Alan Birchenall

'I Love This Football Club' – Fifty Years Of The Birch

We're booked in to speak to Alan 'The Birch' Birchenall MBE as the 50th anniversary of his move to Leicester City looms. It's a balmy, late summer morning and, before we reach the front door of his home in Mountsorrel, the door's already open. The full Birch experience is about to begin.

"Come on then, let's get this over with," he laughs, shepherding us into his hallway. He starts off jokingly refusing to make a cup of coffee, but an hour or so later, we're sat in his garden discussing the weekend's football and taking a caffeine hit with madeira cake he bought especially for his guests. 

The Birch, 76, is part of the furniture at Leicester City Football Club, but it's more than that in reality. Over the years, he's raised millions of pounds for local charities with those Herculean runs around the pitches at Filbert Street and King Power Stadium. He's been a counsellor to staff and footballers alike through the ages, a figurehead at grand events and a representative around the world wherever the Foxes go. He's Mr. Leicester City.

There's few Foxes fans who haven't met the Birch and been struck by his love for the Club. But 50 years ago (21 September), he was just the latest recruit as Jimmy Bloomfield put foundations in place for a halcyon era in the 137-year history of Leicester City. Nobody could have known what was to come.

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Alan joined the Foxes in 1971 and became an integral part of a team which become renowned for entertaining football.

We've come to Birch's house to twist open the 'can of worms' as he calls it and invite Leicester City's much-loved Club Ambassador to recall some of the most defining moments in his life. Many know him as the man with the mic on Filbert Way, but Alan was an exceptional footballer – a swashbuckling forward for much of his career, who is still fondly remembered not just in the LE postcode, but also by supporters of Sheffield United, Chelsea and Crystal Palace.

Born in East Ham, London, in 1945, the Birch's early life was a happy one on the whole. As the country grappled with the aftermath of war, a young Alan was finding his feet. It wouldn't be long before the Birchenall family upped sticks and moved to the East Midlands, but their destination wasn't Leicester...

"I lived there in East Ham with my mum and dad, but it wasn’t the best place to be in London, just after the war," he explains. "My father was a Nottingham boy and we moved back up there. I struggled a little bit at school from an educational point of view because it was sport, sport, sport for me.

"I remember getting As in gym and cricket, and Ds and Cs in the academic stuff. You play to your strengths, don’t you? They were my strengths. I didn’t know I was going to have a lifetime of it at the time, of course! I played for Nottingham Boys through all the ages, from Under-11s right through to Under-15s, and then Nottinghamshire, the county side. I played with a player there, David Pleat, who everybody knows is an old manager of Leicester City.

I was playing football locally on the park because I couldn’t combine working and also playing football professionally. The hours clashed. I was working 55 to 60 hours a week at the garage as an engine fitter.

The Birch

"He was a terrific right-winger, but he got a bad injury. I played a bit of stuff with Notts County back in the day. Nottingham Forest actually came in and offered me an apprenticeship, but my father was a mad Notts County fan, so I declined that and went to work."

After turning Forest down, teenage Alan went into engineering, hoping to build a life for himself in the trade. It involved working day-long shifts at a local factory and then for the same bus company where his dad worked. Now an engine fitter, it seemed like his dream of becoming a professional footballer may have ended before it had really begun.

"I worked in an engineering factory," Birch explains. "I was just cycling the 10 miles there and back, clocking on at 7'o'clock and getting my overalls on, and working there for about six months and it was horrible. Then, my dad found a new place called Barton Transport, a bus company in Beeston, just between Nottingham and Derby. I went there as an apprentice fitter. I used to scour out the brake drums for the buses and I was learning my trade.

"I was playing football locally on the park because I couldn’t combine working and also playing football professionally. The hours clashed. I was working 55 to 60 hours a week at the garage as an engine fitter. It didn’t leave me much time to be at Notts County games. I played for a club called Thorneywood Athletic and then a club called Bestwood."

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

The Birch quickly acclimatised to senior football after a magical start to his career for the Blades.

A tap on the shoulder would prove to be a life-changing event. Everyone can recall a singular moment in time when things started to change in their lives, for better or worse, and for Birch, it was the approach of Archie Clarke, the assistant manager at Sheffield United.

He continues: "I was just playing and this gentlemen in a trilby hat and a three-piece suit just said to me: ‘Would you like to come to Sheffield United for a three-month trial?’ Of course, it took me back. I thought I'd missed out on football, obviously I’d turned down Nottingham Forest, but I went for it.

"I had been working for a little while and it was tough, 55 to 65 hours a week and two nights training at the local clubs. It was hard going. I got permission to leave the factory and the foreman said: ‘I’ll look forward to seeing you again soon!’ That’s how much faith they had in me! They basically said they’d keep the job open for me. So, I went to Sheffield United and I struggled to be honest. They put me in midfield. I was going to come home.

"I got in touch with my father and the unit repair shop and my job was still there for me if I wanted it. I was about a week away from packing it in. I was in digs with an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Snooks. They were lovely, but I was so homesick it was unbelievable.

I remember looking through the slats in the changing room because they’d sent me out to leave the tickets at the door and then John Short, one of the coaches, says: ‘Birchy, get changed!’

The Birch

"I was just put in a room and they’d call me out for dinner and breakfast and that’s about it. There was no TV in my room or anything like that. I was down. But then, it all changed. They had a club house and I moved in there. From that day on, my life changed.

"I was playing in a Northern Intermediate League reserves side. They put me up front as Mick Jones had just gone into the first team. He’d been playing there beforehand. I remember in one of the first games, we were playing Hull City away, and we won 9-2 and I got seven goals.

"As we came off, this guy said to me: ‘Thanks a lot, pal, that’s my career finished… I’m only on trial!’ In that season, I broke some records, I got over 60 goals. The following season was the time I jumped from the Northern Intermediate League, which was a good league, to the first team. That was the start. I’d gone from youth team football and, the next thing I knew, in the following season, I made my debut at Stoke."

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

The Birch sits down with LCFC.com to recall his life in football.

Shortly after his maiden professional appearance, quite unbelievably, the Birch was selected to start for the Blades in the biggest game of all in that part of the world. Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. The Steel City Derby. At just 19, Alan started. United won 2-0 and Alan Birchenall scored. Twice. 

Starting with his maiden appearance against Stoke, the Birch remembers: "I didn’t know that was going to make my debut. Would you believe, the one and only Sir Stanley Matthews was still on the programme. He didn’t play, but he was still signed as a professional in his '50s.

"It was a shock to me to play. We won 1-0. I didn’t think I had a debut to remember if I’m honest. I remember looking through the slats in the changing room because they’d sent me out to leave the tickets at the door and then John Short, one of the coaches, says: ‘Birchy, get changed!’

"Doc Pace was poorly. He couldn’t make the game so they just threw me in. There was no mobile phones in those days, so on the coach coming back, I couldn’t even let my family know I’d made my debut. Before that Wednesday game, we were in the hotel, and I thought they were taking me along as kit boy. I saw all the food which was put on as a spread for the players and the backroom staff… I’d never even seen a steak before that, let alone eat one!

I’d have to say scoring against Wednesday defined the rest of my career. Mick and I were both blonde and, the next day, we were called the two blonde bombers in the papers! I can visualise that day so clearly.

The Birch

"I got tucked into the steaks and everything else and then I went to the shop and got some chocolate and all the trimmings. I didn’t think I was playing so I was making the most of it! Then, the following day, the boss pinned up the teamsheet and I saw I was playing at Hillsborough in the Steel City Derby. To say I was nervous is an understatement. 

"Ron Springett was in goal, the England goalkeeper. I remember the goals. There was a corner and I just came in on the penalty spot, rose above everybody and pinged it into the far corner and then Mick Jones had rounded someone and it came to me and I whacked it back in.

"I’d have to say scoring against Wednesday defined the rest of my career. Mick and I were both blonde and, the next day, we were called the two blonde bombers in the papers! I can visualise that day so clearly."

Six-figure values in football were incredibly rare in the late 1960s. Nonetheless, after four hugely encouraging seasons at Bramall Lane, Dave Sexton, the new Chelsea manager, decided to part with over £100,000 to lure Alan to Stamford Bridge. As it often the case with the Birch, it wasn't quite that simple.

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

A move to Chelsea was next up for Alan, who was making a name for himself in English football.

"I knew Don Revie at Leeds had come in for both me and Mick Jones," he continued. "John Harris, the manager at Sheffield United, said at the time: ‘Look, I can’t let them both go! You can’t have both, but you can have one’. I think Mick had just broken into the England side and he was a better player. He was a better target man and better at running off the ball. Don decided he’d buy Mick, which turned out to be a fantastic decision. He was great there.

"I got a bit of the 'Engelbert Humperdinck' because Leeds were Leeds… they were flying in those days. I was a bit upset and then, one day a few weeks later, the strangest thing happened. John Harris said to me: ‘Don’t go anywhere after training’. I thought I was set for a rollicking. I was always clowning about you see. 'Win, lose or draw, don’t be a bore' – that was my motto. I always liked to have a bit of banter with the crowd or the opposition or the referee.

"That was how I approached life... life is for living and enjoying. If you’re a footballer, it doesn’t say that on your passport, it says entertainer. That’s what I was about. So, anyway, I think I'm in trouble, but I go with him after training… you have to picture this. Bramall Lane in those days was three-sided. Yorkshire County Cricket Club also played there. The offices were on the cricket side.

"Johnny Harris calls me in. After training, I go in and there I am, a lad in his early 20s playing in the first team, walking around with the manager... who’s holding my hand. We’re walking round and, as we’re walking, he says: ‘We’ve had an offer for you and I want you to talk to somebody’. That’s all he said.

All of a sudden, I hear the lock turn. The manager is there, John Harris, and I recognise Dave Sexton. He’d just been appointed the new manager at Chelsea. Tommy Docherty had just left. John says: ‘I think you might recognise this gentleman!’

The Birch

"So, we go over to the cricket side and he points to a door and he says: ‘Go in there and sit down’. They put me in this office and I can hear the door being locked! I’m sat there in this office, which only has a phone, and I’m thinking: 'What the hell’s going on?!' I’ve got no idea what’s happening. It wouldn’t happen today, let's say that! I try and work out what’s happening and I pick up the phone… it’s been cut off. There’s just a buzz.

"I’m there for 20 minutes, just sat there. All of a sudden, I hear the lock turn. The manager is there, John Harris, and I recognise Dave Sexton. He’d just been appointed the new manager at Chelsea. Tommy Docherty had just left. John says: ‘I think you might recognise this gentleman'.

"He tells me I’ve got permission to go away and discuss things. ‘We’ve agreed a fee for you,’ he says. I didn’t say it, you didn’t in those days, but I thought: ‘Thanks a lot! Mick’s gone to Leeds and I should have gone there too!’ We go out for lunch and I’m just sat with Dave, there’s no agent or anything.

"He says: ‘We’ve agreed a fee for you, Alan’. All very serious, not 'Birch'. We weren’t on those terms yet! I’ll always remember this to my dying day. I’m in a suit and trying to work out what it’d be like to sign for Chelsea, who were massive even then. He goes: ‘How much do you think you're worth to us?’ I didn’t want to say anything. I could barely even call him gaffer. The word left my mouth and he jumped in: ‘Hopefully one day!’

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Birch with his Chelsea team-mates, far left, bottom row, at Stamford Bridge in 1970.

"I didn’t know what to guess. Those days, the going rate for a decent player was about £30,000 or £40,000. I guessed around £20,000 and he raises his hand, hinting it’s more. Then I guess £40,000. The hand goes up again. 'About £50,000?' We kept doing this. I remember stuttering when I guessed £60,000.

"I didn’t even want to think about that. He eventually says they’d agreed £100,000. In my head, I thought: ‘He’s got the wrong player here!’ Did he think I was Mick Jones?! I know players get that as a weekly wage now, but back in ’67, that was only the second or third six-figure fee at that time.

"But then he says: ‘Of course, we haven’t agreed terms’. There was no negotiation in those days. It was twice what I was getting at Sheffield United. Bonuses were £30 a point. I’m there thinking Chelsea often play two games a week and usually win both. It was two points for a win in those days, so that’s four points, £30 a point… on top of my wages. My head was buzzing. I was thinking about buying a car… I used to go to games on the bus in Sheffield!

"I’d be on a bus with some of the supporters going to the game. I used to sit there in my club suit with all of them! Then Dave just says: ‘We’ll see you tomorrow’ But I wanted a night out with all the lads to say goodbye, so we got them all together and I got plenty of stick! ‘You?! A hundred grand? I wouldn’t pay a tenner for you!’ All of that sort of stuff was flying around.

He used to bring all the top people in. We’d have Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Warren Beatty... they'd all drop by and visit. One day, he brought Raquel Welch to game. Back in the ‘60s, she was a superstar and, 20 minutes before kick-off against Manchester United, she just walked into the dressing room.

The Birch

"I’ll always remember driving down in an old Triumph Spitfire to be there in London the next day. I was on the Kings Road and I couldn’t find where I was going. When I’ve been to Chelsea before, I’m in a coach and I’m taken straight to the ground.

"I'm lost, so I stop and ask one of those old market traders for directions. I wind my window down and ask him for directions to Stamford Bridge. He goes: ‘You see that bridge, you go over that, and it’s right there... You’re our new centre forward aren’t you?’ I nervously said 'yes' and then he goes: ‘You can’t find Stamford Bridge? What chance have you got of finding the goal?!’ I just wound the window up and made my way!"

The Birch was thrust into a whole new life in west London. Chelsea's players would often be found on the Kings Road – which was the place to be in the late 1960s. Film stars, musicians and the early TV presenters would all be there on weekends basking in a new way of life at the height of the Swinging Sixties.

There are too many tales for Birch to tell in the time we have, but one in particular sticks in his mind. Lord Richard Attenborough – the older brother of broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, or 'Dickie' as the Birch calls him – was Chelsea's president at the time. That's where the story begins. 

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Alan would eventually drop from a more advanced position into midfield at Chelsea.

"We had Dickie there at Chelsea," Alan recalls. "He used to bring all the top people in. We’d have Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Warren Beatty... they'd all drop by and visit. One day, he brought Raquel Welch to game. Back in the ‘60s, she was a superstar and, 20 minutes before kick-off against Manchester United, she just walked into the dressing room. There’s 50,000-odd people outside and lovely Dickie Attenborough brings in Raquel Welch.

"He brought this screen goddess in 20 minutes before one of our biggest games of the season. I remember there was steam coming out of Dave Sexton’s ears! Dennis Law, Bobby Charlton and George Best, they’re all ready for kick-off, and we’ve got this going on with a beautiful film actress.

"Ozzy was No.9 and I was No.10. She went down the numbers, from our ‘keeper Peter Bonetti, all the way down the squad, shaking hands. Dickie introduces Ozzy as the ‘King of Stamford Bridge’. Eventually, she tore herself away from him and just shook my hand and moved on swiftly! I remember she walked around the pitch and got the biggest cheer of the day on the day Chelsea were playing Manchester United. That just wouldn’t happen today.

"After the game, Ozzy and I would usually travel out together. We’re in the bar, though, and a big American bouncer comes up to us. He asks for Ozzy and, in an accent, he tells us that we’re invited to the Savoy to join Miss Welch for a party there. Ozzy looks at me and says: ‘Do you fancy it, Birch?’ We were meant to be going out for dinner in Windsor later that evening. We had a table booked for 9'o'clock.

After training, we’d all troop down there and spend the afternoon in the pubs. They would usually close at 2’o’clock, but they didn’t for us. They’d stay open for us! We played hard and we partied hard.

The Birch

"He says it’s only 6'o'clock and we can make it… and you didn’t argue with the King! I say: ‘Okay, we’ll have a quick drink then!’ I drove us up to the Savoy and we’re going up the lift. The lady in the reception tells us Miss Welch has three floors to herself. We get up there and press the button the door. There’s all sorts of TV stars and film stars in there. This big guy asks for our invitation and we try to explain that we don’t have one, but we have been invited.

"He asks me for a name and I say: ‘Just tell her Peter Osgood!’ He goes and checks, but we don’t hear back, so we make a move and we’re walking back to the lift. All of a sudden, the door bursts open. Raquel Welch sprints down the corridor! I’m just following them back up the corridor, he disappears in the room, among all the famous people. I'm saying hello to the great and the good and the next thing I know I'm getting home at 5'o'clock the next morning.

"It was that era. It was the Kings Road. If there was one place you wanted to be in the late ‘60s, it was the Kings Road. After training, we’d all troop down there and spend the afternoon in the pubs. They would usually close at 2’o’clock, but they didn’t for us. They’d stay open for us! We played hard and we partied hard. Let’s say that!"

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

Jostling for possession with Manchester United's Bobby Charlton during his time at Crystal Palace.

Eventually, the time would come for the Birch to move on. Crystal Palace was his next destination and, although his spell at Selhurst Park wouldn't last much longer than a year, it started him on his path to Jimmy Bloomfield's Leicester City. At the end of 1970/71, Alan was Palace's top goalscorer. 

"Dave said he wanted me to play at Chelsea but it probably wouldn't regularly," he says. "Palace had just got promoted. I said to Bobby Tambling, who was a legend at Chelsea and was also set to leave: ‘Do you fancy it?’ He said we’d go down and have a chat. We went down there and spoke to the manager and the chairman. We’re just sat in the room and they offered us terrific terms.

"I actually went in first and I bumped into him outside and I told him I was signing. He said: ‘Is it that good?!’ By the standards it those days, it wasn’t bad at all, so we both signed in the end. I knew Palace would struggle and I spent a year and a bit there. I finished as the club’s leading scorer, with about 15 or so, but it was hard. We knew we would probably not survive. Steve Kember went to Chelsea and then I went to Leicester too.

"Bobby Kellard came the other way from Leicester… good old Bobby, rest in peace mate. He was a terrific lad. The deal was done. Jim had come in at Leicester and he wanted to change the mentality of the team. His idea was to play attractive football. Since that day, 50 years ago, I’ve never regretted a minute of it."

When I look back now, the promotions, the League Cup wins, the Wembley visits, all the great lads I’ve met… it’s been brilliant.

The Birch

Conversations with the Birch often go off on a tangent and that's what happens now. Instead of talking about those glorious years at Filbert Street when Leicester become known as English football's 'entertainers', Alan would prefer to discuss his later life in the East Midlands. In 1983, he returned to the Club to gee up the fans on a matchday, while also raising funds off the pitch for local causes. In 2003, he was awarded an MBE by Charles, Prince of Wales.

He's also an Honorary Freeman of the city of Leicester, one of only two former Leicester City players to receive the honour, alongside Gary Lineker. Two years later, in 2011, the Birch was given an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Leicester too.

Ahead of the anniversary of his debut for the Foxes – funnily enough against Palace on 2 October, 1971 – LCFC TV will broadcast an interview concerning the Birch's playing days at the Club. But, for now, Alan recalls his part, first as a matchday mic-wielder and later as Club Ambassador, during Leicester City's journey from a yo-yo side, via various mishaps and heartbreaks, into one of the most admired football sides in English football. 

"When I look back now, the promotions, the League Cup wins, the Wembley visits, all the great lads I’ve met… it’s been brilliant," he adds. "I’ve got every squad photo since that day 50 years ago up in my office in Seagrave. I look at it and realise how lucky I am. I make no bones about it, I’m a lucky person. I wasn’t the best player, I was always decent, but I didn’t play the most games here, I didn't score the most goals either. I gave everything, though.

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Alan Birchenall
Alan Birchenall

The Birch ended his playing career but returned to Leicester, raising funds behind the scenes before becoming Club Ambassador.

"We’ve had difficult times at Leicester City. When you’ve been at the Club for as long as I have, you’ve seen the highs and the lows. I remember the evening after that Stoke game when we got relegated to the old Third Division, I pulled up in a car park and had a sob. That, for me, was the lowest point in terms of the football. Administration was awful too. I saw far too many of our staff lose their jobs. It was a horrible time.

"I had to help try and find a buyer for the Club, but it was difficult. I was part-time at the time. I had a pub (The Griffin in Swithland), which my son ran, and a footwear business as well. It’s well documented that Milan Mandarić eventually came in and stabilised the Club, but there still wasn’t a lot of money around.

"I remember, earlier than that, the years in administration. We only had two grounds staff who'd bring in their own lawn mowers. We had to bring our own milk and teabags in if you wanted a cuppa. I remember being on the running machine with Dave Bassett and the chairman came in to tell us we’d have to go on half pay. I said to Dave: ‘I suppose that’ll put you down to a mere £100,000 a week!’ I was joking, of course.

"Then he asked me what it meant for me. Funnily enough, it meant an increase because I hadn’t had anything for six months, but he'd put me on half pay, so I had a pay rise! I never took it obviously, but that just gives you a glimpse of that time. The hundreds of players who have passed through the Club over my association with it, I don’t think there’s one that didn’t accept me... Vards (Jamie Vardy) gives me some stick, mind you!

"But I can’t think of one that I haven’t got on with in all those hundreds of players. To me, they were just genuinely good kids. On matchdays, I got round as much as I could, bringing some money in, but then the day eventually came when the Club changed forever. It’s quite emotional remembering it.

I love this football club. I might not have been born into Leicester City, but I've been adopted into it and I'm proud to say I'm still here 50 years on.

The Birch

"I recall being sat in my little office at Belvoir Drive and seeing three or four 4x4s drive through the gates. There was a lot of talk at the time about Milan looking to sell the Club and, at that time, there were a lot of stories about owners at other clubs and things going wrong.

"As they got out the car, I said to the person next to me: ‘Here we go again’. Those words still come back to me ever time I think of the family and Susan [Whelan] and everybody who stepped out those cars. Little did I know, eh! Nobody would have known at the time what they would come to mean to the Football Club. I’m not over-exaggerating it or blowing smoke, but my goodness, it all changed.

"Gradual improvements started to happen. They had ambition, but then it was put into place, and the Blue Army started to really believe. It all culminated in everything which has happened since. It was brilliant. They would come into my little room, even then in the early days, and embrace me.

"The Boss and Khun Top would come in for a chat. It never happened before… you came in, did your job and got on with it. They were interested in you. Everything started to click. We had more people join the Club and things which were unattainable before became available to us.

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Khun Vichai & Alan Birchenall
Khun Vichai & Alan Birchenall

The Birch credits the Srivaddhanaprabha family with transforming Leicester City Football Club.

"When you hear there’s going to be a new training centre, you think about how much work that’ll take and maybe you doubt it, but look at Seagrave. It’s absolutely breathtaking. It was and still is a magical time. From administration and balling my eyes out in that car park in Stoke, to winning the Premier League, the FA Cup too, and playing in Europe. If anyone ever doubted them, they've proved us wrong haven’t they?

"Now people talk about us challenging. For anyone of my generation, this is utopia. We're competing with some of the best teams in the world. When I first started, if I'd have been in the middle of the Gobi Desert and I told someone I was from Leicester, they wouldn't have a clue... they'll now say: 'Oh, Leicester City!' That's the difference. It's hard to explain it better than that. We're now a club that people recognise and respect."

We've got this far into our conversation without even getting to the Birch's heroic work for charity and the sacrifices he's made for Leicester City. Typically, we won't have time today, as Alan has a commitment to fulfil across town later in the day. It's for a local cause and he doesn't want to be late. 

I've got a glass decanter on my mantel piece which the Boss gave to me a few years ago. It says I've got a contract for life at Leicester. When I look at it, I've got to be honest, it just hits me. I must have done something right.

The Birch

There's time for one last question, though. If he could write down what he'd say to the Foxes family on this, the 50th anniversary of him joining the Club, what would he say?

"Thank you," he says, as his eyes begin to swell. "Just thank you. I've got a bit serious now, you've hit a spot there. I love this football club. I might not have been born into Leicester City, but I've been adopted into it and I'm proud to say I'm still here 50 years on. I realise how lucky I am. You only have to look at my wall at Seagrave and look at all those great players who were better than me.

"I've got a glass decanter on my mantel piece which the Boss gave to me a few years ago. It says I've got a contract for life at Leicester.

"I didn't actually read it at the time because I'd just finished one of my runs, but Hutch (John Hutchinson), our Club Historian, he hasn't heard of anything like it at any club. When I look at it, I've got to be honest, it just hits me. I must have done something right. That means the world to me."

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