later go on to be the father of Stafford's two grand-children.  Although he kept a watchful eye on the sport, more so through his older brother Cliff, Stafford was seen less and less around a race track.

Dennis Stafford died after a short illness in August 2002 aged just 69.  Whilst his name is perhaps not as synonymous with British skating glory as maybe the likes of Danny Kelly, John Folley or Mick McGeough, the mere fact that he represented his country, held a World Record and managed British Championship medals at a time when British skaters were feared across the globe means that he more than deservedly gets mentioned amongst the all time legends of British roller speed skating.