Olavian Legends: Seb Cooley

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In the first of our series of interviews with Olavian Legends, we meet Seb Cooley, class of 1999. Seb’s Fives CV is impressive with wins in all the major tournaments. He is also the current Pan-Asia Eton Fives Champion, having won the title in 2011.

OF: Welcome, Olavian Legend. What qualifies you to be considered an Olavian Legend?

SC: I arrived at STOGS in 1992, not completely unaware of the existence of fives: my brother had been playing for two years, was enthused and was Quite Good (he was later to reach a Kinnaird final) so I was already keen to give it a go.

OF: When did you start playing Eton Fives. To the nearest decade, if you prefer


OF: Have you ever won anything Fives related? A Tankard, Spoon, Kinnaird, Barber or similar.

In order of importance: one Tankard (which recently emerged very misshapen after a house move), one Spoon, the Barber (probably involved in most of the recent ones in one round or another), a match against my brother in 2002, 3 Kinnairds, 4 Northerns, 2 Londons, Schools’ Open (99), U16 (97) and U15 (95).

 OF: Why did you start playing Eton Fives?

I never wonder why I took to fives rather than another sport. I was prejudiced against rugby and sadly had no experience to reverse that; basketball might have been an option had I not been joint shortest in the year (I now stand at a regal 5’5”). The rugby coaches were not loath to let me increase my time on the courts. I had some hand-eye, though, and could get around a court. Although unable to return a ball from the back of court, it turned out I was not easy to beat at boxes. So began my specialisation as a front court player and retriever of the ball.

OF: Are there any moments from early in your Fives career that stick in your mind?

An early highlight of my career was after an away fixture at Harrow. Howard had taken us by train and underground and, having a little time to play with, had walked us up through the cemetery to enjoy the impressive views across London. On finishing the match, we went into the rackets courts to see this sport in action. The balcony of one court being full, I moved over to the other. After a few minutes watching, I noticed everyone else had gone. No sign. The only route I knew back to the station was through the (now pitch black) graveyard. I was about 13. I think the time I set that day remains a school record.

There were other highlights along the way: playing a match with Dan Hawkins (a number 8 for the 1st XV, not a small fella). I may at one stage have returned a ball that went through his legs and up. Playing any game with my brother was interesting: it would be fair to say it was a pair that was significantly less than the sum of its parts. After one particularly woeful showing at Charterhouse, Howard abandoned the notion. And driving to away matches was always a laugh. I am not sure whether it is nostalgia or memory, but I believe the captain, Ed Sanderson, had red and yellow referee’s cards with him on one trip on which we (unsurprisingly) spent some time in a jam on the M25. A young driver next to us stalled. Ed considered this worthy of a straight red. Then there was Howard’s face when Karl Rudman and I went to a 5th set at Ipswich in the Barber Cup round 1. The fixture stood 1-1; we were the pair expected to make light work of it (we did win.)

OF: Have you ever paid money to play a game of Fives?

Yes, tournament fees and evenings at the Westway. Most matches, no.

OF: Your new girlfriend asks if she can come and watch you play in a tournament at Eton. You’re quite keen on her. It’s January and rain is forecast. Do take her along? Show your working.

Sentence 2 of the question is crucial. The obvious answer is no, for she is in for 2 hours of near-Siberian misery. Once frostbite has given way to rational thought she will move to the Bahamas and swear never again to humour me or my ludicrous pastimes. However, never to ask her along may result in an air of secrecy; many’s the girlfriend has become suspicious having been constantly warned off.

My tactic would be to bring her, but ensure she has more thermals than you could shake a penguin at, some company and a clear idea where the good pubs and coffee shops are on Eton High Street. After about 10 minutes I’d suddenly remember I had, on a previous visit, forgotten a card behind the bar/counter at one of these that needed collecting. She could spend an hour there, then pop over to do some shopping in Windsor before we met at the pub: she warm and happy, I showered.

[Ed’s note – younger players, take note. This is a textbook answer]

OF: What is it that makes Fives special for you?

Fives has given me much more than happy memories (and indeed no small number of those). I teach now and every school in which I have worked plays fives. It would be wrong to pretend it played no part in my appointments!

A few lines stick with me, mostly truths and truisms spoken by other players, opponents, friends.

John Reynolds, legend: “I came to do my wedding invitations and realised the people I knew best were the bastards I was playing against every week!”

Nigel Cox, legend: “You’re a completely different character on a fives court to off it.”

There is a hint in Nigel’s observation at what it is that, to my mind, pulls fives above any other sport I’ve played. In the absence of a referee it is a clearer illustrator of character than it is easy to find elsewhere.

OF: Describe 3 (three) characteristics that you believe should be present in an Olavian Legend.

1. Olavian
2. Legend
3. Fives player

OF: Are there any other players that you believe should be granted the status of Olavian Legend? Honorary Olavians are permitted if you’re particularly persuasive. Justify your selections

Howard (for justification observe Howard for any given day of the year)
Matt Wiseman (first recent Kinnaird winner)
James Toop (see MCTW above)
Jimmy Biggs (Kinnaird winner without really ever hitting it with his left hand!)
Roland Williams (for idiosyncrasy, in particular with regard to returning cuts)
Doug Keeble (posthumously if he does not already hold it de facto)
Tim Rakow (Captain and proud “base of the pyramid” player)
Stu Greenwood (for regarding it “careless” when, at a rare club dinner on Orpington High Street, an unfinished plate was removed from the far end of a table of about 20 without his having hoovered it clean. He had already seen off the equivalent about three good-sized dinners)
There must be more… Chris Cooley could be another – with Howard brought back the London Tournament.

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