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Former Player Remembers: Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall

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In his office at the Training Ground, Club Ambassador Alan ‘The Birch’ Birchenall recently reminisced with Club Historian John Hutchinson about the origins and history of his 39 successive End of Season runs which have raised over £1M and benefited more than 100 local charities.
ByJohn Hutchinson

 

He then spoke about the Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha Foundation and about the tremendous impact that the owners have had on the Club. 

He also described how, four days after his near fatal cardiac arrest in January 2017, he witnessed, from his bed in the Glenfield Heart Unit, the moving tribute paid to him by the Leicester City and Chelsea fans during the home match against his old club Chelsea. 

Back in the mists of time, Birch set off on his first ever charity run around the Filbert Street pitch. In the build up to the run he was described as ‘a fallen megastar, geriatric ex-First Division footballer, and connoisseur of Chinese cuisine'. Fans, who were invited to collect sponsor forms from Filbert Street’s reception, were informed that ‘he intends to slog his way around the running track for 90 minutes in a bid to raise as much money as possible in aid of equipment for local children’s hospitals'.

This inaugural run was the start of an unbroken sequence which saw the Birch embark on his 39th successive End of Season Run prior to Sunday's game against his old club Chelsea, where he starred in the swinging sixties.

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Alan Birchenall

Alan Birchenall is pictured during his 24th Annual End of Season Run in 2004.

Few fans under the age of about 50 will be able to remember a season which did not end with one of Birch’s famous runs. These have become a well established club tradition and have raised phenomenal amounts of money for local charities.

“It’s strange how it started,” Birch began. “Thirty-nine years! It’s become a little bit of a tradition. We’re the only club which does anything like it. It generates a great atmosphere for both home and away supporters and it raises money for local charities.”

The original idea for the runs sprang from an unlikely set of circumstances as Birch explained.

“I came to the club in 1971 from London where I enjoyed a lot of socialising as well as playing football. It was the swinging sixties and Kings Road was the place to be. Coming here to Leicester I asked the local lads like Graham Cross, John Sjoberg and Alan Woollett what evenings they went out on if there was no midweek game. They looked at me quite astonished really and said that they didn’t go out. So I thought, ‘We can’t have this. We’ve got to have a night out for a bit of bonding!

 

This year, Top offered to start the run again. He has done this with his lovely father Khun Vichai for the last eight runs. Top has always done a lap.

Alan Birchenall

“I asked Jimmy Bloomfield if we could go out and raise money for local charities. It was a cover for a night out! He said yes and that provided that there was no midweek game, we could go out Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

“I contacted the Leicester Mercury saying that we would like to start raising money for individual charities. This led to requests coming in from all over the place from various pubs and clubs. That’s how it started. We’d take a bucket out to somewhere like Braunstone WMC and we’d have a game of darts with the locals. All of a sudden, people were talking about the City players out in the community raising a few bob. The idea was we’d finish by half past 10 and then go clubbing!

“This went on until my playing career finished at Leicester. The players who were involved were the hard core like Elvis (Frank Worthington), Dennis Rofe, Stevie Earle and Lenny Glover. We used to raise a few bob, but at that time it wasn’t just about that.”

Birch’s nights out with his team-mates ended when he left Filbert Street in 1977. However the idea of raising money for charity was about to be developed.

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Khun Top

Khun Top takes part in Birch's 33rd Annual End of Season Run.

“When I finished playing and I’d come back from America,” Birch continued. “The Club asked me to become their Public Relations Officer. It was a part time job as I was in the footwear business and I also had a pub in Swithland. I then got a letter at Filbert Street from a charity, and I can’t remember which one it was, saying that it was really desperate for money and could I help because they knew I’d been doing charity work since 1971.

“I wondered what I could do. I didn’t fancy abseiling down the Holiday Inn. I wasn’t going to jump out of a plane or stuff like that. I was about 35 and I’d just finished playing so I had the idea of running round Filbert Street for 90 minutes before the last home game.

“I needed permission from the directors. One asked if I’d be running round during the game! I said I wouldn’t be even though that might be more entertaining than the football! They quizzed me and said they had no objections. I went to Cliff Ginetta at the Supporters Club to ask him if he could get half a dozen people and have a collection. I managed to get half a dozen buckets from my garden. I handed them out about five minutes before I set off on my run. I then did about 55 laps around the Filbert Street pitch. After the game the half a dozen buckets had a few hundred quid in them. I gave the money to the charity which had written to me.

“I forgot all about it and then a year later I was getting letters asking me to help various charities wondering if I would do what I’d done the previous year and run around Filbert Street again. Every charity is a good cause so I thought I’d do it again and I’ve done it for every year since then.

 

I used to do over 50 laps around Filbert Street which was the equivalent of a half marathon. They clocked it one year and it was about 13 miles in 90 minutes. Obviously, I’ve been advised not to run now. I haven’t actually run for the last two years. I walk!

Alan Birchenall

“Every year it got bigger and bigger. More and more people joined me. In the early days the players came out to warm up not long before kick off. I never asked them but a few of the home players started to join me for a lap before they peeled off. Visiting teams got to know about it and from about twenty years ago they were asking to join me on the run. The lads still come out today. They take the micky out of me.

“There was a three year period, in Martin O’Neill’s time, when first team players in the 20-strong squad each had two charities they looked after. Each charity got at least £1,000 from the run because we spread the money out between the charities

“Sometimes, it was really hot out there. My mum, God rest her soul, used to say ‘I’m going to have a weekend away when you are going to do your run'. Out of the 38 runs I’ve done before this year, there has only been one when the weather was dodgy. It was about seven or eight years ago. It was windy and wet. Every other run has had good weather.”

Despite Birch’s life threatening cardiac arrest in January 2017, he has continued his end of season runs.

“The incident happened In January. Four months after I’d died, I went out there for my 37th run. I knew the Club was very worried, not for me but because the game might have been cancelled if anything happened to me! It was so funny. I had the top heart consultant Doug Skehen on one side of me and our club doctor Ian Patchett on the other side. Back in the day, I used to do over 50 laps around Filbert Street which was the equivalent of a half marathon. They clocked it one year and it was about 13 miles in 90 minutes. Obviously, I’ve been advised not to run now. I haven’t actually run for the last two years. I walk!

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Khun Vichai

Khun Vichai's tradition of beginning Birch's run was continued by Khun Top in May 2019.

“This year, Top offered to start the run again. He has done this with his lovely father Khun Vichai for the last eight runs. Top has always done a lap. He kindly started this one, carrying this tradition on from his father. It’s not a run anymore. It’s gone beyond that. It’s about the Blue Army coming together for the last game to help local charities and help the Foundation. There are about 10 runners who have raised £500 and then there will be the back room staff, who will come out and do a few laps with me. Also my family will be with me: my nephew, my niece and Dean, my son, who has always been alongside me for the last goodness knows how many years.

“The format doesn’t change. It’s 90 minutes come what may. I want to be there but the best I can do is a fast walk nowadays down the back or down the sides of the pitch. I can’t do a full lap now. When I tell Doc Skehan and Doc ‘Patch’ to go on ahead of me, one always stops with me. It was embarrassing the first year after my incident because after about an hour, they stopped me and took my pulse. At that point there were about 20,000 already in the ground and they must have thought I was about to pass out! I’m in good medical hands.

“The organisation for the run has come a long way in the last 39 years. I’ve so many people to thank but Lou Hollingsworth and Rachel Green stand out. I’m so grateful to them. When it started it was just half a dozen supporters with a bucket. Now it’s got to the stage where it’s very organised. The more organised it gets the more money we get. This year, if every City fan brings a pound, that’s £30,000.”

Birch feels that this year’s run is particularly special.

 

Nobody, and I’m including players in this, has made an impact like The Boss did and his family do now. If you have a look at the overall picture of the structure of our football club, and where we’ve got to, I’m so convinced that we would still be plodding along.

Alan Birchenall

“The run this year is an opportunity for us to say thank you to Khun Vichai,” he said. “The owners have done so much for us that this year, for The Boss’ foundation, I hope everybody makes an extra effort. The money raised by the run will be going to the Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha Foundation to be used for a specific purpose to be announced later. The t-shirts this year have the Foundation emblem and the picture of The Boss on because it’s for his foundation.

“Before the Foundation was set up in 2011 up there was a different charity each year. When the owners came in they created the Foxes Foundation. This was fine because I got more help for my run. I had been finding it more and more difficult. I had a dilemma. Because my runs were known throughout Leicestershire and Rutland, as the years went by, it got more difficult for me because I was getting inundated with requests. Every charity, to that person, is personal to them. It was so difficult for me to choose between them. When the Foundation started, this was taken out of my hands. I have an input suggestion-wise but the ultimate decision is the Foundation’s. This took a lot of pressure off me. People would stop me in the pub and I didn’t like turning anybody down for anything. It got to a stage where I was worrying about it. It was a big responsibility.

“Nobody, and I’m including players in this, has made an impact like The Boss did and his family do now. If you have a look at the overall picture of the structure of our football club, and where we’ve got to, I’m so convinced that we would still be plodding along, maybe bouncing up and down as a yo-yo club, because that was us. When the owners came, it all changed. They brought with them ambition, direction, togetherness, and unity. Everybody has felt it. The helicopter tragedy just emphasised this. Football has never seen anything like it. The tragedy was reported around the world. Thousands of tributes were laid around the stadium and there was the royal visit.

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Alan Birchenall and Kasper Schmeichel

The Club's first team players always complete a lap of King Power Stadium ahead of the matchday fixture.

“You can’t put into words the impact that tragedy had. This period for me will never be surpassed. We won the Premier League. We are looking to build a new training complex and expanding the stadium. I was here when we had a crowd of 8,900 at Filbert Street. Now we are talking about the stadium being full every game. Football clubs are based on history. When we’ve all gone, people will know that this period has transformed our football club. There has never been a better period and Top is carrying it on. Before the owners came in nine years ago we were having to bring our own milk in to make our tea in the canteen!”

Birch then began to talk about a more personal matter.

Between November 1968 and June 1970, the Birch made nearly 100 appearances for Sunday’s visitors Chelsea and has very fond memories of his time at Stamford Bridge both on and off the pitch. Four days after his cardiac arrest, Chelsea played Leicester City in a Premier League match at King Power Stadium. What happened that night will stay with Birch forever.   

“That night I was laid up in Glenfield Hospital’s Cardiac Unit,” Birch recalled. “I had three wonderful years at Chelsea, especially down the Kings Road. I was lucky enough to play with great players there like Peter Bonetti, Charlie Cooke, Peter Osgood and John Hollins. In a way it replicated the flamboyant side I came to at Leicester later, with the likes of Weller and Worthington.

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Alan Birchenall

The Birch's 39th Annual End of Season Run, in aid of The Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha Foundation, took place ahead of kick-off against Chelsea.

“When Chelsea came to Leicester a few days after my incident, in the 10th minute of the game (because my old shirt number was 10), everyone in the crowd, both the Leicester City and the Chelsea fans, held up their phones in the dark, with their lights on, as a gesture of support for me in hospital. My son Dean who was at the game panned his phone around the stadium to record this and sent the images to me in hospital. To say I was bawling my eyes out is an understatement. I said that’s what I would have seen when I die! It meant such a lot to me! I’d really like to thank the Chelsea fans who joined in with the Blue Army that night. There are probably not that many Chelsea fans around today who saw me play for them when but the family ethos we have at our football club, you also have at Chelsea.

“It’s strange how things work out in life,” Birch reflected. “Two years later I’m here to do my run again. Thanks so much if you have contributed to The Boss’ foundation fund.

“I’m still here annoying everybody!” Birch laughed in conclusion. “When I finally hang up my trainers, hopefully my son Dean will carry on with the run. We want to keep the tradition going for the Foundation for the benefit of local charities. That’s why we started the run all those years ago.”

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27 minutes ago, urban.spaceman said:

BIT LOUD DAVIE

Yes I forgot to use the paste as plain text option.

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The Birch is such an asset to the club and the city. I love seeing him so excited and positive about the future of the club.

 

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Ten minutes before the interview he shouted "The Birch is gathering in the foyer, thankyou".

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Dreading the day he finally leaves us. He's been part of the furniture for as long as I can remember. Mr Leicester City!

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Great piece that, Always wondered how his charity runs started.

Loved it when he's give the ref or oposition or even our players a bit of stick at half-time.

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