Tributes flooded in from across the borough and beyond after one of local football’s most dedicated servants, Ian Wakefield, died suddenly on Friday.
While serving hometown club Melton Town in recent years, Ian dedicated the bulk of his work in grassroots football over at Asfordby, including a successful stint as chairman of Asfordby Amateurs Junior and Youth Football Club.
After hanging up his boots, he became a huge champion of youth football, beginning when his son Tom joined in mini soccer sessions at Mowbray Rangers.
He gained his coaching qualifications and managed various teams before moving on to Asfordby Amateurs which only further fuelled his love for the game.
Simon Atherley now occupies Ian’s former position as chairman of the renamed Asfordby FC.
“Ian came to the club looking to provide opportunities for young players who found it hard to get game time elsewhere,” Simon explained.
“His passion and enthusiasm for grassroots football was infectious and he led on projects including the summer festival of football, which is now the county’s biggest football tournament, and on growing the number of teams at the club.
“He was also heavily involved with the senior side at Hoby Road, and although at the time the seniors and the youth were not formally linked, Ian did great work in encouraging young players to stay and play for the reserves and the senior sides.
“In many ways Ian was ahead of his time – he saw the need for grassroots clubs to cultivate and coach their own talent into the senior leagues.”
Simon, who also manages Asfordby FC’s second side, added: “He came to watch many games that Asfordby FC Development played and I last saw him in October when he popped down for five minutes to watch the team against Bottesford in the cup.
“He instead stayed for the whole game and gave me an in-depth analysis of each player and how I could make them better.
“That’s how I’ll remember Ian, a big man with a big heart who loved football.”
Ian stepped aside as chairman of the junior club in March 2012, after five years in the role, but he still worked behind the scenes and was chairman of the senior club in 2015 when it finally folded.
With characteristic determination, speaking at the time to the Melton Times, Ian had still hoped to one day revive the club, but then had to fight a more personal battle when he was diagnosed with cancer.
“I have already started to sow the seeds for next year and I’m really confident – I don’t like the word ‘folding’,” he had said.
“It’s a massive loss to the area, and for myself.”
Perhaps his proudest achievement at Amateurs was helping to transform their junior summer tournament into one of the biggest in Leicestershire, as it remains today.
But one of his most defining periods at Hoby Road came in 2008 when he took over as first team manager to help the club through one of its most turbulent periods.
The club was in danger of folding when the entire first team squad followed the manager out of the door.
Ian refused to call it quits, promoting youth players from the reserves to hold Amateurs’ place in the Senior League.
With juniors suddenly asked to play many levels higher, the team finished rock bottom for several seasons.
Wins were rare and heavy defeats regular, but keeping the team alive was a big success in itself.
Ian’s never-say-die approach and willingness to get his hands dirty earned the respect of Chris Gamble, a founding member of Asfordby Amateurs Sports and Social Club.
“Ian kept the club going when no-one else wanted to take the job on, and he took it on without a doubt in his mind,” Chris said.
“He brought a lot of youngsters up from the reserves into the first team and they got hammered, but they persevered thanks to Ian’s guidance.
“He was very reserved, but wasn’t afraid to say something if he wanted something doing his way.”
For the last three seasons Ian put his drive and experience into Melton Town where he became a committee member and volunteer.
A minute’s silence was held before Melton’s home match with Bourne on Saturday, and the club’s social media platforms were flooded with tributes and memories to ‘Wakka’.
Town chairman Sam Ellis used to drive Ian to every away game.
“Ian was probably my first proper volunteer when we moved up to Melton Sports Village,” he said.
“He lived opposite the ground so had the spare keys. This meant he did a lot of jobs around the ground which included cleaning the changing rooms.
“He will be very much missed up at the ground.”
Among the many moving tributes left for Ian on social media was one from Danny Seals who played in that struggling Amateurs team under Ian.
Danny said: “The money left the club and he was left to pick up the pieces, (but) he put a team out week in, week out and although we were getting tonked, he never gave up!
“He always had a smile on his face and blooded quite a few young lads that have gone on to play United Counties League and higher.
“He was the glue that held everything together during a time where nobody would have wanted to be involved at Ammos.
“A true gent and he will be sorely missed by myself and a lot of the local lads.”
Long-time friend Dean Williams added: “RIP to a genuine lovely man, known him for 40 years or so through Toy Soldiers, playing footie together, then him managing our footie team, darts, badminton and more recently a fellow supporter up at Town.
“He will be missed greatly, can’t believe we won’t see him sitting at the bar watching games any more. Will miss his huge smile he always greeted you with.”
John Manship, father of Town co-manager Tom, said the club would dedicate their season to Ian.
“A real gentleman, a football scholar and a passionate fan of Melton Town,” he said.
“He will be sadly missed and always remembered by those who knew this very special guy.”
Brent Horobin said: “I’m really sad to hear about Ian. Real supporter of sport, and latterly Melton Town FC.
“Despite his recent illness, still up at the club and helping – amazing.”
Town supporter Laura Horton, whose son Tom plays for Melton, said: “A great win today, played with heart and passion: a fitting tribute to a man that gave his life to football.”