The local hero who ‘gave his life’ to football in Newport
Newport's Don Felkin will be honoured at a plaque unveiling this weekendby Ryan O'Neill
On Monday 11 March last year, hundreds flocked into St John’s Church in Maindee to pay their respects to Don Felkin.
A little less than a month earlier, Mr Felkin, who had run scouts football and founded Cromwell Youth AFC, had passed away aged 83.
St John’s Church has a rich history, having famously been destroyed during the Second World War.
But on this occasion, it was all about a man who many consider to be the footballing father of Newport.
As old friends, teammates and new generations gathered, the day became less a morbid affair and more a celebration of a man who was a huge part of Newport's footballing community.
‘Don saved many a youngster’
A football fanatic and lifelong scout member, Don Felkin had set up the first St Andrews Cubs and Scouts football club in the 1950s, followed by the setting up of Cromwell Youth AFC in 1957.
For many young boys in Newport, it was a chance to play. A chance to make friends and pursue a passion. It allowed kids to finally recreate the tales of Johnny Haynes, Bobby Charlton and the heroes their parents read about in the papers.
But there was more to it than that. More importantly, it offered a lifeline to many who, at a time of few economic opportunities, could so easily have gone down a darker path.
“He probably saved thousands from misadventure,” says Terry Jenkins, who captained Cromwell Youths under Felkin.
“People had no money, there was nothing for people in the area at that time.
“You used to hear about a lot of kids getting into trouble, crime and all that. But it was never the Cromwell boys.
“They stayed out of it, because they had football.
“They looked up to Don. He would never preach to them or anything. He was just the example that all the boys followed.”
Independent Lliswerry councillor Allan Morris, who nominated Felkin for the 2007 BBC Unsung Hero award, agrees that “Don saved many a youngster from getting into trouble”.
“I remember first meeting him and seeing him there on the sideline with his dog, watching the kids play. It was pouring rain and I asked him what he was doing.
“He said ‘It’s important that the kids know there’s someone there watching them play.’
“He had a genuine interest in seeing kids off the streets. That was the kind of person he was”
‘He gave his life to the kids in Newport’
Under Felkin’s careful tutelage, football in Newport blossomed. At that time, Cromwell Youths only had two teams, but today there are far more dotted around Lysachts Park, where Cromwell play, and around the rest of Newport.
“Virtually all of the team came from the Corpa area in those days, but the reputation of the club under Don’s direction would attract a lot of players from other parts of the town and beyond,” says Darren Little, who played with Cromwell under Felkin.
“Some of them went on to better things with trials at Newport schools, county teams and league clubs, including myself, and Newport County too.”
In his later years, Felkin became the chairman of the Gwent County FA, and was also involved with Newport County.
Speaking to people about Felkin, almost everyone has their own tale to tell. Perhaps the most common memory is that of a young man riding around Newport and Rogerstone on his push bike on a rainy Friday night, hurriedly making final arrangements for that weekend’s games.
“He’d be making sure people knew where and when the games were on, and asking other teams if they wanted to play,” Terry Jenkins recalls.
“Some of the boys would be coming in on different buses on match days, and he’d wait for every single one to arrive.
“If any boy couldn’t afford a bus fare to a game from his parents, he’d make sure he covered it. Nothing was too much trouble for him.”
Kevin Bale, a lifelong friend who grew up just a street down from Felkin, remembers a man whose generosity knew few boundaries.
“He used to go down the sports shop and buy balls and kits for the kids with his own wages,” he remembers.
“A lot of the boys couldn’t afford to go to the football camps during the summer and winter, and in some cases he’d even pay for them.
“He never married or had kids, he gave his life to football and the kids in Newport.”
Despite being 24 years younger, Bale grew close to Felkin, whose only other direct family was his younger brother Brian. When he was in ill health in later years, Bale would help care for Felkin.
And something Felkin told him one day, about a year before his death, still humbles him today.
“He turned to me and said he remembered the day he let me join the scouts. He kept telling me there was no space, but because I was so stubborn and sat on the wall for three months, he gave in.
“He looked at me and said ‘Do you know what? It was the best thing I ever did. Because you’re the son I never had'.”
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‘A remarkable man’
Felkin’s brush with the spotlight came in 2007 with the BBC Unsung Hero competition, which recognises local figures for their impact on their community.
Although he narrowly missed out on the award, Felkin got to attend the star-studded BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony that year.
Cllr Morris attended the ceremony with Felkin, and remembers it fondly.
“He was so gracious, but even when he didn’t win it didn’t matter to him. Joe Calzaghe was there and paid tribute to him. So many people that night recognised what these people do for their local communities.”
But there's one other memory from the night that sticks in his mind.
“At one point Don disappeared for ten minutes and I thought he’d gone to the toilet. I went looking for him and he had fallen asleep in the limo.
“I’d had a hard time persuading him to go to the ceremony. He was a quiet, unassuming man, but I told him ‘look, even if you don’t want to go to the ceremony, there’s a free meal for you’.
“Don liked his food, and after the meal there he was asleep in the back of the limo!”
This Sunday February 16 at 12pm, to mark one year since Felkin’s passing, a memorial plaque will be unveiled at Lysachts Park on Corporation Road.
Saying the world “could do with more Don Felkins”, Cllr Morris, who will speak at the unveiling, says:
“Don cared as much about kids sitting on the subs’ bench as he did about those who might go on to be superstars. It was all the same to him. He was a remarkable man.”
The unveiling of Don Felkin’s plaque at Lysachts Park will take place at 12pm on Sunday February 16.