North vs South: From Mersey to Henley

For Steve Redgrave, it was a challenge every bit as daunting as winning five Olympic golds: could he turn eight Liverpudlian landlubbers into a crew worthy of the Regatta? Ian Herbert reports
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Liverpudlians have never really gone in for that most quintessential of British summer experiences, the Henley Regatta. In a city better known for its ferries than its rowing, it would take a brave man to head into town wearing a lurid stripy blazer and clutching a jug of Pimm's. Luke McMurray, a joiner who has had a hand in many of Liverpool's swanky new apartments, is typical of many whose experiences of the sport in the past have been limited to "watching Steve Redgrave at the Olympics".

This year is different, though. Liverpool will be on tenterhooks tomorrow when its first - and only - elite rowers compete to qualify for the Henley finals. Only one of the eight-men in the city's boat had set their backsides on a rowing machine - let alone a vessel - before they were handpicked by Sir Steve Redgrave, for a project to see if a bunch of rookies could reach the regatta finals' exacting standards inside seven months.

Mr McMurray, 24, from Liverpool's down-at-heel Kensington district, will be at stroke position for tomorrow's time trials - and a more unlikely contender for Henley's world of flashing oars and picnic hampers it would be hard to find.

By his own admission, he enjoyed school (St Margaret's, in Anfield) "a bit too much" before leaving with minimal qualifications to take up his joiner's job, working mainly for his father. Life had settled into a pattern of work, five-a-side football and watching Liverpool FC play until Sir Steve appeared on the Anfield pitch before a home match last November and appealed for volunteers to join what has since become known in national rowing circles as "Sir Steve Redgrave's Liverpool 8."

"I'd never been in a boat or on a rowing machine," said McMurray. "I didn't even watch the Boat Race. I couldn't have given a toss about a few blokes rowing a boat. But it has become my life and I would like to carry on with it after Henley. I've had to give things up and think like an athlete but that's become one of the best bits of the experience."

He clearly had something that the five-times Olympic gold medallist thought he could work with. He was one of the 30 men, initially selected from the 250 who turned up for trials at Liverpool Town Hall. They have since been taught the sport from scratch at the Liverpool Victoria rowing club, across the Mersey in Wirral, where Sir Steve has seen Mr McMurray emerge as a rower of international pedigree. "He's got it," Sir Steve said yesterday, after an exacting row in the wind along an 8km stretch of Thames at Henley. "He wants to pursue the sport when Henley has finished and he could certainly be an international lightweight stroke."

Other members of the original 30 abandoned equally modest lives to join the frantic, full-time pursuit of a place at Henley. Ryan Jones, 20, a former solder from Liverpool's Clubmoor district, was nominated by his father. "I wasn't happy [with my dad] because it's not my sort of sport. I didn't even like boats," he said. With some experience of "messing about on a rowing machine in the gym" Michael Bomba, 19, who put his job as an apprentice joiner on hold, was comfortably the best qualified of the initial 30.

Those men were just the kind of ordinary individuals that Sir Steve set out to find out after he was approached by a TV production company, Outline Productions, to lead the project for an ITV documentary to be filmed in the autumn. "The catchment area was limited to Liverpool only," he said. "Not Manchester, not Cheshire and definitely not Henley. The idea was not make it hard. Not a boot camp. But tough."

A quiet word with Jamie Oliver, who tried a culinary equivalent of this kind of project by training a group of aspiring chefs to run his Fifteen restaurant for the Channel 4 show Jamie's Kitchen, would have told Sir Steve that the ensuing months would not be an entirely smooth ride.

They were not. A few months into the project, one of the rowers, Michael Hornby, 17, (still a part of the group when the 30 were whittled down to 20) found himself in court charged with assault relating to a street fight two years previously. Hornby was a popular member of the team, who had helped rescue a fellow team member when their four-man boat capsized and the man became trapped underwater. Sir Steve insisted he was an "affable and polite 17-year-old who is always eager to lend him a hand." But it was all to no avail. Hornby was sentenced to 10 months in jail and left the group.

Sir Steve's easy manner with his young charges, whom he has seen once a week and accompanied on a training trip to Seville in Spain in the spring, demonstrates how far removed he is from rowing's gentrified image. He attended a small comprehensive at Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire, leaving when he was 16 with one CSE, in woodwork, but his rowing ability was spotted by the school's English teacher.

"In the days when only those with money went to university it was a toff's sport but now that more people are getting there because of their nous, the backgrounds of rowers has changed," Sir Steve said.

Yet some of the old prejudices have been unmistakable since his team joined the rowing circuit. When they competed at the opening event of the regatta season, in April, the commentator instructed spectators through the public address system to move three cars which were causing an obstruction "otherwise the management - or the Liverpool boys - will move them for you".

When Newcastle - managed by the Italian national coach Angelo Savarino - raced off against Liverpool in a 2km final at the same event, few of the neutrals were supporting Liverpool. "You do get the odd comment from people who think we have been given too much. We just ignore that and try to get on with winning," said Mr McMurray.

"There are two sides to the Liverpool story," said the Nottingham University cox Dan Prior, who has also coxed for St Paul's School and Henley Rowing Club. "It's absolutely fantastic to see rowing opened up more and it's important to see the sport to lose its elitist image.

"But one of the beauties of rowing is that it is an amateur sport in which you only get new equipment from time to time and, when you do, it's a luxury. There is a feeling that Liverpool have had a leg up, with the top end of new equipment to help them."

Other university rowers feel more strongly about it. "These boys have just not been popular," said one. "They've had advantages that none of the rest of us have enjoyed. They're at it full time. We're fitting it in around everything else."

Yet for many rowing observers, the enduring fascination of Sir Steve's project is the discovery of whether a team really can reach the standards of the Henley finals, where Sir Steve last competed against Matthew Pinsent, the man who would join his Olympic boat, 16 years ago. It would present an absorbing new dimension for the 300,000 crowd at a 167-year-old event where women are still not allowed to compete and where the stewards still insist that the length of women's skirts must be below the knee.

The British rowing fraternity is certainly acknowledging that individuals with next to no experience may quickly excel, by turning to novices in its search for the rowers who it can send out on to the Thames for the 2012 Olympics. The World Class Start programme, run by the Amateur Rowing Association and Sport England, is identifying individuals who have the physical potential to make it, even though they might have no rowing experience

"Those athletes have a few years to learn the sport," said Sophie Mackley, editor of Rowing & Regatta. "But for the Liverpool team to make Henley would be unprecedented. No one has achieved that standard so quickly."

The Liverpudlians' blind belief that they could make it quickly evaporated, said Sir Steve. "At the start, they believed they could beat the world," he said. "I was fielding questions like 'how much does an international rower make?' When they realised what they were up against, they got despondent. Now they are coming back from that. They are thinking 'Why can't we do that?'"

Their training waters have included the Mersey docks and there has been no shortage of expertise on hand. Sir Steve's support team has included his wife, Dr Ann Redgrave, former medical adviser to the British Olympic team, and a fellow Olympian, James Cracknell, whose work with them has focused on the importance of teamwork. "It's a combination of rowing technique, training programme and making sure their fitness is rowing-specific," said their local coach, Paul Rafferty.

Tomorrow's time trials pit the Liverpool 8 against 24 boats, with the fastest nine reaching the Thames Challenge Cup at the Henley finals. Yesterday's last-minute preparations were psychological. "We're trying to make sure they're not too nervous but firing them up enough to commit themselves. We're drip-feeding them confidence," said Sir Steve.

So is he hopeful of success in what he describes as his "greatest challenge?" "Hopeful? Yes. Expectant, no," he said.

"To me, it was always going to be a long shot to get a group of guys ready who'd not even been on a rowing machine. They could just get through, or just miss out. But what also matters is that the experience has changed these boys. When they started out there was a lot of 'what society owes me'. But now they are looking positively towards their future."

A tale of two towns

Kensington, Liverpool Population: 14,075

Thirty five per cent of adults have no qualifications.

More than 75 per cent of children leave school with fewer than five GCSEs.

The average price of a three-bedroom terrace property is £52,418.

The most recent figures show that 8.4 per cent of the working- age population are unemployed.

The average household income is 24.1 per cent below the Liverpool average - 35 per cent of households have an annual income of between £5,200 and £10,400.

Only 35 per cent of Kensington residents are in paid employment.

More than one in four people reports anxiety or depression.

Domestic burglaries occur 24 times for every 1,000 people - almost double the Liverpool average.

Only 40 per cent of residents feel safe walking in the area after dark.

There were 48 instances of violent crime recorded per 1,000 of the population in 2004, almost double the 2002 figure.

About 75 per cent of Mori respondents said youths hanging around the streets was a problem.

About 74 per cent of residents consider boarded-up properties in the area to be a problem.

Henley-on-Thames Population: 10,000

More than 28 per cent of adults have a degree or other qualification such as an NVQ level 4 or 5.

56.3 per cent of children achieve five or more GSCE passes.

The average price for a three bedroom semi-detached house in Henley is £400,000.

In 2005 Henley was declared the fifth least affordable town in Britain for property buyers.

Only 1.7 per cent of the economically active population is unemployed.

The average income of a first-time buyer in the area is £36,167.

More than 75 per cent of residents own their own home.

More than 74 per cent of people say they are in good health.

River trade has made Henley prosperous since the 12th century.

Readership levels of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph are twice the national average.