Brian Viner: Masterclasses in sporting life from the old school

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The Independent Online

My old school – King George V Grammar School for Boys, Southport – has been much on my mind this week. On Monday I received my copy of The Red Rose, the magazine of the Old Georgians' Association, and it contained the sad and unexpected news that my old Latin master, T B L Davies, passed away a couple of months ago.

It seemed especially poignant that I should read about his death, having moments earlier devoured newspaper reports of one of Welsh rugby's great afternoons – the 26-19 ransacking of England at Twickenham – for Bleddwyn Davies, known to every pupil as Blod, was a Welsh rugby enthusiast in much the same way that Casanova liked women and Billy Bunter enjoyed his grub. On Monday mornings after J P R Williams, Gareth Edwards and Co had yet again rubbed English, Scottish, or Irish or French noses in the dirt, it really didn't matter what was happening to Marcus, Sextus and Aurelia in the pages of our Latin textbook, Ecce Romani; in that first Latin lesson of the week, rugby was first, middle and last on Blod's agenda. He would have been enraptured by the first Welsh win for 20 years at English HQ.

That I enjoyed it too is entirely down to Blod. If I might immodestly quote from Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me, my memoir about growing up as a sports nut, "the manifest joy he derived from the pre-eminence of the Welsh dragon rubbed off on me. Through him I formed an attachment to Welsh rugby that I have kept quiet about pretty much until now.

"Of course, it wasn't hard to support Wales in the 1970s. The Welsh shared the Five Nations Championship in 1970 and 1973, and won it outright in 1971, 1975, 1976, 1978 and 1979, of which 1971, 1976 and 1978 were also Grand Slam years. A 34-18 defeat by Scotland in 1982 ended a remarkable run of 27 championship games undefeated at Cardiff Arms Park. For an Evertonian in a decade dominated by Liverpool, it was rather satisfying to go through the 1970s rooting quietly for the Welsh rugby union team, even if a wet weekend in Ruthin with my parents was my only direct experience of the principality's charms.

"I wasn't the only one captivated by Blod's enthusiasm. He was a provincial Latin teacher, not a professional broadcaster like Cliff Morgan and Bill McLaren, but there was romance in the way he talked about the latest triumph at the Arms Park, and even now, although England is my country and I love seeing England do well, I have a more visceral affection for the heirs of Phil Bennett and Gerald Davies."

Most lifelong sports addicts have a talismanic figure somewhere in their childhood who encouraged and fostered their addiction. For many boys it was a father or grandfather, but my dad really had eyes only for horse racing, and though he took me with him to Haydock and Uttoxeter and Cartmel, and taught me how to read form, I was always more promiscuous in my affections. On Saturday afternoons I left him to the ITV Seven while I went to watch Southport FC, then in the old Fourth Division. My dad wouldn't let me go to watch Everton, relentlessly though I begged. He thought that 40,000 crowds were no place for a child. It was only after he died, when I was 14, that I started going to Goodison Park.

So I had to find my sporting inspiration elsewhere, and much of it came from Blod. Moreover, he was tall, moustachioed and macho, and married to the object of a thousand adolescent fantasies, our French teacher Mrs Davies, naturally known as Ma Blod. They were a striking pair, the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of King George V's polished parquet corridors, and they also shared that indefinable aura that seemed to shimmer around teachers with whom you knew you could step out of line.

In this they were assisted by the old-fashioned grammar school convention of pupils being addressed only by their surnames – there were boys I went to school with for seven years whose first names I never knew – which brings me to another man with that same indefinable aura, another reason why my old school has been on my mind this week, the England football manager, Fabio Capello.

* Rio Ferdinand's suggestion that being part of Capello's new regime was like stepping up to senior school was nicely put, and although he probably didn't mean it as a dig at Capello's predecessors, there seems no doubt now that, to extend the analogy, Steve McClaren was a well-meaning but hapless primary school head, while Sven Goran Eriksson was a little too indulgent with his milk monitors, David, Steven and Frank. As for the business of using surnames, in my experience it draws a line between teachers and pupils, discouraging mateyness, and feeding a work ethic. I don't think Blod had much time for English football, but I'm sure he would have approved.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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