Rugby League Heroes: John Fieldhouse

A forward ahead of his time

John Fieldhouse was one of the best British forwards in the mid-‘eighties and was named man of the match in one of Great Britain’s best performances of the decade. He played for Warrington, Widnes, St Helens, Oldham, Halifax, South Wales and Whitehaven before becoming the head coach of BARLA.

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

JF: My best game would be the second Test at Wigan in 1985 when we beat New Zealand. Garry Schofield scored all four tries, yet I got man of the match. There was so much pressure on us because, although we were the better team in the first Test, we lost and were fighting to keep the series alive. We decided to keep the faith in what we were doing and with the crowd really behind us, everything worked out well.

RR: You played seven times for Great Britain in 1985 and 1986. Did you enjoy playing for Maurice Bamford?

JF: It was a great playing group, and many went on to become legends of the game. Maurice and his assistant Phil Larder were very thorough. Maurice was a real character and made you feel at ease. He didn’t have expertise in the fundamentals and wasn’t able to break the opposition down like today’s coaches would, but he explained things in plain English, he was a great motivator and he stated that possession and defence were key. My defence was spot on and I played an aggressive game that took us forward, so I think I fitted in to his game plan.

RR: You also played for Lancashire in the War of the Roses. Is it fair to say Lancashire didn’t take it as seriously as Yorkshire?

JF: I’d accept that. It was win at all costs for Yorkshire. We were there to compete, but we didn’t have the win-at-all-costs attitude. Sometimes lads dropped out at the last minute, so we didn’t have our strongest team. Yorkshire always seemed up for it, they seemed to want it more and they always fielded their strongest team. But for me it was an important stepping stone for Great Britain, so I always took it seriously.

RR: Your first professional club was Warrington. How did you get to that stage?

JF: My background was Wigan St Patricks. Alex Murphy and Albert White, the old Warrington scout, saw me play for Lancashire Under-16s when I was 14 against the French touring side at Central Park, and I had a good game. They wanted me to train with Warrington one night every few weeks to get the feel of things. That went on for 12 months and I signed at 16 in 1978. I went straight into the A team as one of many A N Others and then played first team the following season.

RR: Does the demise of A-team football sadden you and do you have an opinion on the current Elite Academy situation?

JF: Absolutely. I’m pulling my hair out watching what’s going on. The RFL just doesn’t get it. I’m 59 next month and I’ve played or coached consecutively from the age of 10. The way it happened for me was the correct way. It worked. It worked for all the great internationals of the past. We all followed the same format. Now players are dropping out of the game between 16 and 20 because they don’t make it and go back to their amateur clubs. I see this all the time.
I went to Warrington Under-16s v St Helens Under 16s last Wednesday (26 May). There was a good crowd, but the standard has gone down. The RFL don’t understand what they’re trying to achieve. The so-called Elite Academy isn’t working because standards are dropping year on year. I’m horrified at what’s happening to the game. In five years’ time, if this carries on, there won’t be much of a game left because too many people will leave.

RR: As you turned pro, who were the big influences on you?

JF: Warrington first-teamers Parry Gordon and Eddie Hunter lived in Wigan and would drive me to training. They were great with me, on and off the field. Mike Nicholas and Tommy Martyn (senior) were big influences, both being forwards. Bob Eccles was a couple of years older than me, then we had a few others who came from BARLA, like Paul Cullen, Ronnie Duane, Andy Holbrook, Carl Webb and Snowy Fellows. It was a good mix of experience and young players.
I loved my time at Warrington. I couldn’t wait to leave work and get to training. It was such a pleasure. I wanted to be the best I could. Coaches like Alex, Billy Benyon and Tony Barrow were fantastic. They’d played the game and knew what was needed. I always got on with Alex and he always had time for young players. He later signed me for St Helens. Tactically he wasn’t the best, but he was a fantastic motivator.

RR: What took you to Widnes?

JF: I didn’t want to leave, but I went to Widnes in a swap deal with Andy Gregory. The two clubs wanted the deal because Warrington needed a scrum-half and Widnes wanted a prop or second row. We were both on the transfer list for well over £100,000, which was massive money.
But it worked out because I got to play for Great Britain, which might not have happened at Warrington. I liked to express myself and pass the ball, but the Warrington coach when I left, Reggie Bowden, wasn’t so keen on that. 
But in the end at Widnes, I didn’t really see eye to eye with Dougie Laughton, who took over in 1986. He was a fag and a pint sort of coach. He turned up at training with his 20 Embassy and was keen to leave for a drink. I didn’t like that.

RR: Were you ahead of your time in that respect?

JF: Yes, I was into fitness and nutrition and was doing weights when no one else was. When I went to Warrington, no one went to the gym, but I did after training or if I got there early. If lads were messing around in the changing rooms, I’d go into the gym. Then Warrington signed Mike Gregory, also from Wigan St Patricks, so we were big friends, and he joined me in the gym, as did Paul, Andy and Carl. We got a weights group going and it benefited the team and the players who did it. I was doing weights and nutrition in 1977. My dad was a former player and got me into it. He was big on looking after yourself.

RR: Was there a drinking culture and how did you fit in?

JF: Yes, there was very much a drinking culture! I would have a couple of pints and then stop, but many would have two and then go on to have 20.
Last year, I needed a knee replacement and then a liver transplant because my liver started to die from the anaesthetic and the painkillers. My doctor told me I’d have died if I hadn’t been so fit. Six months on, I’m back on the fitness I was doing 12 months ago. I really think the approach I’ve always had to looking after myself saved my life.

RR: Was Wembley 1987 with Saints the worst day of your career?

JF: Yes, especially with Mark Elia having the ball knocked out of his hands at the end. It was devastating. Some of the lads took it worse than me though. Whatever life challenges you with, you have to fight it and get over it. There has to be a winner and loser.

RR: You dropped down a division in 1989 with Oldham and were rewarded with an incredible season.

JF: It was Tony Barrow who persuaded me to go there. He put a group of players together who had belief in his philosophies. It was a way to show what I could do. I didn’t mind dropping down a division, and it proved to be the right decision. We won promotion, we got to the Challenge Cup semi-final where we were very unlucky against Warrington, and we produced that great comeback at Old Trafford against Hull KR. A star was born that day in Tommy Martyn, who scored the winning try. I played with both Tommy Martyns and they’re both legends. And my dad played with Mick Martyn at Leigh!

RR: Why did you leave?

JF: I’d been player-coach in my last few months in 1991, and I’d kept them up and got to another Challenge Cup semi-final, although we were never going to beat Wigan. But we did beat Brian Smith’s Hull. Anyway, a spectator said to me after the last game, “Thanks for everything and all the best for the future,” and that’s how I found out the club had recruited Tim Wilby as coach. I was devastated.

RR: You were coached by a couple of Hall of Famers at Halifax – Roger Millward and Mal Reilly. What were they like?

JF: I always had a lot of time for Roger. When I played Hull KR with Warrington, Len Casey was the Rovers enforcer. You knew you’d get knocked about, but I didn’t take a step back and gave Len as much as he gave me. He said to me once, “Ey up lad, I like the way you play, you don’t back down.”
Roger said similar things to me and said it would be nice to coach me one day, so when he was at Halifax, he signed me. I liked him. He knew the game, he was astute but sometimes a bit quiet – less of a motivator than other British coaches of that time. Allan Agar replaced him. He was a good coach and another good motivator. 
Everything changed when Malcolm came in. We were more professional. He was very good tactically. You needed his attitude and will to win. I had that and he loved me. I was his type of player.
He took the Newcastle Knights job, so Steve Simms came in. A lot of us never knew where we stood with Steve. He was very pedantic and picked a lot of arguments. When Super League came along, I didn’t want to go full-time because of my job, so I went to the new South Wales club.

RR: What happened there?

JF: Mike Nicholas, who I mentioned earlier, and Clive Griffiths, who I knew from Saints, were running things. They asked me to bring some northern players down. I was a player, assistant coach, coach driver, physio and I put the cones out. Then they phoned to say they had no money left and they’d be releasing me! I went to Whitehaven where I met up with my good friend Gary Charlton and we’ve since coached together with BARLA, touring Tonga, Samoa and Fiji. I carried on playing until 1999.