Mick Hague, former runner, athletics coach and radio commentator on Rotherham United, has died at the age of 75. Star writer Paul Davis was a friend of his and knew him in all three roles.
They were cold December nights and it always seemed to be raining. Really raining.
As a member of Rotherham Harriers deep into his winter training, I’d spend many an evening rattling out road miles close to Herringthorpe Stadium. One mile, jog to the next marker, another mile. Six of them in total, all done at a speed which hurt. Really hurt.
‘Why am I doing this?’ I’d ask myself. I did it because it made me feel good about myself and helped me win a race now and again.
And there was Mick, following us in his car, overtaking us, bellowing encouragement through his open window as he passed. At the finish of each sub-five-minute blast, he’d be standing there, a shadowy figure picked out by the street lights, stopwatch in hand, shouting out the times.
‘Why is he doing this?’ I’d ask myself. He did because it made me and all the other athletes in his group feel good about ourselves and helped us win races now and again.
That was Mick. One of that rare breed of people happy to give his time, and so, so much of it, to others.
He’d been a top-class runner in his day, training regularly with Alan Simpson, a fellow son of Rotherham and one of the world’s very best middle-distance men in the 1960s.
His love of athletics took him into coaching and that’s where I met him as a wild-eyed 22-year-old hell-bent on making the most of his talent. Me, not him. There was nothing wild-eyed about Mick. He was a lovely, happy, gentle man who everybody warmed to.
I met many good people at the Harriers and they won’t mind me saying no-one was more popular or respected than him.
He still ran on his dodgy knees. His idea of a good weekend was too much beer with friends on a Saturday night, a lie-in on Sunday morning and then running off the previous evening’s excess with a leisurely 10-miler.
Mine was staying in on Saturday, running 15 miles far too quickly at 7am the following morning and then eight slices of toast and honey in a deep, hot bath while I read the sports section of the Observer before training again later in the day.
I admired his laid-back love of life but coudn’t be like that. He respected the zeal which consumed me but was probably a touch afraid of it. We were wired up differently yet connected on every level.
He was a close friend as well as my mentor and he talked me, against my will, into joining his team for one match in the local quiz league. Two years later, I was still there.
Training commitments kept me and another of his athletes, Mark Ruddleston, out of the side one week. By chance, when Mark and I went for a quick drink afterwards, the same quiz league we’d missed earlier in the evening was in operation so we listened in.
We later hooked up with Mick who told us forlornly his team had lost by a point. He asked us some of the questions and couldn’t believe how many we got right. “Why weren’t you there?” he moaned. “We’d have walked it.”
The pair of us never let on. How I wish I had chance to tell him now.
Mick and I, among with a few others, shared many a car journey across the Snake Pass for race nights in Manchester. Thousands of miles over the years and a million laughs.
Eventually, I had my head turned by another coach of high repute and joined a new group. I would come to regret it, and the way Mick’s face dropped when I told him I was leaving hurts to this day.
He went on to commentate on local radio Rotherham United, the club I now cover for The Star, and won many plaudits for his work. An ex-teacher, he was a natural communicator and called a game with more authority than many of his peers with far more journalistic training.
Twenty-two years since my last serious race, I still run every day, and some of that is down to Mick. As I tick off the miles, still pounding the same streets as yesteryear, I think about him and the old days often.
In my mind, it’s always raining, the street lights are on and he’s holding his stopwatch.