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PHIL BLANCHE - Western Mail - 21/2/97

WHEN Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear walked off with a top award in London last month the cheers could be heard in Porthmadog.

For once, imagination rather than tradition had won the day: gallant underdog pipping pedigree title-winner, in this case Alex Ferguson, to the prize for manager of the year.

The same could apply to the League of Wales.

Draw up a shortlist for the premier manager over the last 12 months and the names of Paul Giles, Gary Barnett and Graham Breeze would figure highly.

Giles guided Barry Town to the title, Jenner Park successor Barnett masterminded the club's remarkable European exploits, and Breeze was the architect of Llansantffraid's fairytale Welsh Cup triumph.

None, though, is more deserving than Colin Hawkins, a former resident of Walton jail who is registered 80 per cent disabled.

To misquote boxing promoter Don King's favourite phrase, it could only happen in the League of Wales.

Two years ago Porthmadog had slid into serious debt and were in danger of falling through the League of Wales trapdoor.

Hawkins, who had tasted glory during spells at Bangor City and Cemaes Bay, had served half of a nine- month sentence for affray.

Within hours of walking out of prison, Hawkins received a telephone call from Porthmadog manager Mickey Thomas, no stranger to the inside of a cell himself.

Hawkins said, "I came out of prison in the morning and I was in the dug-out at Conwy a few hours later. We had gone 21 games without a win but we took 26 points from the last 12 games and finished fourth from bottom."

With league status secured, the Porthmadog directors cut the budget in half, and former Wales midfield man Thomas promptly quit the club.

"The board knew I had been in prison and I would have understood if they didn't want to give me the job," said Hawkins, who has retained his strong Kent accent despite spending nearly 30 years on the North Wales coast. "But they backed me and I decided to give it a go."

Hawkins appointed Meilir Owen as his assistant, but Porthmadog's problems were just beginning as debts had escalated to £18,000 and the club was unsure whether it could finish the season.

A share issue raising £9,500 bought time at the bank and Hawkins, sowing the first seeds of a fruitful youth policy, kept Porthmadog above the relegation dogfight.

Progress became even more spectacular when Porthmadog, fired by the early-season goals of Paul Roberts, climbed to second spot on the back of a 13-game unbeaten run.

Porthmadog's subsequent slide has coincided with the sale of Wales Under-21 striker Roberts to Wrexham for £10,000. The fee could rise by a further £5,000 and there is also a seven-and-a-half per cent sell-on clause.

But the overdraft has been wiped out and, anyhow, Hawkins champions Porthmadog's policy of helping Gwynedd talent on to a wider stage.

Criccieth-born Roberts was kicking his heels in the Porthmadog reserves when Hawkins first saw him.

Teenage striker Jason Jones, defender Mike Foster and goalkeeper Kenny Dixon, who has already attracted the interest of Middlesbrough and Wigan Athletic, have been tipped to follow Roberts into the Football League.

Hawkins said, "There's always room for the minnow, and the only way that we can compete against bigger clubs is by developing our own talent.

"Brian Flynn at Wrexham is seven years living proof of what a youth policy can do for smaller clubs.

"Selling Paul Roberts might have prevented us getting into Europe, but how could I stop the lad going to Wrexham?

"The deal was right for Wrexham, Porthmadog and, most importantly, the player himself."

Sentiments like that make £35-per-week players, who are among the lowest-paid in the league, run through brick walls for Hawkins.

The wages, bonuses and signing-on fees at Barry Town and Bangor City - or Llansantffraid, for that matter - belong to another world. But what the Porthmadog player lacks in cash he makes up for in laughs.

To listen to a Hawkins team-talk is a unique way of spending the final moments before kick-off.

Hawkins's pre-match offering at Ebbw Vale last Sunday consisted not of sweeper systems or pressing zones.

Instead, the subjects he covered ranged from the preservation of pre-historic ice-maidens to the history of the Great Western Railway (his father worked on the Swansea Paddington line).

Eventually, Hawkins turned his attention to football. "Briton Ferry beat Bangor 3-2 yesterday - and we won down there last week!" roared Hawkins to a dressing room in a state of near-collapse.

"Meilir, let's have a look at the Ebbw Vale team list.

"Relish is at No 3. Do you fancy some of that, Banksy?

"And Jason Donovan's wearing 14. Watch him, I've heard some of his records.

"You've heard it before. We're the underdogs. Go out there and win the game."

The chain-smoking Hawkins soon swapped the cigarettes for the even greater comfort of King Edward cigars as Giles - who is probably still the best crosser of a ball in the league began to supply the Vale strike force.

Porthmadog's 4-0 defeat was their heaviest of the season but Hawkins still wore a smile, which grew wider in midweek as wealthy neighbours Bangor were held to a goalless draw at Farrar Road.

Hawkins said, "The club's in far better shape than when I took over, but you have to be mad to do this job.

"Luckily, the lads know that as they've seen the results of my brain scan.

"It showed an inflammation of the brain and that I am 80 per cent disabled. The only problem is that there is no neurological unit in North Wales. Can you believe it? The nearest unit is at Walton in Liverpool."

But League of Wales secretary John Deakin would always be welcome to drop in during visiting hours to hand over the manager of the year award.



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