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Next entry: Amit Varma says fund schooling not schools
Previous entry: Not much education blogging in the UK?
Thursday January 03 2008

A surprising but true fact about the early life of England’s triumphant rugby union coach whose team won the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final is that his first sporting love was not rugby at all, but soccer.  But his father had other ideas and sent him to the Royal Navy training college, HMS Conway, where soccer was ignored and rugby insisted upon.  Here, from his book Winning! (pages 22-24 of my paperback edition), is Woodward’s description of this amazing episode:

imageTo most, HMS Conway was a great school. But to this day my school days there remain the darkest days of my life.  Ask any Conway old boy and he’ll probably tell you of his many fond memories of the place.  I’d say it could have been a good school, if only they had allowed me to play football.  Without football, it was like a prison, my very own Alcatraz.

The school was located on the island of Anglesey in North Wales in those days, about four hours’ drive from our home in Yorkshire.  But it may just as well have been on the moon, it was so removed from what I knew and loved.  I’ll always remember the name of the local village, the longest in Wales: Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, called Llanfair (pronounced Clanfare) for short, is itself an abbreviation!  The full name runs to fifty-eight letters.

‘Dad, please let me come home. They don’t play football here.’ I pleaded with him by telephone after my first day.  ‘They don’t even like football here.  If I’m seen with a football the headmaster will go crazy and the older boys will just beat me up.  All they’re into is rugby.’ I was vaguely familiar with rugby, having seen an international match on TV when there was nothing else on.  Watching it on TV, it seemed a daft game with rules that were hard to follow.

‘Sometimes you’ve just got to get on with it, Clive.  It’s character-building,’ was all he would allow.

Get on with it then?  Right.  So I did just that.  At breakfast the next morning I filled my pockets and did a runner!  It took me all day, but I walked and hitchhiked my way right across the country.  I was a thirteen-year-old on a mission to go back and play football.

My parents were waiting for me at the door when I arrived home.  My father grabbed his coat in one hand and my arm in the other.  He marched me out to the car and drove me right back the way I had come.  I was seeing a side to my father I just did not know was there.

‘Good job you were not Geoff Hurst’s father or the bloody World Cup would be in Munich!’

Silence.  Hardly a word was said the whole trip.

A few days later, I ran away again.  This time, instead of driving me back, they put me on a train at York back to the nearest town to the school.  Bangor, and especially that railway station, quickly became my least favourite place in the world.  Still is.  A week after that, I made a third break for it.  Sooner or later my father would get the message: I was not going to accept this.  I was coming home, and I was going to play football.

Unfortunately, it was I who got the message in the end – literally, in the form of a three-foot heavy marine rope with thick knots as hard as steel, not so fondly known as ‘the teaser’ by the other young cadets who were on the receiving end of it.  HMS Conway was a tough school and discipline was handed down by the senior cadets.  It was embarrassing to the school that I had run away once, let alone three times. The senior cadet captain had copped an earful from our headmaster, Mr Basil Lord, and he wasn’t shy about passing it on.  Corporal punishment handed out by eighteen-year-olds was no fun, but worse still this lot had never heard of Bobby Moore!  I was trouble, there were consequences, and I didn’t like the attention I was getting, nor did my body.  As much as I had a point to prove, survival was first and foremost.

Still, I made one more attempt.  My maths teacher, Mr Goodey, was my last chance.  He taught only one subject and so didn’t live at the school like the majority of the teachers.  Coincidentally, he also coached schoolboy football in nearby Bangor.  We’d had a bit of a kick about one afternoon and he was amazed at what I could do with a football.  He was so impressed that he even offered to pick me up and drop me off to training so that I could play with his club side.

I’ll never forget the look on Mr Lord’s face when I knocked on his study door that night, asking for one more chance at football.  I explained how Mr Goodey had offered to handle everything.

‘How many times do I have to tell you. Woodward ...’ His steely expression of muted rage is etched into my mind.  ‘If you do not stop all this nonsense I will take the teaser to you as well.’

It was then that I realised I wasn’t going to beat this.  If I wanted to survive, I had to play by their rules.