The long and rich history of Featherstone Rovers Rugby League Football Club

Friday, 30 March 2012

Peter Fox January 1971 to June 1974.

In many ways Peter Fox redefined modern rugby league coaching, and the impact of his style and charisma was felt not only at Featherstone Rovers, but across the whole game. An abrasive and forthright speaker,  he began coaching at Featherstone at a time when the power of a first team coach was limited in that a selection committee chose the team. Fox was the first man to change that, and put that power into his own hands. Just as forceful characters like Brian Clough were beginning to emerge in football, so Fox and Alex Murphy brought a new cult of personality to RL coaching. A keen student of psychology and man management, Fox put this to good effect on the teams he managed. He had been a modest player, very much in the shadow of his two hugely talented younger brothers Don and Neil, but as a shrewd tactician, motivator and team builder he proved to be the brightest of his generation.

Given his later success, it’s hard to believe his coaching career could have been over before it had hardly started. His first half season with Featherstone was a disaster, having taken over mid-season from Laurie Gant. The team immediately nose-dived and won only six games of his first 22 in charge. Luckily for him and the club, the board kept faith with this fiery character and within a couple of seasons his obvious skills had begun to bear fruit. Fox inspired awesome loyalty in his players, a quality which went a long way, giving youngsters the self confidence to develop and old hands the desire to keep going. By the time Featherstone reached the 1973 Cup final the side bore the indelible stamp of “manufactured by Peter Fox” right through it.
In his first full season in charge Rovers recovered to finish seventh in the league, and followed that with a best ever (at the time) finish of second in 1973, just two points behind league leaders Warrington. The following season Rovers dropped back to eighth but enjoyed a Wembley return to the 1974 Cup final.

Peter Fox was in charge a total of three and a half seasons, a relatively short time compared to his predecessors, but his impact was undeniable. No other coach would remain in the head coach position for even this modest length of time until Fox returned in the late eighties. Indeed, the club embarked on a coaching merry-go-round for much of the rest of the 1970s and early 1980s.

In May 1974 after a Wembley defeat against Warrington, Fox quit Featherstone for the first time and left to coach local rivals Wakefield, where he had less success. Whilst coach of Bradford during eight seasons he brought them two Championships built on a familiar foundation of ex-Featherstone players, and coached Great Britain for just a single series against Australia. He probably trod on too many officials’ toes to be invited to remain as national team coach. After a short stint at Leeds he came back to Featherstone in 1987, a period to be covered later in this series.

Peter Fox’s coaching record:

70/1: Won 6-Lost 16 (part season only)
71/2: Won 25-Drew 1-Lost 14
72/3: Won 35-Lost 10
73/4: Won 23-Drew 2-Lost 20

Total: Won 89-Drew 3-Lost 60= 59.54%

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Laurie Gant 1966 to 1970.

When he picked up the coaching reins at Featherstone Rovers, it proved that, in rugby league terms, Laurie Gant really was a jack of all trades. He started out as a player, and a very good one at that, a second-row forward for his local team, Wakefield. Decorated during World War Two, he signed for Featherstone Rovers in 1948 and joined what was in all honesty a very poor team in the middle of a terrible run of defeats. His experience gradually began to have an effect, and Gant was an integral part of the Batten-led revolution at Featherstone. His proudest moment as a player was the 1952 Cup final where he played alongside Cliff Lambert and Fred Hulme in the back-row. After finishing playing in 1954 after more than 100 appearances, Gant turned to refereeing and soon made the top grade. He then turned his hand to coaching, and took over from Johnny Malpass as Rovers coach in the summer of 1966. By the end of his first season in charge Rovers had won the Cup at Wembley.

Marvellous though it was, the Wembley success masked what had been a pretty disappointing league campaign that had seen Rovers finish in a lowly 20th position. The following season saw only a slight improvement to 18th, without any Cup joy. Gant then began to bring on the next generation of Rovers youngsters. That year both Steve Nash and Vince Farrar began to make their marks. In 1968/69 the side finally began to put together some consistent league form and finished 7th in the league, but again had no real impact in the Cup competitions. With a pack containing Tonks, Dixon, Farrar, Morgan, Smales and Thompson, it was clear this was a team capable of going places. 1969/70 saw Rovers finish 8th,  and reach the Yorkshire Cup final, only to be beaten by Hull. They went back to the final the following season, beaten this time by Leeds, but league form was dipping again and the coach sensed that it was perhaps time for a change.

Laurie Gant stepped down as Rovers coach in December 1970 and was replaced by Peter Fox. His career coaching record is very creditable, although the side may have been underachieving given the talent available. Regardless, he will be fondly remembered forever as the man who first brought the Cup to Featherstone.

He had previously worked at the RFL, running coaching clinics and summer courses for thousands of schoolchildren to encourage them to take up the game. After finishing at Featherstone he carried on working at headquarters on the National Coaching Scheme to raise coaching standards throughout the game. Later in life he was chairman of the Rovers Past Players Association. He remains one of only two Featherstone players awarded an MBE for his services to sport.

Laurie Gant’s coaching record:

66/7: Won 20-Drew 3-Lost 20
67/8: Won 18-Lost 20
68/9: Won 24-Drew 1-Lost 15
69/70: Won 26-Drew 1-Lost 14
70/1: Won12-Drew 2- Lost 5 (part season only)

Total: Won 100 -Drew 7-Lost 74= 57.18%

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Johnny Malpass 1963 to 1966

Back in 1933 Featherstone Rovers had signed a promising young centre called Johnny Malpass, but the financial constraints under  which the club operated at that time forced his sale to Wakefield Trinity. He played 92 games for Rovers over four seasons and scored 12 tries. Just as his career at Trinity was taking off, the Second World War broke out and he was sent to the Middle East. He played for the Army at rugby and cricket where he served as a PT instructor. Once the war was over, his playing career was unfortunately finished by a knee injury and he turned to training and coaching. He gained qualifications in physiotherapy and worked at Pinderfield’s hospital. He was the club trainer and physical conditioner at Wakefield during their heyday in the early 1960s and when the chance came he took over as coach of the Rovers in August 1963.

Johnny Malpass inherited a very good team from Harold Moxon, but one perhaps that was coming to the end of an era. Players such as Mullaney, Fennell, Fawley and Lambert were now approaching the veteran stage or had retired, but there was plenty of up and coming talent to work with. In his first season, Malpass steered Rovers to fourth in the table, some way behind champions Swinton, but still a very creditable show indeed. Other highlights that year included beating the Australian tourists for a second successive time. In front of nearly 8,000 fans Don Fox starred as Rovers triumphed 23-17. The club also reached the Yorkshire Cup Final for fourth time, only to be beaten disappointingly 10-0 by Halifax. Under the tuition of Malpass, the next generation of players such as Carl Dooler, Arnie Morgan, Ivor Lingard and Gary Cooper were emerging. Don Fox enjoyed a new lease of life when he was switched from scrum-half to loose forward.

The following season failed to live up to expectations as Rovers finished a lowly 15th in the table, and despite winning a tremendous game at second-placed Wigan in the first round of the Championship playoffs, they failed to make much of an impression in the knockout competitions, losing in the early rounds of the Yorkshire Cup (to Wakefield) and the Challenge Cup (to Swinton). The next year, 1965/66 was another transitional season, as the iconic Don Fox left Rovers after thirteen years service and Rovers signed the influential Tommy Smales as loose forward. Rovers managed a identical league finish to the previous season, 15th, but a heavy first round playoff exit at St. Helens heralded the end of Johnny Malpass’s reign as Rovers coach. After leaving the Rovers in the summer of 1966 he took up the physio position at Castleford, and then later worked with Batley and York. He was also a member of the backroom staff for the Welsh national team at the 1975 World Cup.

Johnny Malpass’s coaching record:

63/4: Won 27-Drew 2-Lost 16
64/5: Won 21-Lost 19
65/6: Won 18-Lost 20

Total: Won 66-Drew 2-Lost 55= 54.47%

Monday, 26 March 2012

Harold Moxon 1957 to 1963

Bill Hudson’s coaching reign proved to be short lived, and Rovers played out the 1956/57 season without a coach. That summer the committee looked nearer to home for their next man, and appointed the local cobbler Harold Moxon. Looking at his record, a strong case could be made that Moxon was, quite simply, Featherstone’s best ever coach. He was in charge for six years and 264 games, the longest unbroken spell in Rovers’ history, although Peter Fox coached more over two spells. More importantly, they were six high quality seasons in which the side enjoyed a consistently high league position and unprecedented Cup success. The major mystery which surrounds Moxon’s tenure is how that talented team never made it to Wembley.

Harold Moxon, educated at George Street school,  had signed for his local team as a young scrum-half in 1936 and enjoyed ten years as a player at Post Office Road, although military service in the war interrupted his career. The highlight of his playing days was his part in winning the 1940 Yorkshire Cup. After quitting, he turned to refereeing for a short time, before being appointed coach in 1957 at 40 years of age. In his first season in charge, Rovers finished a creditable 8th in the league, up from 15th the previous season. In subsequent years, Rovers came 13th, 5th, 9th, 3rd and 11th. Just to put those efforts into context, the club had previously managed a final league position inside the top ten on just three occasions (in 1928, 1955 and 1956) so this period was undoubtedly a golden age of Featherstone rugby.

Harold Moxon’s first assault on the Challenge Cup was in 1958, and Rovers got to the semi-finals for the third time in the club’s history, only to lose 8-2 to Workington. Semi-final Cup defeats would become a painfully familiar experience for Moxon, as Rovers reached the same stage in 1959, 1960 and 1962. Four semi’s in five years and every one ended in frustration. The one piece of silverware he picked up as coach was the Yorkshire Cup in 1959 after a tight victory over Hull. It remained the last time Rovers ever won that famous old trophy before it was abandoned in 1993. Just eleven days after that success, Rovers beat Australia 23-15 in a stirring tour match. With a playing staff that included the likes of Fennell, Woolford, Mullaney, Fox, Clawson and many others in the prime of their careers, the club commanded respect throughout the whole league. In 1962 Rovers competed for only the second time ever in the Top 4 Championship Playoffs where we were beaten by a mighty Wakefield side 13-8.

Moxon’s coaching career ended in the summer of 1963, with his achievements at the club unparalleled. He was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic coach whose love of the game rubbed off on his players and in the local community too. The quality of junior players who came through the ranks during this period was as high as it had ever been. Harold Moxon clearly built on the solid platform laid by Eric Batten to take the club to a higher level.

Harold Moxon’s coaching record:

57/8: Won 27-Drew 1-Lost 16
58/9: Won 21-Drew 3-Lost 19
59/60: Won 35-Lost 12
60/1: Won 26-Drew 1-Lost 14
61/2: Won 33-Drew 1-Lost 11
62/3: Won 22-Drew 3-Lost 19

Total: Won 164-Drew 9-Lost 91= 63.83%

Friday, 23 March 2012

Bill Hudson 1956 to 1957

In the summer of 1956, Eric Batten must have been thinking he’d done enough to keep his job for the forthcoming season. Rovers had just finished an excellent sixth in the league and the young team that he had started to build at Featherstone in 1951 was beginning to make a real name for itself. However, the committee were somewhat surprisingly interested in looking for fresh coaching blood, and Batten was offered what was effectively a demotion to the position of trainer. He naturally refused, and left the club after grand service, going to coach Batley. In his place, Rovers appointed Bill Hudson. Hudson was a fast and resourceful back-row forward who began his career at Batley, before transferring to Wigan. He played for Wigan in the 1948 Challenge Cup Final, and for Great Britain against the 1948 Australian tourists (his only international cap). He then moved back to Yorkshire and finished his career at Wakefield. After retiring from the game in his mid thirties, he arrived at Featherstone for his first full coaching appointment aged 38. He brought with him Don Ward as assistant coach. The season began reasonably well with the side scoring plenty of points and Fox and Mullaney in particularly fluent form, and Cliff Lambert marshalling the forwards. Off-season investment in new players seemed to be paying off as Dennis Scholes and Frank Smith in the backs, and forwards Wyn Jones, Albert Fearnley and Norman Hockley all made their mark. On paper, results looked reasonable, with a satisfying win over high flying St. Helens being one of their most impressive displays. This was followed up days later with another famous win in an incredibly exciting game against Wakefield, 21-20.

  There was, however, a sense of underachievement which led to Featherstone Rovers and Bill Hudson parting ways towards the end of the season in March. The explanation behind this sudden departure was not based on disappointing results(which would have been very harsh) but simply that Hudson could no longer commit himself to the job having moved out of the local area. Rovers decided against appointing a new coach mid-season (unthinkable nowadays) and assistant coach Don Ward took on some coaching responsibilities. and Albert Fearnley, as senior professional, looked after the forwards. In reality, this quick fix did not work, as the season fell away badly, with just three wins from the final 12 league fixtures after a first round Challenge Cup exit at Leigh. Fearnley had quit his position, as he felt it was negatively affecting his game. On balance then, it was a disappointing season for Rovers who won exactly half their 38 league fixtures to finish exactly half way up the league (15th out of 30 clubs).

After a series of high profile former international players as coaches from outside the area (Stan Smith, Eric Batten, Bill Hudson) Rovers looked nearer to home for their next appointment, a trend that was to serve them well during the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Bill Hudson’s coaching record (including games played after his departure):

56/7: Won 20- Lost 21= 48.78% success rate.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Eric Batten 1951 to 1956

Rovers had attempted to change their poor run of form after the end of World War Two by changing their coach in 1947. They brought in famous ex-international winger Stan Smith. This move lasted only one season, and never worked out for a number of reasons. Four years later in the summer of 1951 Rovers tried a similar idea, and in came Eric Batten. In the whole history of the club, it must rank of one of the most significant moves ever made. From rock bottom strugglers, Featherstone were gradually transformed into a fit and competitive side, capable of matching the best in the league on their day. The influence in this revolution of Eric Batten is hard to underestimate.

Firstly, there was his considerable presence as a player. Although approaching the veteran stage when he arrived at Featherstone, Batten, like his father before him, was one of the finest wingers of his day. He had won Championships and Challenge Cups, as well as Great Britain caps, at his previous clubs, most notably Hunslet during the war, and Bradford in the late 1940s. He actually carried on playing for Rovers for three years until he was 39 years old, accumulating a total of 101 games and scoring 60 tries, whilst at the same time coaching the team. His on-field presence steadied a largely inexperienced team which also had the rock steady figure of Fred Miller at the back.

Rovers made it all the way to Wembley in Batten’s first season as coach, which was a tremendous, almost undreamed of, achievement. However, for me, much more remarkable was the way in which Batten’s influence on the whole club over the succeeding four seasons allowed the whole club to grow in stature. For a club that had consistently struggled near the bottom of the table throughout the 30s and 40s, the consistently improving league finishes that Rovers enjoyed from 1951 to 1956 were the true measure of Eric Batten’s impact. Rovers had spent five straight seasons finishing among the bottom five teams in the league, so even the 22nd place they managed in Batten’s first season was an improvement. They then finished 24th, 14th, 9th and 6th, unprecedented heights for a club who gradually earned the respect and admiration of the rest of the league for the way they used their limited resources to maximum effect. Rovers reached a second Challenge Cup semi-final in 1955, but fell to Workington.

Future coaches were able to build on the foundations Eric Batten had built and right through the 50s, 60s and 70s Rovers were a force in the game. It was perhaps somewhat surprising then, that in the summer of 1956 Rovers allowed Batten to leave the club and appointed a new coach. To this day, his lasting legacy to the Featherstone club is commemorated at the ground with the sponsors’ lounge in the clubhouse carrying his name.

Eric Batten’s coaching record:

1951/2: Won 20-Drew 2-Lost 23
1952/3: Won 14-Drew 1-Lost 28
1953/4: Won 18-Drew 2-Lost 20
1954/5: Won 26-Drew 1- Lost 14
1955/6: Won 24-Drew 2-Lost 15

Total: Won 102-Drew 8-Lost 100= 50.48%

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Stan Smith 1947 to 1948

As Rovers emerged from the Second World War in 1945, results were not as good as hoped and it was time for a change in the backroom staff. After two seasons in charge, former player Bill Sherwood gave way to a new coach, and the committee decided to go for a big name, which turned out to be Stan Smith. Smith had excellent credentials, having enjoyed an illustrious playing career at the highest level. In terms of pedigree, his stock couldn’t have been better. If rugby league players were racehorses, here would be one pure thoroughbred. His uncle was the great Billy Batten, and he was therefore cousin to fellow international winger Eric Batten, who would also become Featherstone coach. Stan Smith was also the son-in-law of Rovers 1900s fullback Jimmy Metcalfe, and therefore uncle of our 1950s centre Don Metcalfe. 

Smith was one of the top wingers in the game in the 1930s and he toured Australia twice in 1932 and 1936, playing a total of eleven games for Great Britain and scoring nine tries. He had some highly memorable moments in a GB shirt. In the closely fought 1929 series Great Britain and Australia had drawn the three match series 1-1 with one 0-0 draw, and the officials organised an unprecedented fourth test. A tense game at Rochdale in January 1930 seemed to be heading for another 0-0 draw, when Smith dashed away for the only try of the game to clinch a series win. On the 1932 tour he had his finest moment, scoring a hatrick against Australia  to win the Ashes for Great Britain in Sydney. At this stage he played for Leeds, after having started his career at Wakefield. His transfer in 1929 set a world record transfer fee of £1,075, showing just what a highly rated talent he was.
When he arrived at Featherstone in 1947, Stan Smith had retired as a player and he inherited a young team which was largely out of its depth. With no money for team strengthening, it was a question of what Smith could do with the home-grown talent available. Rovers made a bright start and won their opening three fixtures, including a narrow 11-8 success over Castleford. Despite the emergence of Jimmy Russell at scrum-half, Rovers badly missed iconic forward Frank Hemmingway who had a broken leg. After beating Batley in November, Rovers lost 24 straight games and won only once more in the rest of the season, by which time Stan Smith had left the club. He was replaced by Bill Sherwood who re-assumed the coaching role having made way for Smith the previous season. Sherwood was in charge for three more seasons until 1951. Fortunately, the Rovers committee were not too disheartened by the lack of success of appointing Stan Smith as coach, as they made a very similar move for that other international winger Eric Batten in the summer of 1951, with very different results.

Stanley Smith’s coaching record:

1947/8: Won 6, Lost 34= 15%

Monday, 19 March 2012

Bill Sherwood 1945 to 1947, 1948 to 1951

The transfer of a ball handling forward from one struggling club to another in 1935 might not have had much impact at the time, but it was the beginning of a relationship between Bill Sherwood and Featherstone Rovers that covered many years, with spells as a player, as a coach and as a committee man. Signed from Bradford, where he had operated mostly at stand-off, he played for Rovers at loose forward. The 1930s were tough times for a club still struggling from the retirement of the previous generation of local talent, and any promising young players being sold to pay the bills. In his role as pack leader and goal kicker, Bill Sherwood had to take on the responsibility of holding the Featherstone team together. It wasn’t until 1937 when Abe Bullock became president that this selling policy was eased to allow good players to stay at the club. Within three years, Rovers had tangible success to show for it. It must have been the highlight of Sherwood’s playing career when Rovers reached the 1940 Yorkshire Cup Final. He kicked three goals as Rovers beat Wakefield 12-9 to claim their first piece of silverware in senior rugby. Sherwood played on during the difficult war period and his final playing record was 205 games, scoring 571 points from 33 tries and 236 goals. This figure now leaves him 14th on Rovers’ all-time goal list, but when he finished he was second only to Jim Denton.

          He retired in November 1945, and was offered the job of team trainer. When he took over the responsibility for coaching, the post was very different to today. Featherstone, like many other clubs, had a selection committee, so the team line up was decided in the boardroom, not on the training field. Sherwood’s responsibilities lay with fitness and conditioning (with help from the erstwhile Billy Williams) and to a growing extent playing tactics. The style of play had been previously dictated by the selection committee too, with senior players undoubtedly also having some input. By the end of the 1940s it was becoming fashionable (copied from soccer style managers) to leave such matters in the hands of the trainer, paving the way for the development of the modern day coach and his wide range of responsibilities.

          A glance at the statistics will show that Bill Sherwood enjoyed only a 33% success rate as Rovers coach in the immediate post-war years, as Rovers once again struggled to hold onto and develop local players sufficiently to make a competitive team. Indeed, Sherwood was replaced for a season in 1947, but returned the following year when results had not improved. When Rovers went for another coach again in 1951, Bill Sherwood was co-opted onto the committee.

Bill Sherwood’s coaching record:

45/6: Won 21-Drew 1-Lost 19
46/7: Won 9-Drew 1-Lost 30
48/9: Won 12-Drew 3-Lost 26
49/50: Won 10-Drew 2- Lost 29
50/1: Won 13-Drew 1-Lost 27

Total: Won 65-Drew 8-Lost 131= 33.82%

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Billy Williams 1921 to 1945

Looking back to 1921 when Featherstone Rovers first joined the league, at that time clubs didn’t really have a coach per se. The responsibilities that lie with the modern day coach were undertaken by a variety of people rather than one figurehead. In those days, team selection and recruitment was done by the committee. As the club had a large number of committee men, a rugby sub-committee, containing one or two former players, would have been formed to oversee team selection. On-field tactics would have been in the hands of the senior players in the team, who would decide on the style of play and what needed to be done during the match. Of course, until the 1960s there were no substitutes in rugby league, so another important aspect of the modern coach’s mandate didn’t exist. Finally, the training sessions and general fitness of the players was in the hands of the trainer, which in the case of Featherstone Rovers in 1921, was Mr. Billy Williams, a Rovers legend if ever we’ve had one.

  Billy had played for the club in its junior days, and was a qualified physiotherapist. His brother Jimmy was stand-off for the Rovers, and as Billy was a fitness fanatic he started to help out the team. With the club having recently moved from junior to senior rugby, there was plenty to be done. Once Rovers had found their feet at the higher level, they went on to have a remarkable impact on the game, reaching the Championship final in only their 7th season, so he must have been doing something right! In the immediate post-war years when the concept of the modern team coach began to evolve, Billy took the title of club physio, a position he officially held until 1962 when he gave way to his son, Jimmy. In reality Billy never retired, and was always down at Post Office Road helping out. At his death in 1980, he was still there, 68 years after first having joined the Rovers. It would be difficult to bring to find a more loyal servant to the club, and perhaps then, we could regard Billy Williams as Rovers’ first ever coach.

Towards the end of the Second World War Rovers called on the services of notable ex-player Aubrey Casewell to help them out. He assumed the position of ‘trainer’ for the  1944/45 season with Billy Williams continuing as masseur. Casewell had played at second-row forward for Salford and Leeds during the 1930s, appearing in the 1934 Championship final and the 1936 Challenge Cup final. This new coaching experiment lasted only one season, and Rovers’ results in that final war-time season were not a noticeable improvement on previous seasons in those difficult times. Once the war was over, and normal league football returned, the Rovers committee decided it was time for a change.