Sean Kerly’s employment status in the 1988 Olympic guide was marked as ‘unemployed’.
Working in retail as a merchandise manager for a conglomerate of chains, Kerly’s day-to-day had involved monitoring sales and forecasting stock. When the Leicester-based Next purchased the business Kerly was working for, he was kept on to wind the business down. He then moved from Crawley to the midlands to work as a trainee in early 1988, the start of Olympic year.
Kerly was not a regular international either in the build-up, missing Champions Trophy tours and had just started a family. Travelling from Reigate on a Monday morning, Kerly would go back home midweek and return on a Thursday and commute back on Friday trying to play club hockey. ‘I was knackered and it wasn’t doing me any good’.
Eventually, he went to see George Davies, the founder of retailer Next in the 1980s.
‘Mr Davies, I need some time off, there’s something I’ve got to do’.
‘Well, when I was a lad I used to play football,’ retorted Davies, ‘there came a time when I had to choose between my work and sport. You’ve got a good opportunity here.’
It was an uncomfortable conversation. ‘I thought about it for five minutes and when I next went in he told me I had a decision to make. The 5pm phone call from management came that day. I was told to clear my desk out and I was off with a legacy redundancy package.’
Kerly was now free for the five months leading up to Seoul to focus on his hockey, while his coach Roger Self managed to find a sponsor to pay the family mortgage back in Surrey.
With day time also free, Kerly started training in Reigate Park, with a ‘killer hill which gave the most pain in the shortest amount of time.’
Who knows the outcome may have been different if Kerly had been granted permission to stay at Next and then stayed on in the job until the squad was given the required time off.
For those five months handed Kerly the time to get Olympics-ready. Conversely, Davies, who went on to build Asda’s clothing business, was undergoing a trying time at Next.
1988 was also the year when Davies was front page news before being ousted from Next, the company he founded, at the back end of the year.
“I was under a lot of pressure,” the now 76-year-old recalls. “One of the challenges was Sean’s training schedules. We would agree a certain time and then it would change again. Not because of him but because of the way the hockey authorities behaved at the time.”
Davies had been a gifted sportsman himself and played England schoolboys’ football.
“When I joined Littlewoods, I was picked for an Football Association XI in Sheffield. My boss at the time said “you have to choose between your career and your sport, George.”
“I wasn’t like that. I had tried to work around it all the time.
“When you give somebody a special treatment for quite a period and then it changes again, that’s when you have to decide what you have to do.”
Today’s business environment, says Davies, is a very different market place to the one in the 1980s.
“I admired what Sean did. I was a great believer in him but I was probably under pressure from other people at the time,” he admits of his decision to let Kerly go.
“The thing that got me was the lack of understanding. Not with Sean, as I was very proud at what he was achieving.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
“He carried on doing very well. He was a great success and it was brilliant for them winning in Seoul.”
This article features an extract from Seoul Glow: The Story Behind Britain’s 1988 Olympic Hockey Gold, published by Pitch Publishing and available on Amazon