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

Rumbelows Sprint Challenge

In 1992, a group of TV execs came up with an idea as brilliant as it was simple: get players from all 92 league clubs to sprint for the right to call themselves the game’s fastest (and win a new telly)

Like many of the greatest and wonderfully drunken nights, it was completely unplanned. Swansea City striker John Williams and his team-mate Jon Ford were staying at the Hilton in Watford and intent on having a quiet evening.

But then they’d discovered that there was a free bar...

“Jon was a big lad, he could put them away and loved a good beer, whereas I wasn't a drinker at all,” remembers Williams. “But we had some steak and chips, and because it was Jon’s birthday the following day I said: ‘Come on let’s celebrate with a couple of pints.’

“Of course, one became two and three became four. We had a bottle of champagne, and after that we got on the spirits. I was paralytic.

John Williams in action against Mansfield, 2001

"I think I ended up back in my room at 3am. I threw up, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in a bath. Jon was spraying me in the face with cold water, there was a shockwave and it drove me crazy. I started to attack him. Then I realised what was going on – he was shouting at me: ‘We’re late! We’re late!’”

Williams, a hungover shambles, had an appointment at Wembley Stadium. It was the day of the 1992 League Cup Final and, later that afternoon, he was to race for the title of Britain’s fastest footballer.

“You’re representing us because you can catch pigeons”

Many things have changed since the birth of the Premier League in 1992, and many of those changes have been for the better. But one feature those who lived through the 1970s, ’80s and early-'90s era of the English game miss are the entertaining sideshows that went alongside the national pastime. Kevin Keegan in 1976, for example: he might have been playing for champions Liverpool, but he was still allowed to film Superstars – a barmy TV mini-Olympics, during which he endured a serious bike crash.

It's hard to imagine, say, Dele Alli, being permitted to engage in a cycle-off against Mo Farah and Tom Daley purely for prime time telly giggles.

Likewise, the amount of cultural nonsense that accompanied our delirious excitement about both the League and FA Cup final has all but disappeared now. Recall the ’78 cup final special episode of Noel Edmonds’ Swap Shop, in which Keith Chegwin was sent to Highbury to follow Arsenal’s pre-match preparations.

Picture cup final Tarby And Friends, where Scouser Jimmy Tarbuck propped up a bar and then wisecracked about Kenny Dalglish with Kenny Lynch. And consider the footage which brought us Bruce Forsyth’s: “I’ve always supported the Lilywhites – do they still call them the Lilywhites?” back in 1991.

Then there were the daft TV specials: cup final Punchlines (a Lennie Bennett quiz vehicle packed with Z-list celebs) and cup final Snooker (which included Gary Lineker defeating Mark Lawrenson before the all-Mersey 1986 FA Cup showpiece). It sometimes got pretty dubious: the ITV report in which Dickie Davies was reduced to tears while Freddie Starr examined the Wembley nets dressed as a Nazi was probably the nadir.

Notts County's Kevin Bartlett coasts through his heat

The Rumbelows Sprint Challenge slotted neatly into this pattern: dreamt up by the producers of Saint and Greavsie – the all-conquering ITV weekly round-up show hosted by Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves – and funded by electrical retailers and League Cup sponsors, Rumbelows. The idea appealed to fans, who, just as now, loved to argue about who the quickest player in the game was.

“All the players saw the running challenge on Saint and Greavsie and word went out to the clubs,” says Kevin Bartlett, the Notts County striker tipped for the title. “Speed had always been a big part of my game, so I knew I had a decent chance.”