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

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Match Programme: Featherstone Rovers v Widnes 1986

Today’s featured programme from the 1985/86 season is one of my favourite covers, the combination of the right colours (French navy blue and white) and eye-catching lettering make it a classy-looking design. It also has an artist’s impression of what would become the Rovers’ main stand, still a few months away from completion.

It’s obvious that the producers have put a lot of thought and attention into this self-titled “official match brochure” priced at 40p and containing 32 pages. It is part of the golden age of Featherstone programme printing, having improved in quality and content over a number of years during the early 1980s. Indeed, in the annual competition to judge the best club production in the league, organised by “Programme World”, the Rovers issue of 1985/86 narrowly pipped Wigan for the top prize. This reflected great credit on editor Terry Mullaney and his production team, and was reward for a number of years hard work.

Inside, there is plenty to keep the reader occupied. Coach George Pieniazek appealed to the fans to keep the faith during our difficult run-in towards avoiding relegation. Apologies were offered for the delay of the construction of the new main stand, but we were promised it would be worth the wait. As it was our last home match of the season, the “John Jepson Trophy” for player of the year was set to be awarded on the pitch before the match (deservedly won that year by Paul Lyman). There  was a feature on Rovers latest signing, youngster Neil Kelly (future Widnes coach). Ray Handscombe was pleased with the progress of his Colts team, despite having lost their recent Cup Semi-final to Wigan. Reserve team coach Dave Busfield outlined a number of his players who were knocking on the door for first team selection, including Richard Marsh, Brian Kellett and Tim Slatter.

A quick look at the Widnes team pen pictures reminded me just how many brothers Widnes had in their team at that time, including the Hulmes, the O’Neills, the Ruanes and of course the Mylers.
Resident columnist Ian Clayton has an oddly prescient piece, lambasting recent newspaper reports of the creation of a Super League in rugby league (this was April 1986 remember). His mock-horror predictions of possible future changes to the game don’t look funny in retrospect, as some of those far-fetched plans actually came to fruition almost a decade later.

The game itself was a very good one with Rovers, having struggled for most of the season to string some good form together, putting up a brave show against a powerful Widnes side. Rovers gave a debut to Kelly off the bench, and Widnes included at centre former Featherstone favourite John Gilbert, replacing youngster Andy Currier (Rovers future record signing).

Monday, 25 June 2012

Match Programme: Featherstone Rovers v Wakefield 1976

When a player completes ten years service with the same club he is granted a benefit season which is marked in various ways. Fund-raising events are held, and often a brochure is produced. As the type of club that has inspired a lot of loyalty down the years, Rovers have seen plenty of benefit years. In recent seasons Danny Evans and Stuart Dickens have put out nice souvenir publications. Previously, the club committee often chose a particular home match in a season as the benefit game for a player, and also dedicated the match programme to the purpose. In the 80s both Mick Gibbins and John Marsden had their benefit brochure printed as a home league programme, though Steve Quinn and Peter Smith both decided to produce a separate brochure in their testimonial seasons. One of the earliest examples of the benefit-brochure-as-a-match-programme was the home fixture versus Huddersfield in May 1963 which doubled up as Jackie Fennell’s testimonial souvenir.

Today’s featured programme is a neat little publication from Good Friday in April 1976 for the Wakefield match, celebrating ten years service to the Rovers’ first team of Vince Farrar. It cost 10p and the cover is one of those classic Rovers photos, Vince at full stretch diving through the Bradford defence for a try at Wembley. Great photo, great try. Inside, the format is very similar to a typical home programme of that season, so the reading content was thin. After the team lists and the adverts, there are just four pages to do justice to Vince’s career. Tributes came from Joe Humphreys of the Daily Mirror and Jack Bentley of the Daily Express. Humpreys  highlighted what a talented clubman Vince was, and a real coach-pleaser. Bentley compared Vince to Brian McTigue and pointed out that he should have been on the 1974 tour instead of playing club rugby for Cronulla. Both reporters remarked on how he had been a little unlucky to have missed out on full International honours. He had been selected as sub. against the 1971 New Zealand tourists, but didn’t get on, and wasn’t selected again. This was something he rectified later in his career, when he finally played for Great Britain v Australia in 1978 after having left Rovers for Hull FC.

Although he was being rewarded for ten years service, Vince was still only 29 and had a few good seasons left in him yet. Irvin Saxton’s page gave a rundown of Vince’s career, which at that stage spanned 253 games. I was surprised to find that Vince had played 86 games at prop, 85 at hooker, 56 at loose forward, 8 at second row and 18 off the bench. He had also gained five county caps for Yorkshire.

Friday, 22 June 2012

A New History of Featherstone Rugby by Ian Clayton & Ian Daley

Printed in 1994, some ten years after the original “100 Years of Featherstone Rugby” appeared, this revised volume featured much better production values than the first. Although a lot of the text remained the same, most of the photographs were new, and the intervening ten years of rugby are also dealt with, albeit rather briefly. The statistical section at the back of the book is updated and reorganised, with some, though far from all, of the errors of the 1984 book rectified.

    The front cover is a team photo of Rovers 1910 Junior Yorkshire Cup winning team from the days before Rovers were admitted to join the RFL. It is this period of the club’s history which is the major focus of the book. Clayton begins his narrative with the formation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871, and this new code of football arrived in the nascent mining village of Featherstone in 1884 when the Featherstone & Purston United Cricket Club decided to have a go at rugby. The first proper rugby club was formed in 1889 and had its base at the New Inn, and they called themselves Featherstone Trinity. Soon another side emerged called Featherstone Red Star. Trinity became Featherstone RUFC and then in 1898 the club members took a vote about switching over the Northern Union. This vote was carried by 44 to 20 and that summer Rugby League as it was later to become was born in Featherstone. Their first ever game under Northern Union rules ended with a 10-8 win over Wakefield.

Clayton’s book goes on to plot how that early club Featherstone NUFC packed up in 1902 allowing Featherstone Rovers to be formed by George Johnson, based at the Railway Hotel. Rovers weren’t the last side to be set up in the village, as they had to see off competition from Purston White Horse (based at The Junction Hotel) and another team called Featherstone (set up by the landlord of the Featherstone Hotel) before being firmly established as the town’s rugby league team.

    Having covered the early days of the club in some detail, the rest of the club’s history is skipped over quickly, in the words of the author himself,  “in the belief that the later years are for future historians to look at”. Given that sixteen years have passed and a lot more rugby has been played since the publication of this book, perhaps the time has come for the definitive history of Featherstone Rovers to be written.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Match Programme: Featherstone Rovers v Swinton 1928

So far in this series we’ve looked at Rovers programmes from different decades from the 1950s to the 1990s, all very interesting to read and part of Featherstone’s rich history, but none of them likely to make you rich if you happen to come across a copy somewhere. As you delve further back in time, programmes become much rarer and much more sought after. Anything printed pre World War Two inevitably fetches a very good price with some old rugby league programmes now changing hands for £1,000 or more, a figure unheard of until very recently in the collecting community. Featherstone Rovers programmes are particularly hard to find as our pre-war attendances were lower than other clubs and so the print run was also low. So, have a root around in your granddad’s attic and see if you can come up with a valuable souvenir or two.

As far as rare programmes go, today’s featured edition is a very good example, being both hard to get and also of very special significance to Featherstone Rovers. Though it would be hard to tell from a quick look at the cover, this is in fact a copy of the match programme for our 1928 Championship final against Swinton. It looks like a regular home programme of the Oldham club, because the final was played at Watersheddings and the host club, rather than the RFL, was responsible for printing. They made a good job of it though, putting together a sixteen page issue which was a decent read in an age when match programmes tended to be much thinner, perhaps just two folded sheets. The cover price of 2d may seem ridiculously cheap to us, but was probably double the normal price in 1928.

Inside, the lead article pays credit both to Swinton, who were on course for a historic “All Four Cups” season, and also to Featherstone for reaching the Championship final in just their seventh season as a senior club. Inevitably the focus on Rovers highlighted the financial hardships the club had to consistently overcome to put out a competitive team. It was noted that every single Rovers player had been signed by the club for the minimum signing-on fee of £10 at a time when other clubs could afford to pay £100 or more.

Just to show how little things change in the world of rugby league, there’s also an article questioning the playoff system, which was then a top four straight knockout; Rovers (3rd)  had beaten Leeds (2nd) in the semi-final. The suggestion was that the side finishing top at the end of the regular season should be champions. It’s a debate that still rumbles on 80 odd years later!

*Many thanks to Stephen Parker for the scan of this programme.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Rugby League: Back o’ t’ Wall by Graham Chalkley

 Recently we looked at the autobiography of Don Fox, who was born and bred in Sharlston. Until you read this book it’s difficult to believe just how many other top rugby league stars came from the same place. The story of rugby league in Sharlston is an incredible one, and this well-researched book by former player Graham Chalkley does justice to its proud record of player production. Chalkley plots the history of the Sharlston Rovers club, starting from the earliest days of organised rugby in the 1880s and 1890s. In those days Sharlston had as rivals other local teams such as Streethouse, Outwood, Normanton and later of course near neighbours Featherstone Rovers. The accounts of some of those early matches make fascinating reading. It’s clear that there was no love lost between these fiercely competitive local rivals, and after one game Rovers president and founder Councillor George Johnson took a swipe at Sharlston’s rough play tactics in his post-match speech. When Sharlston threatened to cancel the following fixture with a large crowd already assembled, Mr. Johnson was obliged to apologise before the game could take place.

Featherstone Rovers left the junior leagues in 1921, but Sharlston have continued there to this day in a run broken only by a short time in the fifties when they had no open-age side. As a club, their major achievements were twice winning the Yorkshire Cup, as well as famous victories over professional teams in the Challenge Cup, against Workington (in 1946) and Dewsbury (in 2004). The book was published in 2006 which coincided with one of the club’s most successful periods in terms of silverware. As an interesting history of a successful amateur club, the book is very thorough.

However, what makes the Sharlston club special, and what makes this book a remarkable read is the astonishing number of top quality players have been produced by a village with a population of just under 2,500 people. Given its geographical location, the main beneficiaries of this production line have been Featherstone Rovers and Wakefield Trinity. Two of the original nine members of the Rugby League Hall of Fame, Jonty Parkin and Neil Fox, started at Sharlston. As did Lance Todd trophy winners Carl Dooler and Don Fox, as well as England internationals Herbert Goodfellow (Wakefield) and Joe Mullaney (Featherstone), not forgetting Great Britain and Featherstone coach Peter Fox. The long list goes on to include Rovers favourites such as Tommy Smales, Vaughan Thomas, Steve Hankin, and more recently Martin Pearson and Steve Dooler. There are so many Doolers and Lingards who played the games professionally it’s hard to keep count. All in all, this book is a cracking read for local rugby league fans.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Match Programme: Featherstone Rovers v Hull KR and York, 1997

In the course of a normal season, a club playing say fifteen home fixtures will produce fifteen match programmes and life for the programme collector is very easy. Occasionally along comes a postponed or re-arranged fixture to complicate matters. Perhaps the club will just re-hash the programme printed for the original date, perhaps not. Sometimes a game takes place at relatively short notice and there is no time to print a programme, so the supporters receive only a typed team-sheet. Towards the end of the 1997 season Rovers tried something different, and decided to print one programme that would cover two home fixtures. It was a novel idea, implemented I suspect as a cost-cutting measure, and was not something which caught on because the club never did it again. This publication, called “Going Forward”,  therefore has a certain rarity value.

The two games in question were against Hull K.R. and York and both games were part of the Divisional Premiership which ran after the end of that league season. In the group stages each club played eight matches, Rovers lost the first of these two fixtures to Hull K.R. 20-30 on the Wednesday night, but then thumped York 70-12 on the Sunday. We eventually qualified for the quarter-finals at the expense of Hull K.R, and faced Huddersfield. It was not a format that had captured the imagination of the fans, but Huddersfield took it seriously as, after beating us, they went on to win it, which in turn bizarrely earned them a Super League spot when Paris St. Germain went bankrupt. The crazy world of rugby league.

The programme itself is A5 size and cost £1.50. It has 32 pages with full colour pictures from both sets of opponents; Damien Ball of York and the evergreen Stanley Gene of Hull KR. Head coach Steve Sims has his say, there’s an interesting interview with Matt Lambert on his globetrotting rugby career, and another with winger Paul Gleadhill. For those of us who enjoy a good moan about the match officials there is a curious piece from Chris Westwood on the infamous Aussie referee of the early 1960s D’Arcy Lawler. An all round good read in fact.

During 2009 and 2010 a number of Co-operative Championship clubs discontinued producing match programmes in favour of a generic league-wide magazine called “Game On”. Introduced largely as a cost-cutting measure, it was an interesting solution to the problem of declining sales. But it never caught on, and to be honest, this lifelong traditional club programme fan was not sad at its demise.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Don Fox: Rugby League Legend by Ron Bailey

Whilst it is quite common to see recently retired players publishing their autobiographies, as far as rugby league is concerned this is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the late 1990s very few stars of our game had their memoirs printed. Hence the market now for retrospective studies of the game’s former greats. Ron Bailey followed up his trilogy of history books on Featherstone Rovers by choosing Don Fox to be the subject of his fourth book. Undoubtedly one of the greatest players our club has ever produced, Don Fox signed for Featherstone Rovers in 1953 and served the club with distinction before leaving for Wakefield in September 1965. He stopped playing in 1970, but it wasn’t until 2007 that his story was finally put down in print. Ron Bailey was in an ideal position to write this book, having been closely involved with the Rovers as club secretary whilst Fox was starring in the first team.

We are given a short introduction on life in Sharlston and its close association with rugby league. Don’s childhood neighbour was the great Joe Mullaney and there is a touching tribute to his halfback partner from Joe, a man who surely deserves a biography of his own. Don was the second of Tom Fox’s three rugby playing sons, and the story begins in earnest once he had signed for Featherstone.

Don Fox’s professional life is divided into five chapters, the longest  three of which cover his time with Featherstone. This of course was a golden period for Featherstone rugby, and Don’s career highlights included lifting the Yorkshire Cup, representing Great Britain and beating Australia. The text is filled out with a lot of photos, many of them team groups. Considering the length and profile of his career there are precious few good action shots of Don   Fox that survive to date. There is coverage of his time at Wakefield when he made the unusual transition from scrum half to prop forward. Inevitably the 1968 Cup final features, when Don won the Lance Todd trophy but was remembered for all the wrong reasons.  

Oddly, there are separate chapters on Don’s famous brothers Peter and Neil. This is fair enough in some respects as their careers often coincided (they once all played in the same game, Wakefield v Batley in 1965), but both Peter and Neil have their own books anyway, making these sections slightly redundant. After the infamous 68 final, the rest of Don’s career, his coaching experience and the rest of his life are very quickly summarised in just three pages. I felt like that I would’ve liked to have found out more about that period of his life.

On the whole, as a dip into Rovers’ rich past and looking at the life of one of our favourite sons, this book offers a lot of pleasurable memories.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Match Programme: Featherstone Rovers v Warrington, 1974

The sport of Rugby League is full of competitions and cups which never really took off. This programme is from the short-lived Captain Morgan Trophy, which was a funny old competition introduced into an already crowded fixture list. As you can see from the front cover of the match programme it had an impressive looking trophy. Played in a straight knockout format, Featherstone and Warrington made it through to the first (and last as it turned out) final. It took place on a Saturday afternoon in January at Salford, and the programme would have cost you 10p for a twenty page issue. After the line ups, pen pictures including players’ occupations, and other statistics, there was not much left to read. There was a full page portrait of a young looking Queen Elizabeth II if that’s your type of thing. There’s also a spectacular action shot of an airborne Paul Coventry diving in for a try in Rovers’ semi-final versus Workington. Checking out the team photo, no less five of the Rovers team sport impressive moustaches (Hartley, Smith, Box, Ken Kellett and Nash) whereas Barry Hollis goes for the full beard and Cyril Kellett still has those trademark sideburns. Hirsute days indeed.

In the potted club history of Rovers there are a number of inaccuracies (Rovers listed as having been formed in 1898 rather than 1902), reflecting the fact that in those days the early history of many RL clubs was hazy. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of historians did better research into the roots of the game. On the RFL’s information page, among news about referee’s courses and coaching clinics was an offer for 1974 Challenge Cup final tickets (standing room only) at the princely sum of £1.00. Of course, knowing that the same two teams who were playing the Captain Morgan Trophy Final were going to appear a few months later at Wembley would have won you a bob or two at the local bookies.

For the record, the Trophy final was a dour game, Warrington winning 4-0 with two penalty goals from Derek Whitehead. The tournament was then dropped from the fixture list. Perhaps that imposing trophy is still on the sideboard at Warrington over 40 years later.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

There and Back by Iestyn Harris

By the time he arrived at Featherstone, Iestyn Harris had already achieved world stardom in both Rugby League and Rugby Union, and had already written his autobiography. Most players wait until they retire before putting together their memoirs, but Harris had packed enough into his playing career by the time he was 29 to justify this book. Therefore, his successful spell as Featherstone Rovers’ stand-off last season doesn’t mention, so that will have to wait for an updated edition. This volume is largely concerned with his youthful days at Warrington, and then his big money transfer to Leeds. Then of course he switched to Union, and about a third of the book covers his days playing kick and clap for Cardiff and Wales. The book wraps up with his return to Bradford, from where he signed for Rovers.

So, as a read, is it any good? Yeah, it’s not bad actually. The first thing I was surprised to read about was the strength and depth of his Welsh roots. Having been born and bred in Oldham, albeit with a convincing sounding Welsh name, I’d assumed his qualification for the national side to be based around some long forgotten ancestral connection, but Norman Harris, Iestyn’s granddad had played for Ebbw Vale and Newbridge before going North and signing for Oldham, then Leigh and Rochdale. So although Saddleworth Rangers can take credit for Harris’s development as an RL star, he is undeniably of solid Welsh stock.

A feature of the book is Iestyn’s explanations and justifications of each of his transfers, all of which had a faint whiff of controversy about them, or in the case of his move to Bradford, an awful stink. He had to ‘stay away’ to get his move from Wire to Leeds courtesy of a huge transfer fee, and his cross-code move involved the usual cloak and dagger stuff. The tug of war between Leeds and Bradford over his return to League ended up in the courts, but Iestyn doesn’t go too deeply into that.

Every sports autobiography is always accompanied by the obligatory collection of photos, the professional shots and the family snaps. Iestyn’s wedding portraits are of a significantly higher quality given that his wedding was covered by ‘Hello’ magazine as a result of his celebrity status.

At 240 pages in my paperback edition it’s an easy enough read in a day, although as an incorrigible statistician I would have preferred the facts and figures of his career as an end-note. Perhaps in a future edition he’ll entertain us with the story of how he finished off his playing career in the best possible style at Post Office Road.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Match Programme: Featherstone Rovers v France, 1982

This weekend we welcome Pia to our world famous stadium for the first time ever. It is only in the past few seasons that matches against French opposition have become more commonplace. This programme is from our first encounter with  a French team.
One of the interesting things about collecting rugby league memorabilia is that it’s not always the programme from the biggest fixture which turns into a valuable item. Cup final publications and reminders of big games do have sentimental value, but a match attended by 80,000 people at Wembley will have enough copies produced to never become rare.

On the other hand, there is today’s example. Not only was this printed for a relatively obscure fixture played before a low crowd, but also it’s a single sheet issue, notorious for getting thrown away and forgotten about instead of kept and cherished. Rovers are better than most clubs at doing their utmost to ensure that every home fixture is marked with an official match programme. Sometimes, in the case of fixtures rearranged at very short notice, it’s just not possible to get an issue together. This has only happened around 20 times in the last 50 years, so single sheet issues are rare and highly collectable.

So, on a wet and windy Friday evening in September the French national team were over in England for some warm up fixtures before their international matches against Great Britain, and Rovers were one of three clubs who provided them with opposition. The club took advantage of the opportunity to forward the proceeds from the game to the Mick Gibbins’ benefit fund. Despite its plain and simple cover, this team-sheet managed to make an unfortunate mistake with the apostrophe in Mick’s name.

Despite its friendly status, Rovers had a pretty strong team out, no fewer than nine of whom would go on to win the Cup at Wembley a few months later. The French too had a fair share of well known names, including winger Patrick Solal who later signed for Hull and redoubtable back-rower Jean-Jacques Cologni. Scrum-half was Ivan Greseque, father of recent Rovers’ player Maxime.

In the event, the game failed to rise above the difficult conditions and France won a dour encounter 13-5.