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

Friday, 21 June 2013

The National Coaching Scheme

The role of the coach in Rugby League has changed radically over the years. Nowadays the coach is considered to be perhaps the most important figure at a club, which is a far cry from the time when teams were chosen by selection committee, tactics decided by senior players and the coach was limited to overseeing a few laps of the training ground to keep the lads fit. Of course, even in those days, the best coaches did much more than that. Witness Eric Batten’s impact on Featherstone Rovers after his arrival in 1951 for proof of that. The job of a coach gradually evolved to its current status through the sixties and seventies with the emergence of “personality” coaches such as Alex Murphy and our own Peter Fox who insisted on having control over team selection. Coaching in Britain took a great leap forward after the 1982 Kangaroo tourists destroyed Great Briatin and an influx of influential antipodeans made their mark. Before then however, sterling work had been done in England by the National Coaching Scheme to raise coaching standards throughout the game. This initiative was set up by secretary general of the RFL Bill Fallowfield in the early 1950s and the two men he chose to head up this new coaching scheme both inevitably had strong Featherstone connections.
Laurie Gant MBE in his playing days

Both Laurie Gant and Albert Fearnley served Featherstone  as players and coaches. Laurie Gant, who sadly passed away late last year, served Featherstone Rovers and rugby league in general in every possible way. He started out as a player for Wakefield and signed for Rovers in 1948, making his debut on. After playing 112 games and scoring 15 tries, he had a short spell at Hunslet before retiring. The highlight of his playing career was of course packing down in the second-row at Wembley in 1952. He then became involved in coaching, and also spent many years as a top-grade referee. As well as his work with the whistle and on the coaching field, he then became Rovers head coach in 1966. Within a year Laurie Gant had led Rovers to a Wembley triumph, our first ever. He stepped down in 1970 and was replaced by Peter Fox. Laurie carried on with his work at the RFL, running coaching clinics and summer courses for thousands of schoolkids to encourage them to take up the game. Later in life he was chairman of the Rovers Past Players Association. He was one of only two Featherstone players awarded an MBE for his services to sport.

Laurie Gant’s right-hand man in the RFL coaching department was the indomitable Albert Fearnley. He had a distinguished playing career at Halifax, and gained a wealth of experience having played in Championship and Cup finals, including the most famous of all, the 1954 Cup final replay at Odsal. After playing at Wembley in 1956, he arrived at Post Office Road with a bagful of medals, to beef up the Rovers pack. A quick look at Featherstone teamsheet of the day, including Kenny Welburn, Willis Fawley, Norman Hockley, Wyn Jones and Cliff Lambert, might make you wonder quite why anybody felt they needed “beefing up”. He did just that though for two years, playing 67 games and managing a notable 18 tries. He had a short spell as unofficial forwards-coach in his second season, before moving on to Batley as their player-coach. More than one young Rovers forward of the day could tell the tale of how Fearnley’s uncompromising style opened their eyes as to just how tough you had to be to play the game then. It’s probably fair to say that Albert’s robust approach to playing was reflected in his coaching methods, but there can be no doubt he got his message across.

The game has changed in many ways since then, and today’s coach needs a host of skills as a teacher, a motivator, a tactician, a psychologist, a trainer and a public relations officer, as well as overseeing those laps of the training ground.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Featherstone & Castleford United

Today we’ll look at one of the most unusual fixtures in Rovers’ history. Not an epic derby clash against Castleford, with both teams heroically defending local pride, but an occasion when players from both teams joined together, tackling and running alongside each other against a common foe. A prototype of the dreaded Calder team circa 1995? Thank God no. The occasion was the 1961 New Zealand tourists, and for reasons best known to themselves the RFL decided, instead of the usual fixture list, to arrange games against a whole raft of “combined” teams. It was customary for touring teams to face the best club sides during their stay in the UK. Thus Rovers had played against the 1955 Kiwis (and lost 7-6) and the 1959 Aussies (and won 23-15). For this tour, not only did Rovers and Castleford combine, but also Salford and Swinton played together as a “Manchester XIII”, Leeds, Hunslet and Bramley as a “Leeds XIII”, among others. Maybe the hope was that these combined outfits could attract larger crowds, by appealing to the fans of two or more clubs.

So, who made the line up for the Featherstone-Castleford select XIII?  The game was played on Castleford’s ground. Both coaches of the day, Harold Moxon and Harry Street (who had of course previously played for Featherstone for a short while) were involved in the preparation of the side. The side contained eight Rovers players and five from Castleford, reflecting the superior strength of the Rovers team at that time. Fullback was Castleford’s Albert Lunn, with Rovers regular Jackie Fennell missing out. The right three-quarters were blue and white; Jim Hunt and Ken Greatorex. The left three-quarters were amber and black; Geoff Ward and Colin Battye. Half-backs were Alan Hardisty and Don Fox, a pretty handy combination it has to be said. Joe Mullaney was a travelling reserve (no subs in those days). The pack was almost all Rovers, with the familiar front row of Len Hammill, Willis Fawley and Malcolm Dixon, Terry Clawson and Norman Hockley in the second row and only John Sheridan as Castleford’s representative at loose-forward, taking Cliff Lambert’s birth.  In his autobiography, Terry Clawson pointed out that he was only prepared to play provided it meant not having to pull on a Castleford jersey! Unfortunately I have been unable to find out what shirts this combined line up wore.

And how did they get on? It was only the third game of the Kiwi tour, played on the 26th of August. The tourists had previously lost to both Liverpool (Widnes and Liverpool City) and Manchester (Salford and Swinton), but won this game 31-20. For Featherstone-Castleford, Geoff Ward scored two tries, Jim Hunt and Len Hammill one each and Terry Clawson kicked four goals. Perhaps an understandable lack of cohesion between the two clubs’ players contributed to a disappointing result against modest tourists. The Kiwis went on win the first test against Great Britain surprisingly easily 29-11, though Britain bounced back to take the series with authoritative wins 23-10 and 35-19 in the second and third tests.

The match programme announced: “This temporary merger today will be watched with much interest by those writers of anonymous letters who suggest that the two clubs should permanently band together and play on a field in Pontefract Park”. So it wasn’t Maurice Lindsay’s idea after all! For RFL officials looking for clues as to whether a merged club could ever be viable, a crowd of 5,774 was reasonable, comparing with the previous Kiwi tour (5,100 at Featherstone and 2,440 at Castleford) quite well. The whole idea of combined sides was abandoned though, never to be repeated.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Testimonials and Benefit Seasons.

Club Captain Liam Finn was recently granted a rugby league testimonial for ten years’ service to the sport. The tradition of the benefit year for players who have given ten years service to a single club really came into force after the war, and as such many loyal servants from the pre-war period missed out on that end-of-career pay day. Before 1945 testimonials seem to have been granted on a very ad hoc basis consisting of just one designated league fixture with a portion of the receipts going to the player concerned. Names such as Jim Denton, Ernie Barraclough, Jack Hirst all put in at least a decade of service each, but there is no documentation of them having received a benefit or testimonial. Some players were luckier.  In 1929 a joint testimonial match was declared for Arthur Haigh and Jimmy Williams. Previously John Willie Higson had a benefit in 1921 and three years later Billy Seymour.

It was quite common in those days for players whose careers had been cut short by injury to receive a testimonial fixture as recompense. Thus Jack Higgins had a benefit played for him in 1946 after a serious injury forced his retirement. The following year a game was arranged for the widow of Wakefield player Frank Townsend who tragically died in a match against Rovers at Post Office Road in 1947.

After the war that fine servant Frank Hemmingway was the first player to qualify for what we would recognise now as a benefit season in 1949/50. A feature of the club in the 1950s was unsurprisingly local lads signing for their hometown team and playing the majority of their career there. Thus, eight different players enjoyed a benefit season during the fifties.

50-1    Walt Tennant
51-2    Jimmy Russell & Jack Blackburn
54-5    Jack Ogden
55-6    Fred Hulme
57-8    Ken Welburn
58-9    Alan Tennant
59-60     Cliff Lambert

The pattern was similar in the 1960s. Again, seven benefits in that decade, including two of Featherstone’s most loyal servants sharing a testimonial year. Surely two such great players deserved separate seasons.

60-1    Willis Fawley
62-3    Jack Fennell
63-4    Don Fox & Joe Mullaney
67-8    Malcolm Dixon
68-9    Ken Greatorex
69-70    Stan Nicholsen

The seventies were a fine decade too. There were just two seasons when no benefit was held.

71-2    Arnie Morgan
72-3    Les Tonks
73-4    Keith Cotton
74-5    Mick Smith
75-6    Vince Farrar
76-7    Jimmy Thompson
77-8    John Newlove
79-80  Harold Box

In the eighties, such was the backlog of players who had played ten seasons, Keith Bell had to wait thirteen years for his benefit.

80-1    Ken Kellett
81-2    Paul Coventry
82-3    Mick Gibbins
83-4    John Marsden
84-5    Keith Bell
85-6    Peter Smith
86-7    Steve Quinn
89-90  Gary Siddall

In the nineties we had just two beneficiaries reflecting the changing times. Freedom of contract and the abolition of the old retain-and-transfer system meant that players started to move around a lot more between clubs.

91-2    Nigel Barker
95-6   Chris Bibb

Since then, that trend has continued although three players have proved themselves loyal clubmen by sticking out ten years.

2002    Danny Evans
2006    Steve Dooler
2007    Stuart Dickens

Monday, 17 June 2013

Featherstone’s Most Capped Player

Jimmy Thompson holds the record for most caps gained whilst a Featherstone player. He won 20 caps between 1970 and 1977. After leaving Featherstone for Bradford he won one further cap, making a total of 21. However, the Rovers player who won most caps in his career was another player from that same era. Steve Nash signed for Featherstone as a diminutive scrum-half in 1967, and our half-backs at that time were Mick Smith and Carl Dooler. Steve actually made his debut at stand-off, filling in for few games when Rovers had made it to Wembley and were resting players before the final. Just over a year later Carl Dooler had been sold to Hull KR and the number seven shirt was Nash’s for the next seven years.

Within four seasons Nash’s club form had been sufficiently impressive to warrant an international call up. He won his first Great Britain cap in 1971 against France at St.Helens. Britain won 24-2, Steve Nash’s half-back partner Roger Millward got two tries and there was a rare try from dashing second-rower Jimmy Thompson. Nash did enough to keep his place in the GB squad, and he faced both France and New Zealand the following season. In November 1972 the Rugby League World Cup was held in France. An impressive British side won all their games with Steve Nash at scrum–half, including a 53-19 thrashing of New Zealand. Nash scored his first international try that day and half-back partner John Holmes had a field day. In the World Cup final Britain drew 10 all with Australia, a game which included a sensational length of the field try from Clive Sullivan. Extra time was played, but as the scores remained level, the World Cup was awarded to Britain, as they had won the group. Nash became the first and only Featherstone player to get a World Cup winner’s medal. Ex-Rover Terry Clawson was also in the line up.

Nash’s international career continued with six caps on the 1974 tour. This was a golden age for Featherstone rugby, as both Jimmy Thompson and Keith Bridges also figured prominently on that tour. The same trio were selected to represent England at the 1975 World Championship. Steve Nash then left Rovers for Salford after a record domestic transfer fee of £15,000. He had won sixteen GB caps in his career so far. At Salford he went on to win eight more caps. In 1977 alongside Peter Smith and Jimmy Thompson he was once again in Britain’s World Cup squad, and all three players appeared in the 1977 World Cup final which Great Britain lost 13-12. It was Thompson’s second final after 1970, and also of course Nash’s second final too.

After playing all three tests against the 1978 Kangaroos Nash was selected for his second tour in 1979 but didn’t play any test rugby. He might have thought his international career was over, but he was (unwisely in the event) recalled to face the might of the 1982 Kangaroos in the twilight of his career. He was the GB captain for the first test at Hull when Great Britain were slaughtered and the gulf between the British and Australian games was finally fully exposed. It was a disappointing end to a very respectable international career. He was replaced as captain for the second test by Jeff Grayshon, then of Bradford, another member of a select band of players who have had the privilege of both captaining Great Britain and playing for Featherstone Rovers in their career.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Titanic Cup Clashes against Workington

Fans these days complain of the top teams such as Wigan, Warrington and Leeds always meeting each other in the grand finals and big cup ties, but in the 1950s it was Featherstone Rovers v Workington Town that was one of the big tickets. Both clubs have a strong cup-fighting tradition, born in that era. Enough has been written already about our Wembley debut in 1952, but before that decade was out Featherstone and Workington were destined to meet in a further four cup ties, all of epic proportions, including two semi-finals.
Rovers at Wembley v Workington in 1952
After losing the 1952 final, Rovers arrived at the 1955 semi-final looking for revenge. They had beaten Belle Vue Rangers (great name, great club), Bradford and Leigh on the route to the last four and another clash with Town. Big ticket? An astonishing 36,077 people packed Headingley to see who would face Barrow at Wembley. Just four of the Wembley 1952 team were in the line-up three years later; Don Metcalfe, Ray Cording and pack men Kenny Welburn and Cliff Lambert. Having shown some marvellous form in the early rounds, Rovers must have fancied their chances, but on the day a very subdued display allowed Town to triumph 13-2. Despite dominating the first half, Featherstone failed to score, and Town produced two strikes of their own against the run of play. In the second half Workington established a strangle-hold that they were never going to loosen. 
Back to the drawing board then, and three years later came another chance. In the 1958 Semi-final at Odsal Rovers were without the injured Don Fox, but had such stars as Joe Mullaney, Cyril Woolford and Jack Fennell in their ranks. Wembley 52 veterans Lambert, Welburn and Alan Tennant were still going strong. Once again a tight game ensued, but Rovers disappointed their share of another huge 33,926 crowd, going down 8-2, the only try of the game coming from Ike Southward. He also scored at Wembley where Town were pipped by Wigan.
Three big games and three defeats. Rovers must have been sick of the sight of the all-conquering Cumbrians. Imagine their feelings the following season when the first round draw of the 1959 Cup came out and Rovers drew Workington away.  Having won 10-0 in a league fixture there just a week before, Featherstone probably thought they might have been pushing their luck to get a second successive positive result at such a notoriously difficult venue. They won though, with a phenomenal 80 minute tackling stint, and despite Town grabbing the game’s only try, Rovers triumphed 8 points to 5 thanks to four Terry Clawson penalties.  No change of luck in the semi-final that year though, beaten by Hull 15-5.
Showing a distinct lack of imagination the draw-makers for the first round of the 1960 competition came up with Workington v Featherstone!  Off to Cumbria again then, this time for a 15-0 success, practice having turned the Rovers team into a dab hand at tricky Cup ties in Workington. Tries from Wills Fawley, Joe Mullaney and Mick Clamp saw us through. That year it was Wakefield Trinity’s turn to break our hearts in the semi-final. Rovers were beaten in the 1962 semis too, as that particular golden age of rugby league drew to a close. Workington had played in three finals, the only Cup finals in their history. Rovers had lost five successive semi-finals between 1955 and 1962, but would be back again for Wembley glory with a new side before the sixties were over.

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Ones That Got Away

It’s always nice to see a local lad doing well after leaving Featherstone, one of the latest being Zak Hardaker at Leeds.  The disappointment of losing talented players to top flight clubs has always been something Rovers fans have had to live with, but for me that doesn’t stop us taking pride in their subsequent achievements. Zak’s career with us was brief, but better than nothing. There have been some distinguished rugby league players, born and bred in Featherstone, who never played for their hometown team.
Phil Cookson
Two famous examples of local lads who never pulled on the Blue and White played in the 1978 Cup Final at Wembley. Rovers of course had lost an eminently winnable and desperately disappointing semi-final against Leeds at Odsal, and playing in the Leeds second row that day, and in the final too was Phil Cookson. He signed for Leeds directly from Rovers Intermediates in 1968 and went on to enjoy a long and successful career at Headingley. He won England caps at the 1975 World Cup in Australia.

Bill Francis
In that 78 final Phil was up against St. Helens stand-off Bill Francis, another Featherstone man. Francis signed for Wigan in 1963 from Rovers Under 17 team and made his name as a classy centre during 13 seasons at Central Park. He won four GB caps, and at the afore-mentioned 1975 World Cup was playing for Wales (he qualified through the grandparent rule). He transferred to Saints in 1977 and played his entire professional career in Lancashire. I’d always assumed that Wigan must have had a mole in the Featherstone area scouting system to alert them to available local talent so early. After all, they’d also signed Tommy Smales from under our noses in 1958 with a big money offer that we couldn’t compete with. A recent article in the RL Journal offered an alternative and interesting explanation as to how Wigan found out about Bill Francis’s talent before he’d even turned professional. Apparently in 1963 ITV started covering amateur youth games on TV, the star side being the Featherstone & Castleford district team. This team included Roger Millward and Brian Lockwood as well as Francis, and all three youngsters were able to make a name for themselves as juniors. Wigan liked what they saw and snapped up Francis, to our loss.
Other players we could file under the list of the ones that got away would be Alan Banks’ older brother Barry, who signed for York and later had success at Hull. Jason Ramshaw, son of old favourite Terry, signed from school for Halifax before carving out a long career at Keighley. Martin Wood was another local lad who never played for Featherstone. I’m sure fans can recall one or two other names that slipped through the net over the years. Perhaps at the very top of the list should be world record holder and Hall of Famer Neil Fox, who many people thought would sign for Featherstone as his older brothers had done, but instead went to Wakefield Trinity. The rest, as they say, is history. Very illustrious history indeed.

Footnote: Steve Slater writes:

I can recall Terry Morgan & Steve Cooper (Gary's brother) both signing for York in the early 70's, and a very highly rated youngster from the U'17's called Bob Woodhead signed for Hull KR. Big things were expected of him but I never heard his name mentioned again. And there was Dave Topliss. Although he played for Normanton U'17's, he supported Rovers all his childhood, but Normy players were selected for the Wakefield & District side, not Cas & Fev, and when he came under Trinity's spotlight he signed for them instead. There was another Banks brother, Keith, who was the elder of the three. He was a stand off or centre  in the U17's, and played for Yorkshire schoolboys from Normanton Grammar School, and then Wakefield RUFC when they were a top side. Rovers made him an offer to turn pro but he signed for Wakefield instead, where he was a regular around 1976-77, but then suffered the same fate as Phil Butler; recurring shoulder injuries. He retired from the game prematurely, and the last time I heard he was a very successful Games Master at Airedale High, where he has lead many school teams to the national championsip. Another top Union player was Colin Lambert, Cliff's son, who I played alongside for Rovers Juniors & Cas & District. From there he went on to represent Yorkshire at U19's on the wing. He also played for Yorkshire and England schoolboys at Rugby Union, and athletics as a sprinter. He was courted by every Rugby League club in the country in the very early seventies but opted to play for Headingley RU, and then Harlequins. His ambition was to play for the British Lions, but while he played county RU and was part of the England set up, I don't think he ever made the full England RU side.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Rovers Players Down Under

What a remarkable cradle of rugby league talent the village of Sharlston has been over the years. Rovers of course have benefited as much as anyone with such as Don Fox and Carl Dooler doing us proud. Legend has it that Joe Mullaney’s first time out of Sharlston was to play for Rovers in a trial match. Of course local players have travelled much further afield than that to play rugby league, but none of the famous sons of Sharlston probably went quite as far for his club rugby as Ivor Lingard.
Sharlston's finest in Parramatta
Signed by Rovers from Sharlston in early 1961, Ivor was faced with the same tough task as a number of talented half backs at Post Office Road in the early 1960s. How to break into a Rovers team where Don Fox and Joe Mullaney had a mortgage on the six and seven jerseys for years. After four seasons of trying, with some success, Ivor took the unprecedented step of emigrating to Australia. He signed for Parramatta Eels in the NSW premiership where he spent the rest of his career. In many ways Ivor was ahead of his time as it became very trendy during the 1970s for Aussie clubs to import British talent, with such as Mal Reilly, Tommy Bishop and Mick “Stevo” Stephenson heading out to Sydney. During his six years in the first team, Ivor was a model of consistency, appearing in 90 games for Parramatta, scoring 20tries, one goal and eight drop goals. He appeared mostly at stand-off, but could fill in various back positions when necessary. He was noted in the 1964 NSW Yearbook for his perfect execution of the “Cumberland Throw” tackle, common enough in England, but quite unusual for Australians, the art of using the leg to simultaneously trip and wrestle a bigger opponent to the floor. In 1970 he was an ever present in the first team, playing all 22 games, but by 1972 had retired and started to coach the junior teams at Parramatta. He got as far as head coach for the U23s side in 1975.

Following Lingard’s trail blazing, Vince Farrah headed out to Cronulla in 1974 but stayed only that summer. Despite persistent rumours to the contrary Steve Nash never left Featherstone for Australia, choosing Salford instead. Less sunshine, but still. Another former Rovers favourite Terry Clawson turned up at South Newcastle in 1975, from where indeed Rovers re-signed him in 1978.

An international transfer ban ended this flow of talent, and when it was lifted the traffic was very much in the opposite direction as the British market was flooded with Aussies and few of our stars looked good enough to the ARL clubs. Deryck Fox had a successful summer with Western Suburbs in 1986. That club made a speciality of short term success with English stars, Garry Schofield, Des Drummond and Ellery Hanley among them. Deryck made his mark too, and the esteemed Aussie newspaper Rugby League Week compared his style to the great Tom Raudonikis, some compliment.

In the summer of 1989 Graham Steadman was going through a sticky transfer from Rovers to somewhere else, and took the heat off with a very modest summer spell at the Gold Coast Seagulls whilst still a Rovers’ player. That year a long striding English centre took Balmain by storm helping them all the way to the Grand Final. It would have been this kind of amazing form which persuaded Rovers to pay what they did a few years later for Andy Currier. If you ever get the chance to see the 1989 grand final between Canberra and Balmain, look out for Andy’s “unique” tackling style as Canberra race in for the match winning try. Fair play though, he seemed to have a far more positive impact there than his unfortunate stay with us. Also Gary Price left Featherstone for South Sydney to play ARL at the height of the Super League war in 1995. He came back home in 1998.

Friday, 7 June 2013

One Cap Wonders

In English cricket they have a special club whose members are all test cricketers, but won only one cap for England. This club of one-cap wonders is full of great players with hard luck stories about how they failed to win more caps, honest county toilers who just weren’t up to the level but found themselves in the right place at the right time, and the odd character who makes you think ‘How the hell did he ever play for England?’ And so it is with Rugby League. In a recent issue of Rugby League Journal Harry Edgar published the full list of one-cap Great Britain international players. (For those who don’t know, RLJ is the nostalgia soaked magazine that Edgar started up after he sold Open Rugby to League Express). I say “one cap”, although apparently the RFL don’t actually award a cap until a player has played at least two tests. Quite why that is, we’d have to ask them. In a long list of the famous and not-so-famous names, there are many with a Featherstone connection.

Strange as it may seem, local legend Vince Farrah won only one cap, and that towards the end of his career against Australia when he was with Hull. It’s difficult to imagine why he wasn’t picked more often. Former first team coach Gary H Price is another example. Having toured in 1990 without playing a test, his solitary GB cap was against the Papua New Guinea tourists of 1991. More obscurely, two former Rovers assistant coaches are also there; Kenny Loxton, capped in 1971, and Peter Small, capped in 1962.

Ex-scrum-half Mark Aston also won one cap. Needless to say, it wasn’t during his short stint with us. Inevitably among the 90 odd players there are some real head-scratchers, including a few I readily admit I’d never heard of. Most puzzling for me were those mediocre Union converts of the late 80s, who all seemed to win a single cap under Mal Reilly. Do you remember the glorious careers of David Bishop, Gerald Cordle, Kevin Ellis, Jonathon Griffiths, Mark Jones and Rowland Phillips? Modest performers at club level, they seemed to benefit from the higher media profile afforded to

Don Fox, one cap wonder
The one-cap club however has two fully paid up Featherstone Rovers members, and there can be no doubt that they were both cracking players. Don Fox had enjoyed a fine career as Rovers’ scrum-half, but when Great Britain were battered 50-12 by Australia to lose the Ashes in 1963 Fox was drafted into the side at loose-forward. He was to be one of seven debutants as Britain were going through a transitional phase. Players the calibre of Vince Karalius, Eric Ashton and Mick Sullivan had been dropped never to return. These were the days when Britain didn’t really expect to lose at home to Australia, and this third test ‘dead’ rubber turned into a violent grudge match, most unfortunate for a skilful ball-player such as Fox, who was hoping to showcase himself. Fox had previously played for Great Britain v France in a game before France was granted full international status (in 1957), and had toured with the 1962 Lions without being capped. At scrum-half and captain that day for Britain was none other than old Rovers’ favourite Tommy Smales, another local lad who had to leave Post Office Road when he couldn’t oust Don Fox from the first team. Now here they were, side by side for Great Britain. Despite the punch ups, Fox had a good game, scored a try and kicked two goals. For the selectors however it wasn’t enough to ever merit re-selection.

Chris Bibb, one cap wonder
When Great Britain toured New Zealand in 1990 many ‘star’ names decided to stay at home.  Incumbent GB full-back Steve Hampson was one of those to drop out, and in came Chris Bibb after a hugely successful domestic season, to join club-mates Deryck Fox and Ian Smales. The tour started with Alan Tait as test fullback, but by the time of the first test v New Zealand at Palmerston North, Bibb got his chance in the number one shirt. Deryck Fox was on the bench, and in the Kiwi side was future Rover Mark Nixon. Britain won a tight game 11-10 without Bibb really getting an opportunity to shine. Joe Lydon was preferred for the remaining two tests, and despite some more wonderful displays, Bibb’s chance had gone, never to return.

Certainly both these players deserved greater representative recognition than one solitary cap, but can look back with pride that they played for their country at the highest level, an achievement that eludes the vast majority of players.

ex-RU internationals.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Last Minute Drop Goal Winner

As rugby league fans we often have cause to question the justice of life. Take for example, the complicated art of dropping a goal late in a match, and the rewards it could bring. If you are Johnny Wilkinson, it could see you hailed as the saviour of an entire nation, knighthood bestowed and so on. Or if you are Deryck Fox it could earn you hearty pats on the back from team-mates, and gleeful shouts from crowd for a victory over big city rivals. It all depends.

Deryck did some kicking for GB too.
Of its type, Deryck Fox’s winner v Leeds in 1992 was far superior to Wilkinson’s efforts at the 2003 union world cup. A cracking game was locked at 20 all, the highlight of which had been a mighty battle between Bobby Goulding, selected for that summer’s GB Lions tour, and Fox, who had been inexplicably overlooked. In one of those rare moments of bliss for Rovers’ fans, Goulding got himself outplayed in front of the TV cameras, sent off the week after, suspended and removed from the tour in favour of our own skipper who went on to have a great time in Australia.

Fox’s last minute drop goal winner that day was unforgettable. Around 30 yards out, running diagonally towards the Leeds corner flag and shaping to spin out a pass to the three-quarters, Fox slotted a “reverse” drop-goal without breaking stride and hardly glancing at the posts beforehand. Pure genius. That the two precious points gained that day weren’t enough to keep us in the top flight is another story.

Brilliant though it was, this was not my favourite LMDGW from Fox. That came three years previously against Warrington. Another tight game stood 14-14 and a last minute penalty awarded to Rovers 45 yards out gave Fox the chance to snatch the game. For once in his long career he let us down as his kick sailed wide. Silent and not so silent curses rippled round the ground. His only saving grace was that he had at least sent the ball dead and we would have six tackles to attack the Wire line. Six tackles? Forget it. Warrington’s drop out went straight to Fox standing on the spot from which he’d missed the penalty, and he immediately launched a towering drop kick straight back over the heads of the advancing opposition and straight between the posts. You beauty!

It was Deryck’s third that day, and once again he finished that season among the league’s leaders for drop goals. A quick look at the Rovers’ all-time list reveals he just failed to catch Keith Bell in terms of his career total. No disgrace in that though, as Keith was an absolute master of the craft, and seemed to need so little space to add those often vital single points. The list of course lacks any players before 1974, as that is when the value of a “drop” was changed from two points to one. Goal kicking records from before then made no distinction between a drop, a penalty or a conversion, as they were all worth two points. Steve Nash, for example, would have to be near the top of the list if we reckon that most of his 72 career goals were probably drop goals.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Featherstone’s Great Britain Tourists

The 1928 Lions Tourists. Tommy Askin is on the front row, second right.
Until the advent of super league, the undeniable pinnacle of representative rugby was to make a Lions Tour. Every four years, the best of British gathered for a two to three month tour down under. Somehow they were lost amid the upheaval in our sport, and now we have the Four Nations tournament instead. Our union counterparts still manage to organise Lions tours though. Given the rich history of rugby league tours, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic at their passing.

On the walls of the Rovers clubhouse are some of those marvellously evocative Melba Studios photographs of the entire tour party lined up at the Sydney football stadium in their GB kit, There’s Gary Cooper and Don Fox on the 1962 tour, and I guess we’ll never know why Terry Clawson wasn’t there with them. Most tours since that date had a Rovers representative. In 1966 it was Carl Dooler, then in 1970 Jimmy Thompson. On the next tour Jimmy was joined by Keith Bridges and Steve Nash. In 1979 it was Steve Evans turn, and in 1984 David Hobbs. 1988 was the only year no Rovers player was selected, probably because we’d just come out of the second division, but in 1990 there were Chris Bibb, Deryck Fox and Ian Smales who went to New Zealand. On the last full Australian tour Fox was joined by Paul Newlove. Steve Molloy made the 1996 tour, some achievement for a player outside the top flight, our 14th tourist.

Featherstone’s first, and until the 1960s only Great Britain international player was Tommy Askin on the 1928 tour.  Rovers had enjoyed a good run in the league that year, with a talented three-quarter line of Askin and Jack Hirst at centre, Jim Denton and George Taylor on the wings. The run was to take them all the way to the Championship final, a fantastic achievement for a club in only its seventh season. Rovers were deprived of Tommy Askin’s services for the final four games, including of course the final against Swinton, as he was already on a boat on the way to Australia with the Lions tourists. Tommy had played at centre in the tour trial match, but wasn’t initially selected. The selection committee let it be known they were after a winger so Rovers duly picked him in the number two shirt, where he picked up a few tries and got the nod for selection. The club’s supporters made a tremendous financial effort to present him with a full trunk of clothes to take with him on tour. He did them proud.

When he walked out at Brisbane on the 23rd of June 1928 in front of 39,00 people, Tommy Askin became Featherstone Rovers first Great Britain player. He played in all three tests in Australia, and all three in New Zealand,  three times as a winger and three times at centre. His only international try was a vital one, securing Britain a 6-5 win against New Zealand in Christchurch, and clinching the series 2-1. The Lions had previously won the Ashes by the same 2-1 margin. In the book ‘Rugby League Lions’ by historian Les Hoole, there is a magnificent double page photo of Tommy playing in the first test against Australia, in possession and in full flight as the Australian cover races across to tackle.

In all, Askin played 15 games on tour and finished fourth among the try scorers with a respectable nine. After a very successful tour, the players all received a £136 bonus, decent money at the time.  That was the end of Tommy’s international career though. He left Featherstone for Leeds in February of the following year, where he never really settled, before transferring to Castleford, who he played for at Wembley in 1935. In his thirties he came back to Featherstone to finish his career where it started fourteen years earlier.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Daryl Powell September 2008 to May 2013

During the difficult 2008 season former star player David Hobbs had failed move the side forward after winning promotion in 2007. And so, after Danny Evans had seen the season out with the help of Jon Sharp, Rovers appointed Daryl Powell head coach in September 2008 and he immediately set about reforming the side. He had a wealthy of playing experience, winning 33 Great Britain caps in a distinguished career. He starred at Sheffield, then Leeds and finally Keighley where he began his coaching career, before moving back to Headingley. On starting at Post Office Road, funds were made available for recruitment and in came the likes of Ian Hardman, Tim Spears, Kyle Briggs and Jon Steel, as well as the notable capture of international star Iestyn Harris. That first year of 2009 saw Rovers improve, but it was ultimately a year of disappointment as a promising run in the Northern Rail Cup ended in a narrow defeat to favourites Barrow in a close semi-final, and a creditable fourth finish in the league saw playoff victories over Sheffield and Widnes before finally losing another close semi-final to Halifax.

The following year Rovers swept all before them and in a dominant display won the league leaders shield by some distance, but lost the Grand final to Halifax. New recruits Liam Finn and Ben Kaye added to a squad that Powell was gradually moulding. In 2011 Rovers retained the league leaders shield, but again suffered an annoying loss to Halifax, in the semi-final of the NR Cup. There were no mistakes in the Grand final and Rovers were crowned Champions after a 40-4 hammering of  Sheffield. Johnny Hepworth, Greg Worthington and Andy Bostock were among the new faces that year. Powell received wider recognition for his work when he was appointed Engalnd assistant coach to Steve McNamara in the International Four Nations. In 2012 Rovers made it three in a row as league leaders, but had the double disappointment of losing both the NR Cup final to Halifax and the Championship Grand final  to Sheffield. After another solid start to the season Powell left the club in May 2013.

The statistics he left behind as Rovers first team coach will take some beating.  He was coach for 136 games, winning 103, with 3 draws and 30 defeats.  This win percentage of 76.84% is clearly the best in the club’s history:

1    Daryl Powell     played 136    won 103    drew 3    lost 30    =76,84%
2    Peter Roe         played 80    won 53    drew 4    lost 23        =68,75%
3    Keith Cotton     played 57    won 37    drew 2    lost 18        =66,67%
4    Keith Goulding  played 72    won 45    drew 4    lost 23        =65,28%
5    Harold Moxon   played 264    won 164    drew 9    lost 91    =63,83%

He is also the club’s 6th longest serving coach:

1    Peter Fox          304
2    Harold Moxon  264
3    Eric Batten        210
4    Bill Sherwood   204
5    Laurie Gant      181
6    Daryl Powell    136

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part XI

There has been a lot of positive feedback to this series, both on facebook and the Rovers forum. Many fans have shared their own experience and memories of this great occasion, a selection of which are reproduced here:

Terry Mullaney
I was lucky enough to be involved back in 83 and we left Fev on the Wednesday for team HQ in Watford at a Police Training College which had superb facilities for the players. There were many great memories from those few days leading up to the final but the one which sticks in my mind more than any other was from the eve of the big game. The players had gone to bed early and there were just a few of us left in the bar anticipating the mammoth task facing the Rovers. If I'm honest I didn't think we'd a chance of winning and I remember saying to Sammy Windmill, our assistant coach..... 'How can we possibly win tomorrow Sam?' His response was... 'if we don't win I'll show my backside all the way up Station Lane' I was totally taken aback at his absolute positivity on what appeared to be a no hope situation. How right Sam was proved to be and the phenomenal achievement of the following day will live forever in the memories of all RL fans who were lucky enough to witness the greatest RL Cup Final upset of all time. What a fantastic group of players, all from the Featherstone area except our adopted son, Steve Quinn and what a coaching team of Sammy, Keith Goulding and head coach, Allan Agar. To this day Allan remains a good friend but much more than that he's a true Rovers legend in my eyes for what he achieved that famous day. Once in a lifetime stuff.

Mick Bourke
Peter Smith, tackled Norton out of the match stopped everything in a black n white shirt. He was my M.O.M.

Andy Knight
My first season supporting Fev - lived in Kendal at the time and my dad arranged for the whole family to go to Wembley to see the game; we went down Friday so I got a day off school which was a bonus. Memories are of the journey down; loads of cars and coaches with blue and white & black and white; stopping at Watford Gap services and buying a fev scarf and blue and white peaked hat - still got the scarf but looked like honkey tonk from Dick Emery show in the hat so got rid of that soon after! Being stood on the terraces at the tunnel end as the players came out and being amazed by the noise the fans generated - since watched it back on TV and can hardly hear us but when you were in the middle of it then sounded very loud. Remember Dave Hobbs try in the corner, John Gilbert getting taken off after a late tackle and the ginger wizard Tex Hudson bossing the show; and finally, that kick by Stevie Quinn to make it Fev 14 - Hull 12. What a day and what a journey back up North. As I say my first year of supporting Fev so I thought we got to Wembley every year and certainly did not comprehend the enormity of what this little pit village team had achieved against the big spending city club. And from there my 30 year love affair with the Rovers began.

Janet Jennings
We were such underdogs nobody gave us a chance in the media."It will be a nice day out for the Fev fans" they said. Little did they know that I dreamt the week before Wembley that Pete Smith held up the Challenge Cup to the cheers and shouts of the Fev faithfull. What a day we had, going down on the train and then the next day going to welcome the team back crowds lining the streets all the way from Pontefract. It absolutely howled it down with rain but nobody cared...... Such amazing memories.

John Dyson
Well done Mark this blog has taken me back to such a wonderful cup run I remember the Hull supporters giving us congratulations as we came out of Wembley what good sports we even ended up staying in the same hotel as the players needless to say a good night was had by all.

Joanne Fitzpatrick
That day was one of the best and most memorable days of my life!

Alan Bedworth
This was the first and only time my Dad had been to Wembley, we had one great day.

Nigel Harper
I was gutted cos I couldn’t see em off in Station lane as I was delivering in Ponte, but I was on my way up Ackworth rd in Ponte and the team bus went by me and I couldn’t believe it, players waving (cos we knew them ALL in those days) - I just knew there and then we’d win, what memories !

Andrew Vause.
I was 16 and my mate was 15. He'd only started going about 2 months earlier and at that point had never seen Rovers lose. So he was a bit of a lucky charm. I stopped at his house the night before and I remember not daring to sleep too heavily (not that that was going to be possible anyway with the impending excitement) and setting 3 alarm clocks such that we didn't sleep in and miss Mrs. Thorpe's bus from Ponte. Sure enough we were up in time and waiting for the bus at Stringer's petrol station in Pontefract. 8.00 am already a fag and a can of bitter on, although me and my mate decided to take it steady as we wanted to savour every moment of the day. I remember we'd just got to Newark and one of the supporters Kersh, with his halved Blue and White face asking Ann if we could stop. We did and it was about 20 privates on parade on the hard shoulder as the Bitter etc had kicked in. I remember getting to Leicester Forest and there was a coach full of Derby County fans who'd wished us well until my mate, whose only available blue and white scarf was a Leicester City one showing it to them as our coach left, the well wishing turning to two digit salutes. The grey weather turning to sunshine as we got toward Peterborough. Then the unthinkable happened!!!! Gearbox crunch. We were broken down, we were going to miss the final after all. As luck would have it we got a replacement coach and thankfully we made it with about half an hour to go. Seeing Wembley for my first and only time. Thinking it was a bit scruffier than I'd have imagined on the exterior. On entering the field the green hallowed turf. The band and Todd Carty who played Tucker Jenkins in Grange Hill coming to our end with his thumbs up. Going wild when Hobbsy scored after a few minutes, thinking this is beyond our wildest dreams. Lee Crooks missing a straightforward penalty just in front of us. Going to the toilet and hearing a huge boo, only on returning to learn that Gilbert our star man had been carried off. Seeing all the cameras in the Hull crowd flashing as Lee Crooks took a conversion. Thinking, as Mark said at 12-5 down that that was it. I still had my Catholic faith in those days and I remember saying a prayer, though you shouldn't really pray for gain. Quinny, we thought at the time unbelievably taking 'two' when we were seven down and needing a miracle. I think at 12-5 down there was a point, though I have never seen the playback, when I remember Kenny Kellett or Paul Lyman having a chance and bombing it. David Hobbs or whoever I can't remember had a drop goal attempt that soared over but also remembering Mr.Whitfield not allowing it as Trevor Skerrett or Mick Crane had indicated that I think Gary Kemble had touched it in flight. Quinny's winning kick. me and lad I knew actually started to cry as Mr.Whitfield turned his back to us and signalled what would become utopia. Still tears as the ball soared over, unbelievable emotion. But it wasn't over, I remember James Leuluai their New Zealand test centre kicking the ball through and having a foot race with Quinn himself, surely Leuluai their star man would break our hearts, but Quinn unbelievable beat him on the foot race and dived on the ball. Everyone now whistling, even though we were listening for an electronic beep. Loads of us not hearing the bleep but seeing Gary Siddall jumping up and down like a mad man signalling to us that that meant the game was over. Loads of us just collapsing in a heap of tears of joy and disbelief. 15000 Rovers singing ' ee i adio' and 'We shall not be moved' as Terry Hudson lifted the trophy. Finding the coach eventually after the game a lot if Hull fans magnanimous in defeat. After about two hours of the homeward Journey we stopped at this country pub for 30 mins. I remember having a skin full in these 30 mins, now was the time to celebrate. Getting of the coach and making last orders at the Blackmore Head, feeling so proud to have the Rovers colours on. And final, getting home about half eleven expecting seeing my dad Jubilant ( he'd stayed at home) only for him to tell me to get to bed cos in his mind I was drunk. He was ok in the morning though ( which is more than I was) he'd just been a bit dejected at having to work and missing going.

I'd been to all games leading up to the final, apart from Salford away...can't remember why I didn't make that one. I was 12 years old in May 1983, my big brother (Gary Siddall) was playing. I remember being disappointed that he was on the sub's bench, but had been struggling with an injury in the lead up to the final. At least he was in the 15 though. In the days before the final we trimmed our house on Eastbourne Avenue up with blue and white crepe paper; cutting a cardboard cut-out of the cup and covering it with foil, putting twisty blue and white crepe paper 'ribbons' on it- that was our window display. Every house around us trimmed up too, and all the shops on Station Lane were decorated; they looked fabulous. On the day I remember parking up near the ground with my mum and dad, meeting my pregnant sister and husband, and walking along Wembley Way, it seeming really long and full of the excitement of loads of fans and different colours. Once inside the stadium, I'd never seen so many fans in one place before and the noise was immense! I just remember not being able to believe that we were leading against the might of Hull; thinking the drop goal was over without being touched; wondering when Gary was going to get on the field and being proud when he did; and then not hardly bearing to breathe whilst Steve Quinn was taking that penalty kick, but going crazy when it went over! And as Andrew says, seeing my brother jumping up and down in the air when the final hooter went...that was when I started crying (and I'm not a crying person!). Watching Terry Hudson lifting the cup to our right with those blue and white ribbons on it. Coming out of the ground and Hull KR fans coming up and shaking our hands; but also the Hull fans being gracious in defeat and saying we deserved the win. Going back up the M1 and waving to every car and coach that had Fev fans in it and feeling so proud. And then in the week following, seeing Station Lane packed as the lads brought the cup back home, even the rain couldn't stop me smiling! Also, I couldn't wait to get back to school to brag to my schoolfriends (as I went to St Wilfrids they were mainly Cas and Leeds fans!) This is one of the best days of my life, and one that will stay with me forever.

I was only 11 years old but I can remember the semi final and the final, one of my favourite memories was stood on a wall near some traffic lights outside the ground with my whole family waving at all the coaches going past , Hull KR fans with blue and white scarfs on and cas fans with black and white on. I can remember walking down Wembley way seeing the Twin Towers and Fev fans singing along, as usual we were well outnumbered but all the neutrals were on our side and helping us drown out the Hull masses. The atmosphere was unrivalled in the ground throughout the game and at the final whistle everyone was deliriously happy. Really enjoyed the blog Mark, it's brought back some great memories. Cheers. Let's hope we can return one day soon and do it all again in the new Wembley so a new generation can experience the magic of a final experience.

Maureen T-k
I travelled down to London on the train with my 3 kids, ages 10, 7 and 18 months and hubby, we went on the Friday morning as we were staying with relatives down in Lambeth till the Monday. My Dad travelled down on the supporters coach on the Saturday and I along with the 2 eldest kids met him there. We were sat down at Wembley as standing was still an option at that time, sat behind us were St. Helens fans who were routing for us on the day, there were also Hull fans sat amongst us as well. Everything was good natured and the banter flowed. I remember closing my eyes when Steve Quinn went to kick that last goal, so never saw it till I watched the recording, but what I did witness was all the Fev fans and the neutrals going absolutely mental after that. After the final whistle the Saints fans were hugging us and the Hull fans were shaking our hands saying the best team won. I missed the team bringing the cup back due to still being in London, but that game, the atmosphere and the spirit of the fans and the team will live with me forever.
Glory days!!!

Sharon Jordan
I remember my dad had to work 2 overtime shifts to pay for me and my 2 sister to have new outfits for the day, we also took Peter smiths daughter Karen with us on bus, Peter wasn't too happy we put blue spay in her hair, he forgave us in end.... Was an amazing day

Paul Gibbins
My dad spotting me in the crowd when he did his lap of honour and pushing the steward away so he could climb the tall fence to see us with his medal

Al Jefferson
I remember the banner “Hull have the kiwis, Fev have the polish.”

Mark Butler
I remember missing Hobbsy’s last try because my dad had to take me to the toilet, we heard a huge roar and my dad said " well it looks like Hull have scored " we got out of toilets and all the Cappers were jumping up and down, I think he was a tad pissed off but he never said owt to me bless him, and the rest is history as they say !

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part X

Heroes! All the players involved throughout our 1983 Cup campaign.

Nigel Barker: 5 games, 2 tries. Solid as a rock full-back, Nigel contributed a couple of vital tries on the way to Wembley.
John Marsden: 5 games, 2 tries. Two priceless tries from John in the quarter and semi-finals sent Rovers through.
Steve Quinn: 5 games, 13 goals. Rovers greatest ever goals and points scorer, Steve enjoyed his finest hour at Wembley, kicking four goals from five shots.
John Gilbert: 5 games, 4 tries. In magnificent form during Rovers Cup run John was cynically removed from the final by a head-high tackle.
Ken Kellett: 5 games. Consistent wing-man who formed a bridge back to the 1973 final, Ken retired after the final.
Alan Banks: 5 games (1 as sub). Teenage sensation who grabbed the headlines, thrown in against mighty opposition and coped with it all.
Terry Hudson: 5 games, 3 tries. The master of ceremonies, club captain and on-field general who revelled in this Cup run.
Mick Gibbins: 5 games. Veteran tireless prop who enjoyed his benefit season during the amazing Cup run.
Ray Handscombe: 4 games. Vital ball-winner, Ray, like Ken Kellett, retired after the final.
Steve Hankins: 5 games. Hard man who alternated between prop and second-row throughout the Cup run to good effect.
David Hobbs: 5 games, 4 tries. Two tries in the first round, and two tries in the last from this strong running back-rower.
Tim Slatter: 3 games (2 as sub). Signed from Wakefield, straight into the team and plenty of aggression from this young forward.
Peter Smith: 5 games. Pack leader and exemplary player, Peter added real class to the side.
Paul Lyman: 1 game (1 as sub). A surprise choice of another talented teenager, Paul filled in at centre at Wembley off the bench.
Gary Siddall: 4 games (2 as sub). Likeable prop who started both quarter and semi-finals, Gary was on the bench for the final.
Neil Pickerill: 4 games (2 as sub). Played in every game except the final, Neil was kept out by Hudson’s switch to scrum-half.
Keith Bell: 3 games (2 as sub). Veteran forward who filled in at hooker and back-row during the Cup run, but missed out at Wembley.
Phil Johnson: 1 game, 1 try. Stand-off in the first round where an injury put paid to most of the rest of Phil’s season.

In five Cup games Rovers scored 74 points, made up of 16 tries and 13 goals.

The coaching and backroom staff were Allan Agar, Keith Goulding, Sam Windmill, Jimmy Williams and Trevor Walker.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part IX

Thirty Years On.....

After what seemed like months of anxious waiting, but was in fact only six weeks after our semi-final triumph over Bradford, Rovers stepped onto the hallowed Wembley turf (the old Wembley Stadium had no grass of course, only hallowed turf). What happened over the next eighty minutes has been written about many times, but really needed to be seen to be believed. Those of us who were there will never forget what happened, and each person has their own precious memories of that day. For those that weren’t, beg, borrow or buy a copy of the game on DVD to try and capture the flavour of Featherstone’s finest hour.

My own highlights of the day were a mixture of all kinds of different incidents:
  • Stopping off at Leicester Forest East service station for a greasy breakfast on the drive down the M1.
  • Buying a flag outside the stadium, and realising that our small town club was going to be playing on the biggest stage.
  • Reading the home-made banners of the fans on the terraces as the stadium filled up. Ours were better than Hull’s. “Hull have the kiwis, Rovers have the polish” was my favourite.
  • Dave Hobbs’ try and what a great start we had. Even if we weren’t going to win, we’d given Hull a bloody nose.
  • John Gilbert looking like he’s in Disneyland as he gets carried off after an assassination attempt by Paul Rose.
  • The injustice of the penalty try to Hull which looked as if Hobbs was fully committed to the tackle on Lee Crooks.
  • The Hull comeback with a neat try from the dangerous Leuluai and Rovers going seven points down.
  • That sinking feeling that things weren’t going our way as Tex Hudson was sin-binned, and we looked down and out.
  • Cool Steve Quinn slotting a penalty to bring us to within five points and steadying the ship at a dangerous moment.
  • “Get out of my way, son!” David Hobbs hands off Keith Bridges and I couldn’t see anything else for all the jumping up and down.
  • ‘We’ll settle for a draw’ I said to my cousin who looked at me as if I was mad and said back ‘It’s now or never’.
  • The drop-goal winner goes sailing over and we’ve won the Cup, but what’s that?!? The referee rules it out as it was touched in flight.
  • Charlie’s head-butt couldn’t have been more obvious and there’s the blood running down Pete Smith’s cheek.
  • The late penalty, the final hooter, the Cup is lifted, it’s all a blur, some fans are crying and no-one can quite believe it.
  • As we reluctantly leave the stadium some time later, there’s Terry Hudson leaving the ground to get on the team bus with the Cup nonchalantly tucked under one arm and the smile on his face is of a man with a job well done.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part VIII

Thirty Years On.....

 It would be very difficult to convey all the emotions of the day in one short blogspot, but here is how the game was described in “The Rugby League Challenge Cup Final: An Illustrated History”, by Les Hoole. The homecoming photos are by Eric Lorriman.

"In one of the most incident packed Wembley finals for years, Featherstone Rovers produced a display of such authority that they achieved the seemingly impossible and beat firm favourites Hull. Before the game Hull had 99 percent of the rugby league world tipping them not just to win, but to do so by a wide margin. Outside the little mining village of Featherstone – and, if they had dared to say it, even in the village itself - Rovers were given no chance. However the clever and confident play which Hull had used so well throughout the season simply evaporated at Wembley.
In complete contrast to Hull, Featherstone were a strong self-assured side who had planned and prepared for their victory with military-like precision. They knew from the outset that they had to prevent the Airlie Birds from spreading the ball out wide to their talented backs, and to do this they had to concentrate on their defensive work, especially their tackling.
Rovers struck first in the 7th minute when David Hobbs surged through James Leuluai’s attempted tackle and plunged over the line near the corner. Quinn failed with the conversion, but added a later penalty. In an eventful first half Hull lost Kevin Harkin after a collision with Terry Hudson, and John Gilbert was carried off when Paul Rose tackled him high. Rose’s crude tackle earned him a sin-binning, the first player ever to receive such treatment at Wembley.
Hull shuffled their backs around, and finally showed their capabilities in a brief spell at the start of the second half. The referee awarded Hull a penalty try when he adjudged that Rovers’ Hobbs had unfairly stopped Lee Crooks’ attempt to re-gather a kick through on the line. Crooks added the conversion to level the scores. Ten minutes later Hull swept into a 12-5 lead when Leuluai scored and Crooks kicked two more goals.
Rovers stuck to their game plan and a try from Hobbs and two goals from Quinn saw Rovers level again. With just three minutes remaining Steve Quinn landed a 20 yard penalty shot at goal and Featherstone were worthy 14-12 winners."

The game had an impact throughout the whole rugby league world, and reactions and congratulations came from many quarters, including from sports organisations outside rugby league too. People recognised a triumph of determination and self-belief that transcended the boundaries of sport. It was a truly marvellous occasion.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part VII

Thirty Years On.....

Peter Smith, photo courtesy of Eric Lorriman
Having beaten Batley, Salford, St. Helens and Bradford, Featherstone Rovers had qualified for the final of the 1983 Challenge Cup. The players had also then extricated themselves from a precarious league position and managed to stave off relegation on the final day of the season. Although Rovers lost to Bradford in a semi-final re-match 24-13, Hull FC had done us a favour by beating Barrow 31-13. Barrow went down and Hull took the title.

 With the Championship done and dusted, the State Express Challenge Cup could now take centre stage and a town that had seemed pretty excited ever since the semi-final win was now reaching fever pitch. In the weeks leading up to the final, the tension gradually mounted as supporters bought tickets and organised accommodation and travel arrangements for the big weekend. The same was true for the players and committee, as the squad was fitted out for suits, hotels were booked and places finalised for the Wembley line up.

The team line-up had been fairly consistent throughout the second half of the season, but there were a couple of selection posers for coach Allan Agar to consider. The battle for the number six shirt had been more of less won by teenager Alan Banks over Phil Johnson who had spent a part of the season injured. The rest of the backs picked themselves, so there was no place for back up scrum-half Neil Pickerill, nor for promising youngster Richard Marsh who had plenty of game time in the lead up to the final. Agar sprung a surprise by naming another 17 year old, Paul Lyman, on the subs bench. The Cup final would be only the 9th appearance of Paul’s nascent career.

Ray Handscombe, photo courtesy of Eric Lorriman
In the forwards, with Mick Gibbins, Ray Handscombe, Steve Hankins, David Hobbs and Peter Smith as fixtures in the team, there was one spot up for grabs which in the end went to recent recruit Tim Slatter, which was a bit of a surprise too. Gary Siddall, favoured in the quarter and semi-finals, earned a spot on the bench, and veteran Keith Bell, who had filled in various positions in the course of the season also disappointingly missed out.

Rovers’ opponents Hull FC made their own preparations for the final, with the Rugby League First Division Championship safely on the sideboard. Having won the Challenge Cup in 1982 on a replay against Widnes, they were also the holders of the Cup. One game away then from a notable double, an achievement not often seen in rugby league (until Wigan managed it six years running in the early nineties). Needless to say, everybody who was anybody in rugby league, as well as every bookmaker in the country, had Hull down as the overwhelming favourites to win, and quite rightly so. A fearless bunch of lads in blue and white jerseys had other ideas.

Mick Gibbins, photo courtesy of Eric Lorriman

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part VI

Thirty Years On.....

After the euphoria of beating Bradford in an epic semi-final of the State Express Challenge Cup, Rovers had to face up to a very different challenge before heading off to Wembley to meet Hull. Rovers had five league fixtures left to fulfil, and were still short of the necessary points required for survival in the First Division. The town was buzzing with expectation and talk of the trip to London, but an inability to secure top flight status would be a disaster.

First up then was a home fixture against Leigh. These were the glory days for today’s visitors, who were reigning champions having won the title in 1982. The following season found them lying mid-table, but with a very good set of players. With John Marsden, Ray Handscombe and Gary Siddall all missing, Leigh would be doing us no favours. Rovers hung on however for a grim, but vital, 13-10 win with a try from winger Peter Muscroft, a recent loan signing from Hull KR.

Rovers then travelled on the Thursday night to Halifax who themselves were losing the battle against the dreaded drop. A convincing 29-7 win allayed our relegation fears greatly. Rovers ran in seven tries, and another loanee from Hull KR, Paul Harkin, ran the show from scrum-half. With three games left Rovers now had 23 points and sat 11th in the table. Just below them were Barrow, Rovers next opponents, and below them Bradford who had games in hand on both Rovers and the Cumbrians. Workington, Halifax and Carlisle were already relegated, but who would join them?

Rovers could have virtually guaranteed their safety with a win at Barrow, which is never an easy place to get a result. So it proved as Rovers went down in a tight game 6-0. It was the third time that year the side had failed to score, and left us with two points still required from our final two home games against Wigan and Bradford to be safe.

On the Wednesday night we faced Wigan, who were just a point behind leaders Hull in the race for the Championship. Rovers dug deep and put in a splendid show securing a 9-all draw with a David Hobbs try and three Steve Quinn goals. This precious point took us clear of Barrow. However Bradford had already saved themselves with a tremendous run beating Leeds, Saints, Workington and Carlisle to move up the table.

On the Sunday, the final day of the season, we faced Bradford, while Hull were playing Barrow and could do us a huge favour by beating our rivals for the drop. A Barrow victory and a Rovers defeat would see us relegated. In reality with Hull FC poised to clinch the Championship, there was no way they would allow Barrow any chances and so it proved with Hull triumphing 31-13. This was just as well as Rovers were unable to repeat their semi-final victory over Bradford and we were beaten 24-13 at home. With Nigel Barker, Alan Banks, Terry Hudson and Mick Gibbins all missing Rovers had taken a risk, but in the end it had worked. First Division football would continue at Post Office Road in 1983/84.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part V

Thirty Years On.....

 We look today at the semi-finals of the 1983 Challenge Cup competition. After beating St. Helens on their own patch in an epic quarter-final, now only Bradford Northern stood between Rovers and Wembley. Despite some pretty mediocre league form, the town was now gripped by Cup fever. The win at Saints had given the players the belief that they could beat anyone and confidence was high.

The week following the Saints game, which was the week before the Bradford match, Rovers played and lost a vital league game at home to Hull KR. First Division survival would have to wait then, as on Saturday 26th March 1983 screened by the BBC on Grandstand, Rovers faced Bradford in front of 10,784 fans at Headingley. Allan Agar selected exactly the same fifteen who had beaten Saints (and why not?) so Gary Siddall stayed in the team, with Alan Banks and Tex Hudson at half-back. Neil Pickerill and Keith Bell were on the bench. There was no place for Dickie Marsh or Tim Slatter. 

Northern were formidable opponents and went into the tie as favourites. They had Mumby at full-back, a tough pack (what else could you expect with Peter Fox as coach?) led by Grayshon, Van Bellen and Rathbone, and a talented young lad by the name of Ellery Hanley lurking in the centres. Just like in the quarter-final Rovers struck first, in the form of John Marsden, squeezing over in the corner. Van Bellen crossed for Bradford and the game was locked at 3-all as the forwards of both sides stood up to be counted. As half-time approached Rovers suffered a hammer blow. They fumbled the ball in the Bradford 25, who recovered and whipped the ball to Hanley. He handed off John Gilbert,  arced out to the touchline and promptly sprinted the length of the field for a truly brilliant try. It won Hanley the try of the season award and was talked about for years after. In truth, Rovers could have had him but Gilbert crashed into Kenny Kellett as he attempted a tackle, Nigel Barker went uncharacteristically high and was fended off, and with Hanley in the clear Steve Quinn didn’t have the legs to catch him.

Lesser sides would have folded but these boys knew what they were doing. Hanley’s run was the last scoring that Bradford would do. Rovers re-grouped in the dressing rooms, came out and executed Allan Agar’s gameplan perfectly. Quick hands in possession saw Gilbert step through and the tie was level again. Terrier like defence kept Bradford out, and the match winning try, though lacking Hanley’s individual brilliance, deserved to take us to Wembley. Steve Hankins spun a pass out to Barker, who sent Quinn clear, and he fed Marsden, who was held, but popped the ball up on the outside for skipper Terry Hudson to romp over. Quinn’s conversion was the only goal of the entire game, and some spirited tackling in the last ten minutes sent the Blue & Whites to Wembley.

The team was: Nigel Barker, John Marsden (try), Steve Quinn (1 goal), John Gilbert (try), Ken Kellett, Alan Banks, Terry Hudson (try), Gary Siddall, Ray Handscombe, Mick Gibbins, David Hobbs, Steve Hankins, Peter Smith. Subs: Neil Pickerill, Keith Bell.

In the other semi-final Hull FC accounted for Castleford, so Rovers would face the star-studded Cup holders and league leaders at Wembley.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part IV

Thirty Years On.....

Rovers had been handed the toughest of ties, away to St. Helens in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup.  The BBC chose this game to be their televised match of the round, so the game was switched from Sunday to Saturday. After losing the previous weekend in the league at Warrington, Allan Agar made a couple of significant changes for the trip to Saints. Terry Hudson, who had been operating at loose-forward all season, switched to scrum-half in place of Neil Pickerill. His place in the pack was taken by Gary Siddall who came in at prop with Steve Hankins moving to the second-row. Ray Handscombe was also back from injury. St. Helens, with Neil Holding and Harry Pinner directing operations, looked formidable opponents and had won nine of their last ten fixtures, but had only narrowly beaten Rovers 13-10 in the corresponding league fixture in December. A decent crowd of 6,125 assembled to see a cracking game of rugby league.

Rovers started like a house on fire, playing Saints at their own game with expansive rugby, good off-loading and moving the ball wide. It soon paid dividends when swift passing put John Marsden in. Then John Gilbert left defenders grasping at thin air as he raced over. Rovers 8-0 up. The sight of Gilbert fist raised celebrating prematurely (a coach’s nightmare but who could blame him?) with the Rovers fans going absolutely wild on the terraces behind him was an abiding image of our 1983 Cup run. Saints hit back through Harry Pinner and at half-time Rovers led 8-5. Saints took over at the beginning of the second half and soon Haggerty was over and Saints held the lead. As they had done in every round Rovers would now have to come from behind to win. And how they did! Quinn crashed onto Hobbs’ pass out of the tackle and broke clear, feeding inside to Marsden who fed it outside to John Gilbert to romp over unopposed. What a try, and what a moment to score it. A perfectly executed team move which deserved to win a match of this calibre. Quinn couldn’t add the conversion, and with the slenderest of advantages Rovers held out for a famous win.

The Rovers team was: Nigel Barker, John Marsden (try), Steve Quinn (1 goal), John Gilbert (2 tries), Ken Kellett, Alan Banks, Terry Hudson, Gary Siddall, Ray Handscombe, Mick Gibbins, David Hobbs, Steve Hankins, Peter Smith. Subs: Neil Pickerill, Keith Bell.

In the other three quarter finals, Castleford and Bradford both accounted for lower league opposition in the shape of Hunslet and Workington and holders Hull FC beat Warrington. That meant that all four quarter-finals had ended in away wins and all four semi-finalists were Yorkshire teams. When the draw came out Featherstone drew Bradford Northern and Hull FC drew Castleford. Once again Rovers had just two weeks to prepare for their semi-final with a vital league fixture against Hull KR sandwiched in between. The club was still in trouble in the league, but, one step from Wembley, now had their sights firmly fixed on the State Express Challenge Cup.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part III

Thirty Years On.....

 Within ten days of negotiating a straightforward triumph over Batley at the first hurdle, Rovers faced the altogether more complicated task of beating Salford on their own patch in the second round of the Challenge Cup, played on Sunday 27th February 1983. In between the two Cup ties, Rovers had drawn 17-all against Castleford in a league match.

Rovers had been forced into a couple of changes to the line up that faced Batley. With Phil Johnson injured, Alan Banks slotted in at stand-off. Both players had been vying for the number six shirt all season and now the teenager had a chance to claim it as his own. Ray Handscombe was also out injured, so Keith Bell filled in at hooker. Despite being in the Second Division, Salford had no fear of Rovers having already accounted for top flight Leigh in the first round. In their team there was no Steve Nash who was battling against a career-threatening eye injury, but still contained such wily campaigners such as George Nicholls and player-coach Mal Aspey.

First blood went to the Rovers. Nigel Barker, in one of his trademark link-ups from fullback, created the extra man and scored. Salford hit back with prolific wingman Keith Fielding going over. When Mal Aspey crossed soon after, Rovers were 8-5 down and had a real struggle on their hands. A score before half-time was vital and it was that man Nigel Barker who again provided the goods, racing past the Salford full-back with a 40 yard burst to the line. Steve Quinn’s conversion sent Rovers in 10-8 up and in good spirits. Despite having plenty of possession in the second-half Salford failed to make any headway against committed Rovers defence, and the visitors were always on top. Skipper Terry Hudson nipped in for a try after selling a dummy and Rovers were through. A late consolation try to Salford didn’t affect the outcome.
The Rovers team was: Nigel Barker (2 tries), John Marsden, Steve Quinn (4 goals), John Gilbert, Ken Kellett, Alan Banks, Neil Pickerill, Mick Gibbins, Keith Bell, Steve Hankins, David Hobbs, Peter Smith, Terry Hudson (try). Subs: Tim Slatter, Gary Siddall.

In the other second round fixtures St. Helens notched an impressive victory at Headingley against Leeds, holders Hull FC accounted for Wakefield, Bradford won at new boys Fulham, and Castleford got a creditable win up in Barrow. When the quarter-final draw was made, Rovers were out of luck completely. Whilst Castleford got a trip to Hunslet, and Bradford had to travel to Workington, Rovers were given the massive task of facing St. Helens at Knowsley Road. In the other tie, Warrington faced Hull. Rovers had two weeks to prepare for this game with a tough league fixture away to Warrington sandwiched in between the Cup fixtures.

Difficult though it may be for young fans to believe, back in the early 1980s Rovers would enter the Challenge Cup knowing that a bit of luck and a bit of form could see it become “our” year. After a relatively quiet start, the quarter-final, however daunting it looked, was be the first time fans started to think that 1983 could be our year.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Story of Wembley 1983. Part II

Thirty Years On.....
With the Post Office Road pitch snow covered and frost bound, our first round tie versus Batley was postponed, but played the following Wednesday night at Wakefield’s ground due to our own lack of floodlights.

Inevitably the crowd figure was hit with just 1,374 fans making the trip over to Belle Vue on a chilly evening to see what looked on paper to be an uncomplicated task. Given the way the campaign progressed in the coming months, it was a real feather in the caps of those loyal fans who attended to be able to say “I was there!” when the whole run started. By this stage of the season, Rovers had established a relatively settled pack, with plenty of experience and talent including Peter Smith, who had just been selected to play for Great Britain against France. Half-back though had been a problem with Neil Pickerill in and out of form and fitness at scrum-half, and neither Phil Johnson nor teenager Alan Banks fully established at stand-off. The outside backs had a settled look, spearheaded by John Gilbert and Steve Quinn. In Batley’s side, some recognisable faces included player-coach Terry Crook, future GB international and Rovers favourite Carl Gibson, future Rovers coach George Pieniazek and future referee Steve Presley.

Batley started the better and were soon 5-0 up through a Mick Wilson try. With no sense of urgency Rovers got back into the match, and gradually took control. Phil Johnson scored the equalising try, unfortunately injuring himself in the process and he took no further part in the game. Featherstone wasted a number of chances before David Hobbs sealed the win, and Rovers superiority, with a brace of tries. Terry Hudson, operating at loose forward and John Gilbert also grabbed tries, with Steve Quinn managing three conversions to make the final score Featherstone 21 Batley 6. It was a satisfactory though unspectacular performance due to Batley’s defensive perseverance and Rovers’ profligacy.

The Rovers team was: Nigel Barker, John Marsden, Steve Quinn (3 goals), John Gilbert (try), Ken Kellett, Phil Johnson (try), Neil Pickerill, Mick Gibbins, Ray Handscombe, Steve Hankins, David Hobbs (2 tries), Peter Smith, Terry Hudson (try). Subs: Alan Banks, Tim Slatter.

In other first round ties, Cup kings Widnes were knocked straight out at home by Leeds, Castleford triumphed at Wigan and most other big sides moved comfortably through to round two, except Hull KR who were shocked by lowly Hunslet. When the draw was made,  the pick of the round looked to be Leeds v St. Helens. Holders Hull FC were handed a home tie against Wakefield Trinity, and Castleford, after disposing of Wigan, faced another tricky away test at Barrow.

Rovers themselves faced an awkward-looking tie away to Salford, led by our old friend Steve Nash who would be doing us no favours. Although they were in the lower league having been relegated the previous year, they had a side full of experience who were well-placed for promotion.