Such is the inclemency of the weather at present, I have not found the idea of wandering far from the confines of the warm and welcoming Admissions Office very attractive. I have my smart and not very waterproof shoes on and unlike the characters on my three-year-old daughter’s favourite TV show, I do not wish to jump up and down in muddy puddles! I worked out that the nearest sporting action to my office is in the recently refurbished Fives courts. There are 14 courts and they are frequently full of keen players waiting for their chance to get out of the rain! By my reckoning that means that 56 members of the school community can be kept gainfully employed at the same time!
I have fond memories of Fives, as my Dad ran the Fives team at Lancing College. Don’t get me wrong, I was not very keen on watching Dad play, but Mum was in charge of the tea afterwards when it was against the Jesters or some other adult club. She made cakes with different varieties of butter-icing covered with hundreds of thousands, not to mention a fantastic array of sandwiches. There were also little cocktail sausages in her special honey recipe, as well as crisps and other tasty biscuity snacks. Much like the match teas here now!
I am probably not being too controversial when I say that in my humble opinion Fives is not a great spectator sport, as whilst the players are dry and cosy running around in the court, their fans stand freezing in the winter chill and generally getting a good rinsing from the heavens! However, if you want to watch the game played at a high standard, this is one of the weekends to pull on your warm weather gear and come to the Shrewsbury courts to watch the Northern Men’s and Women’s Championships. The current holders of the Cup are none other than Shrewsbury’s Teacher in Charge of Fives and reigning National Champion, Seb Cooley and his teammate Tom Dunbar.
I caught up with Seb this week to see how his preparations were going, both in terms of his personal defence of his title and the ambitions of the School’s pairs. Seb was with the Chapel Choir at Tewkesbury Abbey singing Evensong on Wednesday, whilst many of his competitors from the School were out on the courts practising and playing. I was slightly surprised at this, as I thought a National Champion must always have to be honing his skills. I was in for a lesson. Seb explained to me that singing in the Abbey brought him in touch with the spiritual home of the game. Fives was devised whilst boys at Eton went into chapel and he felt that it was important to connect with the ‘inner voice’ of the sport. He told me, “There is nothing like a flying buttress to aid the concentration before a big tournament”. He also felt that the six-second echo in the Abbey helped him to focus his concentration span. I asked him what else he felt was important in the run up to a big Fives match. He played a big compliment to the chefs at Kingsland Hall for providing him with a balanced diet and to his physics students for keeping him on his toes in the classroom. We wish Mr Cooley all the best for his title campaign.
What about the School’s chances? Coaches Matt Barratt, Andy Barnard, Torin Morgan, Rob Morris and Seb Cooley among others have been working hard to help numerous ‘School Pairs’ approach the weekend tournaments in confident mood. If Mr Cooley is favourite for the Open title, perhaps we might look for a Shrewsbury winner in the Festival Competition, won last year by Nick Pearce (I) and Samson Yick (S). The Festival Trophy is certainly worth winning; it is the Malcolm Mitchell Memorial Trophy which is a large shield presented in honour of Old Salopian and former School Governor Malcolm Mitchell. Malcolm’s son Ian will be playing at the weekend and his other son Andrew is ‘off changes’ this year but is responsible for organising the Monday Club and helping to keep Old Salopian Fives at a high level.
At this stage it is not certain which of the School pairs will play in the national tournament and which will be entered into the Festival Trophy. It is certain that Tom Breese and George Panayi will be competing as a strong pair, since they are national champions in their age group. Max Hulse and Harry Flowers (OS) will be competing, as will James Warburg and Jamie Humes, Jack Fox and Luke Lloyd Jones, and Henry Blofield and George Lewis. George and Henry, along with Nick Pearce and Samson Yick, will hope to at least give Mr Cooley a run for his money if they are drawn against him.
Above l to r: Ed Barnard, Nick Pearce, James Warburg and Henry Blofield
Sadly one key Fives player will not be competing this weekend, as Ed Barnard has to go to Dubai to play cricket for the England Under-19 team. He told me he was devastated by the harsh demands of the England cricket selectors, who are dragging him away from his dream of playing Fives in Shrewsbury to the heat of Dubai and the drudgery of a World Cup cricket tournament. Poor Ed. All I can say is we wish him well and hope he will be back for the National Championships later in the term.
Mr Barnard (senior) has been coaching the girls and is hoping that top pair Jo Cull and Charlotte Harris will perform well in the ladies’ competition. There are a number of other pairs entering the competition but Mr Barnard feels that they might lack match practice. Alice Sykes-Waller and Elisa Wood assured me that practice was not necessary for ‘Fives naturals’. Ciara Murphy and Raphie Major have only recently come to the sport but are hoping for an easy draw. Krem Todorova, seen here with her coach Mr Barnard, is very excited about the tournament. She told me that she had been looking at Fives matches on the internet to help her in her quest to understand the rules. She admitted to being very excited at learning the game and that it was one of the reasons that she was drawn to Shrewsbury School. Krem may be the best female Bulgarian Fives player in the world and she is certainly determined to do her best on the weekend. “I do not want to let my inspirational coach down,” she told me.
It only remains for me to wish all our players the very best in their various competitions. Let’s hope there will lots of High Fives!