WARM tributes have been paid to an inspirational coach who led Kendal Judo Club to worldwide acclaim.
Friends and loved ones of Tony MacConnell will gather at Beetham Hall Crematorium tomorrow (Friday, July 19) at 2.30pm to say their goodbyes and celebrate his life of sporting achievement.
The 79-year-old’s own impressive, medal-winning career led to him managing the British judo team with Munich Olympic silver medallist Dave Starbrook, in what has been hailed “one of the most successful periods” for the sport in this country.
After the Moscow Olympics of 1980, Tony and Dave introduced the concept of a junior squad, and Tony moved with his wife Pam to Lambrigg, so they could live in the Lakes.
In their cottage Tony introduced another system which had not yet been tried in judo – gathering a group of young men with the aim of training them full time.
Tony’s ideas were put into practice when Kendal Judo Club moved to a purpose-designed “dojo” at New Inn Yard, with the help of local builder Brian Cox and Midlands businessman Colin Draycott. Tony’s ideas were put into full-time practice and this resulted in several of the 20-strong squad winning national and international medals, culminating in a bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for Neil Eckersley.
Tony coached the British team for the 1992 Barcelona Games, the last time British judo’s men won an Olympic medal.
The Kendal centre’s fame spread, with players from around the world attracted to the town for training.
These included Robert Van de Walle from Belgium, probably the most bemedalled European judo champion. Four-times world champion Ingrid Berghmans, also from Belgium, would regularly come for a training week prior to major tournaments. Australia frequently sent young players to Kendal for three months’ hard training, and these “invasions” culminated in the Communist Chinese National Judo Squad coming to Kendal prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, the first time they had ever been out of Asia.
Kendal Judo Club’s international acclaim was said to be all down to Tony’s training methods, described as “hard but fair”. His idea of a “little run” was the Fairfield Horseshoe.
For all his “tough man” image Tony could, and did, show a gentler side. Coming home immediately after the successful 1980 Moscow Olympics he turned up at a small junior judo club in Windermere and took a class of eight to ten-year-olds in some basics of the sport.
His philosophy was passed on to so many people, not least to the current senior coach of Kendal Judo Club, Mike Liptrot, who has trained a number of local international players.
Two-times Olympic silver medallist Neil Adams MBE summed up Tony’s contribution, saying: “During my competitive career the inspiration and motivation he gave me made the difference.
“He also gave me some life lessons that helped me shape my life. I will carry his memory in my heart forever.”
Tony’s love of the Japanese sport began in 1955 when, as a keen young cyclist, who walked into a sports centre in Manchester and saw a judo class. He was intrigued by the discipline and skill required and from then on he was hooked.
Although Tony excelled at other sports such as wrestling, fell running, parascending and cycling, it was a fascination with judo which was to last him for the rest of his life.
His competitive career took off, winning a European bronze medal in 1964, two British Open Championships in 1969 and 1971, and a gold medal at the Dutch Open in 1972 against a seven feet three inches tall Dutchman named Adelaar.
By this time Tony’s reputation meant he was much sought-after as a coach and team manager, and was put in charge of the Swedish national judo squad for the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
Although he spoke a little Swedish his Cumbrian dialect helped. At one British Open halfway through a contest he roared at one of his team in broad Cumbrian – “Get tha’ sen stuck in lad” – before reverting to Swedish. He was looked upon as the saviour of Scandinavian judo and took the Swedish team to the Montreal Olympics and the Norwegian team to Los Angeles.
Tony died peacefully at home on July 7 after a short illness, his wife Pam by his bedside.