Friday, 11 December 2015

The day they nearly throttled one of the posh boys!

Stamford Bridge . . .  as it looked this week

ON an almost daily basis, matchday or not, football fans from near and far with rucksacks and ill-fitting jeans wander the concourse that encircles the Stamford Bridge stadium, agog at the ostentatious display of wealth and glamour that is Chelsea FC in 2015. There’s a megastore, a museum, restaurants and a luxury hotel to gawp at.

When little Sydney Wooderson travelled with his teenage chums to race inside this stadium in 1931 things were very, very different. The 12-acre site had nothing to amuse or entertain tourists, indeed it was imposing enough to generate waves of fear and nervous tension in those about to perform here. The magnificent gloom of the huge Brompton Cemetery, right next door, won’t have helped in this regard.

This famous corner of West London was the third of my 60 running venues being visited as part of Project Sydney (see * below).

The Stamford Bridge of Sydney’s youth was used for athletics and greyhound racing as well as football. He came here aged 16 to run competitively for the very first time outside a school environment, representing Sutton Valence in the Mile race at the Public School Athletic Championships of April 1931.

Heading into central London to compete against the best boys from other Public Schools was a big deal, and there was added pressure on Sydney. Just three weeks earlier he’d emerged as a real star in the making by winning the school sports' 100 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards and Mile to be named outstanding athlete at his school. He was now well and truly out of the shadow of his elder brother, another fine runner.

But the posh boys from other parts of Britain proved tougher nuts to crack at the Stamford Bridge gathering. Most oozed with the confidence that comes with a privileged upbringing and most looked physically far superior to the likes of Sydney. 

Take Lord John Hope, for example. This lanky figure, two years older than Sydney, roared to a spectacular record-breaking win in the half-mile, cheered on by fellow Etonians among the big crowd. This was a man who would later become a Major in the Scots Guards and Cabinet Minister in Harold MacMillan’s government.

Sydney was among the younger and less experienced runners and it showed when he tackled his mile heat on the heavy cinder track. Reports say he ran “an ill-judged race” and was lucky to qualify for the final thanks to a desperate late sprint to come second behind Tony Leach of Oundle. 

In the final the following day a bitterly cold wind and heavy rain made life miserable out on the track, and although Sydney battled hard he could only manage sixth, Samuel of Watford Grammar winning in 4 mins 37.4. But better days would follow for Sydney at Stamford Bridge. 

A year later he returned for the 1932 Public School champs, finding once again the occasion was marred by heavy rain. By now he’d joined Blackheath Harriers and with a further year’s experience under his belt was shaping into an obvious running star of the future. 

In his heat he qualified for the final by coming second to Sullivan of Shrewsbury with a minimum of fuss. Next day he produced his trademark finishing burst on the home straight but narrowly failed to catch Sullivan again, missing out by barely 12 inches to take the silver medal.

It was a fine effort, but gained him little media attention as most reporters were concentrating on the fact that the championships were the first anywhere to try “an ingenious new invention” – a starting gate for sprint races.

But the new equipment, devised by eminent Cambridge Professor Henry Rottenburg, was hastily withdrawn after just two attempts – on one of which a runner from Oundle false-started and got his neck tangled in tape, nearly throttling himself!

Sydney won the Public Schools mile at the third attempt . . .

For Sydney and the Professor it was a case of back to the drawing board. Sydney would never race again at Stamford Bridge, but in the 1933 Public Schools championships – his third and last – he would get the victory he craved. 

After an intense battle at the White City Stadium with Dennis Pell (Chatham House), and despite a last-lap stumble, Sydney won in a meeting record of 4:29.8 - a world-class time for an 18-year-old. He was hoisted shoulder-high by jubilant schoolmates and it was clear that in this scrawny, bespectacled lad Britain had found a potential world champion.

* Project Sydney’ is more than just a book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60! This blog records the progress of that challenge which – conveniently – will not only help keep me fit, but assist greatly with the research for the book!

* See also

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