Sir Roger Bannister has sadly passed away at the age of 88 – this is his story.

  • March 05, 2018 16:21
  • Sir Roger Bannister

Twin Tracks - The Autobiography, by Sir Roger Bannister


Sir Roger Bannister has sadly passed away at the age of 88 – this is his story. Twin Tracks tells the full story of the talent and dedication that made him not just one of the most celebrated athletes of the last century but also a distinguished doctor, neurologist and one of the nation's best-loved public figures.

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My running career can be neatly divided into two parts: before and after Helsinki. My failure to win the 1,500m gold medal in Helsinki, when I had been the favourite, was a shattering blow. All of my past planning over six Cover 9781849548366years seemed to have been wasted. It was a huge knock to my pride, shattering to my friends and family and to the Great British public.

Some have said that one element of courage is dignity in the face of adversity, and I now had plenty of practice. It was some time before I could screw up my self-belief but within a month I had decided to continue racing until 1954, when I would face the Empire Games and the European Games. If I could win these titles, then I would feel that my training ideas had been vindicated. Paying back my supporters may be a cliché but many clichés have a kernel of truth. I knew even then that part of my life would be inextricably entwined with running and would never detach itself from sport, despite the hard years ahead that I knew I would need to devote to my training as a neurologist.

I felt it was necessary to prove that my attitudes towards training had been right and hence restore the faith that had been so shaken by my Olympic defeat. I could accept being beaten in the Olympics – that had happened to many stronger favourites than me. What I objected to was that my defeat was taken by so many as proof that my way of training was wrong.

Whether we as athletes liked it or not, the four-minute mile had become rather like an Everest – a challenge to the human spirit. It was a barrier that seemed to defy all attempts to break it, an irksome reminder that man’s striving might be in vain. The Scandinavians, with their almost excessive reverence for the magic of sport, called it the ‘Dream Mile’.

An interest in running races, and in particular the mile, dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when mile races were won in about 4 minutes 20 seconds, and the discussion ranged over whether a mile in under four minutes was possible. There was an achingly slow progress in improvement in the record, until a British runner, W. G. George, set up the new record of 4 minutes 10 seconds in 1885. The next big step forward came during the Second World War, when the three Swedes Arne Andersson, Gunder Hägg and Lennart Strand repeatedly raced against each other over the mile, week in, week out. Whichever of the three was least strong would be pacemaker for the others. By 1944 the mile record was driven down to 4 minutes 1.6 seconds by Andersson, and then 4 minutes 1.4 seconds by Hägg. They were declared professionals and their records remained unbroken for nine long years until 1954. The idea that this sub-four-minute mile was impossible was, in my view, a myth. From my knowledge of physiology it seemed preposterous that there was some kind of portcullis that would clang down at 4 minutes 1.4 seconds. If seconds could be clipped off over the past half-century, why would that stop now?

Of course, one difficulty was slow tracks. It is impossible for today’s runners to understand the soggy surface of a wet cinder track in the 1950s when runners can now bounce along on a modern plastic track. Seb Coe, who ran on both surfaces, said, ‘It makes up to four seconds’ difference over a mile.’

I felt that in my running I was now defending a cause. It was a kind of fusion of the Greek Olympic ideal and of the university attitude that Oxford had taught me. I coupled this with my own love of running as one of the most satisfying forms of physical expression. I believed that many other potential athletes could experience this same satisfaction. If my attitude was right then it should be possible to achieve great success and I wanted to see this happen – both for myself and for my friends.

Throughout the winter of 1952–53 I further stepped up the severity of my training programme by intensifying the interval method of running I have already described; Barthel used the same system. I had great admiration for him because he was not a semi-professional maintained by his country’s government. He was a qualified chemist who did his training after his working day was over. He had shown that it was still possible to reach the top and do a normal day’s work in addition – but only just.

In December 1952, John Landy of Australia, who had been knocked out in my heat at the Olympic Games, had startled the world by running a mile in 4 minutes 2.1 seconds. I could hardly believe the improvement from the runner I had known at Helsinki. Landy made no secret of the fact that the four-minute mile was his goal.

If I was going to enter the lists to attack the four-minute mile, the problem was to decide how and where the race should be run. There were four essential requirements: a good track, absence of wind, warm weather and even-paced running. Some have imagined that a four-minute mile might result from normal competition. This could only happen if there was an opponent capable of forcing the pace right up to the last 50 yards: This was what Arne Andersson had tried to do in 1945, to run Gunder Hägg off his feet and to tire his finish. Gunder Hägg held out, overtook Andersson and was able to set up his own world record. Only John Landy could offer me a race of this kind. By the time we ran against each other in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in 1954, the four-minute mile might already have been accomplished and it would be too late. It is easier to race an opponent than the clock, but there were no close rivals in Britain so I had little choice but to attempt it before John Landy succeeded.

I had decided some years before that the Oxford track that I had helped to build should be the scene of any attempt at the four-minute mile. The Oxford v. AAA match provided the first opportunity of the 1953 season when I might, at any rate, expect suitable opposition in the early stages of the race. The biggest gamble was the weather and I was taking a great chance in hoping for a suitable day in April or May.

When I ran at Oxford on 2 May 1953, I aimed first to break Sydney Wooderson’s British mile record of 4 minutes 6 seconds, which had stood ever since he set it up in a paced handicap race at Motspur Park on 28 August 1937. R. H. Thomas, a well­known miler of the time, had ten yards’ start and paced Wooderson for half a mile. There were other runners with up to 250 yards’ start to help him in the later stages. This may seem far removed from the conditions of an ordinary race, but it was the only approach open to him, because there was no runner in Europe at the time who could have extended him.

Chris C was also running for the AAA in the match at Oxford on 2 May 1953 and he agreed to run as hard as he could for the first ¾-mile. It was our first attempt to run four even quarters and our lap times were 61.7, 62.4, 61.1. Then I went into the lead and ran a last lap of 58.4 seconds to give a total time of 4:3.6 minutes, a new British record. This race made me realise that the four-minute mile was not out of reach. It was only a question of time – but would someone else reach the goal before me?

Speculation about the four-minute mile gradually increased through 1953. Details of our lives were splashed across the newspapers here and in Australia. There was even speculation as to whom we might marry. It increased through the summer of 1953. It embarrassed any girlfriends with whom we had dinner or went out dancing, only to find our photos in gossip columns. It was even suggested in one flight of journalistic fancy that I might be suitable for Princess Margaret! Speculation about John Landy was no less. Years later, his wife Lynne said to Moyra, ‘We arranged to meet at a jeweller’s to look at engagement rings and planned to arrive at the jeweller’s shop separately. I stood in the shop for some minutes before I realised that the figure on a sofa hiding behind a newspaper was in fact John trying to disguise the fact that he was about to buy an engagement ring.’

Every time after this when I ran on the track, the public and press expected new records. On 6 May there was a 4 x 1,500m relay attack on the world record, made at Leyton by the Achilles Club, represented by David Law, Chris B, Chris C and myself. We failed to beat the world record, but our combined time of 15 minutes 49.6 seconds bettered by 6 seconds the best time ever made by a British four.

The next race, which I won, was an international mile race at White City on 23 May in 4 minutes 9.4 seconds, with a last lap of 56.6 seconds. This result was greeted with the headline ‘Bannister held back so it looked a race’.

In a match between Oxford and London University on 30 May, the wind was hopelessly strong. I ran a half-mile instead in 1:51.9 minutes, a ground and meeting record.

A week later I was attempting to increase my speed by quarter-miling at the Middlesex Championships at Edmonton. I covered the first bend at a speed which was exceptional for me. Just as I was overtaking a runner in an outside lane I felt a ‘twang’ in my left thigh, like something between a violin string snapping and being kicked by a horse, and limped off the track. I had pulled a muscle for the first time in my running career. Until then I had never been able to understand how athletes pulled muscles. Now it was all too clear – my muscles were unaccustomed to sprinting and I was simply running too fast for them. In the next hour the pain grew worse.

To add insult to the injury, on the same day the American runner Wes Santee threw out a new challenge with a mile in 4 minutes 2.4 seconds in America. There were now three of us in the race, with Landy training in Australia, waiting to make fresh attempts at the record when his own summer season came around in November. How soon could I recover and make another attempt?

The pulled muscle was not as serious as I feared. The muscle fibres were probably not torn, but a small blood vessel supplying them might have burst, which would have made the muscle seize up. M. M. Mays, the AAA masseur, skilfully dispersed any adhesions after I had rested the leg for five days.

In the middle of the following week, after nothing but slow running since the injury, I felt able to run at the speed of a four-minute mile without aggravating the injury. Norris McWhirter persuaded me that I ought to run a paced time trial. To avoid press excitement in case my pulled muscle did not hold out, the event was quietly included as a special invitation race in the Surrey School’s athletic meeting at Motspur Park on the following Saturday, the 27th. I had no idea what would happen, or whether I could last out the distance. I only knew that the same afternoon five hours later, Wes Santee was to run in Dayton, Ohio, and was confidently predicting a four-minute mile.

I was uncertain how I was to be paced, but Don MacMillan, the Australian Olympic runner whom I had first met in New Zealand in 1950, led for two and a half laps. Then Chris B, who had run the first two laps at snail’s pace, loomed on the horizon in front of me, a lap in arrears. He proceeded to encourage me by shouting backwards over his shoulder, just preventing himself from being lapped.

Of course, it could hardly be called a race. It was a mistake. I accept full responsibility for running in it though I did not organise the details. My lap times were 59.6, 60.1, 62.1 and 60.2 seconds, making a total time of 4 minutes 2 seconds. This was the third fastest mile of all time, beaten only by Hägg and Andersson eight years before. My feeling as I look back is one of great relief that I did not run a four-minute mile under such artificial circumstances.

Immediately after the run Chris B and I drove off to north Wales. That night we were sleeping in a hay loft under a skylight, looking at the stars and anticipating a day of climbing, blissfully unaware of the drama which was unfolding in London with the rumpus the secret attempt had caused on Fleet Street.

On 12 July the British Amateur Athletic Board ratified my 4-minute 3.6-second mile run at Oxford on 2 May as a British all-comers and British national record. On my 4-minute 2-second mile run at Motspur Park on 27 June the Board issued a statement to the effect that the time could not be recognised, as they did not see the attempt as a bona fide race.

The news of the rejection of my 4-minute 2-second mile for record purposes brought journalists flocking to the family doorstep. ‘What are your views about it?’ they asked, feeling they were on the brink of a sensation. ‘Surely you must have some views on it? Will you appeal? Only say yes or no!’ ‘No comment,’ I repeated. To say more was dangerous. Anything I said could be twisted. ‘Bannister will not appeal’ is as good a headline as ‘Bannister will appeal’ when a story is hot. If I were once tempted into the slightest utterance, further amplification would be called for and I should find myself in deeper and deeper waters. I stuck to ‘no comment’ instead and evaded all further questions. My own feelings were that I accepted the decision without question. I had doubted that the record would be ratified. As it happened, there was really nothing important at stake. If the time had been under four minutes, the fat would really have been in the fire.

This was my last deliberate attempt of the season. On the same day Santee, under the full glare of publicity, made another attempt to run the four-minute mile and took 4 minutes 7.6 seconds. I could only hope that he would not forestall me before the end of his longer American season.

For the rest of the season I put all ideas of records out of my mind. On 11 July I won the AAA Mile championship in 4 minutes 5.2 seconds, the fastest time for the meeting. After this I was too busy studying to be able to do any serious training, though on 1 August I ran a 4-minute 7.6-second mile in a successful 4 x 1-mile relay attempt on the world record. Chataway, Nankeville, Seaman and I ran a combined time of 16 minutes 4.1 seconds. It was good enough to beat the previous world record of 16 minutes 48.8 seconds, set up by a Swedish team on 5 August 1949. It was also well within the previous British record of 16 minutes 53.2 seconds, made on 4 August 1952 when I was in a British Empire team with Landy, Law and Parnell. Two days later, on August bank holiday in 1952, I ran my fastest half-mile, 1 minute 50.7 seconds, against El Mabrouk of France.

Soon it was the end of our season and of the American season too. But in Australia the summer season was just starting and I waited anxiously for news of John Landy, who was just getting into his stride. This was his second season devoted to record-breaking runs and I felt that it was only a question of time before he ran a four-minute mile.

John Landy’s training programme was more severe than any other middle-distance runner in the world at that time. It involved weightlifting and running every day, up to a total of 200 miles a week. Percy Cerutty, at one time Landy’s coach, has said that Landy has the temperament of a fanatic. He does not consider this a term of disparagement but the highest possible praise accorded to any man. The only other runners he considers to have had this quality are Nurmi and Zátopek. My view is that Cerutty was not entitled to make remarks like this about Landy, even if he was his coach.

In 1953 John Landy had embarked on a course of training that was in the ten-miles-a-session class. He opened the season with a 4.2-minute mile on a grass track in December: a great performance, 0.1 of a second faster than his best of the previous year.

But his harder training and selfless physical ferocity brought precious little improvement. Each week I waited for the news of his times. The tension grew and by April 1954 he had won six races, all in times less than 4.3 minutes, a record achieved by no other athlete in history. Each race, incidentally, was headlined in the British newspapers as ‘Landy fails’. After one race in February he lost heart. ‘It’s a brick wall,’ he said. ‘I shall not attempt it again.’ But he had caught the four-minute fever and was already planning a summer in Scandinavia, where the tracks are perfect and the warm climate such that he could make repeated attempts with all the pace-making he needed.

Landy’s personality intrigued me. I was dependent on the comments of Percy Cerutty, the Australian coach, who said he had seen in Landy

<ext>demonstrations of a character capable of the greatest kindness, gentleness and thoughtfulness, and on the other side – as there is and always must be – a ruthlessness, lack of feeling for others, and a ferocity and antagonism, albeit it is mostly vented on himself, that makes it possible on occasions for John to rise to sublime heights of physical endeavour.</ext>

If all this were true, he would indeed be a formidable opponent, provided all went well and we were both selected for the Empire Games at Vancouver in 1954. A reason for my hesitancy in putting myself in the hands of a coach was that I had no wish for anyone to make any such public statements about me. Franz Stampfl had more discretion and never did this. I could speak for myself.

Over the autumn of 1953 a great change came over my running: I no longer trained alone. Every day between noon and two o’clock I trained on a track in Paddington with a group of recreational runners and had a quick lunch before returning to hospital. In order to do so I was often forced to miss a regular obstetrics lecture at noon. This was the one speciality I was sure I did not want to pursue. At the back of the lecture theatre was a comfortably upholstered leather bench, across which students would habitually recline to escape the lecturer’s line of sight, relaxing sometimes to the extent of sleep. On a wooden panel above it was carved an ironic quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose.’ An unintended irony.

We called ourselves the Paddington Lunchtime Club. We came from all parts of London and our common bond was a love of running. I think my willingness to engage in the social side of running was a sign that I had mellowed. I felt extremely happy in the friendships I made there and these training sessions came to mean almost as much to me as had those at the Oxford track.

In my hardest training Chris B was with me and he made the task very much lighter. On Friday evenings, starting in November 1953, he took me along to Chelsea Barracks where his coach, Franz Stampfl, held a training session. At weekends Chris C would join us and in this friendly atmosphere the very severe training we did became really enjoyable. Franz kept us all amused and usually afterwards the four of us went out to the John Lyons Cornerhouse on Sloane Square to eat baked beans on toast, about the best dish available during food rationing.

I realised that the two Chrises were the only pacemakers who could be relied on to help me attack the four-minute mile early in 1954. Between the four of us, with Franz carefully coordinating our trainings, a strategy emerged as to how this ultimate athletic challenge could be overcome. To use a mountaineering analogy, our plan for the record attempt was for Chris B to take Chris C and me to ‘base camp’ at the half-mile, so that Chris C could then launch me into the attack itself on the last lap. This made both Chris B’s pace judgement and Chris C’s strength and speed over the three-quarter mile equally crucial for success.

In December 1953 we had started a new intensive course of training and ran a series of ten consecutive quarter-miles each week, each in 63 seconds. Through January and February we gradually speeded them up, keeping to an interval of only two minutes between each. By April we could manage them in 61 seconds, but however hard we tried it did not seem possible to reach our target of 60 seconds. We were stuck, or, as Chris B expressed it, ‘bogged down’.

The training had ceased to do us any good and we needed a change. Chris B and I drove up to Scotland overnight for a few days climbing with John Mawe, a doctor friend of Chris’s. Looking back, it seemed bordering on the lunatic to go climbing with a group of friends to make a break from hard training, chancing exposure to cold weather and dodgy food. The ten-hour drive in John’s cramped car, as he himself pointed out, was about as bad an experience as we could put our bodies through so shortly before a big race.

As we turned into the Pass of Glencoe the sun crept above the horizon at dawn. A misty curtain drew back from the mountains and the sun’s sleepless eye cast a fresh cold light on the world. The air was calm and fragrant but it would not stay that way. Rain set in as we set off to climb Clachaig Gully. The gully had turned into a waterfall. Following Chris up the Red Chimney we became utterly drenched, to the extent that Chris worried about my contracting pneumonia from the cold. An athlete in full training is, paradoxically, less resistant to infection than the average person. Chris ordered a fellow climber to lend me dry clothes from his rucksack ‘for the good of British sport’. The climber generously obliged and could later claim a little credit for protecting my health.

We climbed hard for three days, using the wrong muscles in the wrong way! There was an element of danger, too. I remember Chris falling a short way when leading a climb up a rock face depressingly named ‘Jericho Wall’. Luckily, he did not hurt himself. We were both worried, lest a sprained ankle might set our training back by several weeks.

After three days our minds turned to running again. We suddenly became alarmed at the thought of taking any more risks and decided to return. We had slept little and our meals had been irregular. But when we tried to run those quarter-miles again, just three days after our return, the time came down to the magic target of 59 seconds!

It was now less than three weeks to the Oxford University v. AAA race, the first opportunity of the year for us to attack the four-minute mile in a bona fide race. Chris C joined Chris B and me in the AAA team. Chataway doubted his ability to run a ¾-mile in three minutes, but he generously offered to attempt it. I had now abandoned the severe training of the previous months and was concentrating entirely on gaining speed and freshness. I had to learn to release in four short minutes the energy I usually spent in half an hour’s training. Each training session took on a special significance as the day of the Oxford race drew near. It felt a privilege each time I ran a trial on the track.

I never thought of length of stride or style, or even my judgement of pace. All this had become automatically ingrained. There was more enjoyment in my running than ever before: it was as if all my muscles were a part of a perfectly tuned machine. I felt fresh now at the end of each training session.

I had been training almost daily since the previous November and now that the test was approaching I barely knew what to do with myself. For a ¾-mile trial at Paddington there was a high wind blowing. I would have given almost anything to be able to shirk the test that would tell me with ruthless accuracy what my chances were of achieving a four-minute mile at Oxford. I felt that 2 minutes 59.9 seconds for the ¾-mile in a solo training run, without the adrenalin boost, meant 3 minutes 5.99 seconds in a mile race. A time of 3 minutes 1 second would mean 4 minutes 1 second for the mile – just the difference between success and failure. The watch recorded a time of 2.59.9 minutes! I felt a little sick afterwards with the taste of nervousness in my mouth, which I thought of as the release of adrenalin. My speedy recovery within five minutes suggested that I had been holding something back. Two days later I ran a 1.54-minute half-mile quite easily, after a late night, and then took five days’ complete rest before the race.

The chosen day was Thursday 6 May 1954, the day of the AAA race at Oxford. The real problem that faced me was to decide if the weather conditions justified an attempt: the wind was fierce. I went into the hospital as usual and at eleven o’clock I was sharpening my spikes on a grindstone in the laboratory. Someone passing said, ‘You don’t really think that’s going to make any difference, do you?’ Then I rubbed graphite on the spikes so that the wet cinder of the track might be less likely to stick to the spikes.

I decided to travel up to Oxford alone because I wanted time to think. However, when I boarded a carriage at Paddington, there was Franz Stampfl. This was the first of two great moments of chance that day. I could not have wished for a better companion.

Franz is not the kind of coach who, Svengali-like, wishes to turn the athlete into a machine, working to his dictation. We shared a common view of athletics as a means of ‘re-creation’ of each individual, as a result of the liberation of the latent power within him. Franz was like an artist who could see character fulfilment in human struggle and achievement. He was also a coach whom, unlike Cerutty, I could both trust and respect.

We talked, almost impersonally, about the problem I faced. In my mind I had settled this as the day when, with every ounce of strength I possessed, I would attempt to run the four-minute mile. A wind of gale force was blowing which would slow me up by a second a lap, so in order to succeed I must run not merely a four-minute mile but the equivalent of a 3.56-minute mile in calm weather.

I had reached my peak physically and psychologically. There might never be another opportunity like it. I had to drive myself to the limit of my power without the stimulus of competitive opposition. This was my first race for eight months and all this time I had been storing nervous energy. If I tried and failed I should be dejected and my chances would be less on any later attempt. Yet it seemed that the high wind was going to make it impossible.

I had almost decided when I entered the carriage at Paddington that unless the wind dropped soon I would postpone the attempt. Franz understood my dilemma. With his expansive personality and twinkling eye he said, ‘Roger, the weather is terrible, but even if it’s as bad as this, I think you are capable of running a mile in good conditions in 3.56, and that margin is still enough to enable you to succeed today. With the proper motivation, that is a good enough reason for wanting to do it. Remember, if there is only a half-good chance, you may never forgive yourself for missing it. Who knows when or if you may be given another chance, and what about John Landy, soon to race in Europe, and Wes Santee in America? If you pass it up today, you may never forgive yourself for the rest of your life. You will feel pain, but what is it? It’s just pain!’

Franz had almost won his point. Racing has always been more of a mental than a physical problem to me. He went on talking about athletes and performances, but I heard no more. The dilemma was not banished from my mind, but the idea uppermost was that this might be my only chance. He stiffened my resolve. ‘How would I ever forgive myself if I rejected it?’ I thought, as the train arrived in Oxford. I had been wrong to think that the athlete could be self-sufficient.

I arrived at the Iffley Road track and tested two pairs of running shoes. A climbing friend, Eustace Thomas, had had a new set made specifically for me for this occasion, with the weight reduced from six to four ounces per shoe. This small alteration could mean the difference between success and failure. Watching the St George’s flag stand horizontal to the flagpole of a nearby church, however, the chances of success seemed increasingly dismal.

Still undecided as to whether to give it a go, I walked to Charles Wenden’s house in north Oxford for lunch (a ham salad). A lot of my early running at Oxford had been in Charles’s company and I had lived in this house during my later year of research. Now, as then, I appreciated his and Eileen’s calming influence as they went about their business, preparing lunch and looking after their children. The sheer normality of a house with children, who knew nothing of the significance of the event, was soothing.

Later in the afternoon, on my way to the track, I sought out Chris C at Magdalen College. He was two years younger than me and had done his National Service and so was in his last year at Oxford. The sun shone briefly and he was typically upbeat. ‘The day could be a lot worse, couldn’t it? The forecast says the wind may drop towards evening. Let’s not decide until five o’clock.’

We arrived at the track at around 4.30 p.m. At 5.15 p.m. there was a shower of rain. Afterwards, the wind blew equally strongly, but now came in gusts. As Brasher, Chataway and I warmed up, we knew the eyes of the spectators were on us; they were hoping that the wind would drop just a little – if not enough to run a four-minute mile, enough for us to decide to make the attempt.

Failure in sport can be almost as exciting to watch as success, provided the effort is absolutely genuine and complete. But spectators fail to understand – and how can they know? – the intense mental anguish through which an athlete must pass before he can give his maximum effort.

The agony of waiting on the day of the race is almost unbearable. It is so intense that I used to say to myself, ‘Why do I put myself through this? I don’t want ever to do it again.’ Yet in the subsequent exhilaration of winning, the agony of the period of waiting beforehand is forgotten. For some athletes this tension was too great. Lennart Strand, part of the Swedish mile record-breaking team, eventually found the strain of races more than he could bear. After helping Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg to their records he was forced to retire and became a concert pianist, which he found much less stressful!

The strain of racing is comparable to other situations, like ‘stage fright’ in actors. Speakers at the Royal Institution, where Moyra and I heard many lectures, have by tradition been locked into an ante-room beside the stage before lecturing since an early lecturer became so agitated that he ran away without ever giving his lecture.

At Iffley Road, I could sense that the two Chrises were becoming increasingly irritated with me when, just half an hour before the race, I still had not decided whether to make the world record attempt. They came into the changing room and with one voice pleaded, ‘Come on, Roger, do make up your mind.’ Their impatience was palpable and looking back I understand how difficult it was for them to get in the mood for the race if I went on shilly-shallying, keeping my eye on the flag of the church tower, using it as a wind gauge. I could see I was being unreasonable and so I said, ‘Right, we’ll go for it, we all know what we have to do.’

As we lined up for the start I glanced at the flag again. It fluttered more gently now and the scene from Shaw’s Saint Joan flashed through my mind, how she, at her desperate moment, waited for the wind to change, so that her army could cross the river. This was the second moment of chance, a moment of calm, which I took as a reassuring sign that the wind was indeed dropping.

There was complete silence on the ground … then a false start by Chris B … I felt angry that precious moments during the lull in the wind might be slipping by. The gun fired a second time … Brasher went into the lead and I slipped in effortlessly behind him, feeling tremendously full of running. My legs seemed to meet no resistance at all, as if propelled by some unknown force. We seemed to be going so slowly! Impatiently I shouted, ‘Faster!’ But Brasher kept his head and did not change the pace. I went on worrying until I heard the first lap time, 57.5 seconds. In the excitement my knowledge of pace had temporarily deserted me. After five days’ rest my muscles were full of glycogen, the energy source required by the muscles to contract efficiently. Brasher could have run the first quarter in 55 seconds without my realising it, but for any faster running at such uneven pacing I would have had to pay the price later. Instead, he had made success possible.

At one and a half laps I was still worrying about the pace. A voice shouting ‘relax’ penetrated to me above the noise of the crowd. I learnt afterwards it was Stampfl’s. Unconsciously I obeyed. If the speed was wrong it was too late to do anything about it, so why worry? I was relaxing so much that my mind seemed almost detached from my body. There was no feeling of strain.

I barely noticed the half-mile, passed in 1.58 minutes, nor when, round the next bend, Chataway went into the lead. At three-quarters of a mile my effort was still barely perceptible; the time was 3.07 minutes and by now the crowd was roaring. Somehow I had to run that last lap in 59 seconds. Then I pounced past Chataway at the beginning of the back straight, 300 yards from the finish.

There was a moment of mixed excitement and anguish when my mind took over. It raced well ahead of my body and drew me compellingly forward. There was no pain, only a great unity of movement and aim. Time seemed to stand still, or did not exist. The only reality was the next 200 yards of track under my feet. The tape meant finality, even extinction perhaps.

I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride. The air filled me with the spirit of the track where I had run my first race. The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd. Their hope and encouragement gave me greater strength: I had now turned the last bend and there were only 50 yards more.

My body must have exhausted its energy, but it still went on running just the same. The physical overdraft came only from greater willpower. This was the crucial moment when my legs were strong enough to carry me over the last few yards, as they could not have done in previous years. With five yards to go, the finishing line seemed almost to recede. Those last few seconds seemed an eternity. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace after the struggle. The arms of the world were waiting to receive me only if I reached the tape without slackening my speed. If I faltered now, there would be no arms to hold me and the world would seem a cold, forbidding place. I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last desperate spring to save himself from a chasm that threatens to engulf him.

Then my effort was over and I collapsed almost unconscious, with an arm on either side of me. It was only then that real pain overtook me. It was as if all my limbs were caught in an ever-tightening vice. Blood surged from my muscles to my brain and seemed to fell me. I felt like an exploded flashbulb. Vision became black and white. I existed in the most passive physical state without being quite unconscious. I knew that I had done it before I even heard the time. I was surely too close to have failed, unless my legs had played strange tricks at the finish by slowing me down and not telling my tiring brain that they had done so.

The stopwatches held the answer. The announcement came from Norris McWhirter, delivered with a dramatic, slow, clear diction: ‘Result of Event Eight: One mile. First, R. G. Bannister of Exeter and Merton Colleges, in a time which, subject to ratification, is a new Track Record, British Native Record, British All-Comers Record, European Record, Commonwealth Record and World Record… Three minutes…’ The rest was lost in the roar of excitement. I grabbed Brasher and Chataway and together we scampered round the track in a burst of happiness. We had done it, the three of us!

We shared a place where no man had yet ventured, secure for all time, however fast men might run miles in future. We had done it where we wanted, when we wanted, in our first attempt of the year. In the excitement my pain was forgotten and I wanted to prolong those precious moments of happiness.

I felt suddenly and gloriously free from the burden of athletic ambition that I had been carrying for years. No words could be invented for such supreme happiness, eclipsing all other feelings. I thought at that moment I could never again reach such a climax of single-mindedness. I felt bewildered and overpowered.

Looking back at the lap times, it becomes clear we had come dangerously close to missing our goal, despite each of us playing our parts as heroically as we could. The race started according to plan. Brasher rightly ignored my shouted instruction for him to run faster at a time when his pace judgement was in fact excellent. He managed the half-mile in 1 minute 58.3 seconds. Asked afterwards how he judged the pace he replied in his characteristic vernacular: ‘I bloody well couldn’t go any faster!’ He then continued for another half-lap before Chris C took over for one lap between 2½ and 3½ laps.

Only with hindsight is it clear how close to failure we were at that point. The danger is shown by the 220-yard times, which I will list, with the full quarter-mile lap times in parentheses:

Lap 1: 28.7, 29.0 (57.7)

Lap 2: 29.8, 30.8 (60.6)

Lap 3: 31.3, 31.1 (62.4)

Lap 4: 29.7, 29.0 (58.7)

Total 3:59.4.

The fifth 220, when Chris B was tiring, was 31.3 and the sixth 220, after Chris C had taken over, was 31.1. So this pair of 220s took 62.4 seconds, which was 3.7 seconds slower than the last lap. Clearly, if this third lap had been any slower, my sprint over the last 220 yards might well not have been enough to bring us success. There had been a marked but understandable slowing of the pace, making the effort more uneven and less efficient than we had planned.

I had made no promise that I would attempt to break the four-minute mile that day but Norris McWhirter had leaked to the BBC that there could be something afoot on the Oxford track that day which they wouldn’t want to miss. They put two and two together. The reason I didn’t want to make any announcement of my attempt was that if the weather was hopeless, in particular too windy, I would call off any attempt and perhaps just run a 4-minute 5-second mile, which I knew would be a disappointment to the crowd. It meant that I could save myself for the next possible occasion – ten days later at the White City in London. In the event, the BBC only sent a lone cameraman, who stood on the roof of his van parked in the centre of the track and wielded a handheld camera, hence the rather poor quality of the film. Norris had also passed the same message to the dozen or so athletic correspondents whom he knew well, who turned out in force. Enigmatically, Norris just said to them, ‘You might regret it if you were not there.’ We went to Vincent’s Club before I was whisked off by the BBC to the studio in London to appear in a new BBC weekly sports programme with an 8 p.m. deadline. To my surprise the BBC had managed to get the whole of the black-and-white film taken in Oxford only two hours before and it was shown on television that night.


We had an evening of celebration in London, starting with dinner at the Royal Court Club in Chelsea and ending up with our girlfriends in a nightclub until the early morning. At about 2 a.m. we drove off to Fleet Street, where we expected all-night book stands might already have early editions of the papers. Chris B’s driving must have been erratic because a policeman stopped us, and we thought, ‘Oh no! What have we done wrong?’

When Chris wound down his window and stuck his head out, the policeman said, ‘You are driving as though you had lost your way, sir,’ which indeed we had. Then, glancing into the car, he recognised our faces and said, ‘Oh, I recognise you, it’s the three record breakers. Well done! Would you mind giving me your autographs?’ This we happily did and went on our way. When we got the newspapers, we found they had gone to town. There were banner headlines and front- and back-page pieces which the newsrooms had been storing up in advance with long background stories about whether a four-minute mile, like the climbing of Everest was possible. It was rather bad for our egos.

The next morning, my fellow students carried me into the medical school on their shoulders. We learnt later that the news had leaked through to the Oxford Union, where a member interrupted the debate to move for the adjournment of the House for 3.59.4 minutes. The new president of the Union was confused. He refused to accept the motion because ‘notice had not been given’.

The press were on my trail everywhere for the next few days. To avoid their attentions I could only reach and leave my home in Harrow through the back garden, with the help of chairs and ladders over a succession of fences. I escaped to Oxford for a quiet day with my friends the Wendens. When I returned to London, I needed a suitcase to carry off my telegrams and letters. It was the beginning of a series of fan mail and of invitations to open sports centres and running tracks that has continued to this very day.

A week later, the Foreign Office passed on to me an invitation to go to America to appear on various television shows. They hoped I would accept in order to, in that well-worn phrase, strengthen Anglo-American relations. But that was only partly true. The impetus had come from a TV company in New York which had a popular weekly programme called I’ve Got a Secret. Unbeknownst to me and without my consent, I found myself being smuggled out under an assumed name. But the news of my arrival was leaked and, standing on the airport steps in New York, I was surrounded by a ring of reporters. The matter then became vastly more complicated. I was shocked to learn that a cigarette company was sponsoring the TV show. It won’t surprise you to learn that even before Richard Doll’s definitive research incriminating smoking in causing lung cancer, the deadly effects of smoking were well known medically. I had never smoked. The Foreign Office now took over the whole management of my tour and had by then already paid my fare and covered my expenses in New York. I made one interview after another and was presented with a colossal trophy valued at hundreds of pounds for the first person to run a four-minute mile. I suppose, the donors hoped and expected it to be won by an American. I handed it back and got them to prepare a modest replica the size of an egg cup costing $25, the amount to which an amateur athlete was entitled. One day I was taken up in a New York Harbour Authority helicopter and we skirted round sky scrapers like a giant busy mosquito, slipping under bridges and buzzing the Statue of Liberty.

My trip was summed up well by a formal statement by a Foreign Office minister. Less formal was a comment made in the Oxford Union a week later: ‘You can hardly give a girl a bunch of flowers nowadays without endangering her amateur status.’ In 1956, Wes Santee lost his amateur status for receiving expenses above the maximum allowed, as had Gunder Hägg during the war. This shows just how careful I had to be, that it could happen almost inadvertently.

The four-minute mile was a team achievement in which all of the members – me, Chris B, Chris C and Franz Stampfl – played crucial parts, as well as the faithful McWhirters, who kept us apprised of Landy and Santee’s every attempt. Without any one of us, it would not have been run on 6 May 1954, soon enough to forestall foreign rivals and bring the achievement to Britain.

Each of our relationships with Franz as a coach differed. The closest was Chris B, frustrated by his ‘failure’ at Helsinki, putting himself entirely in the hands of Franz Stampfl, who persuaded him that if he followed exactly the training regimes Franz would provide, he would win a gold medal in the steeplechase at Melbourne in 1956.

Chris C knew that the boredom of training alone was too much and so he joined Brasher at the Duke of York’s barracks, where he was introduced to Franz, with whom he planned his training in a much more general way than Chris B. There was no British runner other than Chris Chataway who could have paced the latter part of the race.

Chris B and Chris C were very good friends, coming from the same background of Oxford and Cambridge athletics. Brasher and I had toured America in 1949 when I was captain of the combined Oxford and Cambridge team to Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Cornell. I had also beaten him when he represented Cambridge in the 7½-mile 1949 Oxford v. Cambridge cross-country race, but we were not track rivals because he was clearly better than me over longer distances. By the time Chataway went up to Oxford I had graduated and was doing research. A photograph now in the National Portrait Gallery shows my arms round the two Chrises after the race. My gratitude to them is absolutely evident. It was clear then and has been ever since.

We all had a common aim and shared the success. Chris B, Chris C and Franz Stampfl were all very generous in the support and companionship they offered me during training. The secret, I think, was that we realised it would be a first for Britain, a national achievement, and for British athletics. It was old-fashioned patriotism in the best sense, which is less popular today.

There was another element firing me and perhaps the Chrises too. We were members of the generation that had been at school during the war. I was acutely conscious of the men only two years older than me who had fought and been killed, never having the chance to show what they could achieve both in sport and the rest of their lives. I believe this spurred me to grasp every opportunity I had, and to seek some way of showing that had I been older, I might have perhaps displayed at least some of their spirit. Now in a civilian world the question had become – could I show this by achieving this historic target in athletics?

Chris Brasher was a year older than me and the toughest and most determined runner of the trio; the three musketeers, as some called us. However, in 1954 he was then basically a climber and a cross-country runner, not a miler. He also had the most confidence, sure that his will power and hard work would bring him success. His father had served in the British Empire as an engineer, directing the laying of telephone cables in the Middle East in the 1930s while his children attended boarding schools in England. Chris had run at Rugby School and there, at the age of sixteen, ran in the longest schoolboys’ race in Britain, the Crick Run, over ten miles. He had also taken up mountain climbing while at school. After graduating in Engineering at Cambridge, he had joined an expedition to Greenland and then started work in London for the Mobil Oil Company.

Under Franz’s direction, Brasher went on to win the 1956 Olympics as a steeplechaser. After years of struggling with variable form and frustrating injuries, he finally took the gold that his efforts deserved. The victory only came after an agonising wait while a protest that he had obstructed another runner was dismissed. In a piece for the Sunday Times praising his victory, I wrote, ‘It lifted a huge personal burden from his shoulders and, in his own words, freed him from the imprisonment he had felt in his own body.’ It was also an important symbolic victory. With the Soviet Vladimir Kuts, supported entirely by his country and training up to five hours every day, winning both the 5,000m and the 10,000m, amateur runners looked in danger of extinction. That extinction may now have come about, but at the time Brasher’s gold medal gave hope to a generation of athletes still simultaneously supporting separate full-time careers.

There followed a successful career as a journalist for The Observer and as a BBC producer. However, when the history of the twentieth century is written, it is his creation of the London Marathon for which he will be primarily remembered. Modelling it on the New York Marathon, he and co-creator John Disley, his fellow steeple-chase runner, realised that London had more historic sites than New York. Capitalising on the running revolution which had started in America in the 1960s, a London Marathon would be a winner. But Chris B had to fight fierce opposition from London authorities and the police to get it off the ground. It was only because of his bullet-headed tenacity that he won the day. Within a few years it became the largest marathon in the world, with 40,000 runners and many turned away each year. Sadly Chris B died of pancreatic cancer in 2003, after a brave battle.

Chris Chataway was rightly thought of as the most glamorous of the trio, having an air of nonchalance and sophistication, marked by publicly smoking an occasional cigarette. He always had immense charm. His father had worked as a pilot in the First World War, then a test pilot and finally as an overseas civil servant in the Sudan Political Service. The challenging climate had led him to early retirement. Sadly, he had returned to England with heart disease and was ill at home for several years before he eventually died in 1955. As the oldest of four children, much of the guidance and financial control fell upon Chris’s shoulders, protecting his three younger siblings, who were all educated privately.

Chris had gone to Sherborne School and was more of a boxer than a runner at first until he saw Zátopek winning the 5,000m in the 1948 Olympics. He immediately stopped buying Boxing Weekly to read Athletics Weekly instead. He then completed his National Service with the Royal Green Jackets, before going up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where his uncle had been president, in order to read history. While at Magdalen, he concentrated on sport and, as I had four years before, became president of the Oxford University Athletic Club.

After Finals he joined Guinness as an executive trainee. At first he lived at the company’s headquarters in Hanger Lane, Ealing, where the nearby playing fields were convenient for training. The executive trainees at Guinness were given the name ‘brewers’ and regularly lunched with the chairman, Sir Hugh Beaver. One day, when Sir Hugh had spent the weekend grouse shooting, he asked, ‘Who can tell me how fast those wretched birds can fly?’ Chris said he didn’t know, but he knew someone who did – thinking of Norris McWhirter, whose memory was encyclopaedic. ‘Bring him to lunch,’ Sir Hugh Beaver said. When they met, Sir Hugh was both astonished and fascinated by how much Norris knew, apart from the speed of flight of the grouse. This was the start of the close relationship between Sir Hugh and Norris which led to the Guinness Book of Records, now published in fifty-two languages, which still has the largest annual sales of any book except the Bible.

I once visited Chris C at his home in Woking. He took me running round some of his training circuits, through its neighbouring heath and woodland. I simply could not match him. By 1952 he had become Britain’s most promising three miler and 5,000m runner. But he had missed winning a medal in Helsinki, probably since, like me he was undertrained. He tripped and fell on the last bend through fatigue, but valiantly got up and came fifth in the race which was won by Emil Zátopek. I believe this left him still fiercely ambitious for athletic fame, though he wanted to limit his running career to only a few more years.

Though the 5,000m was his best distance, he had already run a 4.10-minute mile and, perhaps like every middle-distance runner of our generation, hoped that the four-minute mile would sooner or later be within his own compass. He did go on to break the four-minute mile himself a year later in the Emsley Carr mile at the White City, which was won by Derek Ibbotson and Brian Hewson in a dead heat. A sub-four-minute mile was not realistic for Chris B, though he did admit after the four-minute mile was over to having a dream of completing the first half-mile and then somehow carrying on at the same pace and breaking the barrier himself. So the two Chrises, despite having their own ambitions, agreed to be pacemakers, playing the role of supporting cast, helping me to break four minutes.

Chris C defeated Vladimir Kuts and set up a new world record for 5k in a dramatic duel under floodlights, one of the most iconic races of the 1950s, and an event which earned him the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. He ran in the Olympic 5,000m in Melbourne in 1956 but was not at his best. He got into the final though did not manage to make the top ten and retired soon after.

Chris’s handsome and debonair impression led many to underestimate his abilities on first meeting. He became the first television newscaster for ITV with Robin Day, then launched into politics. Underlying his wish to be an MP was a great idealism and compassion, which found its early fruits in his contribution towards resolving the post-war refugee problem – the distressed people swirling about Europe. For this he was awarded the rare honour of the Nansen Medal. He had two spells as a Conservative MP, first between 1959 and 1966, during which time he held the seat at Lewisham North and was briefly Junior Education Minister. He returned to be elected as MP for Chichester in 1969 and became Ted Heath’s Minister for Posts and Communications in 1970. At one point he incurred the wrath of Opposition leader Harold Wilson for sacking a favoured trade unionist; political colleagues attest to his firm handling of such difficult situations. After a period in opposition he decided to retire from politics and went into banking. His final appointment was as chairman of the Airports Authority, following which he was knighted. He lent his vision and knowledge to many charities. When his son Adam started a water scheme for Ethiopia in 2010, Chris, then nearly eighty, ran in the Great North Run to raise funds for it. He was very much loved by his family – indeed, one son said that above all his father’s achievements he will remember him as a good father. I knew that after a long illness he was gallant to the end.

Franz Stampfl had been the focal point of our team. He was a handsome, debonair Viennese Rex Harrison. He started with Brasher, whom he had coached for several years since Helsinki, and then Chataway for a season, by the time I joined them in October 1953. When Franz first came to Britain at the age of seventeen, he was a promising javelin thrower and skier in his native Austria, but he was interned at the outbreak of the war. In 1940, along with other aliens, he was bound for Australia on what amounted to a prison-ship, the Demera Star. After leaving Liverpool, the ship was torpedoed and Franz survived several hours in the ice-cold water before he was picked up. To us, who had missed the war, the knowledge that he had faced death and survived through courage and endurance gave his words of exhortation a unique force. But more important, he radiated charm, humour and enthusiasm, all vital in coaching where a large part of a coach’s success depends on inculcating self-confidence into his athletes, just as I was learning how important the same qualities were for a doctor. He became a freelance coach, renting the Duke of York’s army barracks in Chelsea in the evenings. I went weekly with the Chrises to the sessions he ran here, usually running 400m fast and slow, totalling twenty laps, or five miles.

The need for coaching varies greatly between different sports and the different disciplines within each. Track athletes generally need less coaching than sportsmen in the more technical hurdling and field events which had been Franz’s real specialty until then. By the time Franz and I had met, I had run for eight years. But I knew to my cost I had made mistakes in planning my training for Helsinki. Franz had the measure of my character; he knew I needed to be handled on a loose rein and also had the insight to know what was needed to increase my strength and confidence for the following May.

Each week through the winter of 1953–54 he watched our interval running, noting the times we had done and judging how hard it had been to achieve them. He approved the climbing break with Chris B when we seemed to be getting ‘stale’. Unlike Landy’s Percy Cerutty (from whom Landy parted company) Franz never commented to the press on my progress or running plans or that a four-minute mile record attempt might soon be made. He was never authoritarian in his advice or directions. Franz was concerned with athletics as a liberating force because it is an individual pursuit: there may on occasion be records to be broken and medals to be won, but mostly there is fun in company, and, in attempting to better one’s own performance, no matter how modest. Franz understood this and instilled this attitude of individualism among his athletes. I shall always regard the crux of his contribution that, on the day of the race, he gave me the self-belief that despite the bad weather I could break the four-minute mile, and I believed him.




A Letter to the Financial Times

  • March 05, 2018 11:04
  • John Nickson

A Letter to the Financial Times                                 Cover 9781849548038                                          

Merryn Somerset Webb (Britain’s charitable giving model undermines democracy, 24.2.2018) misunderstands charity’s contribution to democracy by focusing on abuse of power in some of our best known large charities.

Her criticism of Oxfam and the misuse of public as well as private money is valid. Public benefit and value for money should prevail but she is wrong to say that 99 per cent of charitable organisations should lose Gift Aid because without thousands of small, local and vulnerable charities (for whom tax relief is vital), our social fabric would be even more damaged than it has been by reductions in local authority spending of up to 50 per cent in the poorest parts of the UK since 2010. 

The relationship between charitable giving, tax relief and the public interest is complex.   Our NHS depends upon academic research almost entirely funded by £3 billion a year of charitable donations enhanced by tax relief.

We are in the midst of profound change but the need to find new ways of raising social capital seems to be beyond the capacity of politicians. Pioneering charities are providing the leadership we need as they have often done. Working together at a local level with others in the non- profit, public and private sectors, they are showing how to address some of our most acute social challenges.  Thus tax relief encourages private giving for public benefit.

The greatest threat to our democracy is not Gift Aid but inequality and plutocracy. Greater commitment and participation by all of us, by giving more money and time in addition to paying our taxes, will strengthen our democracy. Tax relief should be seen in that light rather than in the murky morals of a few.


CLICK HERE: 'Our Common Good' by john Nickson



Chris Rennard’s “Winning Here” – the requiem for the battered Lib Dems or the handbook for another revival?

  • February 28, 2018 10:20
  • Political Betting, Steve Lawson

A review of Chris Rennard’s newly published “Winning Here - My Campaigning Life: Memoirs Volume 1" 

“Paddy’s personal ratings were shown to be very high in our poll, even at the outset of the by- election campaign. This helped to persuade him of the validity of the other poll findings.”

Thus Chris Renard then the LD director of campaigns and elections coaxed Paddy Ashdown into accepting his formula for winning the 1993 Newbury by-election. The humour and shrewdness about people’s motivation mark this first volume of his political memoirs (just published by Biteback): it never becomes a mere boastful catalogue of Rennard’s election trophies.

Lord Rennard has measured out his life in by-elections. This book revisits a varied series of by-elections from Liverpool Edge Hill in 1979 to Dunfermline in 2006. He had learned early on how much the U.K’s third party needs the boost from by-election success to improve its tally of seats in general elections. And, as the apostle of targeting seats for general elections, he in effect simulated by-elections in those seats which gave full scope for Lib Dem campaign techniques.

His first chapter “An Unusual Introduction to Politics in Liverpool” describes his immersion in the community politics developed by the Liverpool Liberal councillors, year-round leafleting, canvassing and campaigning. These continue to characterise the party’s approach to elections.

Without self-pity he writes about his loving but straitened upbringing. It was a Liberal Councillor who had helped Rennard’s disabled mother to get her widowed mothers’ allowance. Orphaned when nearly 17, Rennard then showed abnormal self-reliance in getting through sixth form and university. This he combined with a massive workload for the local Liberals. His heroic labours take on a Victorian resonance, an example of self-help straight out of Samuel Smiles.

When the Edge Hill by-election was called shortly before the 1979 General Election, the Liberals nationally stood at 5% in opinion polls, damaged by the Lib-Lab Pact and the impending trial of former party leader. Jeremy Thorpe, for conspiracy to murder. The Liverpool Liberals were in good campaigning shape with Rennard already a seasoned and trusted part of the machine.

The victory of David Alton at Edge Hill meant the saving of the then Liberal Party. They moved up in the polls and held eleven of their fourteen seats in the General Election that followed immediately: a lesson not lost on Rennard. During the Alliance years he became Alton’s agent and helped him win the new seat of Mossley Hill from third place. He then became the East Midlands organiser, in charge of the West Derbyshire by- election in 1986 when the Liberals failed to take the seat by 100 votes.

In 1990 by which time Rennard had become the LD Director of Campaigns and Elections the IRA murdered Ian Gow – CON M.P for Eastbourne. Paddy Ashdown was reluctant to put forward a candidate for the ensuing by-election since he did not wish the party to be seen to benefit from terrorism. This caused Rennard to send Ashdown an irate memo setting out reasons to stand:“.. It will not be seen to be bold and courageous to recommend not fighting- it will make you a laughing stock in Walworth Road, Downing Street and eventually in the quality press that you threw away this chance.”

The LD victory in the subsequent by-election made it clear that the LDs were back in business: “a safe seat had been lost to a party that Mrs Thatcher herself had recently branded as a ” dead parrot” Six weeks later she resigned as Prime Minister.”

Successes in Ribble Valley and Kincardine and Deeside followed, strengthening the LDs in the run-up to GE1992 but the hoped-for big increase in LD seats failed to materialise. Rennard argues that speculation about a hung parliament and proportional representation, which he himself had wanted to avoid, was promoted by Ashdown in the last days of the 1992 – and this deterred Conservative voters whom the Lib Dems had hoped to win over.

Rennard’s attitude towards Ashdown rather resembled that of a kindly school master trying to make sure that a gifted pupil bored with the syllabus does himself justice in the exams.

This pattern repeats itself in Rennard’s account of the LD revival which began with the Newbury by-election in 1993 where Rennard shows himself to have been a sceptic about Ashdown’s preoccupation with Lib-Lab cooperation, believing that careless talk about coalition would cost votes. Based on his Liverpool experience the Rennard approach in any election campaign was to find out the issues on voters’ minds and to deal with those issues rather than go on about constitutional reform which polling suggested was only of interest to a minute fraction of voters,

Rennard’s strategy at GE1997 delivered 46 LD seats, the largest third party contingent since 1929 a number which had increased to 62 at GE2005. By then Charles Kennedy had become the Liberal Democrat leader and Rennard writes sensitively about the alcoholism which was to cost Kennedy the leadership. Ever practical, however he saw the Dunfermline by-election of 2006 as a means to give the party a boost after Kennedy’s downfall.

Throughout the book Rennard refers – never at great length – to his health problems of depression and diabetes-, problems not eased by his long irregular hours and it was these problems which caused him to step down as the Paty’s chief executive.

Certainly this book is generous to colleagues and friends, and suggests he is loyal and considerate in his personal dealings.

'Winning Here' - Hardback: £25.00 | eBook: £20.00 

CLICK HERE to follow Chris Rennard on Twitter: @LordRennard 


The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews

  • January 31, 2018 16:08
  • The Daily Mail

MI6 makes rare public tribute to 'unassuming' British spy who saved 10,000 Jews from Nazi Germany

Frank Foley flouted Nazi laws, forged passports and even hid families in his home appeared as mild-mannered bureaucrat but was UK's most senior spy in Berlin tireless work which saved 10,000 was never acknowledged during his lifetime spy chief said: 'His tenacity and passion saved lives of many thousands of Jews'

By Keiligh Baker on 30 January 2018, The Daily Mail

Francis Foley worked as a passport control officer in Berlin as cover for his intelligence work. He saved the lives of thousands of Jews

The head of MI6 has paid a rare public tribute to a spy who saved more than 10,000 Jews from Nazi Germany.

Alex Younger, who has been Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service since 2014, told the Holocaust Educational Trust and the family of spy Frank Foley that he had been 'a consummately effective intelligence officer'.

Mr Foley, who died 60 years ago, was attached to the British Embassy in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. He worked as a passport control officer as cover for his intelligence work, and used his position to provide visas for those desperate to flee the rise of anti-Semitism.


Foley: The Spy Who Saved 10,000 Jews by Michael Smith

He repeatedly flouted Nazi laws, at great personal danger, to enable Jews in Germany to escape to Britain and Palestine. He also helped to forge passports, secured their release from concentration camps, and in the late 1930s he even hid Jewish fugitives in his own home.

Despite this, his tireless work was never acknowledged during his lifetime. In 2004 a plaque was placed outside the British Embassy in Berlin to pay tribute to his remarkable courage - the first time that the British government officially recognised his work.

Mr Younger, speaking at at the MI6 headquarters in London yesterday, said: 'There is a mantra that surrounds MI6's history that reads 'Our successes are private, our failures are public'.

Alex Younger Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service since 2014, told the family of Mr Foley that he had been 'a consummately effective intelligence officer'

'The need for secrecy has sometimes helped create a pretty distorted and inaccurate narrative of the organisation's achievements since its foundation in 1909.

'It's a wonderful thing for MI6 that one of its most distinguished members' successes are no longer private.  

'Frank's dignity, compassion and bravery are in no doubt. As a consummately effective intelligence officer he witnessed at first hand the Nazi seizure of power, and the horrors and depravity of the regime. While many condemned and criticised the Nazis' discriminative laws, Frank took action.

'With little regard for his personal safety he took a stance against evil. Despite exposing himself to significant personal risk, Frank made a decision to help. 

'He knew the dire consequences were he to get caught. Frank's tenacity and passion saved the lives of many thousands of European Jews, using his position as a passport control officer, he ensured that they could travel safely out of the clutches of Hitler's killers.' 

Journalist Michael Smith, who first uncovered Mr Foley's incredible story after being tipped-off by a MI6 contacts, previously said: 'He was very moralistic. He'd been brought up a Catholic by his mother and studied to be a priest.

'To him the whole Hitler regime was anathema - he said it was the rule of the devil on earth'.


Major Francis Edward Foley CMG (1884-1955) worked for the Foreign Office and became Head of the British Passport Control Office in Germany.

Despite appearing to be nothing more than a mild mannered bureaucrat, he was in fact Britain's most senior spy in Berlin.  

During his time in the city, Foley is known to have saved an estimated 10,000 German Jews after Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933.

During his time in Berlin, Foley is known to have saved an estimated 10,000 German Jews after Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933

He used his role in the Passport Office as a cover for his real job as an Intelligence Officer working for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), later called MI6. 

This made his efforts on behalf of the Jews even more dangerous. 

If he had been arrested, Foley would have had no diplomatic immunity as he was working as a spy, but for years he broke Nazi laws to help Jews leave the country.

He made no money from his rescue efforts but repeatedly risked his own life to save many others. He never sought recognition or praise for his acts of rescue. 

Foley first moved to Berlin in 1920. He was therefore able to observe and report back on the political and social changes that took place in Germany as a result of the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Foley was also able to see the impact of the many anti-Semitic measures introduced by the Nazis and the effect these had on the every day lives of Jews. 

He entered concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen and presented visas to the camp authorities so that Jews could be freed to travel.

Foley also hid Jews in his home and used his secret service skills to help them obtain false papers, forged passports and visas. By issuing these visas, Foley was also breaking British laws.

During his lifetime, Foley received no recognition for his actions in the UK. 

However, in 1999, Foley's actions resulted in his being recognised as 'Righteous Amongst the Nations' at Yad Vashem in Israel. 

On 24 November 2004, the 120th anniversary of Foley's birth, a plaque was unveiled in his honour at the British Embassy in Berlin. 

In Highbridge, Somerset, a plaque has been placed on the house where Foley was born and in May 2005 a statue dedicated to him was also unveiled.


Now 91, Werner Lachs has lived in Britain since 1939 when, at the age of 12, he was able to escape Germany with his family.

Out of the blue, the family had received a letter from the British Passport Office in Berlin, telling them their visas had been granted.

Not having the money to pay for the documents, they were baffled as to how it had come about.

In the 1990s Mr Lachs was contacted by a journalist, who informed him that his family's visa to the UK had been granted by MI6 spy Frank Foley.

For years, Mr Lachs was consumed by the idea that another family might have missed out on a visa in order to allow his family to escape.

But after more than 50 years, he finally discovered the truth.

In the 1990s, he was contacted by a journalist, who informed him that his family's visa had been granted by MI6 spy Frank Foley.

Mr Foley, who worked in the passport office as his cover, was so moved by the atrocities inflicted upon the Jews that he rubber-stamped thousands of visa requests and forged passports, enabling Jews to escape to Britain and Palestine.

Ruth and Werner Lachs, who live in Prestwich and have just celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary, have three children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren

Mr Lachs said: 'I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. Frank Foley is a saintly person who saved my life, and thousands of others, and I owe my life to him. By rescuing us, he strengthened my faith and my Jewish beliefs that someone is watching over me.'

Now Mr Lachs and his wife Ruth, herself a survivor of the Nazi regime, live in Prestwich and have just celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary, have three children, nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren. 

Despite the enormous loss and upheaval they suffered as children, they both consider themselves to be 'the lucky ones'.




Farewell Cyrille Regis

  • January 19, 2018 16:26
  • Biteback Publishing

In a tribute to the great Cyrille Regis who sadly passed away on Monday this week, here is an excerpt from Emy Onuora's brilliant Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers.  In it, Onuora charts the bringing together of Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson in the legendary West Brom team of the late 1970s and details the racist climate in which they played the game.

Laurence Paul Cunningham was quite simply one of the most talented players of his generation. Possessed of poise, balance and speed, his movement was graceful, effortless and economic. He glided around the pitch and was blessed with great touch, awareness and an ability to play at his own pace regardless of the topsy-turvy, helter-skelter nature of the game going on around him. In a remarkable career, he was the first English player to play for Real Madrid and the second black player to win a full England cap. He played for Manchester United, won an FA Cup winners’ medal as a prince amongst Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang and, at West Bromwich Albion, he formed one third of the ‘Three Degrees’, the legendary footballing trio that formed a critical part of the Ron Atkinson side that achieved considerable success throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Injuries robbed him of his key footballing faculties while at Real Madrid, and he never fully recovered those key ingredients that made him such a wonderful performer: his easy acceleration and change of pace. While his career declined from its peak of gracing the Bernabéu, the greater tragedy was the cutting short of his life in a car crash at the age of just thirty-three.

English football could be a dire place if open, attractive football was the kind of thing you wanted to watch. Pitches were often devoid of grass and the first shower of rain would quickly turn it into a mud bath. Derby County’s Baseball Ground was notorious for being particularly poor. It was covered in several inches of mud throughout autumn and winter and baked hard in early and late spring as the season drew to a close. Grass seemed to be anathema to the Baseball Ground, as though it were permanently on strike or some grass-based apartheid was at play to prevent it from operating as it should. Coaches valued toughness, grit, determination, work-rate and courage over technical ability. Every team seemed to have at least one midfield ‘enforcer’, who possessed little in the way of technical ability but whose job was to intimidate and brutalise the opposition. Central defenders were typically big, tough tackling and good in the air, but extremely vulnerable to any kind of pace or speed of turn. Full-backs were often of limited technical ability, but were likewise, expected to be tough in the tackle. Up front, target men were often cut from the same cloth as their centre-back counterparts and would typically operate alongside a small, nippy, infinitely more mobile partner to form a big-man/little-man strike force. In midfield, players were expected to get stuck in and display a lung-busting work ethic. As a result, the football served up on a weekly basis often lacked guile and quality and was devoid of anything approaching style. Players would often be covered in so much mud the numbers on the backs of their shirts couldn’t be seen. That is not to say that football didn’t possess moments of excitement. There were plenty of goal-mouth incidents and the attritional nature of the football on show, while not aesthetically pleasing, had its own unique beauty of a kind.

There were of course, exceptions to this. Some teams throughout the leagues had supremely gifted individuals of outstanding technical ability, but they were often mistrusted. Viewed often as ‘Fancy-Dan’, maverick types, they were too showy, too ostentatious and over-indulgent for the tastes of all but a few football managers. They were not to be trusted, particularly when the going got tough, and they would often be overlooked at international level. The England national team’s wilderness years throughout the 1970s and early 1980s was attributable to this rigid mindset. Successive England managers would ignore or give limited opportunities to flair players, and then all too readily dispense with their services when, with the team set up in a strict, rigid and functional formation, they inevitably failed to perform.

Laurie Cunningham was one of the game’s aesthetes. In addition to the fluency and grace of his movement, he had an array of tricks, flicks, drag-backs and general ball skills that were simultaneously baffling for defenders and breath-taking for spectators. Traditionally, in-swinging corners were performed by left-footed players from the right-hand side and vice versa. Cunningham took in-swinging corners from the right with the outside of his right foot. He also had two good feet and was a deceptively good header of a ball, but his hallmark was his ability to run with the ball at opposing defences. Picking up the ball from deep, he could turn defenders inside and out and, with a drop of the shoulder and a change of pace, could beat them from a standing start.

West Bromwich Albion’s Three Degrees marked a watershed in the development of black professional footballers in the UK. Until the 1970s, black footballers tended to exist as isolated examples. Albion’s larger-than-life manager Ron Atkinson, however, turned the blackness of Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson into a somewhat crude publicity drive, dubbing them the Three Degrees after the popular black female vocal trio, who were allegedly Prince Charles’s favourite singers.

Atkinson had transformed the fortunes of Albion, and the side had developed into a successful, attractive team. From the beginning of 1970s, the club had struggled to maintain its First Division status and suffered relegation in 1973. It had gained promotion in 1976 and had performed well, but under Atkinson’s stewardship they began to challenge for trophies and titles. Cunningham, Batson and Regis formed an integral part of the team’s transformation and were the first high-profile club of the era to play so many black players in the same side. The Three Degrees were distinctly of their time.

Regis and Batson were born in the Caribbean and Cunningham was born in north London. Their parents were of the generation that had come to the UK during the post-war period. Many migrated to Britain without any real plans other than finding work and getting settled, and many others came with the intention of staying for a few years and then returning home. Those whose initial plan was to return home often found that employment, settling into a community and, in particular, raising their children in a new country all acted as impediments to their moving back to their countries of birth.

The second generation had a distinctly different attitude to that of their parents, but players such as the Three Degrees learned, in the rarefied atmosphere of English professional football, to adopt some of those characteristics of determination and stoicism that formed a critical part of their parents’ experience. Their parents had faced unparalleled levels of discrimination. Many skilled workers were forced to take jobs several rungs beneath their levels of expertise and competence. Their employment opportunities were characterised by low pay, low status and semi- or unskilled work and they were barred access to promotion, equal pay and often basic employment protection. In housing, the deliberately discriminatory policies applied by local housing authorities and estate agents conspired to consign black communities to the worst housing available, and they suffered discrimination in all other aspects of the social life of Britain, including shops, pubs and clubs. Racist taunts and abuse in the streets and physical attacks and beatings were a common experience, particularly for young men. Even places of worship were often off-limits for fanatically Christian West Indians, as men of the cloth applied their own rather unique take on Bible teachings of ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ and politely and not so politely refused them admittance to church. Their children, mainly born and raised in the UK and without the perspective of immigrants and new arrivals, were not prepared to put up with the indignities their parents were subjected to, and resisted this treatment in more overt ways. Discriminated against in a range of social spaces, including the streets of their own communities, often by right-wing activity or the police-enforced ‘Sus’ (stop and search) laws, they began to develop both organised and spontaneous forms of resistance.

The Three Degrees were of this generation. All had spent their formative years growing up in London; Cunningham had been born there. Their impact was little short of phenomenal for a number of key reasons. Firstly, they could all play. Regis and Cunningham went on to become full internationals and Batson represented England at B level. Secondly, they were members of a successful side that played free-flowing, attractive football that brought Albion some success before Atkinson departed for Manchester United and the side he had built broke up. Thirdly, as a consequence of the team’s success and their manager’s eye for publicity, the novelty of three black players in a top-flight side at a time when black players were still rare proved to be too good an opportunity to resist for the press, in particular, who competed with each other to come up with the most offensive headlines and ways of peddling lazy stereotypes. The final reason was related to the level of hatred and abuse they received during games. At a time when the existence of racist abuse from the terraces often went unreported by match commentators, even when it was evident from Match of the Day or the regional football programmes shown on ITV, such was the level of venom that Granada TV’s Gerald Sinstadt commented on the ‘unsporting’ treatment of the trio by Manchester United supporters in a league game that Albion had won 5–3 at Old Trafford in December 1978. The three had played brilliantly and Cunningham in particular had given United’s defence a torrid afternoon. Uniquely, Sinstadt had commented on their treatment at a time when the media routinely ignored instances of racist abuse towards black players.

However, their impact on the generation of black footballers who aspired to play the game professionally, and those professionals already plying their trade as footballers, would prove to be inspirational. Their contribution marked the point at which the experiences of black players moved from the individual to the collective, more generalised experiences. The Three Degrees marked the point at which any young black professional entering the game knew they could expect to receive torrents of racist abuse, but also knew that given attitudes within the game, they would be forced to deal with this largely by themselves. It is inconceivable that for some black players considering a football career, the poisonous environment in which they had to earn a living wouldn’t have acted as a serious impediment.


West Ham had been the first top-flight club to field three black players at the same time when Clyde Best, Ade Coker and Clive Charles turned out for the Hammers in April 1972 for a game against Tottenham. Before the mid-1970s, black players had suffered racist abuse to a certain degree, but their involvement in the professional game had been different. They were largely viewed as an exotic novelty act. What changed – and the Three Degrees epitomised this sea-change – was the numbers of players coming into the professional game, and the subsequent response from the terraces: a concerted campaign to abuse black players, often involving organised racist groups. Their presence was no longer an anomaly, this was a movement. Viv Anderson was winning titles and European honours under Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. Tunji Banjo and John Chiedozie were at Orient. Luther Blissett was terrorising defences as part of the Watford team that had a meteoric rise through the divisions to finish as runners-up in the then First Division. George Berry and Bob Hazell formed a tough-tackling, physically intimidating centre-back partnership at Wolves. Garth Crooks was top-scorer for his home town team of Stoke City.

The participation of these players and others was an affront to those who viewed the game as the preserve of whites. For the far right, who used football to promote their ideology and recruit followers, here in microcosm was the expression of the narrative that the country was being or had been taken over by blacks, and no area of society was safe, including the game that Britain had given the world.


Laurie Cunningham’s introduction to the professional game had been a baptism of fire. Shortly after making his debut, playing for Leyton Orient, Cunningham played against Millwall at their home, the Den, in December 1974. In May of that year, the National Front had achieved 11.5 per cent of the vote in a by-election in the London Borough of Newham and were claiming to have 20,000 members.

In addition to Cunningham, the Orient side included another black player in Bobby Fisher and an Asian player, Ricky Heppolette. As the team coach arrived at the Den, they were met by National Front members, distributing racist propaganda. As they emerged from the tunnel and entered onto the pitch, as well as the usual vitriol, they were greeted with bananas and a carving knife that were thrown onto the pitch. Cunningham and Fisher, in imitation of the 1972 US Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith, had made black power salutes as an act of defiance.

The game had given the eighteen-year-old Cunningham a taste of the racial prejudice he would face throughout his career. He also recognised his role as a trailblazer and role model, realising that he couldn’t be seen to allow the abuse to affect him because of the impact it might have on other black players. Cunningham reasoned that if he could find a way of dealing with the abuse and the other forms of racial prejudice he faced, it would be easier for others to get a fair chance. He understood that he was going to need to put up with the intimidatory tackling, not only because he was a young, skilful winger, but also to prove that, as a black player, he possessed the necessary ‘bottle’, the mental fortitude that casual prejudice dictated was a key trait lacking in black players.

Cunningham was shown remarkable patience by George Petchey, his manager at Orient, who was to remain a friend of Cunningham’s throughout his life. He was a man prepared to go against the popular and often populist ideas about black players. He was not alone in this regard, but few within the game appeared to be prepared to actively challenge conventional wisdom at this stage. The clubs and the FA appeared impotent and unsure as to how to respond, preferring instead to remain silent, with only few honourable exceptions. Not wholly convinced that football was to be his chosen career, he was torn between a career as a dancer (he had an offer to join the renowned Ballet Rambert Dance Company) and football. He’d developed a reputation as a somewhat indifferent time-keeper with a penchant for fashion and nightclubs. However, he also displayed a canny sense of the political and social environment in which he lived, and embarked on a political journey in order to make sense of his experiences and those of other people in black communities. Assessing his time as a young professional at Orient, he remarked:

There have been times when I’ve been mixed up about the race thing. A couple of years ago I thought that to be black in England was to be a loser. You know, back of the queue for decent jobs. Suspicion on you before anyone knew what you were about.

He continued:

I did have a feeling for ‘Black Power’. It seemed to meet the mood of frustration. It could give you some pride. Then I changed. It sort of struck me that the great majority of people, black and white, are in the same boat, fighting for a decent living. It also struck me down at Orient I was getting a very good break. I got on well with George Petchey. It didn’t matter to him whether I was black, white or Chinese just as long as I could play.

For Cunningham, the footballer’s lifestyle could elevate him above the economic effects of racism, but couldn’t protect him from its psychological and emotional impact. It’s uncommon for footballers to take a political stance, but Cunningham had one. How could he not, given the harsh realities of racism in the game and wider society?


At the beginning of the 1976/77 season, a singular event encapsulated the tense relationship between the police and the black community, something Cunningham no doubt had in mind when he was analysing the way that black people were treated with suspicion as a matter of course. Two hundred and fifty thousand people had attended the 1975 Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest ever turnout. Capital Radio had broadcast live from the event, encouraging attendance from across London. The carnival had become Europe’s biggest street event and was being established as a must-attend attraction for people from the black community from London and beyond. Middle-class residents in north Kensington had organised an anti-carnival petition, signed by 500 people in March 1976. Tension rose throughout spring and summer of 1976 in the run-up to the carnival, and the Metropolitan Police had stated there was to be a heavy presence in response to incidences of pickpocketing the previous year. Three thousand police officers were to be deployed, ten times the numbers from previous years. Pressure was placed on carnival organisers to cancel the event or hold it elsewhere. By the August bank holiday, the scene was set for clashes. Disproportionate and aggressive policing, designed to intimidate or to establish superiority, was met with resistance. In the fighting that followed, 325 police were wounded and sixty people were arrested and charged. Later that day, the police by way of some kind of poorly conceived vengeance on the black community, arrested eighteen young men in Islington, far away from Notting Hill. These young men were first accused of ‘suspicious behaviour’, then arrested and questioned in custody. While in custody, according to the police accounts, all eighteen young men voluntarily confessed that they had gone to the carnival in order to steal and attack the police. The police case hinged on these ‘confessions’ of these eighteen men, seventeen of whom provided evidence that they had been assaulted in police cells. In spite of the best efforts of the prosecution to secure convictions, the jury came up with forty-three not-guilty verdicts, eight guilty and twenty-eight undecided to the range of charges that had come to court. The media response was, as usual, to back the police version of events, even in the face of the evidence as to how the ‘confessions’ had been obtained; there was nothing by way of media or basic journalistic investigative scrutiny of this event. The incident illustrated not only the tense relationship between black communities and the police but, critically, the media’s attitude to black communities.

The press, particularly the tabloids, were busy demonising black communities and especially black youth, portrayed as criminal, job-stealing, slum-dwelling, immigrants rather than the disadvantaged, criminalised and exploited section of British society that, by and large, they were. The press and media in general did not routinely condemn incidences of racism in football until some two decades later and in fact actively contributed to spreading the stereotypes and myths that were routinely ascribed to black footballers.


The era was also a time of increasing activity by the National Front and the British Movement. The far right had first targeted football as potentially fertile ground in the mid-1960s and again made a concerted effort in the 1970s. Far-right literature cynically contained football-related material in a direct attempt to appeal to fans, with Bulldog, the youth paper of the National Front, even having a league table of the most racist fans. While the level of racism in the 1970s was often of a horrific kind, and at clubs where the level of hatred was at its most venomous there existed a significant far-right presence, not all fans who indulged in this behaviour were members of far-right groups. Some indeed were, others had a loose association or alliance and others had no involvement at all but were heavily involved in racist behaviour. Other fans, of course, wanted nothing to do with the behaviour of their fellow travellers. Inevitably, racism coupled with the increase in incidences of football violence turned many off attending games.

There were other developments taking place within the game that were beginning to affect the behaviour of spectators at football matches, too. By the mid-1970s, players’ wages were on the rise, which precipitated an increase in revenue. This increase was, at least amongst the top clubs, paid for by an increase in admission prices. The increases weren’t significant enough to deter the large bulk of supporters, but they had the effect of pricing out supporters at both ends of the supporter age spectrum: pensioners and those of school age no longer attended matches in the numbers they had previously. These two groups generally had a civilising effect on fan behaviour. Older fans – fathers, grandfathers, older relatives – would actively deter bad behaviour by fans, usually by their presence alone. Young children, mainly boys, would often be taken to games by older relatives, but many would also attend together in small groups. The Merseyside giants, Everton and Liverpool, both had a ‘Boys’ Pen’: an area of the ground set aside specifically for under-12s. When crowd crushes or surges occurred on the terraces (which was often), these young fans would be removed from the affected areas or otherwise ‘looked after’ by other spectators concerned about their safety. The absence of these two groups of supporters meant that there were greater proportions of young men and teenage boys, precisely those supporters most likely to participate in football violence, and while this didn’t on its own lead to racist behaviour, the combination of football-related violence and racist behaviour served to make the atmosphere at football grounds more poisonous.

Elsewhere, the start of the 1976 season saw Cunningham continue to produce stellar performances for Orient, but the side struggled both on and off the pitch. Performances and results were poor and the club was crippled with debt. As the season dragged on, it became clear that due to the club’s huge debts and poor form, it was a case only of when, and not if, Cunningham was to be sold. There was speculation about where he might go. Johnny Giles, the player-manager of West Bromwich Albion who had taken the Baggies to the First Division, contacted Orient, a fee was agreed and Cunningham was eventually sold, the first of the legendary Three Degrees to join the West Midlands outfit in March 1977.

A few months later, Cyrille Regis joined him. Regis was born in French Guiana and arrived in England, aged five, without being able to speak any English. A good sportsman, his first love was cricket, at which he represented his county at schools level, and although he played football like any other boy of his age, he didn’t excel. At secondary school, he wasn’t good enough to get into his school football team until he was thirteen. He first played on the right wing and then moved to the striker’s position, where he found that he could score goals. His strength was his speed and he blossomed into a prolific striker and was selected to play representative football for the Borough of Brent. Along the way he had played for a team called Oxford & Kilburn with future England cricket captain Mike Gatting and Mike’s brother Steve, who later played for Arsenal and Brighton. However, it was Cyrille’s performances playing Sunday league that got him noticed and he signed for Moseley in the Athenian League in 1976.

The Athenian League was developing a reputation as a decent source of black footballing talent. The previous year, Phil Walker and Trevor Lee had left Epsom & Ewell to begin a successful stint at Millwall. The eighteen-year-old Regis scored twenty-four goals in his debut season, earning him a transfer to semi-pro outfit Hayes Football Club. Combining work on building sites as an apprentice electrician with playing non-league for Hayes, he scored another twenty-five goals in his first season for them. Fifty goals in two seasons alerted a crop of scouts from league clubs. Eventually it was Ronnie Allen, chief scout at West Bromwich Albion, who persuaded his bosses to pay the £5,000 transfer fee Hayes wanted. Legend has it that Allen offered to pay the transfer fee for the young Regis himself. As Cyrille himself put it:

Story goes that they weren’t sure about me, not that they’d seen me play or whatever, but it came down to money. Five grand and another five grand and Ronnie Allen said well, I’ll buy him with my own money and when he makes it, give me my money back. But there’s also another story that what persuaded him to buy me, he came down to watch me play at Hayes … The ball came across from a corner and I went up for a header … Myself, the goalkeeper, and two defenders and the ball end up in the net and so that persuaded him to buy me.

Along with his capacity for scoring goals, one of the key criteria that had persuaded Allen to bring Regis to Albion was his strength, which was to earn him the nickname of ‘Smokin’ Joe’ due to his alleged similarity to former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier. The name epitomised the somewhat crude depiction of black players at the time, which chose to focus almost exclusively on their physical attributes. Undoubtedly, Regis was strong and powerful and he was also quick, but this description belied his other attributes. Regis would not have been able to play in the top flight for so long and represent England at international level had he been simply a battering-ram of a striker. His hold-up play was intelligent and cunning. His ability to bring others into play was exceptional. His movement was clever and incisive and his finishing was as good as any of his contemporaries. These more cerebral attributes that apply to Regis as well as other black players were rarely analysed in any great detail by a media constrained by a distinctly nineteenth-century perception of black people – and, by extension, black footballers – as ‘exotic’.

Football, like many sports, is a game where clichés are in abundance and within English football they are rife. These clichés often act as a convenient shorthand to convey ideas and concepts. However, in the case of black footballers from this era, the clichés served to present information in a way that not only offered a limited version of the truth but also suggested that the style of play that black players brought to the game was purely and exclusively physical and therefore of limited merit. Bobby Robson, in assessing Johnny Miller, said, ‘Miller had potential without ever really fulfilling it … He didn’t seem to have the aggression and commitment that I was looking for … At the time there was this feeling in the country that coloured players lacked heart. I must admit that I asked myself a number of times, could it be right?’

Germans may be efficient and ruthless, which provides a useful explanation for their prowess at penalty shoot-outs, but this doesn’t preclude admiration for their technical ability. Brazilians possess a rhythmic, samba-inspired footballing style and although popular wisdom often fails to appreciate that the technical ability of Brazilian footballers is rooted in their country’s cultural notions of how football should be played combined with hours of practice to hone that technique, it’s at least admired for its beauty and success. The clichés surrounding black footballers were never juxtaposed with an appreciation of their intelligence and their tactical discipline and awareness. If speed were the only attribute required to play on the wing, that position would be dominated by Olympic sprinters. If strength were the only attribute required to play as a target man, that position would be dominated by powerlifters. Good defensive tactics can often negate speed and strength, and the challenge to overcome this requires a level of strategic thought and planning that often goes unappreciated, even by those who have been involved in the game at the highest level. Knowing how to make the best use of your speed or how to best utilise strength has been a key challenge for generations of footballers, but in spite of achieving this week after week and season after season, the same lazy clichés dominated the perception of black footballers for several decades.

I was like, where’s West Brom. You hear it in the scoresheet, but I didn’t know where West Brom was. – Cyrille Regis

The timing of Regis’s shot at the big time couldn’t have been better. He had just completed his exams and was now a fully qualified electrician. Albion offered him a one-year contract. His employers wished him well and offered him his job back if it didn’t work out. Although he had absolutely no idea where West Bromwich was, he was both excited and apprehensive at the prospect of becoming a professional footballer. Staying in club lodgings in Handsworth, an area of Birmingham with a large Caribbean community, the nineteen-year-old Regis began his professional career. Laurie Cunningham was already at the club, but as Cunningham trained with the first team, Regis, on the reserves, didn’t have a great deal to do with him at this stage.

Regis’s career at Albion began well. Chief scout Ronnie Allen had taken over as first-team manager after Johnny Giles had resigned and Regis had played regularly for the reserves, scoring on his debut. He scored twice on his first-team debut, in a League Cup game against Rotherham, and again on his league debut in a victory over Middlesbrough. In his own words: ‘I’d settled well. I was living in Handsworth, where I felt comfortable, even though I was far from home and I’d had a great start to my career. Strikers are judged on scoring goals and it’s so important to get off to a good start.’

He was blossoming in his quest to make the big time, but something else was happening as well. ‘It was great having him around,’ Regis said of his new-found friendship with Laurie Cunningham.

He kind of took me under his wing and we became friends almost immediately. It was good that one of the first-team players took an interest in me, and with him being black and from London, made it more important. I looked up to him and it’s only when I think back now that me being there was as good for him as it was for me.

Regis highlights the two factors that were key to his initial development at West Bromwich Albion. Of course, he was hungry. As a raw nineteen-year-old, he was keen to show what he could do in the top flight of English football. Although it’s a matter of conjecture as to whether Ronnie Allen had paid for Regis’s transfer out of his own pocket, the manager nonetheless had some form of investment in him and was prepared to give him an extended run in the side. His hunger, and the belief of his manager were important factors, and these alone may have been enough to guarantee his success at Albion, but equally important were his friendship with Cunningham and his residency in Handsworth. Regis remembers: ‘We’d be seen in and around Handsworth and we soon became popular in the black community. People would come up to us and you started seeing black kids taking a real interest in going to football matches.’

His friendship with Cunningham was an important part of his initial experience and ultimately, with the arrival of Brendon Batson, was to define his career at Albion. Playing up and down the country, suffering the taunts together created an important bond in helping the two players to deal with the abuse they received. For Cunningham, this was equally important. Up until then he had been the only black player at the club. Here was someone who was able and willing to share the load.

Handsworth was also an important part of Regis’s ‘settling-in’ period. Becoming a part of a black community provided him with an opportunity to escape from the pressures of justifying his blackness. In Handsworth, he could just be himself. In turn, he became an instant hero amongst the black community. The ability of black players to deal with racist abuse and use the experience as a source of motivation gave inspiration to black communities not only in Birmingham but throughout the country. The experiences of black players in suffering racist abuse mirrored their own experiences, but differed in an important dimension. The dehumanising effects of both racist abuse and racial discrimination offered very few opportunities to resist their impact. Football provided an opportunity to hit back. Here were players who not only took the abuse but turned the taunts of their abusers on its head in order to perform well on the pitch. For black communities therefore, black players who were scoring goals, making goals, tackling and playing well were resisting and fighting back in the only way they were able.

As Regis put it, ‘Black people of all ages would just want to talk to us or just wish us well. I suppose in some way they wanted us to know that we had their support and we weren’t doing this on our own.’

Regis had quickly established himself as a first-team regular. However, before 1977 had ended, Ronnie Allen had taken up an opportunity to manage the Saudi Arabian national side and Albion were on the hunt for a new manager. Veteran defender John Wile was installed in a caretaker role, but Albion appointed a young and hungry manager who’d done very well with unfashionable Cambridge United. Ron Atkinson was to change Albion’s fortunes and play a pivotal role in changing the way that black players were perceived and the way in which incidents of racism were handled.

Arsenal had won the historic league and cup double in 1971. Their domestic dominance was further underlined by the fact that their youth team, containing Brendon Batson, had won the FA Youth Cup the same year. Batson was born on the Caribbean island of Grenada and had arrived in the UK at the age of nine. He was spotted as a thirteen-year-old playing representative football for his district and signed as an apprentice at fifteen. First-team opportunities had eluded Batson and he made only ten appearances in three seasons. He moved to Cambridge United in 1974 and joined a team in the fourth tier of English professional football. United had only been a league outfit since 1970 and there was an amateurish quality to the whole club. For Batson, this was a far cry from his beginnings at Arsenal: ‘At Arsenal the apprentices were raised to be gentlemen as part of our development. We were introduced to fine food, told to dress well, taught good manners and taught discipline. When I went to Cambridge, I wondered what have I got into here.’

However, a few months later, Ron Atkinson was appointed manager and transformed the club. Many of the older players were replaced by youth team players and free signings, and the team began to do well. Atkinson obviously rated Batson highly – and why not? He had played in the top tier of English football for Arsenal and was a fine if very underrated footballer. Batson was a cultured right-back. He was a good solid defender, had good positional sense, was strong in the tackle and good going forward. Quick and athletic, he wasn’t blessed with blistering pace, but was rarely exposed by even the best of attackers. Atkinson had made him team captain as United improved considerably and achieved promotion to the Third Division in 1976/77.

Early in his United career, Batson had been sent off for retaliation after being continually called a ‘black bastard’ by an opponent. He recalled later, ‘The ref actually apologised for sending me off and supported me at the disciplinary hearing. It meant that I wasn’t suspended.’ Atkinson had tough words for Batson and told him in no uncertain terms that he’d need to find a way of dealing with the abuse. Batson learned the necessary lesson and never allowed himself to resort to retaliation throughout the rest of his career. The referee in that incident, however, had shown a level of sympathy for Batson that was entirely out of keeping with the prevailing attitude of football officials. Racist abuse from fellow professionals was commonplace and given free rein. Retaliation would be punished, but there were no sanctions for racist abusers. While black players were often subject to abuse from 30,000–40,000 spectators, in addition to abuse from their fellow professionals and managers, it was far preferable to the experiences of friends and family in the workplace. Batson recalls:

I had friends who worked at Fords at Dagenham. That was a terrible place for black people to work. There was NF [National Front] in there selling their stuff on the factory floor. They’d have all kinds of racist stuff written on their lockers and would get all kinds of abuse. You’d have foreman right in their face, calling them nigger this, you black bastard that, you’d have people spitting at you and all kinds and you couldn’t do anything. You have to remember that fighting meant instant dismissal at Fords, so all my mates had to just take it. So it never really bothered me, I felt safe, we were protected. Of course you might have 40,000 fans giving you dog’s abuse, but I was much better off playing football. Compared to other black people, we had a good life.

United’s improvement under Atkinson had brought the club the kind of success that the relatively new league members could only have dreamed of, and at the start of the 1977/78 season, the newly promoted outfit had made a good start and were in a healthy position when Atkinson left to join West Bromwich Albion. A few weeks later in a £30,000 deal, Batson joined Atkinson at Albion. The Three Degrees had arrived at The Hawthorns.

From Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers by Emy Onuora, published by Biteback