AFTER more promised retirements than Sinatra, more teasing than a golden fleece, John Heighington has finally stood down as Shildon Boxing Club’s head coach.

He’s 78, had held that position for 44 years, is chiefly responsible for the club consistently punching above its weight. There’ve been more than 100 national champions and finalists.

The long count this time? “Definitely,” he insists. “I might help them sell a few tickets, maybe do a bit of pad work but I haven’t been up the gym all season

“I’m nearly 80, my wife’s 76 and I’ve hardly seen her all the years we’ve been married. It hasn’t been fair, I think I probably owe her a bit of time.”

His retirement coincides with the 62-member club’s move from the upstairs gym at the town’s threatened Railway Institute and the final jettisoning of a series of steam-hauled suffixes from LNER to British Railways and then simply to Railway. Now they’re just Shildon.

Founded in 1908, reckoned the country’s third oldest amateur boxing club, they might almost have added Stockton and Darlington to their name.

Tommy Taylor, who has also retired as club chairman, insists that its remarkably success is chiefly down to John who, lives in Bishop Auckland. “He may be a Bishop lad but he’s done this town proud.

“It’s been three or four nights a week and then weekends away at tournaments. His dedication has been amazing, lots of youngsters owe their start in life mainly to John. He’s said three or four times that he was retiring and now he finally has. Amateur boxing will never see his like again.”

THE gym’s moved to the former upstairs concert hall at Old Shildon Workmen’s Club – a great opportunity for the boxers and a much appreciated gesture but one that inevitably says much about the way that workmen’s clubs have declined.

We meet downstairs in the bar, maybe another half dozen in. “It’s better at weekends,” says John.

Former boxing club homes have ranged from the wagon works canteen to the former Soho engine shed, reckoned among the world’s oldest railway buildings. “If you needed water you had to go outside and get a handful of snow,” recalls former professional Terry Schofield, 74, one of the coaches.

They also used the local church hall – “neither water nor heating in that one,” says Terry.

The new gym’s their biggest and best equipped yet. “The Railway Institute were great to us, we wouldn’t be here without them, but they’ve given it 12 months and we couldn’t run the risk of being homeless in a year’s time,” says John. “The workmen’s club have been fantastic.”

He started at Shildon as an eight-year-old, moved to box with the Army cadets at St Helen’s Auckland, was a national title winner at Wembley on the same bill that Tommy Taylor was named best loser. “I remember learning about it in Wembley hospital,” Tom recalls, ruefully.

John, who worked at the wagon works, was asked by club secretary Eddie Jenkinson to become coach. Andrew Ellison delivered his first national title just three years later. “You always remember your first one, it’s among my favourite moments,” he says.

Other champs have included the Hall brothers from Darlington – Simon, Alan, Michael and Nicky – Stephen Hodgson, Hughie Wharton senior and junior, Antony McMeekan, Craig Wake and Nigel Wright, now a club coach, whose daughter Mia became the last champion under John’s guidance.

“I doubt if John realises the pleasure he’s given to so many parents,” says Paul Hodgson, Stephen’s father. “Stephen won several international vests, boxed in Russia and all over. It helped make a man of him and a lot of that was down to John Heighington.”

The departing head coach is reluctant to follow the “keeping kids off the street” line, though Tommy Taylor recalls occasions when local police have asked the club to redirect youthful energy to more legitimate ends.

John admits that lots has changed in 44 years. “You still have to recognise how strong a kid is, whether he has a heart, what the reasons are for him being there.

“I’ve been lucky. I think I still have their respect – I go to the gym and they’re all over me – but you have to earn that respect. If you start shouting and bawling at them, you lose it. If something’s gone wrong I’ll have a quiet words afterwards. I might say I never want to see it again but I’d never show them up in front of their mates. If you don’t get coached properly, you’ll do nothing.

“We have plenty of coaches, good coaches, now. It’s time to take things a bit easier – it’s the respect that’s kept me going.”

He’s also hugely grateful to club secretary Stephen Graham – “never thrown a punch in his life” – who 15 years ago took over matchmaking duties. “A really big job,” says John.

Barbara, the coach’s wife, even cooked chickens for the boxers when they travelled the country – and ensures that John, still not a spare ounce on him, eats healthily, too.

He still uses a treadmill, trains with weights, plays squash and badminton, swims but has given up running – “if I do, I can’t move the next day. I’m not going to stop working out now. I sometimes feel my age, but I enjoy feeling good as well. I’m still going to keep myself right.”

A few years ago he was awarded the Durham County Council chairman’s medal, but has no thought of higher recognition for almost half a century of achievement.

“It doesn’t bother me one little bit, it’s not why I did it,” says John. “I did it for pleasure and to see young lads do well. I’ve enjoyed every single minute.”

*Shildon Railway Institute, in Redworth Road, holds a real ale and gin festival – the Chuffed to Bits festival – from noon today.