How I met Alf 

I first met Alf Tupper in Cassiobury Park, Watford in May 1949. I had no idea who he was at the time of course, but very soon I was to become extremely grateful that our meeting took place.

But back to the story. I was a part time professional footballer with Watford FC and also a part time Greyhound trainer. The wages from the two jobs gave me a reasonable living and I also got paid for doing the two things in life that I loved the most and was even able to indulge my passions at the same place; Watford FC's home ground Vicarage Road, which was, at that time, a Greyhound racing track as well as a football ground.

After training most days, I would make the short cycle-ride home to Bushey to pick-up my 5 dogs for their daily run. Usually I'd walk/run with them up Watford High Street towards the Town Hall and then on to Cassiobury Park. A couple of days a week, I'd run them through the park and up over the Golf Course to the woods beyond, where I'd let the dogs off their leads so they could zoom up and down the hills, a vital part of their stamina training.

Well, on this particular day, as we toiled up the steep hill to the golf course, we were passed by some bloke in a track-suit with a 'Fox' badge on it. He was obviously some kind of runner and probably a bit useful as he didn't appear to be breathing very hard as he passed us with a cheery comment, but I didn't recognise either his accent (a bit Northern I thought) or the badge as being any of the local athletics clubs, so decided to give chase. Of course the dogs loved chasing after things and they began to bark and howl as they pulled me along.

We began to catch up with the runner on the steep down slope into the woods and startled him as we sped past. I looked over my shoulder and saw him standing there scratching his head with a perplexed expression on his face. It seems he wasn't used to anyone passing him as he ran!
I thought to myself that it was a minor victory to tell the lads about the following day and thought no more about it.

As I stood at the bottom of the hill, on the far side of the woods, watching the dogs haring up and down, I opened my packet of 'John Player full strength', pulled out a cigarette and dragged long and hard on one. I always loved a good smoke after physical exertion and was minding my own business when a Northern voice said "you'll never win races if you smoke, Grandad".

It was the runner. Tall and muscular with a jutting jaw and an untidy shock of black hair, he was sweating hard and had obviously been putting a lot of effort into his running. 'Don't go thinking that you beat me back there fella, I wasn't going to chase you, as I don't want to leave my best running on the training field, with the AAA's championships coming up tomorrow at White City.'

My reply was probably a bit sarcastic as I certainly didn't believe he was a real runner and he reacted immediately. "Yer think yer can beat me do yer?" he said while looking me straight in the eye. "Probably," I said fixing my gaze right back at him. "So yer'll be an athlete yerself then will yer ?" he replied.

"Kind of" I said, not wanting to reveal that I was a professional. "Wouldn't it be better to run in an actual pair of shoes rather than odd ones" I said, having seen his one white shoe and one black shoe. "Typical southerner" came the reply. "Don't you worry about my shoes, they'll be a long way in front of you if we ever race".

"I thought you didn't want to race today?" I said.

"This is different. A challenge." said the track-suited one.

'"What about your AAA championships ?"

"No need to concern yerself with my well being. Not only will I beat you in a race back over the golf course to the park gates, but I'll beat yer dogs too."

I was taken aback by this and wondered if he really was a 'proper' runner after all. It was about 2 miles back to the park gates and anyone with some knowledge of greyhounds might know that a mile and a half was probably about their limit in terms of stamina. So maybe he knew what he was talking about ? He thought he could catch them in the final half mile or so as they slowed right down ? Now I was intrigued.

"OK. But I am a betting man" I said. "I'll put five bob on me to beat you and ten on the dogs to run you in to the ground."

"Well I'm not much of a man for betting and can't match your cash, but I will feed yer dogs a Butcher's slap-up supper if they do beat me. I'll take yer five bob on 'running you' though."

"Done. We'll start from the top of that hill"

"No, we'll start right here. Let's see how strong you are with an uphill start. I have a feeling that you might be a bit more than just a dog handler, judging by the way you kept up with those dogs back there."

This was just what I didn't want. I'd played for the reserve team the night before and my legs were stiff from the extra time we'd played in the county cup final replay. But I couldn't back down now. Something inside me said that if this northerner wanted to come down here and race, then a race he was going to get. But he was right about me, I was school cross country champion as a youngster and was always at the head of the pack when we did our stamina runs for football training. So I felt I did have a chance, especially if he tried to keep up with the dogs before they began to tire. I might just creep up on him along the slope uphill to the gates by the tea shop.

"Not taking your track-suit off then?" I enquired. "No need", said the stranger. I thought this sounded good, since there was a shallow stream to run through as you entered the park from the golf course. Wet tracksuit bottoms flapping around his legs wouldn't help in the final sprint I thought. But I wasn't going to warn him.

The dogs had sensed something was afoot. They were barking, baying and jumping all around me. There was no need to worry about the dogs going off course. They'd all follow Scamp, the oldest but fastest dog who'd won two recent handicap races at Vicarage Road. He'd done this run back to the park twice a week for two years now and they all knew where to stop. Outside the back gates of the cafe, where all the scraps of food were kept there for them by the owner Joe Adams.

"Ok ?" said the runner.

"Ok" I said.

"Go!" he said, and with that I let the greyhounds go. They were almost at the top of the hill before the other guy had got half way-up. I was about 5 yards behind and beginning to realise that this guy was either good or had gone off way too fast. There was no possibility of me keeping this pace up. Down the hill the other side and then up again onto the long slightly downhill path alongside the river. If I was going to draw level with him, this was the place for me to do it. But by now I was struggling just to fill my lungs with enough air to keep my legs turning and I could feel my cheeks burning as I began to overheat in the early afternoon sun.

He, the runner, was now at least 100 yards in front of me and I could hear my dogs' excited yelps way ahead of us through the quiet woods. My legs began to tell me that they didn't like this very much, as my thighs felt as if they were filled with liquid concrete. Up ahead, my opponent seemed to be increasing the pace. His style was not exactly elegant, like a Tom Hampson or a Sydney Wooderson, but he seemed to be beating the road surface into submission with his powerful stride and his muscular upper body and arms propelling himself along rhythmically with strange 'side to side' elbow movements. Regardless of his lack of a classical style he simply sped along at a pace I could probably have maintained for only for 440 yards maximum. Still he opened up the gap on me. This chap was no ordinary runner. He was obviously extremely gifted and must be some kind
of champion. What was it he said earlier? AAA Championship at White City stadium? Wow. This chap must be an international runner, no wonder I was so far behind him.

I couldn't hear the dogs anymore and the runner had turned sharply left down to the stream which marked the boundary of the park. Not far to go now - my legs were not feeling so terrible and my footballer's stamina was coming into play. As I arrived at the turn myself I could see the dogs 200 yards in front at the bottom of the final hill. Three of them were almost walking now as the runner was almost upon them with his relentless pace swallowing up the ground with the bottoms of his tracksuit clearly wet through from crossing the stream and flapping in the wind as he powered up the hill. The other two dogs were not running much faster and were clearly very tired. I began to really motor now and thought that I might not be completely humiliated after all. Through the stream, hardly slowing as my shoes crunched on the round gravelly stones and cold, fresh water spraying into my face as I splashed through the very shallow but fast flowing water.

The runner up ahead had passed the three walking dogs and was making ground on the other two, with only about 300 yards to go to the cafe and park gates. Just as I reached the slowest dog, (now turned to look for me and actually walking towards me) I heard a loud yelp and Scamp fell to the floor, his legs kicking as he rolled over on the grass. Something was horribly wrong. I had to sprint to get there to help. The runner was surely going to sprint straight to the finish line to win his bet, but I didn't care about that anymore, I just needed to get to my dog - who was suffering with his legs in the air still trying to run - but he was obviously convulsing.

To my surprise the runner altered course, slowed right down, then stopped and took Scamp in his arms in an attempt to stop the convulsions. Then he began to pump the dog's chest with his hands. He was giving artificial respiration and actually looked as if he knew what he was doing. I got closer and closer, then as I drew level, the runner picked up Scamp and ran off with him in his arms towards the cafe. I followed, but again the superman pulled away from me. He was still going to beat me, even with my favourite dog in his arms.

I flew past the gates, straight into the yard at the back of the cafe, where Scamp was now sitting lapping a bowl of water with the runner beside him patting him on the head.

"Bannister!" said Joe Adams the cafe owner. "It's a good job this lad was around to get your Scamp in here. Without water I hate to think what might have happened to him."

"Lumme !" said the runner. "All that effort and still yer dog got over the finish line in front of me". "Only because you were carrying him!" I replied. "How can I ever thank you for what you did?".

"No thanks required" said the runner. He held out his hand and said '"Alf Tupper. Pleased to meet you. Not a bad run for a footballer."

"You knew I was a footballer?" I said with surprise. "No, but Joe here told me what you did for a living". "Those blokes at the AAA's wouldn't be best pleased to hear that I've been racing against a professional."

"Well it's been an honour to run against you Alf and there's no one here from the AAA so let's just keep it our little secret. To be honest, I really don't want my team-mates to know that I got squarely beaten in a cross country race. I usually beat that lot. Cigarette Alf ?"

"No not for me thanks, it's too expensive a hobby and I need all my spare cash to pay for a bed for the night. My aunt's friend was supposed to be putting me up but I've knocked on their door five or six times now and they must be away."

This was my chance to pay him back for his veterinary help.

"You don't worry about that. Just follow me back to Bushey where I live in a house with three other players from the team. We'll put you up overnight and get you a train ticket to White City in the morning. The station's only a street away and there's a Chip shop next door..."

So that was my one and only encounter with Alf Tupper. A great runner and a great man.

Bannister Fletcher.