Rugby League Heroes: John Cogger

One of the great personalities of the 1980s, John Cogger swapped the Winfield Cup for lowly Runcorn as he sought to recover from a broken jaw.

He was named Division Two Player of the Year in 1987 and went on to play in one of the most notorious matches of the decade when Runcorn travelled to world champions Wigan in the John Player Trophy.

Cogger later moved to Oldham and was agonisingly close to an unlikely Wembley appearance in 1990. 

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

Definitely the day in 1990 that Oldham played Warrington in the Challenge Cup semi-final and were beaten 10-6. If I could relive that day, we could do some things differently and get to Wembley. I’ve watched the end so many times, and still can’t work out how Paul Lord was ruled offside when he scored the try that should have sent us to Wembley. The ref didn’t give it any thought and called it too quickly. Had he got that call right, it would have changed a lot of players’ lives and careers.

You are the younger brother of ex-Magpie Trevor and the uncle of Jack who plays for Huddersfield.

Trevor and I have always been close as brothers. People have asked if I’m jealous, but I’m proud of what he achieved. He played the most number of games for Western Suburbs Magpies, which now can’t be broken because they don’t exist. I’m proud of Jack too, but every time he gets a break in first grade, he gets injured. It happened at Newcastle, at Canterbury and now at Huddersfield.

Your Western Suburbs team won the Jersey Flegg competition in 1982. Tell us about the semi-final against Balmain.

That was a game never to forget! They were the side to beat, and everyone thought they’d win it. Benny Elias was their main player and captain. Before the game, our coach John Jacobs, a great bloke, said to me, “We can’t win on footballing ability. We can only win if you hunt down Benny and punch the shit out of him and harass him all game.” That’s what I did, and he spent all game looking out for me. We beat them and went on to win the Grand Final.

Your first-grade debut came in 1983. You then broke your jaw early in 1985.

Being picked in first grade was huge. I played for the Magpies in 1983 and 1984. Things were going well, but in round four of 1985, we were up against Balmain, and I broke my jaw. Wayne Pearce had made a bust. I dived, trying to ankle tap him, but his boot caught the bottom of my jaw. It was wired shut for three months, and I didn’t play again that season. I lost 25kg. I didn’t weigh much in the first place. It took me a long time to recover. I came back in 1986 but was going into tackles half-heartedly, worried I’d break it again. I wore headgear, which helped, but I couldn’t get back to being the sort of player I was.

Which English players did you play with at the Magpies?

There was Dessie Drummond, and I was so sad to hear he died recently. John Henderson became a big mate. It was a big thrill to play with Lee Crooks because I’d admired him for so long. There was Deryck Fox too and Steve Burney from Whitehaven.

How did you end up at Runcorn?

Trevor had played for Leigh in 1985 and told me all about it, so I was excited. The 1986 season finished, and I knew I was struggling. My manager put my name around, but a few clubs baulked because they knew I’d had a broken jaw. Gary Hetherington from Sheffield expressed some interest, but Runcorn, who I’d never heard of, then came up with a good financial deal. My manager advised me to go for it, and if I did well, other clubs might come in for me.

What was it like to play for Bill Ashurst?

He was a great man and a very astute coach. He coached in a very defiant way, and he had big expectations. He’s a legend in England and Australia, and a great bloke.

You were the Division Two player of the year in 1987. Do you still have the silver wine goblet you were awarded?

I do! It’s with all my other memorabilia. I enjoyed that year. Everything I did was coming off. I was doing what I wanted – scoring crazy long-distance tries, kicking and regathering – things I couldn’t do in Sydney. That year finally got me back on my feet. Everything turned to gold. Jamie, my brother, was a good player, and he came out for a season and did well for us.

You played in a John Player tie against Wigan in November 1988 that made the headlines for several reasons. Tell us about it.

[laughs] … Where do I start? We were sitting by the telly when the draw was done and when Wigan came out, the players went, “Oh my god, you’re kidding!” We were supposed to play them at Canal Street, but the board told us they wanted to move the game to Wigan for the extra gate money. The players agreed, but only if we got a share of the extra money. The board refused, and the players stuck to their guns and went on strike. The club went to a pub in Widnes, who ran an amateur side, and signed an entire team. They came training on the Thursday to play on the Sunday. I was on the players’ side and intended to strike with them, but Runcorn told me I was the only contracted player, and if I didn’t play, I’d lose my house, my car and my return flight to Australia. The players told me to play. I had the support of most of them anyway. So I played, but every time Wigan scored – and they scored 18 tries! – a few of the striking players who were angry with me, were behind the posts shouting, “Scab! Scab!”

As for Bill, he hadn’t played for over four years. He hadn’t trained to my knowledge. He was 40 and in no fit shape to play Rugby League, but he put himself on the bench. I thought he was joking. I was proud to play in the same team as the great Bill Ashurst, but he came off the bench and was sent off within ten minutes for headbutting Andy Goodway. I mean, you shouldn’t laugh, but it was absolutely hilarious! Bill passed the ball, Andy hit him late, Bill chased him and headbutted him. And it was at his old patch, Central Park, where he’d been an absolute legend. To make it even funnier, he got a four-match ban, which I guess he’s still serving.

You became caretaker coach when Ashurst resigned.

I was only in my 20s so didn’t feel ready, but I took the job, and it was a good experience. A few players still hadn’t forgiven me for playing against Wigan and seemed to think I was on big money. I think they were on £20 for a loss, so I understood, but I was on crap money too. Oldham came in for me, so off I went. 

Two days after your Oldham debut, there was a public crisis meeting because of their finances. They were also pretty certain to be relegated. Why did you join them? 

I do recall that! I remember thinking I’d just come from one crisis club, straight into another. At Runcorn, we played Oldham once at home, and their fans created a wonderful atmosphere, so I had a good feeling about them.

You debuted in a win over Hull, who had won nine league games in a row. Then you were handed the captaincy and scored a hat-trick in your third game.

Yes, it was eventful. I don’t remember too much about the Hull game, but it was such an honour to be made captain when Chris O’Sullivan went home. We were in the changing-rooms for Tony Barrow to announce the new captain. I thought it could be Mike Ford, John Henderson or Paul Round, and he suddenly said my name. It was a very proud moment. I did score a hat-trick against Featherstone, but my main memory of that game is being flattened by Chris Burton, who got sent off.

Who was the best player at Oldham? 

The bloke I probably admired the most was Mike Ford. He was a complete pro. He trained and played at 100%. He had a footballing brain. When I was named captain, it didn’t sit well with him, but we didn’t fall out. I took him aside and said we had to move on, and that’s what happened. He was fantastic. 

How did you feel when you were relegated?

I knew it was coming. We had to win games by big scores, and we had a tough run of fixtures. I knew it was on the cards when I signed, but we went on to do some magic things the following year. 

In 1989-90, as a second-division club, you reached the final of the Lancashire Cup and the semi-final of the Challenge Cup. What was your secret?

Tony Barrow was a master coach. That team would have died for each other. We had an amazing camaraderie. No team worried us – first division or second. It was a special team, something I’d never felt before. We were best mates and always confident. 

Those games against Warrington were massive. Bobby Jackson and Greg Mackey were mates of mine. I remember coming onto the pitch for the Lancashire Cup Final and just looking at the crowd and seeing Oldham and Warrington colours everywhere. Maybe a few Oldham players got a bit overawed. We were in the game for most of it, but we lost 24-16. The Challenge Cup semi-final hurt more. Oldham had never been to Wembley, which people used to remind us of every five minutes, and we came so close. It was absolutely devastating to lose.

Back in Division One with Oldham, you were sent off in a Regal Trophy tie at Batley in 1990 for “inciting the crowd”. What happened?

It was a freezing cold day and there was about six inches of snow. There was an altercation just before half-time. I was fighting with a Batley player. I was up against a fence, and someone grabbed me by the hair. I got out of the fight, turned around and a woman was laughing, still grabbing my hair. I can’t remember what I said, but I stuck my fingers up at her, and the referee sent me off! He wouldn’t tell me why, and I later found out I was charged with inciting the crowd.

Why did you leave Oldham?

I changed managers and was badly advised into believing I could get a better club than Oldham, which I didn’t really want. I’d made some amazing mates, that I still talk to today, and Tony. But my manager convinced me I could treble my wage. There was a nibble from Leeds and Widnes, who I would have loved to play for, but nothing eventuated. It dragged on for months. Oldham put me on the list. In the end, there was no serious bidders for me apart from Doncaster, which didn’t interest me, so I went home. I left on good terms though. I love Oldham and I’m proud to be a member of their supporters’ club.

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