Friday, 26 August 2016

The BBC legend who idolised Sydney and slept with his trophy!

* Sydney Wooderson won the first Manchester Mile, David Coleman the sixth.
NEARLY halfway through my tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues and the chance arose to visit Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester. It’s a spot steeped in sporting history, but there was no point in punching the name into the Satnav for it was demolished 40 years ago!

The old ground proudly staged top-class athletics and cycling for many years, as well as the 1893 FA Cup final. It stood on what is now University of Manchester land, sited between the huge hall of residence known as Owens Tower and the rather more attractive Firs Pavilion. 

In the summer of 1939 a landmark athletics promotion here at Fallowfield pulled in a big crowd who watched awestruck as Sydney Wooderson became the first man ever to run three quarter-mile laps in under three minutes. He set a world record of 2:59.5 in the process and confirmed his status as favourite for 1500 metres gold at the forthcoming 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Sadly war intervened a few months later and those Games never happened.

* Fallowfield Stadium in 1976, shortly before demolition.
It was a hot day for the three-quarter mile race and the Fallowfield track sparkled in pristine condition. The other four runners shot off at lightning pace, Sydney sheltering behind them in pre-arranged fashion. He completed 440 yards in 57.9 seconds, and on the middle lap moved into second place, passing the half-mile in two minutes exactly.

The pacemakers were doing a sterling job and halfway through the third and final lap Sydney lengthened his stride to surge past leader Kierans (Salford Harriers) in dramatic fashion. He came home with a 15-yard lead and, more importantly, beat his own world best by 1.34 seconds. The crowd went wild.

According to the Daily Telegraph: “It was one of the greatest efforts Wooderson has made in his career, and no man could have put more into his final running than he did after coming into the last bend.”  

* Sydney Wooderson turns on the style at Fallowfield in June 1940.
Sydney stayed overnight locally after the race and the following morning left for New York by ship from Liverpool, accompanied by his coach, the Olympian Albert Hill. Amid great fanfare he was off to tackle the best Stateside runners in the famous Princeton ‘Mile of the Century’ contest. The trip would take around five days and the only training he would manage on board would be gentle jogging on rubber matting laid on the promenade deck. 
Sydney would tackle a further four races over a five-year period at Fallowfield Stadium. His wartime return here in June 1943 would be to contest the inaugural ‘Manchester Mile’, which he also won in style. This race grew into a popular annual event and the 1949 winner would be 23-year-old David Coleman, a reporter on the Stockport Express and member of Stockport Harriers. Coleman, of course, later quit running through injury and went on to become a legendary BBC commentator. He was so overjoyed at emulating his sporting hero Sydney Wooderson at the Manchester Mile that he confessed to taking the trophy to bed with him afterwards!

The race was revived in 2014 and I was able to take part myself in the 2016 edition. It took place just an hour or two after my visit to nearby Fallowfield. Now that’s what I call good timing! It was a highly enjoyable evening’s racing, even though I’m now far too ancient to threaten my mile PB of 4 mins 46 secs. The track and conditions at Sportcity were superb, but when your PB is 25 years old you can be fairly sure it’s unbreakable!   
By coincidence, that mile PB was set exactly 25 years ago today (August 26, 1991), when my running ‘career’ was in its eighth year. A quarter of a century later, there’ll certainly be no more lifetime PBs to celebrate . . . so thank goodness somebody dreamed up the age-group system!

* PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British champion Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was to visit and 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. Conveniently, the challenge should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book! 

* Fallowfield track is long gone, but neigbouring Firs Pavilion remains in 2016.

Friday, 19 August 2016

The tour continues . . . . Sydney gets a taste of northern exposure

* Sydney in his pomp - and Worsley fields as they are now.

SOON after athletics had settled back into near normality after the Second World War, the sport’s big-wigs made a ground-breaking decision regarding the Inter-Counties cross-country champs.

For the very first time the North of England was awarded the privilege of hosting this showpiece! Grange Farm at Worsley, on the outskirts of Manchester, was the chosen venue. To welcome those ‘southern softies’ the locals laid on plenty of rain and mud!

On Saturday 15 January 1949, after completing his working week in a central London office, Sydney Wooderson jumped on a special breakfast-time train from Euston, along with four colleagues from Blackheath Harriers and dozens of others representing other southern counties.

They were met at Manchester’s Piccadilly station by a fleet of buses which ferried them to Worsley Secondary Modern School. Here the runners were pleased to find what one Blackheath man called “Excellent changing and washing accommodation” – although he did follow up this compliment with a dig about the “traditional Manchester weather” as the rain continued to tip down!

I had to pore over several maps to locate the area they used for the race, before visiting this spot as part of my 2016 nationwide tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues*.

* The M60 blasts through where Sydney and pals once ran.

It was quite tricky trying to picture the scene at Grange Farm back in January 1949 as the weather on my visit was warm and dry and there was barely another person in sight as I scanned the horizon – merely the unrelenting buzz of traffic from the point nearby where the M60 and M602 motorways meet.

Although the Inter-Counties race had never been this far north until 1949, the last English National before the war had in fact been on this very course. Runners who recalled that race said conditions were appalling that day in 1939, but that ten years later things were even worse.

The Inter-Counties involved four laps of roughly 1.75 miles each to negotiate, slippery the whole way with countless areas of deep, thick mud. It was a severe test for everyone and the race developed into a rather uneventful slog. Men were strung out in a long procession, apparently more intent on survival than overtaking people ahead.

Although Sydney, the reigning national champion, was famously light on his feet, this was a course not even he could have enjoyed. One suspects his motivation on a day like this was not at its highest. His star was clearly on the wane by the beginning of 1949: he’d achieved virtually all he wanted to in running, and at the age of 34 a more settled life in the suburbs bringing up a family was beckoning.

A year earlier, in January 1948, he’d won the Kent cross-country title and a fortnight later was third in the Inter-Counties, but this time round he was fourth and seventh, respectively, in the equivalent races. He’d already retired from track racing by now, and many observers suspected he’d also be hanging up the cross-country spikes soon.

Home county Lancashire ran like men inspired at Worsley – their six scorers all among the first 20 past the post. They won the team prize comfortably, with Sydney’s Kent team back in fourth. Sydney himself clocked a time of 49 minutes dead for the seven-mile course, some 45 seconds behind winner Ron Williams (Lancs). Sydney had never featured at the front end of the race and the only real drama of the day came when Williams burst past Alec Olney (Middlesex) and Geoff Saunders (Lancs) in the final few yards to snatch victory.

On the long train journey back to London Sydney must have contemplated the fact that conditions had been so tough his average pace had been only seven-minutes-per-mile – almost certainly his slowest in any serious race since boyhood. Was a great career coming to an end?

* PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British champion Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was to visit and 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. Conveniently, the challenge should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book! 

* Still some green and pleasant spots 67 years later!

Friday, 12 August 2016

Bicycles, motorbikes, horses and greyhounds - but none as popular as Sydney!

A RUNNING track in Birmingham which first opened nearly 90 years ago has enjoyed a colourful history since the likes of Sydney Wooderson sped down its inside lane either side of the Second World War.

Created on the site of a rubbish tip, Perry Barr Stadium opened in 1929 mainly to provide a home for crack Midlands club Birchfield Harriers. Since then it has hosted cycle racing, dirt-track and speedway, equestrian events such as show-jumping, and more recently greyhound racing. In between some of these entertainments the ground was requisitioned by the War Office for use by the Home Guard (“They don’t like it up ’em, Mr Mainwaring”) and also accommodated Italian prisoners of war.

In athletics terms, one of its proudest claims involves the installation of floodlighting, which allowed it to stage the first floodlit athletics meeting ever held in the UK in September 1948. The crowd that evening gasped in wonder when the lights came on for the first time towards the end of a meeting which had overrun into dusk.

I visited this hectic part of England’s second city as part of my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – to visit and run at 60 of the venues graced by forgotten athletics hero Sydney Wooderson, the subject of my latest book project. 

I was informed that for many years there were two sports stadiums within 400 yards of each other here in the Perry Barr district. But the real deal was very easy to pinpoint in 2016 – for the other one was wiped off the face of the earth a few years ago to be replaced by the One Stop Shopping Centre! 

Humble South Londoner Sydney came this way in July of 1938 competing for his club Blackheath Harriers in the annual Waddilove Trophy event. As was his wont, he tried to make a quiet and dignified entrance, but most of the excitable 7,000 crowd only had eyes for him – and there was no hiding place.

Such attention brought with it the pressure of pulling off a spectacular performance every time he stepped on a track – but the odds were against that on this summer’s afternoon. The Perry Barr cinder track had only recently been re-laid and had not settled down to expectations. It was lumpy and not likely to help runners achieve fast times.

Sydney, the reigning world mile record holder, chose to run the scratch half-mile race. There would be no records today, particularly as Sydney found himself somewhat boxed in for much of the opening lap. When the bell sounded at the start of the second, he was able to force himself clear of danger and then treated the crowd to one of his electric finishes. He flew across the line in 2:00.6, less than a second clear of plucky chasers John Powell (London AC) and A.A.Bird (Belgrave Harriers).

Later that afternoon the crowd was delighted to see the great man in action again when he took the opening leg for Blackheath in a one-mile relay, staged this time on the adjacent grass track. It had not been formally measured, so no times were taken. Sydney passed on the baton having forged a good lead, and his teammates maintained this till the end.

During his 20-year career Sydney only appeared at this important venue twice, the second coming eight years later in the Waddilove Trophy of July 1946. He opted for the two-mile race on a scorching sunny day and it proved little more than a training spin as he cruised home a full 100 yards in the clear in 9:35.6. He may have been a Londoner, but the locals cheered his every step.  

* PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British champion Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was to visit and 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. Conveniently, the challenge should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!

Friday, 5 August 2016

The sweet smell of chocolate and the sweet smell of victory!

* In summer 2016 a solo walker quietly laps the old Bournville track . . .

THERE wasn’t just the sweet smell of chocolate in the air when mile champion Sydney Wooderson pitched up at Bournville Village on an overcast afternoon in May 1939.

There was excitement and tension too, a bumper crowd of over 12,000 turning out to see the best athletics meeting staged in the Birmingham region for years. Many of them were workers and families attached to the nearby Cadbury chocolate factory, whose huge Rowheath sports ground was hosting the big day.

It was billed as Bournville sports club’s ‘Coming of Age’ carnival meeting and it involved a bumper four-hour programme of no fewer than 106 track and field events. The mile race, starring world record holder Sydney Wooderson was undoubtedly the most highly anticipated.  

The Rowheath venue is still there in 2016. I recently called in and jogged a few laps as part of my 12-month tour of the race venues graced by forgotten hero Sydney – who is the subject of my forthcoming book.

* The line of the track can still be clearly seen.
The facilities were opened between the wars for the large Cadbury workforce, most of whom lived locally at the specially-created 75-acre Bournville Village. There were 14 pitches for football, 13 for cricket, four for hockey, two for rugby, 31 tennis courts, two croquet lawns, a green for clock golf, a boating and fishing lake and, of course, the athletics track. A stylish-looking pavilion served as a clubhouse and often held elaborate balls and dinners too. All in all, a remarkable set of facilities for the time.

Eventually the pavilion would fall into disrepair, but was reborn in more recent times as the HQ of a church organisation. The site of the old running track, likewise, is now mostly long grass, but was easy for me to find. A pathway has been trodden along its oval-shaped route and although no runners were to be seen during my visit, there was one big lad determinedly plodding around at walking pace. He was the only sign of life in the entire vicinity and his continual lapping suggested he was on some sort of weight-loss exercise programme.

Seventy-seven years earlier he wouldn’t have had such a tranquil and undisturbed setting for his solo exercising. The enormous crowd that gathered in May 1939 was buzzing with anticipation, but when it was announced Olympic gold medallist Godfrey Brown was withdrawing from the quarter-mile a big howl of anguish went up. It meant even more pressure on Sydney to entertain them when his turn to run came along . . .

In terms of a compelling race, the mile turned out to be a fairly routine victory for the little man in glasses, although his excellent time of 4:12 was more than three seconds better than anything ever seen in the Midlands before.

Sydney turned in laps of 58, 68, 65.6 and 60.2 seconds, winning comfortably by 50 yards from the Surrey champion Frank Close. Discounting a relay effort the previous summer, the time of 4:12 was Sydney’s fastest since he’d cracked the world record at Motspur Park in South London two years earlier (4:06.4).
* Rowheath Pavilion - once home to the chocolate factory athletes.
The big crowd of Brummies went home happy and some of them would be able to return a year later (eight months after war was declared)  for another big Bournville track and field promotion. This would be in aid of the Lord Mayor of Birmingham’s War Relief Fund and just under 5,000 came along. Sydney won the mile by a whisker from Welsh champion Jim Alford, clocking a more modest time of 4:20.4 – but not bad considering the deprivations of wartime.

* PROJECT SYDNEY is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was to visit and 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. Conveniently, it should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!