Shrewsbury School Fives Dinner

Every year the Fives players at Shrewsbury hold an end-of-season dinner at the school to review the year and present awards to the winners of key competitions in every age group throughout the school.

Normally about 30 or 40 people attend – pupils, members of staff and parents of the players. In 2019 however, following Shrewsbury’s wonderful record in both the Boys’ and Girls’ championships in this year’s Schools’ Nationals, about 170 people assembled to applaud the results that had been achieved and to congratulate all involved in for keeping the quality and reputation of Shrewsbury’s fives so high. The main speaker at the dinner was Sam Welti, the youngest of Shrewsbury's leading players, and this is what he said...

"Good Evening and thank you to the school for inviting me along tonight. I thought it lucky for me that it was Mr Aldous who was tasked with finding the speaker for this year’s dinner, for if it had been someone who actually knew me while I was here I may very well never have received the call.

When first asked to give this speech I have to admit I was very excited. How amazing would it be for me to come back to the school and give a talk to pupils who were sitting where I sat and give something back, however small, to a Fives Club that has given me so much? That initial excitement quickly turned to panic as I thought about what I actually was going to say and started to think about how long a 45-minute speech actually is. This panic continued for a couple of weeks until I eventually sat down to write this speech and in turn re-read the email and found that I was actually only asked to speak for 10 minutes…. A relief for everyone here I think. I then found the panic starting to disappear as I realised that Fives is a subject I am truly passionate about and I found myself with plenty to say… and that passion started here at the school. Whether I should have panicked a little more I will leave up to you…..

You could ask me a lot about my first couple of weeks here and I would be able to tell you very little. As anyone who knows me could tell you, my memory can be something of a sieve. However, one memory that really does stick out is of the 4th formers in my house, Ingram’s Hall, taking me and my fellow 3rd formers out every evening of that first week to the courts and teaching us how to play this weird and wonderful game called fives. Now I considered myself a decent all-round sportsman when leaving prep school, playing football and cricket and perhaps most of all considered myself a rugby man having captained the 1st XV. However, fast forward 6 weeks into my first term at Shrewsbury and I had given up rugby altogether and was fully invested in Fives and I never looked back. There were a number of aspects of the game that I found appealing very early on of which, I am sure, the majority here will be able to appreciate. The reactions, the agility, the huge amounts of skill involved, how it complements the skills needed for my other sports such as football and perhaps mostly cricket. I couldn’t have known, however, how big a part of my life at school and now my life in London Fives was going to become. Now please understand that I fully appreciate the way Fives is sometimes perceived by the outside world and, especially your peers who don’t play the game; but I would genuinely challenge any talented games person to take up the sport and then not eventually appreciate it for the truly remarkable game that it is. For Fives is a game, and I think those who are now leaving will back me up on this, whose enjoyment grows along with the standard at which it is played. The game is just meant to be played at speed and to a certain standard and what I would say to those who will be coming back next year is, if you work hard and just spend time on court the standard your play will improve and so will your enjoyment and most of all your appreciation of Fives. So… tonight I thought I would briefly share with you the points that started to jump out at me when I sat down to write this speech… and then finally, once those ramblings are over, I am going to talk about Fives after school and tell you a little about the Old Salopian Fives Club.

The first point that I want to talk about is enjoying the game. The fact of the matter is that straight from that first week I just had fun playing the game with my mates. We would be out at the courts after football, after Top Schools, I even remember a couple of times where my housemaster would have to send someone out to fetch us as we refused to go in until a particularly tight game had been settled. This is something that hasn’t changed, the most fun I have ever had playing on a fives court is with and against other Salopians and that is still true today. Some of my best times at School were spent on the Fives Weekends down to Eton and Highgate. I think it would be fair to say I spent over half the weekends of the Lent term in my final year staying in either Slough or Windsor Travelodge’s and without doubt the journey down would include a stop at Oxford services for the traditional pre-fives Burger King. I hope Barny’s miserly practice of £10 between two has been got rid of by Mr Cooley as anyone knows this certainly isn’t enough for what a growing fives player needs. This may seem like Fives was a huge time investment for us and it was. But to re-iterate a point I made earlier, and this is probably the best advice I can give any young Fives player, get time on court…. and against quality opposition as much and as often as you can. For there is truly no substitute for it. The commitment of the coaches while at the school was immense, for obviously if I was down in Windsor every weekend so was one of them. Indeed, I remember one occasion where we as a squad were particularly keen to go the Emma Darwin House dance, I couldn’t possibly tell you why that one is particular was so important to us…., but instead of making us choose between fives and the dance Barney let us all go and then we literally stepped out of the House Dance at 11pm and onto a minibus as he drove us down into the night so that we could be there bright an early for a game Sunday morning. With that amount of enthusiasm and drive coming from the coaches it’s no wonder that Shrewsbury has become the power house it now is. This is clearly illustrated by the meteoric rise of the Girls’ Fives at Shrewsbury and, I admit I haven’t checked this, but I would be very surprised if a school has ever had three pairs in the semi-finals of nationals open competitions before.

What I am trying to tell you is that Shrewsbury School Fives is special, and this perhaps became even clearer to me the year after I left university and I went and worked at Eton College as a Graduate Assistant. I had a great year but one of the main things I took away from the experience from a Fives perspective is how lucky we are at Shrewsbury. The boys at Eton are made to choose between sports to such an extent that they become specialised not only in their own eyes but in some cases their coaches’ eyes too and Fives is also considered a minor sport there; but at Shrewsbury it still holds pride of place as a major one and we are the better for it. It is immediately clear from the beginning that Shrewsbury attracts a different type of person to the Fives court than the majority of the other schools and that’s because of the fact that it’s a major sport. In my year alone in the top 6 we had 5 1st XI footballers, including the Captain and 4 Cricketers in either the 1st or 2nd XIs, again including both the captains of those teams and yet we would be on court playing fives 3 or 4 times a week in Michaelmas and obviously more than that in Lent. What I am saying is that Fives needn’t be at the expense of your other sporting pursuits but can exist alongside them and, as I have said, complement them. The calibre of sportsman that Shrewsbury has been able to pull into the game of Fives is a key reason behind the success of the game here and long may that continue.

My second reason is another that I have no doubt that both you and your parents will have been told by your coaches on numerous occasions. Fives is self-refereeing. This is not just at a junior level where no referee can be found as with Football in the park or on Top Common but it’s the same at the very top of the sport where Mr Cooley dwells, seemingly mocking us mere mortals with his brilliance. I still remember when, fresh from winning a national title and thinking I was a pretty big deal, I decided to play against Seb two on one. The impending result, apparently obvious to everyone but me and my partner, was a thrashing and to have a player of Seb’s ability here at the school is invaluable. However, enough of ensuring I am invited back to another one of these: I will get back to my point. The Kinnaird Cup Final, which is the sports premier and most coveted trophy, still does not have a referee. Can you even imagine this is any other sport? I have mentioned football…. I think we all know how that would turn out, and with cricket where even the concept of “walking” and declaring yourself as out before the umpire gives a decision is applauded hugely by players and fans alike, yet this happens on every point in a Fives game. It is standard practice and is something that I truly believe has come across in my life outside of Fives. Now let’s be clear, I am not saying that as soon as you step onto a fives court in third form you become a champion of good sportsmanship and high morals. But I do believe that sportsmanship and good grace is something that is learnt on a Fives court far more than any other sport, and fast forward to now and the adult game of fives and these things I have just described very rarely happen. I would hand on heart say that whenever a dispute arises that 99% of the time it is dealt with quickly and in a polite manner, even when you actually do not agree with the call if there is a dispute amongst the pairs, it’s a let and always has to be. It is this aspect of the game that teaches you not to dig your heels in in an argument, to listen to the other side and come to a compromise amongst yourselves and not to look to someone else to tell you how to behave, to set you own standards, even if it’s something you are not particularly happy with. This aspect of Fives is commonly referred to as the “Spirit of the Game” and it's something that Salopians have been known for upholding and prided themselves at being at the forefront of for generations, so much so that is has now become a defining characteristic of our club.

My final point is that in coming to Shrewsbury and choosing to play fives you have found a sport where you could be part of team and pairing that could be the best. Not just in the school but in the country. This is something that has been made abundantly clear with the four pairs of National Champions we have with us in the room tonight. Being National Champion is something that can never be taken away from you. You are the best in the country at what you do and have no doubt inspired some of the other in this room to reach the same heights. It was certainly true for me; I would see pairs like Will and Dan and Katie & Lizzie in the years above winning national titles and thought “Well if they can do it, why can’t I?” And the answer is “you can” and we no doubt have a few more pairs of future National Champions sitting with us and with the talents of Arthur Garrett, Peter Clarke, Issy Morris, Alex Clarke, George Hughes, Rory McDonald-O’Brian and Digby Taylor-West this surely is a certainty.

Finally, I thought I would mention what Fives will look like for you once you leave school and join the Old Salopian Fives Club. The club itself celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2018, with the first recorded AGM notes being 1948. Since then the club has had many successes both individually and as a whole. From the likes of Robin Moulsdale – who is here tonight and is perhaps the greatest Salopian Fives player of all time – to Alan Barber, Jack Peterson, Geoff Davies, Robin Topham, Peter Worth, Mike Hughes and Ed Taylor to name but a few of the Salopian Stalwarts.

Just as you all strive to be a part of the best fives playing school as a collective, we also want this for our club, and if you would allow me, I would say we are well on our way to achieving this. We demonstrate this in various ways – both on and off the court. On the court, we play the game in the right spirit and are renowned as fierce competitors but never over stepping the line. I can only think this is the same spirit that Will and Dan must have shown in the final of the Open for them to win such an epic match.

There are a number of competitions that the club compete in but the OSEFC hold two competitions in particularly high regard: the Division 1 League and the Alan Barber Cup.

Alan Barber was himself a Salopian, he was President of the OSEFC and generally revered as one of the best sportsman Shrewsbury ever produced. To give you a sense of its standing, it is probably most aptly described as the Champions’ League of the Eton Fives World. Its format is similar to the Williams Team Cup, and the fact that its namesake was such a big part of the fabric of our club means that the Barber Cup holds a special place in the heart of Old Salopian Fives players. You need not only star players but strength in depth across the three pairs to achieve success. We regularly reach the final, unfortunately usually losing to Seb and the rest of the Olavians – you would think now he’s MIC at Shrewsbury, he might go easy on us. However, as each season passes we have started to feel the tide turning and I think it’s safe to say we have youth on our side.

The Division 1 competition, the “Premier League” of fives, is based in London and is incredibly competitive. The season is over 6 months long and requires a real buy-in from the whole club to ensure that players are available for the whole season. This year, the Old Salopians won the league for the fourth time in our history, remaining unbeaten during the season in what is a first for the Salopians.

In addition to the above competitions, there is the EFA Trophy, which – continuing with the football analogies – can be considered the “Europa League “of the fives world. This is a competition where we like to mix the up the coming players such as Adam Aslam-Baskeyfield, Sam Mcgloughlin and Tom Breese who some of you may remember, with the more…let’s say…. experienced players…. who have been around the game a little longer. We have had much success in this competition over the recent years but unfortunately narrowly lost in the final this year to a much younger Oxford University Team. We also at the time of writing are still in with a chance of winning Division 2 of the London League, whose season is yet to finish. It was also particularly pleasing that this year we saw Rosie Parr become first Old Salopian woman represent the club at League level. I fully expect, as the recent leavers complete their university studies and feed into the Club, that the Old Salopians will become equally dominant in the women’s game as we are in the men’s.

It is fair to say that no other club can compete across all 4 of the major competitions like the OSEFC and that is not only a testament to the commitment and skill of the current players but also is a reflection of the calibre of player the school has produced over the last 10-15 years.

However, just as important as the on-court accomplishments are, they would not be possible without what happens off-court. The commitment shown by the current players can only be gathered by having a strong social culture around the club. After the majority of League games, we end up in a local pub for hopefully a celebratory pint or two, we host a number of Club nights throughout the year, End of Season celebrations and Awards and also have our annual pilgrimage to Shrewsbury to both play against the school and have the North vs. South Salopians, which usually involves a night discovering the new drinking establishments that have popped up over the last year along with some old favourites such as the Boaty or Montys. I can honestly say the culture and atmosphere around the club both now and when I joined is fantastic and allows you to cross paths with Salopians from all ages and make friendships for life. The current Division 1 team, while mainly consisting of the stars from Barny’s era, has some of the elder statesmen playing – Marc Quinn, Mike Hughes amongst others who are always on hand with advice be it with Fives or with life, a cracking story or two and more often than not leading the post-game celebrations.

To me that is so important! and for those that get involved in the club, not only do you get to play high quality fives in a club revered as one of the best, you create long lasting friendships built through camaraderie on the courts and, parents and staff forgive me, drinking off the courts. Friendships are built with those that were not at your era in school, or perhaps with those that you have lost touch with and for me personally it is a great excuse to meet with friends who I suspect I would have lost touch with if it weren’t for fives.

When you join this wonderful club, you have a duty to continue to uphold the values that so many before us have built – that requires sportsmanship, commitment and the continued desire to improve both personally and the club as a whole. I speak on behalf of the club when I say that we very much look forward to having you all be part of this illustrious club, be part of our prestigious history and enjoy the success that I have been able to enjoy in my short tenure with the club.

I wanted to end my speech with a quote from the late Michael Constantinidi, ex-Chairman of the Eton Fives Association and someone who has perhaps given more to the game of fives than anyone in its history. He reflected: “As I look back over 50 years of playing this marvellous game, the Salopians have been consistently at the top of it. And they have always been a pleasure to play against. In my view the conduct of Salopian players on the fives court sets a standard to which all other clubs should aspire”.

Shrewsbury 3rd May 2019