This article, written by Mike Latham, originally appeared in issue 398 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 399 is currently in production and will be on sale from June 6. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link…
Rugby League World discovers how a handful of streets in Leigh have produced a remarkable amount of Rugby League talent
Dick Whittington, so the legend goes, went to London to seek his fortune and see if the streets were really paved with gold. If he’d been a Rugby League scout, Dick would have come to Leigh.
Doorstep talent is worth its weight in gold, and the narrow streets of Leigh have unearthed a rich seam for over a century. In the tightly packed community behind the Hilton Park pub, just a John Woods goal-kick away from the lamented old ground Leigh left in 2008, a straw poll of half-a-dozen streets reveals a rich gene pool.
Father and son Allan and Paul Rowley are both steeped in the game. Allan played for Leigh and has served on the board for many years; Paul has done just about every job going- from ball-boy, scoreboard operator, star player, captain, assistant coach, conditioner and coach.
“This area is an amazing hotbed for talent,” Allan says. “Youngsters in Leigh can catch a rugby ball and sidestep before they can read.”
Allan reels off a list of players raised within a 100-yard radius of the pub – it includes Colin Tyrer, one of the finest goal-kickers of the 1970s and his sons Christian and Sean, Tommy Martyn Senior and Junior, Don Platt and his sons Maurice and Alan, John Randall and his son Craig, Derek Higgs, Mick Hogan, Terry Bilsbury, Derek Pyke, Alf Wilkinson, Martin Lee, Phil and Kevin Johnson, Paul Anderson, Scott Martin, David O’Toole, Anthony Murray and Simon Baldwin.
The legacy lives on with Leigh’s current stars Tommy Goulden and Martyn Ridyard, the latter whose father Alf coached amateur Rugby League for over 30 years. On a warm and sunny April afternoon Allan has organised a reunion and the pub walls are soon ringing with laughter as tales of derring-do are recounted.
“You find that the older we get, the better players we become,” Allan smiles. “This pub’s a real Rugby League pub, always has been. It was known as Our House but when Hilton Park closed down the pub company, Bravo Inns inquired if they could change the name. We were delighted to oblige, it’s great the name lives on.”
Paul Rowley is now one of the country’s up-and-coming young coaches having enjoyed an illustrious playing-career that started and ended at Hilton Park and included playing in the 2000 World Cup. “When I was growing up there weren’t the same distractions there are today,” Paul recalls. “For me the choice was either Cubs or rugby and I couldn’t get in the Cubs.
“Sid (Simon Baldwin) and me used to play with a ball on the streets from an early age, we’d play one versus one by the side of the house. We had to go in when the street lights came on. And we used to play Driveback, a kicking duel with Tommy Marytn on the field.
“No wonder I was fit – Tommy would kick it 70 metres for me to chase, sometimes I’d manage ten in return. It was like being in a full-time rugby environment – you could never switch off from the game.
League way of life
“Alf was my first coach at Leigh Rangers, then Ando and Muzza (Paul Anderson and Anthony Murray) who were both a bit younger would get involved. Playing in the street teaches you awareness and is habit-forming. A lot of players today may be good technically but many lack game-awareness.
“Sunday was rugby day – a game in the morning, go watch Leigh in the afternoon, try and emulate your heroes on the streets, then bath-time in time for school the next day. Apart from the occasional trip to the cinema there wasn’t much else to do. It was a way of life around here.
“Even going on holiday you could never escape from rugby. We went away with Terry Bilsbury and his family, with Alf Wilkinson and his family. We’d have big barbeques round at the Martyns and all sorts of professional players would come along. In that little cluster of streets was a hotbed of Rugby League.”
It was ever thus. Paddy O’Neill was raised in nearby Oxford Street and went on to win a championship medal with Leigh in 1906 and a cup-winner’s medal with Dewsbury six years later. He lost his life on the Battlefields of Flanders in World War One but his memory lived on.
His son Stanley was brought up by Paddy’s brother Jimmy (who also played for Leigh) and, as a six-year-old led out the Leigh team as mascot before their 1921 Cup Final victory. Later Stanley was scoreboard operator at Leigh’s old Mather Lane ground and befriended a young boy from Hindsford and encouraged him to get involved in Rugby League.
That young boy was Tommy Sale MBE, now 96 years young, and a living Leigh legend. The heroics of the famous Clarkson brothers, Ellis and Tommy are folklore, their medals and jerseys on permanent display in a nearby workingmen’s club.
Alf Ridyard spends much of his time these days researching the history of the amateur game in Leigh and writing stories on the popular Leigh Life website forums. His collection of ‘Rugby Tales’ are simply wonderful. Alf lives and breathes the game and everyone in Leigh seems to know him.
While standing on Bradshawgate, one Thursday lunchtime, talking about the game, his thoughts are continually interrupted by players walking by, eager to have a word. Ex-Leigh winger Neil McCulloch passes, then along comes the legendary Stan Owen, now a sprightly octogenarian on his way to the market where he’ll doubtless be meeting up with Kevin Ashcroft and Alex Murphy.
Despite a lifetime of involvement in the game Alf struggles to pinpoint the reasons why Leigh remains a hotbed of talent. “It’s one of those things, it’s in the blood and gets passed down through the generations,” he says. “You get continuity in families – four generations of the Sandersons played professionally – Joe, Bill (son of Joe), Mark and Ian (sons of Bill) and Lee (son of Mark) and there are lots of fathers and sons like the Rowleys and Martyns.
“There’s always been a soccer team but Leigh’s never been a hotbed of soccer. The amateur game’s been a bit haphazard but there’s always been lots of teams and the main pits in Leigh, Bickershaw, Parkside and Bedford all had teams. The schools have always been strong and there’s been an endless supply of teachers willing to spend time coaching children- men like Bert Causey, Tommy Sale, Chris Higgins, Dave Jones and many more.
“In the ‘30s the Leigh professional team was struggling but the schools teams continually reached the top echelons of local competitions and Leigh Town Teams have always been reasonably successful. Why as a club the professional team hasn’t been more successful is unanswerable. There have been a few peaks and lots of troughs.
“And don’t ask me why we only get 2,000 watching. Walking down Bradshawgate any day of the week I’m continually being stopped by people asking about the team. Many are lapsed supporters and they’re still interested but for whatever reason won’t go back.”
When he was doing his coaching badges Alf often rubbed shoulders with great players. “I met some great people – Alex (Murphy), Kevin (Ashcroft), Dave Chisnall all did their coaching badges at the same time as me,” he recalls.
“Most of the professionals were absolutely fantastic, really passionate about the game and eager to pass on their knowledge. I coached loads of kids, some who went on to become professionals like Paul Rowley, Neil Turley and Mickey Higham, some became very good amateur players, some who gave up the game.
“But I can say that almost without exception all became decent citizens. That’s what Rugby League does for people.”
Alf now watches his son Martyn playing for the Centurions, 20 years on from when he first introduced him to the game.
“I took him to Leigh Rangers one Sunday when he was only five-years-old,” Alf remembers.
“When I got there I said to the coach, ‘Blimey, some of these kids are just out of nappies.’ He replied: ‘Some of the kids are still in nappies.’
“In fact Tommy (Goulden) used to baby-sit for Martyn. You might say that he’s still doing that now – but on the pitch for Leigh Centurions.”
Allan Rowley also attempts to pinpoint the reasons for the gene pool in this little part of WN7. “It’s a mixture of things – it’s in the blood, in the water, runs through families,” he says.
“Leigh was a mining and cotton-spinning town and that had a massive part to play. It was a natural progression for kids to carry on playing rugby from school. There were no other distractions and one of the ways of communicating was through playing sport.
“These days, kids go on social networking sites and don’t have to leave their bedrooms to communicate. But there is still an element of school teachers who push forward the game and the amateur game is strong.
“In the past there was a rivalry between Leigh Miners, Leigh East and the professional team. These days there’s much more of a community feel and the clubs are all working together. Kids know that they will get an opportunity to see how far they can go in the game and if they’re good enough they’ll get their chance.
“The mines have gone but there’s still a rich seam of rugby talent in the streets of Leigh and I hope that continues for many years to come.”