40 years back – ‘Maybe we have champagne and beefsteak’

Bob's Boys in 1975: Lester, Matheson, Clark, Yallop, Aylings, Sweeney, Crooks, Robertson, Manson, and Janousek.
Bob’s Boys in 1975: Lester, Matheson, Clark, Yallop, Aylings, Sweeney, Crooks, Robertson, Manson, and Janousek.

The GB national eight (Leander and Molesey, 2014 world champions) will meet the German national crew (Hansa Dortmund, 2012 Olympic champions) in the final of Henley’s Grand Challenge Cup at 3.30 p.m. today. Forty years ago, Bob Janousek’s British eight (Leander and Thames Tradesmen) won the Grand against Harvard mid-way through their campaign to put British rowing back on the Olympic podium in Montreal 1976.

Chris Dodd wrote an account of the 1975 Grand in his book on Janousek and his Olympians Pieces of Eight, which is available from Henley Royal Regatta shops and the River & Rowing Museum shop here. Here is an edited extract from the book:

Pieces of Eight cover smallThe eight stayed at the Holiday Inn at Maidenhead for 1975’s Henley Royal Regatta. Jim Clark recalls double beds for each man, television in the rooms, nice food. He remembers Bob [Janousek] saying ‘maybe we have champagne and beefsteak.’

‘The eight possibly had its best rows with this group,’ Sweeney says. ‘They could get off the start well.’

They were drawn against Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia, the winner meeting either Harvard or Union Boat Club of Boston in the final, Union having earned their spurs by beating Ridley of Canada in a preliminary heat.

‘In the semi-final we had a decent row, doing just enough to win. We were not really stretched or pushing at the end,’ cox Pat Sweeney says.

They won by a length and equaled the record of 6 minutes 13 seconds set by Harvard in the other semi. Union came closer to Harvard than Vesper came to Leander/Tradesmen. Things were set up for a truly Grand final. Leander/Tradesmen averaged five pounds lighter than either Vesper or Harvard.

Before Sunday’s final Clark recalls Len Robertson coming into his room during the Wimbledon men’s final when Jimmy Connors had not dropped a point against Arthur Ashe, and saying ‘if Connors wins this we’re going to win the Grand.’ Len being Len, Clark says, he always liked to stack the cards in his favour. ‘Of course, after Ashe won, we still had to go out and race.’

On Sunday they raced before a record crowd – this was the first year that Henley held its final day on the Sabbath. ‘Not a speck of white in a sky of imperishable blue,’ John Rodda wrote in the Guardian. Harvard had two world champions in Dick Cashin and Al Shealy on board. They were unbeaten and were trumpeted in the American press as the bee’s knees to win the Grand.

‘We decided to knock them off early,’ Sweeney says.

The blitzkrieg clicked in right off the start. Leander/Tradesmen were a length ahead at the quarter mile signal and took another in the next quarter mile, and were three lengths ahead after a mile. Harry Parker, Harvard’s coach, observed that his crew stayed even for thirty strokes, then settled, and ‘that was the beginning of the end’.

Sweeney remembers it differently.

‘Our start was good. By the end of twenty strokes we had close to a length. On the rhythm call we didn’t settle, just blasted again and had nearly a length of clear water at the Barrier. They didn’t know what hit them. It was fun cruising down Stewards, in contrast to the brawl we had against the Russians the year before.’

Bob Jano
Bob Janousek

‘I was shitting myself in the final because I thought it would be unbelievably tough, and we won by two lengths,’ Dick Lester says. ‘We had a really great race, just rowed away,’ Clark says. ‘Bob was really chuffed. But Billy [Mason] was very unfit and going downhill fast.’

Rodda described the performance as a stirring peak to the blue-sky backcloth and caught the mood of the victory, while noting that however great their delight at winning at Henley, the oarsmen ‘regard the triumph as only an incidental one in their programme of preparation’. He went on: ‘The winning margin over Harvard was two lengths but in character and value it was much greater and has virtually resolved any doubts that Britain will be without an eight entered for the world champs in Nottingham in August.’

He quoted Janousek’s opinion of the race as ‘that was better’. A black cloud over their capabilities had been lifted. Recent sorrows were behind them, Jim Railton wrote in The Times, although he pointed out that fast conditions were largely responsible for the records set at Henley.

But Janousek did not share Rodda’s confidence in the eight. He had already decided that the two fours would go to Lucerne regatta in the following week. He told Roy Moore of the Daily Mail, ‘I want to be sure in which events we have the best chances of medals in the world championships.’

Leander/Thames Tradesmen in the 1975 Grand:

Bow Len Robertson, Bill Mason, Jim Clark, Wal Yallop, Richard Ayling, Tim Crooks, Hugh Matheson, stroke Dick Lester, cox Pat Sweeney, coach Bob Janousek.

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