Rugby League Heroes: Terry Flanagan

One of 19 players in the Oldham Hall of Fame, Terry Flanagan MBE played with distinction for the Roughyeds between 1979 and 1989, even captaining them at the age of 19.

He experienced cup runs, promotion, relegation and a titanic battle with the 1986 Kangaroos in which Oldham were only narrowly beaten. He toured with the Lions in 1984.

He ended his playing career with a stint at Swinton before embarking upon an enormously successful business career. He is the father of Mark, who played for Wigan, Wests Tigers, St Helens and Salford.

You hail from a Rugby League family. Can you talk us through which relatives have played the game?

Our family probably had 80 years in the game, almost continuously. My dad, Bill, played in the ‘40s and ‘50s with Belle Vue Rangers, Oldham and Castleford. My brother Kevin played in the ‘60s and ‘70s with Oldham, Rochdale and Salford. I played for Oldham in the late ‘70s and ‘80s with a spell at Swinton taking me up to 1990. My cousin Neil went through the ‘90s. My lad Mark played from 2006 onwards. Max, who is Neil’s son, is now entering into the pro game with Newcastle.

Tell us about your long association with Saddleworth Rangers.

I played from 14 and I’m still president there. I was born in 1960, and I first played for them in ‘74. When youth rugby started, Rangers were quite forward looking, and we played in the Pennine League, but I also played against future stars from other areas like Ellery Hanley at Corpus Christi, Andy Gregory at Wigan St Pat’s and Andy Kelly at Wakefield. Hunslet were a strong team with the McIntosh brothers and Mark Burgess. I captained BARLA and enjoyed my amateur career. Come 18 or 19, I joined Oldham and played in the Colts. 

Why Oldham?

I could have signed at 16 or 17 to a host of clubs, but my dad, one of my great mentors, said, “Let’s not do pro now. Get some A-Levels and play some rep games.” Oldham were on the up and they were my local club. It turned out to be an interesting decade, and I don’t regret it one bit. They signed great lads like Ray Ashton, Mick Worrall, Des Foy and Andy Goodway, so the club was built in that time with a load of really good young lads. Frank Myler brought some legends in too. At 19, I captained Oldham with Sir Clive Sullivan on the wing and Brian Lockwood in the forwards! I had 11 years there, crammed 300-odd games in, and we had plenty of ups and downs. 

I played alongside other great players like Alan McCurrie, Brian Hogan and Bob Blackwood. Then there was the Australian influence with players like Charlie McAllister, Mal Graham, Peter Walsh, David and Glen Liddiard and Paul Taylor, who was Peter Sterling’s double from the mid-1980s Parramatta scene. Glen played in the ‘86 semi-final against Castleford at Wigan when he was just 16. He played because David Topliss had had a car accident. We’d have probably won had Toppo played and also had Castleford’s winning try been disallowed, which it should have been! 

What do you remember of Green Vigo?

I loved the interview you did with him last year. It captured who he is really well. He was a wonderfully raw guy and a crowd pleaser. My mum used to make an extra tatie pie and I’d give it to Green because I suspected he didn’t have much nutrition during the week. He’d give me the plate back and say, “Tell Mrs Flanagan it was lovely!” Hussein M’Barki was another character from back then. He was in the team when we took the Aussies on in 1986 and gave them the best game of the tour. They only beat us 22-16. We had a great team and they were good times.

In ten years at Oldham, you were promoted or relegated six times. Do you agree with promotion and relegation? 

You need promotion and relegation. You have to strive for something. You must be goal-centric because coasting isn’t an option. You have to have short- and long-term strategies as you do in business, otherwise you’ll yo-yo. We were up and down at Oldham. We had a lot of players in and out of the doors. Each year, we had a different look. Geographically, we had four camps – locals like me, Ray Ashton and Paddy Kirwan; lads from Lancashire; lads from Yorkshire like David Hobbs, Mick Morgan and Dave Topliss; and then internationals. We were blending lots of stakeholder groups, which could be a bit up and down. When Mark played in Sydney, he said they’d all go and have coffee together, but in the ‘80s, we had miners from Leigh, I was at university, and we had businessmen from Yorkshire. We had to work extra hard to get it right.

What was Watersheddings like?

It was the coldest place on earth! We beat Wigan in the Challenge Cup in ‘87. The game was off on the Sunday. They put straw on it, and it was fit for Wednesday. They cleared the bales of straw and did the lines. Wigan were full time with players like Hanley, Greg, Edwards, Lydon and Ian Roberts. We’d all been working. They had the biggest bus and got off it with the shiniest shell suits on. I knew we’d get stuck in and we beat them. 

What was Frank Myler like? 

He was a wonderful man. He was a master tactician. He was a great man-manager who got the best out of good and average players. He was very direct. He was a bit like Alex Ferguson. He had a sense of humour though. I had my ups and downs with him, but he was a good man. 

Tell us about playing for Great Britain Under-24s against the 1980 Kiwis ,which you lost 14-18.

We played at Craven Cottage. Steve Evans and I were captain and vice-captain. We gave them a good game. Neil Holding was scrum-half. Johnny Whiteley and Colin Hutton were the management team. A bus load of people from Oldham came down to watch. I got into the third-Test squad, although I didn’t get in. 

You did play for Great Britain three years later against France.

The regime changed from 1980. Dick Gemmill and Frank Myler were now in charge after the whitewashing by the Invincibles in 1982. Myler brought lots of young lads through like Brian Noble, Joe Lydon, Ronnie Duane and Mick Burke. 

You played in an abandoned match at home to Leigh in 1984. You were losing 26-14, but when it was replayed you won 13-10. What happened?

It was Mick Morgan and Des Drummond. I remember it vividly. We ended up on News at Ten! Someone where I work brought a cutting in saying we’d all been taken off in disgrace, but it was nothing more than usual and it was a massive overreaction by the referee. 

You were called up to go on the 1984 Lions Tour. What are your memories of those 13 weeks?

We had five lads on tour and Frank as coach. It was great, a real honour. We had eight weeks in Australia, three in New Zealand and one in PNG. I got a late call-up, and my employers were good with me. I was running a big project, but they knew I couldn’t miss it. We were newlywed, but I buggered off for three months! My wife was fine with it. We closed the gap from 1982, although I didn’t play in the Tests against Australia. We went to New Zealand tired and lost 3-0 to a very good squad. We went from hard grounds to July in Auckland, which is like February here. I played in the third Test in NZ. We set off well, but we tired. Then we had a week in New Guinea, and I got the man-of-the-match award in the Test. We were in the highlands in Mt Hagen, and it was a great experience. 

You scored in a win over Newcastle a week before the first Ashes Test. Did you think you had a chance of selection? 

I went on the tour at two weeks’ notice, disappointed at not getting the first call-up. The lads had been training a bit more than me. I hurt my ankle after the second game and missed a couple of games, then came back against Newcastle. I put a lot of graft in, but with hindsight they’d been developing for three or four weeks, so I wasn’t going to play. 

Why did you join Swinton in 1989?

A few things came into play. The demands of a part-time player were increasing. My day job career was accelerating. I was running the telecoms for the Channel Tunnel. I played on a Sunday and then flew to Paris for work. My career was taking over my life. My kids were born in ‘86 and ‘87. More people were hitting the weights and it was getting too much for me. Tony Barrow had taken over and I didn’t need to read the writing on the wall to see change was happening. Swinton was a cracking club. I only had six or seven months there, as I was diagnosed with disc problems in my neck. I knew I’d had a good run and knew it was best to stop. 

You coached at Huddersfield. How did you enjoy working with Alex Murphy? 

Murph was working the boardroom and I had the tracksuit. I ran the team, and we had two great years. I enjoyed it. The Huddersfield lads still invite me on their nights out. We won the third division. I’d set my own business up by then and couldn’t continue. 

Where did your involvement with Ireland come from?

Niel Wood and I set about creating Ireland rugby from nothing. We went to play the USA on St Patrick’s day on 17 March 1995. We got Joe Lydon to play, and it was live on ESPN. Then we were in the Emerging Nations World Cup. We played Moldova and Morocco, and then we lost to the Cook Islands at Bury in the final. Leo Casey, Martin Crompton, Des Foy and a host of other great lads were involved. Then they wanted us in the Fiji Nines, but I just couldn’t get the time off work, so I handed it over.

You were a speaker at the 12th World Congress on Project Management. Did your rugby experiences help with things like that?

I did the World Congress on telecoms a few years later. The talk was using business and sport to cross fertilise structure and culture etc. I built my business up with a lot of sporting attributes like working hard.

Tell us about charity work you’ve done.

I helped create Mahdlo which is Oldham spelt backwords. It’s a modern-day youth centre in the town, and I’ve done 12 years there. We got a club in Bolton as well and now there are youth zones in plenty of other towns in the north-west. I’ve done Rugby League Cares as well. We took it from a fledgling charity, and it’s gone from strength to strength. I did that for four or five years. I got two nominations for my MBE – from Rugby League and youth work – and I won the Mike Gregory Spirit of Rugby award in 2014.