Graham Hawkins.

The story of a marriage made in football

Saturday 08 October 2022 09:00

Some people are born into a life of football and that is certainly true of Manchester United's head of physical performance, Richard Hawkins.

Richard's late father Graham amassed over 500 appearances in the 1960s and 1970s. Hawkins Snr also managed Wolves, his boyhood club, in the top-flight in the early 1980s.

It was little surprise when Richard's vocation was to be involved with the beautiful game, and he suspected it would be his calling.

"You see some kids want to be a footballer but I never felt that strongly that would be for me," he admits, during our chat about the publication at Carrington. "I always felt a connection to the industry and my pathway was the academic route. The research I did was involved in football and I got my first job with the FA and it just grew from there.

"I think growing up around the environment, around dressing rooms and on the training pitches, from a really young age, you become comfortable in it."

However, it becomes a profession that places huge demands on family life. As his wife Kirstie notes: "Being involved in football is not like other jobs. You're not on holiday when the kids are off school, weekends don't mean anything and you only get June off." 

There is this other side to the sport and it has been such a major part of the Hawkins family's life that Kirstie felt it needed telling in the new book: 'A Marriage Made in Football'.

Richard Hawkins is a long-serving member of the United staff.

During lockdown, Kirstie was determined to become an author and eventually settled for a subject close to home.

"Jane [her mother-in-law] was on her own and I'd only met Richard's dad once," Kirstie says. "So I didn't feel like I knew him. It was a way to keep Jane entertained but also for me to find out who he was. They met when they were 16 and it was a real love story, so I was curious about it all.

"She didn't miss a game. She was always there and very devoted. I do think the WAG gets a bad press - I remember one of Richard's nieces laughing when they realised grandma was a WAG back in the day! You're married to it and really have to buy into it.

"But the funny thing was they never really talked about football at home. It was a sanctuary away from it all for him. I think, in Jane and Graham's era, that was often the case and it was what worked for them.

"I have to say I feel it's so easily forgotten these days, when people can get blinded by celebrity and the fame but the footballers are just people who have families and the same desires to spend time with them, as well as doing such a high-profile job."

From the topics of our conversations, it becomes clear how often paths cross in the industry, something that was certainly true of Graham and Richard.

Names such as Sir Bobby Charlton, Derek Dougan, Keith Burkinshaw, Ron Atkinson, Bryan Robson, Graham Turner, Peter Reid, Howard Kendall, Nigel Pearson and Jimmy Armfield crop up. Sir Bobby was manager of Preston North End when Graham, a commanding centre-back, was playing in defence. 

"Doing all the research, some of the names Jane was telling me about how A, B, C and D had come into Graham's life at various stages and how Richard had also come across them," adds Kirstie. "It was a very small network of people, probably even smaller back then when there were fewer overseas players.

"Jane gave me the names of the people who played with and worked with Graham and everyone was so happy to talk about him and talk about football. I felt like an imposter, as it's not my world, but they were so happy to share their memories. Football people just love talking about football.

"I feel it helps tell the story of who Graham was and his friends and family will recognise the man they knew in the book, and that means a lot to me."

Graham Hawkins in his playing days, at Preston North End.

Family always comes first, even when football plays such a huge part in so many people's lives.

"We'd often laugh about how dad had never beaten United," recalls Richard. "He'd tell me, as a manager and a player, he'd never won. He fared better against Liverpool, he was manager when Wolves had their first win at Anfield in 33 years, in 1984. They were the only team to take more than three points off Liverpool that season.

"My mum tells a story about the first time they came to watch United play against Wolves, after I joined the club, and she asked who he was supporting. He was like: 'I don't know' but, as soon as it kicked off, he said he was a United fan then.

"It just shows how strong that family connection is - because I was plying my trade here, all of a sudden, they became the most important team for him and the one whose result he'd look for before Wolves, and then Preston and then Blackburn. 

"My mum was always there for him, even when times were tough. When he had the good year in charge of Wolves, the wives would be there in the directors' box and after the game but, when things were not so easy in the following year, she'd be one of the only ones going. She wanted to go to support my dad and didn't want to leave him on his own, when he was receiving abuse from the fans.

"I think it meant a lot to him. We know it's an emotional rollercoaster. You try not to bring your work home with you but you get so emotionally involved in it, you take those frustrations with you." 

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All profits from the sale of the book will go to Head for Change, a dementia charity supporting ex-players and their families, and this aspect is particularly important to both Richard and Kirstie.

"As I was doing the research, I found many of Graham's team-mates suffered from dementia," Kirstie states. "Tony Parkes was one of them and that was how I came across the charity. Graham did so much for charity of the years so I just wanted to find a cause that was football related but not too related to a specific club. The charity's focus is education and research and, ultimately, that is what Richard's role is about. He is very much a scientist, interested in the science of football and a part of that is protecting players."

While also aiding a very worthy cause, the story is one that needed telling and has already been very well received by those who knew Graham, and followed his playing and managerial days.

"I think if Graham were here today, he would say that he wouldn't have achieved anything without Jane," suggests Kirstie. "A lot of it was telling what Jane did behind the scenes to support him as she played a big part in his footballing career."

And there is so much to discover about a man who devoted so much of his life to the game, a stalwart of the Football League who also trailblazed in some respects by managing and coaching abroad.

"Maybe I didn't ask my dad enough questions," concedes Richard. "He was quite a humble guy so some things I have only found out through Kirstie's investigations."

Click here to buy 'A Marriage Made in Football: The story of Graham and Jane Hawkins'.