Pride And Joy

TODAY I came close to tears.

I would say I’m not easily moved, generally skilled in masking emotion and being ‘professional’.

Even though I’m just a stay at home dad these days. Nothing professional about that. Amateur rings true, though.

So being moved? Not really. No.

Unless I hear the old regimental quick march, or stuff like the RAF March Past, which is forever embraced by wonderful memories of my grandad.

The past.

So what of the present? Or even the future?

And a song I’ve never heard from a movie I’ve never seen?

Because that was enough.

Sung by the year six cohort at St Ives Junior School in Cornwall to say ‘goodbye’. For those 11 and 12 year olds are being swept up in change, are on the cusp of adulthood and ‘big school’ come September.

Including my son.

Henry is the leopard who changed his spots.  He is the Horrid Henry who became Happy Henry.

I can’t recall a transformation so marked in life.

This is real life. With all it’s hard knocks. Not romantic literature or Hollywood’s saccharine celluloid.

Henry’s had it tough, but he’s dished it out, too. Those of us who have known Henry best have suffered the tantrums.

Today the angry young boy of old was replaced by a handsome, charming young man who sang with passion, smiled and swam in the spirit of the occasion, of his achievement and that of his peers.

More than 18 months have elapsed since he came to live with his step-mum and I. We’ve watched him grow.  He’s not perfect, find me someone who is, but he’s a brilliant lad. Today’s performance was to show how far the children have come.

For me, I sat there in awe and wonder at that boy and how far he’s come. I’d seen him at the school sports day last week, when he was so ready with congratulations for and support for his classmates, win or lose. A boy loving the spirit of sport, rather than the spoilt brat who used to stamp his feet when things didn’t go his way.

But this was another notch up. The performance was about The Greatest Year, leaning heavily on the hit Hugh Jackman movie, The Greatest Showman.

They launched with The Greatest Show and brought the house down with a reprise that had the parents up off their feet in standing ovation.

I’m normally skeptical and cynical, but found myself being swept along by the occasion and the sheer majesty of enthusiasm from all the children. My son chief among them.

He’s done well at his key stage two tests, despite most of his education up to St Ives being in a Turkish language school with a very different approach to learning.

But as I have said to his class teacher and head teacher in recent days, I was never too bothered about Henry’s attainment. I was looking for a different set of criteria. That included my boy being happy, being confident and self-assured, who would take on any challenge no matter how hard and give it his best.

My dream has come true.

I know the real hard yards are ahead, but I’m buoyed by how far Henry has come and, largely, how willingly. My wife and I have put in the effort, boy, have we. But the school has played a huge part.

As has Henry.

And today he put on his own greatest show.

It was enough to bring me close to tears.

Truth be known, there might have been one that escaped.

Pride and joy.

 

 

 

 

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Long Train Runnin’

I WELL remember the day I wore sunglasses to work, back in the days when I was writing for the Coventry Evening Telegraph.

I’d fought back to fitness after a nasty car accident which had badly damaged by right knee and had just played in my first rugby match in 18 months.

A third team fixture for Newbold against Broadstreet.

We got hammered by 70 points, but showed our mettle by scoring the last try of the game. We never gave up trying. That was and remains the spirit of Newbold.

Me? I’d played at full back and tackled my heart, legs, arms and back out.

There’d been the stereotypical good natured dust up and I had panda eyes, my back had stripes on it as if Zorro had visited me during the night and the bruising on my arms and legs looked like the Bayeux Tapestry.

I limped stiffly to my desk, sunglasses on to hide the black eyes – not that it worked. You never got any sympathy – in the army they said you’d find that in the dictionary between shit and syphillis.

In fact, there were howls of laughter when it was realised I couldn’t move my neck very well – and catcalls from left and right to put me through the wringer once more.

Hayley ‘Cuthbo’ Draper, you were the chief culprit!

I trained hard back in those days, without any fanfare. I remember jogging along the A45 from where I lived in Hillmorton to the CET offices in Corporation Street with an army bergen on. When I got there, Eddy Murray and Stewart Smith got more than they bargained for in the mickey take. Eddy tried to take the backpack off me and quickly dropped it to the ground.

‘What have you got in there?’ he exclaimed.

I took out two 10kg weights.

I’d shuffled along the A45 with that weight on my back for 18 hard miles. The remainder of the week I’d cycle. Then during my lunch break I’d go swimming. Weights or rugby training in the evening.

I was cycling an average of 250 miles a week, running 40 and swimming 20.

I wanted to be as fit as I could be. So I could get my head kicked in for 80 minutes on a rugby pitch.

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Here I am in good days at the CET, fourth from left, second row

Since those days, I’ve had to claw myself back from the brink a few times. And I’m on the fitness trail again.

I almost weigh the same as I did back then, bar a couple of pounds. I was 14 stone eight, wearing 30in waist trousers – I’m now 14 stone 12 in 36in waist trousers. My bodyfat back then was about 12 per cent. It’s three times that at the moment. But heading in the right direction.

I enjoyed training, but found it a bit of a chore, a bit of a bore.

Last night I joined a gym again. And this time it was like Christmas. It was like the training fairy had sprinkled happy dust over me – I felt the muscles working like never before and the benefits were fulsome. Mind and body happy together.

This time I’m training for me. Not to play rugby or cricket, or look good in a suit (not that I ever did!), but to simply enjoy the process. To savour it, to marvel at how the body works.

The gym I joined is one of those hardcore gyms for bodybuilders and weightlifters, power lifters and people averse to spin classes, walls of cross trainers, treadmills and stationary bikes.

There’s not much evidence of lycra, although I never looked good in leotards myself.

It’s just a simple gym. Man against machine, mind against muscle. Dumbbells and barbells tempting and teasing, offering hope yet ready to crush dreams into the floor. I know it will accelerate my training, and I’m surprised it wasn’t bursting at the seams with people.

Because it feels so good to be back.

 

Painted From Memory

I’M GETTING old. And increasingly parochial, it would seem.

It was a keyboard conversation with a rugby fanatic, an English exile living at the bottom of the world in a country that knows a bit about the 15 man game – New Zealand – that reinforced the above fact.

Paul posts on Twitter as @drivingmaul and runs a weekday podcast poring over the latest international games or super rugby ups and downs. He’s well worth a follow and his live Youtube streams have taught me a thing or two.

I’ve found it fascinating how differently the game is run in the land of the great white cloud compared to the land of the grey clouds.

But a response to my comment about referees in National League One, where until last season Coventry Rugby Club had been lingering, left me sad.

Because why should people know what National League One is? Unless your team is part of English rugby’s third tier.

Or know about Coventry?

It’s indicative of how far Coventry’s star has fallen.  Where once Coundon Road enjoyed the pick of the fixture list, the blue and whites were now playing Caldy rather than Cardiff, in the days where Cov heroes pulled up their shirt sleeves and roughed it out with internationals galore.

It’s been 30 years since the merit tables gave way to the leagues, when Coventry began to drift off the radar, replaced in the national conscious first by Bath, then Leicester and most recently Saracens.

Yet even in recent fallow seasons, Cov have still managed to blood and educate stars of the future. Were it not for injury, former blue and whites Ben Obano, now of Bath, and Jack Willis, of Wasps, would have been in South Africa with England.

It might be a far cry from the post-war days when Cov players dazzled their way into international jerseys. Ivor Preece, Peter Jackson and David Duckham were the outstanding players of their generations, playing for strong Warwickshire sides in the county championships, for England and then the British Lions – all ironically on tours of New Zealand. They were the standard bearers for exciting rugby, men with such extraordinary talent that their exploits are still fondly remembered.

At Coundon Junior School, David Duckham’s dad taught the final year pupils along with the teacher who changed my life, Mark Buckingham.

Events and history seared in my memory. As well as learning about the survival of the fittest, the planets, and a wealth of literature, from Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen or Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Eagle Of The Ninth, I remember watching Peter Rossborough glide with effortless grace at Coundon Road.

While I can still recall the excitement as Mr Buckingham emphasised how Longfellow wrote the epic poem Hiawatha to mimic the sound of Indian drums, or the insistence of Alfred Noble’s The Highwaymen, who came ‘riding, riding, riding’, I remember the television coverage of Cov’s triumphs in the knockout cups of 1973 and 1974 – the centenary year.

Cov were top of the tree. A long time ago now. Even the sole season in the top flight when the leagues were launched was 30 years ago. History.

I guess there are many people following rugby today that would be blissfully ignorant of Coventry’s time in the spotlight, an erstwhile Icarus of a club that flew too close to the sun and paid the price.

Coventry has changed. I still hold onto the memory of the smell in Barnby’s, that most wonderful of toy emporiums; the heady mix of stone and book leather in the old central lending library and fur, feathers, foodstuffs and wood shavings in Fanshawe’s pet shop in Smithford Way.

How many people today remember the days of boxes of white candles in kitchen cupboards, ready for the next electricity blackout? Or of films stopping halfway through at the cinema, for an ice cream break while the next reel was loaded? The wishing well in Broadgate’s lush island paradise.

Or how many suffered that same mingling of fear and confusion when passing the old blue police box at the junction of Smithford Way and the Upper and Lower Precincts, when Jon Pertwee was popping out of one on Saturday night TV battling daleks and cybermen.

Memories. When trains could still be seen on the Coventry loop line, passing a straight Binley Road, with its one lane in each direction. When glass cabinets showcasing wares of city centre stores were a feature of shopping trips, and conductors turned wheels of paper into bus tickets on Coventry Corporation’s maroon fleet.

A time of fountain pens and blotting paper, which could be chewed and then ‘fired’ through the empty tube of a Bic biro at unsuspecting victims, when you could listen to the latest 45 in a booth at HMV or Paynes Music, opposite Pool Meadow, when there were still the temporary shops built after the Blitz, and Coventry was still very much part of Warwickshire.

I remember the joy of being among the first legions of schoolchildren to run riot on the ramparts of the Lunt Fort at Baginton, being frisked going to watch Disney’s Robin Hood at the Godiva Cinema in Tile Hill following the Birmingham pub bombings, the beat of the bass drum echoing through my body as bands marched past the Spinney in the Coventry Carnival parade.

And not just childhood. How many journalists started their careers, woodpeckering away at old typewriters, with phones that rang noisily, with paper electoral rolls and wall to wall telephone directories? No mobiles, internet or social media.

I’m part of a forgotten world.

In childhood I never expected it. Watching Terry Yorath and Barry Powell’s successful partnership, unlikely as it was, at Highfield Road in my junior school years, when football cards came in packs of bubble gum.

I played at Coundon Road in a schools final for Blue Coat in the early 80s. In the days when Broadstreet School was still up and running, and the route from the top of Binley Road through to Binley Woods was a country lane flanked by fields.

When I started playing cricket for Talbot, off Humber Road, the factory was all around. Rolls Royce was still employing thousands at Parkside. And Alvis, where you could score a six with a nick over the slips, was still churning out military hardware, such as the Scorpion and Scimitar light armoured vehicles, distinguished by track or wheels respectively.

I was a Coundon boy.

Coundon Road was still the site of a huge goods yard, handling much of the Warwickshire coal; and Coundon House, in the grounds of Coundon Junior School was still standing proud.

The bowling green at the back of the Coundon pub; the clinic next to the rugby club where I went for all my vaccinations and, of course, Coundon Road itself, old fashioned and beautiful, witness to wonders Cov fans of today can only dream about.

I still have the cine reel of memory playing in my mind, of a huge Cov pack rumbling forward, of Steve Thomas feeding the ball to the exciting back division of Mark Lakey, Eddie Saunders, Stuart Hall and Martin Fairn, among others. Of blue and white jerseys thronging forward as one and crowds clapping, cheering and coming to their feet in appreciation.

That aspect, at least, has returned, for now, at Butts Park Arena. Coventry under Rowland Winter are on the up and new memories are being created. Hopefully, the club will continue to worm itself back into the collective conscious of today’s rugby landscape.

For me, it’s always been there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Song For My Father

I CAN’T recall whether the saying ‘it’s a wise man who knows his father’ comes from Homer’s Oddysey or the Theban Plays by Sophocles.

It doesn’t really matter. My Greek Literature studies at school are well behind me, although I still delve into the ‘classics’ purely for my own enjoyment. I guess I’d better reread those two texts.

I never knew my father, so that would put me pretty low in the wisdom stakes in ancient Greece. It probably reinforces what some say about me, too.

My father split from my mother in difficult circumstances when I was a baby.

But I had two excellent role models who, in childhood and most importantly my journey to adulthood, helped shape me, prod me in roughly the right direction and encourage me to the best I could by dint of their example.

My grandfather and my step-father. Both absent this Father’s Day.

Two Smiths, as it happened. Two men who overcame great diversity and challenges in life and continued to shine – huge beacons in my life and those of people who knew them.

I’ve written about my grandfather before. But he had his fair share of tragedies – a stillborn son, his father dying at 57 – and the challenge of being a poor boy from a poor mining family transplanted into middle class schooling by virtue of his keen mind and appetite for betterment. Life was constantly tough, but he rose above it all with a wonderful sense of humour and easy charm.

Martin suffered similar tragedies. His father died too young, in tragic circumstances. His daughter, my sister, died aged three from a childhood cancer. On his birthday.

It sent dividing lines through the family. He lost touch with his son, I lost touch with my brother. He never knew his grandchildren. Never got the opportunity to try to heal the rift.

I know it haunted him. Because every time we met for a coffee or pint, he’d ask about his son. Without fail.

He moved onwards in life, ever cheerful, ever willing to help and advise; remarried and had two more children, who adored him.

When Martin died, and tragically young a couple of years back, I know it hurt me. It still does. And I miss him terribly. Even in hospital, ravaged by cancer he was full of smiles and positivity, talking about getting back to the golf course for a few rounds.

Because that was the man I knew. Who always saw the best in people and situations. A man who bounced back because that was the only way he knew.

And, most simply, he was great company.

When he realised how difficult my childhood was, he took me on trips. We went to Little Rissington, in Gloucestershire, to witness a remote controlled aircraft day. I don’t know who was more excited and I still have my suspicions that he needed a child to hide his excitement behind.

He had a convertible at the time and drove there, top down, with a big smile on his face. There were several big ‘Yeehahs’ as we got nearer and finally to the gate and beyond where the scaled down versions of planes buzzed and whizzed through the air.

I can still smell the pie and chips, and the distinct odours of the bikes, at Coventry Speedway, when the Bees ruled the two-wheeled world, with Ole Olsen and friends becoming more than names and photographs in the Coventry Evening Telegraph. He took me several times.

And he was instrumental in pushing me towards journalism, gaining me a work experience at the Coventry Citizen, the weekly sister paper to the CET. He worked in the composing room at CET Towers where he was known as Little Martin to distinguish him from Big Martin, Martin Hornsby, his great friend.

After the breakdown of his marriage to my mother, the fracture lines hit hard and I was always amazed he still wanted to maintain our friendship. For that I was ever grateful. He did even as a teenager when I still spoke to my mother, and found it hard to comprehend that my relationship with her would end. He never took joy in anyone’s suffering or falling out.

And because of that the loss of contact with his first-born son, my brother, hurt him bitterly. And I wasn’t able to do anything, because my own relationship with my brother had fallen foul of the family fault lines.

I talk about Martin a lot. To my son, particularly. Because he was such an inspirational figure, a gentleman who lived life to the full but without being selfish.

So this Father’s Day, I’ll raise a glass to Martin Smith; remember him once more. On a day when I look at my struggles with fatherhood, dealing with the bad behaviour and upsets, wondering how he managed to keep smiling when I feel like hiding. The good times take care of themselves, but for me the true test of fatherhood is how we handle the bad times.

I know he wanted to attend my grandfather’s funeral, but decided against, not wishing to cause a scene and the wrath of certain elements of the family. He respected my grandfather, enjoyed spending time with him and I can only imagine that the two of them have reconciled somewhere from this earth.

Perhaps they’re watching down on me from time to time, willing me to be a better dad, giving me the strength to attempt to be as good as they were.

Because they were the best.

 

 

 

 

 

Listening To Strenth

IMAGINE being so close to a goal, and missing it.

By a fraction or two.

A target you’d be working towards for months.

That was me about four years ago. Trying to break 500kg on the leg press machine at my gym.

Because I wasn’t the traditional ‘pinhead’ stereotype. I liked working the legs more than the upper body. I felt I had a natural leg strength because I’d chosen not to drive, instead to walk and cycle everywhere. My attempt at being environmentally-friendly and healthy.

So I’d rather spend an hour blitzing my legs rather than chest, back, shoulders or arms. Although I took my turn focusing on the whole body. Particularly the core.

But the real targets were set in the leg room.

And I failed at the first hurdle.

I was devastated. I’d also failed to see the full picture. Forgotten where I’d started.

I was maxing out on the 240kg the standing calf machine had to offer, and the gym manager had suggested I use the leg press machine to push my calves into overdrive. Previously, I’d steered clear.

The leg press machine, a weird sort of space age set-up, with your back on the chair, almost parallel with the floor, legs up at a 45 degree angle and a sled with six bars to attach weights onto.

So, instead of just going for calf raises, I got to grips with the torture equipment, learning to leg press with perfect form, and finding the right position for my little legs.

I’d started sub-100 and soon got used to 120kg as my go to leg blaster. Soon, it was my warm up after 10 minutes hard graft on the bike.

Defying weight training logic, I would jump the weights in 40s. Or 80s. Or doubles. I went from 120kg to 240kg, always depending on how strong and fresh I felt. Then it would be 280kg, then 320kg. I knew better, but it worked for me.

And while I was aiming for up to six reps. I’d often go to failure at about 10 or 12. This particular day I hit 360kg strong, then 420kg for 10 with strict form. My personal trainer, helping someone else on squats, came across to say hello.

He screamed encouragement as I pressed out another nine on 460kg, then urged caution in loading just an extra 10 plate on each side.

Seven on 480kg. My legs felt as if someone had injected anaesthetic into them. The seventh wasn’t great form, but I managed to press it up. And fight it down.

I was finished.

I didn’t say it immediately, but in my head I was annoyed I hadn’t loaded up 20 plates. The big 500. I was so sure I could have achieved that figure, but tried to mask my disappointment.

And it’s the disappointment I feel now, back at the point where even breaking three figures would be a huge success. A road accident and then illness, coupled with a bout of depression, hit my fitness hard.

I forgot the time honoured phrase of ‘make gains or make excuses’. I had all the excuses in the world and trotted them out at every opportunity.

Today, I went out for a second cycle ride for fitness-sake in three years. It was tough. Just a three miler, but I was trying to push up the hills and along the flats. It drained me more than I would have expected, but somehow my mind plays tricks and tells me how much I used to cycle and how this fitness lark should be so simple – like riding a bike.

Struggling with running due to tight calves, cycling is the way to up my miles, my aerobic fitness and I’m at the very start of my journey. There’s a lot more miles on those tyres and hopefully in my legs.

Today’s ride was better than yesterdays. Progress.

I’m lifting heavier than I did a week ago. Progress.

I’m doing something to improve my fitness. Progress.

And I’m remembering previous journeys. Like the time in the gym when I came so close to my goal and ran out of steam. I’m going to achieve my fitness goals this time around. I always did. Bar that one.

I talked with my PT, a power lifter, about the leg press failure a week later at our squat and deadlift session.

He was as horrified as I was.

But from a different angle.

‘Ah, mate. But you did do it. The sled weighs 53kg. You smashed it. You broke 500.’

 

 

 

Fitter Happier

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that being fitter, or slimmer, or stronger makes you happier.

As Radiohead’s Thom Yorke wrote, it has its pros and its cons.

But there is something really good in seeing a positive transformation body-wise.  Undoubtedly, the body thrives on endorphins and the like from good physical activity.

My wife, Shellie, and I have both struggled with weight these last few years. Shellie after giving birth to our daughter, me following an accident, frozen shoulder and then health problems.

We’re both on a fitness journey together, although our destinations are very different. Shellie has her eyes on weight loss, but above all a higher level of fitness. To drive her Parkrun time down below 30 minutes.

She’s not been much of a runner in the past. Her ex sought to undo her efforts at every stage, but she did manage to complete a Coastal Marathon challenge down here in Cornwall three years ago.

She’s always had the potential, but then most people do. What Shellie has shown is the determination, grit, will to succeed and never-say-die attitude. She hadn’t really trained for the marathon, but she finished it.

Now she’s running regularly, has joined a running club and loving it.

Today, she scored another Parkrun personal best. But it was more than just about the simple  time. After a few weeks strength-training, she felt stronger, actually ran rather than jogged and seemed to have turned yet another corner.

She is now eager to kick on to the next stage, knowing she can go sub-30 minutes.

A very different proposition to the lady who baulked at the idea of going under 35 minutes. Who thought those goals were for other people. Now we’ve got a growth in confidence fuelling further desire for physical gains.

It is brilliant to witness.

We’ve been working together for a month now. We’ve both lost nine pound so far, although my goal is to get stronger and leaner, very different to Shellie’s vision for herself.

The tale of the tape is buoying both of us, though I’m now kicking myself that I didn’t measure the most prominent part of my gut when we started this. I’ve lost inches in that area.

Shellie’s losing the inches everywhere,  but the big change for her is that she is now getting used to having muscles. Not heaving big Schwarzenegger-stype quads, but enough to make her 5k run that much easier.

And it’s all been phased for her, adding in exercises or slight increases in weight each week. What she managed last week was tremendous, but there would have been no point suggesting she try it in that first week. She still moans that she doesn’t feel like she’s done much, but the results are there for all to see.

As well as being a Parkrun best, today’s run was two minutes better than her last run out a fortnight ago – after a two month absence from the road or track.

She’s happy with the PB, on the day Parkrun saluted the National Health Service, which she has worked in for 20-plus years.

Progress? Absolutely blummin’ yes.

Fitter happier? No doubt about it.

Field Of Eternity

IT’S not hard to imagine the raucous reception Harry Walker received when he finally regained his place among the Coventry, Warwickshire, Midlands and England teams of yore.

For Walker, who has died aged 103, was a Coventry legend – and for all the right reasons.

He joins other 2018 departures from the living Cov family. John Gardiner would probably rib him for being the ‘new boy’, Steve Fairn would probably give him some stick, too – but happy to be once more under Walker’s gaze.

Walker was a player who gave it all on the pitch, and who continued to give his all to his beloved blues and whites after he called time on a glittering playing career.

He wasn’t alone. There were others from Coventry’s post-war glory years who have been about much more than 80 minutes on the pitch. John Gardiner, Peter Jackson and the like, who continued to serve their club.

But such was the aura of invincibility and belief surrounding Walker that he stood a touch taller in the myth surrounding Coventry RFC.

He was among men who wouldn’t be out of place in an all-time Coventry XV and his exploits at Coundon Road are still remembered fondly, though few remain that will have witnessed those days when Walker made his debut, before the bombs rained down and careers were put on hold for war.

How good were those men who pulled on the blue and white of Coventry?

And how did war rob them of their best years?

That can only be surmised or debated. What is fact is that Walker went from strength to strength in the years immediately following the peace accords. He won nine England caps and played against the Southern Triumvirate of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia for the Midlands.

And then he called time on his playing career as Coventry’s success exploded, when Coundon Road was a field of dreams for a succession of international players and players who deserved long international careers, but for the vagaries of RFU selectors. But Walker played a key part, in many management roles. He helped drive the success.

A few beerios will have been held in the heavenly clubhouse to mark his arrival among the ranks of the Coventry gods; men who saw his emergence, contemporaries and those who looked up to the giant among rugby men when it came to their turn to play.

The party’s probably still running, especially given that he’ll have been able to tell them how well the current crop of players to don the famous kit did last season.

Walker will probably end up organising a few tournaments up there, too.  Such was his reputation for attention to detail. And his love for rugby and Coventry rugby.

I’d love there to be something akin to the baseball games in the Hollywood hit movie, Field Of Dreams, but for rugby. And without the saccharine drama.

I’m sure Walker would love that. Freed from the shackles of old age. To be part of the game he loved once more.

He’ll probably rename the Elysian Fields, Coundon Road.

The living world has lost a true great. The rugby world a giant among men, who will be remembered, rightly, for his contributions above and beyond that of a player.

His legacy lives on, through Tony Gulliver, one of Walker’s erstwhile charges and now team manager. He instills that pride, that Coventry spirit among the squad – a fantastic link between the Cov of bygone glories to the Cov of modern glories.

A man who learned a trick or two from Walker, on and off the field.

It’s not only men like Gulliver who keep Walker’s spirit alive. It’s in the very fabric of the club, its support, that Oxford blue and white hooped shirt.

A flame that will never flicker.