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The Rumbelows Sprint Challenge: When English football's fastest footballers raced for £10k

Rumbelows Sprint Challenge
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“Jon replied, ‘Oh no gaffer, I won’t do that!’ But it happened. On the start line I felt relaxed – there were bigger favourites than me. I was a dark horse. It was all pretty mad. There were 75,000 people there and the Manchester United and Nottingham Forest supporters were enjoying it. Poor old Keith Curle, who played for Man City, virtually needed an armed guard – he was getting hell from the United lot.”

On TV, eccentric ITV odds expert McCririck stands pitchside – replete with trademark sideburns and deerstalker –  jabbering betting slang with Ladbrokes’ representative Paul Austin. “Saint and Greavsie have got a monkey at 3-1 on Bartlett,” he says. “He looks a good favourite,” adds Austin. “He only ran the heat to qualify... looked to be coasting.”

Middle distance runner Steve Cram is then consulted, claiming that for footballers, “this is a stamina race. It’s going to be hard for them. In the last 30 metres, heads start to rock.”

Commentator Alan Parry admits he had already lost cash on Curle, who’d been eliminated in the semis. “The clever money’s on Bartlett,” he says, adding the threat comes from ‘The Flying Postman’ Williams. “There were never any complaints about late deliveries on his round.”

With speedy Forest defender Des Walker not taking part due to the fact that he was playing in the final, the rest of the field was made up by Michael Gilkes (Reading), Tony Witter (QPR), Leigh Jenkinson (Hull), Adrian Littlejohn (Sheffield United), Efan Ekoku (Bournemouth) and Paul Fleming (Mansfield). A huge Wembley roar greeted the players.

On the pitch, distractions were everywhere. “I used a standing start, because I thought if I got down on the ground, I would never get up again,” laughs Williams. “But as we lined up, I could see a young lad keeping the ball up on the sidelines. He wasn’t even looking as he did it, perfectly. He was looking right at me. I thought, ‘he’s quality’ and then I realised that it was Ryan Giggs. I was so distracted by it that I actually missed the starting gun go off.”

Bartlett was also a slow starter. “That’s what did it for me,” he says. “I didn’t get away quickly enough, then I had too much to make up.”

With 50 yards gone, Williams glides through the field like Usain Bolt in his pomp to win comfortably. “I thought, ‘If I haven’t caught them by halfway, there’s no hope’,” he says. “But a lot of the field started to wane and I was getting stronger. I thought, ‘I’ve got a chance here’, and kicked on – it was a brilliant feeling."

Commentator Parry enjoys the moment. “Williams of Swansea! You might well thank a superior power for that one!” he gushes as the line is crossed in 11.49 seconds. “He scored yesterday and collects a cool £10,000. He can now call himself the fastest footballer in the league.”

Analyst Cram approves: “He’s a powerful boy and wouldn’t disgrace many sprinting tracks around the world. Williams might want to look at the Olympic trials later in the year.”

Bartlett came second, deeply disappointed despite winning £2,000. Gilkes took third, and £1,000.

“I still get slaughtered over it back in Nottingham”

Ten grand was no joke for a first-year professional playing in the lower leagues. “It was really useful,” recalls Williams. “I couldn’t believe it.

"I put a deposit down on a house and bought a car, a Peugeot 205 GTI 1.9. It’s nothing compared to the Bentleys today, but I was just a lad from inner-city Birmingham. And loads of the lads had backed me to win at 16-1, so they were pretty happy!”

The opposite was the case for the beaten Bartlett. “I got slaughtered back in Nottingham,” he says. “I’m still in touch with lots of the squad and, even to this day, they give me stick for losing their money. And County fans bring it up, too.” He has one consolation. “Because I ran 11.40 in the heats, I still consider myself the fastest ever footballer.”

Williams isn’t having it. “It’s not what you do in the heats, it’s what you do in the final,” he laughs. With Rumbelows entering receivership later that year, and Saint and Greavsie also taken off the air after ITV lost their football coverage to Sky, the title would remain his forever.

“We each got given travel expenses and a TV from Rumbelows,” he says. “It’s probably why they went bust! I thought I wasn’t going to get my money, but thankfully I did. It’s fun that I can still say I’m the fastest player, but a race like that wouldn’t happen now. Players are like rock stars and detached from the fans. It’s such a big industry.”

Best of all, though, Williams had learned a valuable life lesson.

“It was the last time I ever got drunk.”

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