12 Players, 12 Matches, 12 Venues, 1 Day...
“When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer..... Bristow’s only 27.”
The legendary Sid Waddell, commentating on Eric Bristow winning the World Darts Championships
North Oxford’s Fives players probably have more in common with the players of pub games rather than one of the greatest generals in the whole of human history, but for one day last weekend, they could rank themselves as heroes and authors of an epic feat of endurance.
The idea of playing on as many courts as possible in one day has been discussed in NOEFC circles for some time, and over the last few months this began to crystallise into a plan that saw 12 players attempt to play a game of Fives at 12 different venues all in one day, starting at Iffley Road in Oxford, and following a loop round Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and West and North London before finishing back in Oxford on our home courts at Summer Fields School.
With the best part of £2000 already raised for Sport Relief before even setting off, the pressure was on as the intrepid dozen gathered in the car park at Summer Fields at 8am. Preparations had been thorough: Karen Hird – NOEFC’s very own Mary Berry - had spent most of the previous week designing and making a gingerbread Fives court; skipper Gareth Hoskins had accommodated those with more esoteric tastes (i.e. Spencer Chapman) by providing the goji berry, mulberry and cashew nut freezer slices; the EFA team of the year champagne was in the cool box and the curry house was on standby for our return later that evening. The only early morning casualty was Chris Austin’s full English breakfast, as his hotel didn’t start serving until 7:30am meaning he missed out – a tough one to take for a man brought up on Wolverhampton salads (ask Pete Scholey for details).
Game one was on the Oxford University courts at Iffley Road. The first ball was struck in anger at 8:15am and the tone was set with a rip-roaring no holds barred contest between Chris Austin & Alex Yusaf and Nick Shaw & Carl Rennie, with Nick and Carl winning 12-5. The other eight players went for the more gentle option, looking to pace themselves with half an eye on what was to come (literally so in the case of one of the players later on...)
By the time venue two – St.Bartholomew’s School, Newbury – was reached, it was clear that the original timings schedule could be thrown out of the window and that it was going to be a very long day indeed. Undeterred, game two produced some close moments on the newest set of courts on the itinerary before the M4 beckoned and venue number three at Ludgrove. The arrival of the rain did nothing to dampen enthusiasm, especially after a warm greeting from head master Simon Barber at Ludgrove and our largest crowd of the day as some of the Ludgrove boys looked on in slightly bemused fashion at the ragbag collection of Fives t-shirts, headbands, assorted strapping, ridiculous shots and daft giggling being offered up to them in the name of entertainment.
The major drama of the day – the missing breakfast and collapse of the front wall of the gingerbread court notwithstanding – occurred during game four at Eton, as Mandie Barnes took a ball in the eye from partner Carl Rennie, who was sternly spoken to by his adopted father for the day Graham Pulsford. After an intital assessment from Dr.Yusaf, a wait and see approach was adopted, but after a brave attempt to carry on in game five at Harrow (thanks to Graham Dunbar and James Poole for the welcome message), it was clear that Mandie’s Fives was over for the day and a visit to A&E was in order as the eye was closing and she was having such difficulty seeing the ball that Chris even managed to win his first game of the day.
After game six at Highgate, with Gareth playing a game on his own against Stefan Nowinski and Colin Turnbull as Mandie sat out, there was therefore a parting of the ways as Gareth, Ian and Mandie headed for A&E in Barnet and the other nine players continued on to Queen Elizabeth School to take turns playing on the one court there for game seven. Games eight (Mill Hill), nine (Aldenham) and ten (Berkhamsted) took the group back out of London and away from the traffic that was largely responsible for the 12 hour mark being passed at Berko, while Gareth and Ian accompanied Mandie back in to central London to the Western Eye Hospital in Marylebone.
With Mandie finally getting the all clear, and by now boasting a mighty impressive shiner, she, Ian and Gareth – resisting (but only just!) the temptation for a quick knockabout at Westway on the way back up the A40) – rejoined the main party for game eleven in the semi-dark with no court lights at RGS High Wycombe at 9:25pm. A cunning system of substitutions and timed games had been adopted for the latter stages and with the group further increased by the additions of Linda and Jonathan Pulsford and Becca Steer it was a triumphant convoy of 5 cars and 16 people who returned to Summer Fields at 10:25pm for the final game of the day.
Remarkably, the standard of Fives in the final round of games was extremely high and every point was still being fought for. The final winner of the final game was struck by Alex Yusaf at 11:05pm and after a much needed shower and change, the long anticipated curry was collected and taken round to Stefan’s house, where the champagne was cracked open and the celebrations started, the day finally ending with a parting of the ways at 1am.
My thanks go to all of the players for a heroic effort, and for continuing on to the bitter end instead of taking the easy option and missing out a couple of venues as it got later and later; to Michele for supporting us and keeping score all of the way; to all of the schools/venues who so generously allowed us to come and use their courts; and to everyone who sponsored us.
For those who take an interest in such things, the final points tallies (sort of) for the day were:
Spencer Chapman 119
Colin Turnbull 117
Karen Hird 114
Carl Rennie 114
Graham Pulsford 113
Nick Shaw 113
Stefan Nowinski 108
Chris Austin 103
Alex Yusaf 103
Ian Mitchell 72*
Gareth Hoskins 57**
Mandie Barnes 26***
* 8 games
** 7 games
*** 5 games