Leigh enjoyed their finest day fifty years ago this year, beating Leeds at Wembley to win the Challenge Cup. Playing stand-off for the Leythers was Tony Barrow, who had previously enjoyed a wonderful decade at St Helens when he was one of three brothers to don the Red Vee. His 11-year professional career ended with a knee injury, as he was on the verge of being selected for the 1974 Lions tour of the Southern Hemisphere.
RR: If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
There are a lot to choose from, but I’d have to say the 1971 Cup Final when we beat Leeds. They were something like 8-1 on to win. They had all the big stars. The only one we had was Alex Murphy, our player-coach. I’ll always remember Alex making us put on our suits for the traditional walk about on the pitch the day before the match. While we were there, Leeds turned up in their tracksuits. Murph got us together, pointed at them and said, “Look at that scruffy shower of b******s! Look at you and look at them. They can’t beat us.”
RR: Leeds had finished third and Leigh fourth. You’d won the Lancashire Cup six months earlier, so why were Leigh such underdogs?
Leeds were always rated a top club, like Saints and Wigan are now. On the big stage, they were simply expected to win. Our side was made up of other people’s cast-offs, but they had superstars like John Atkinson, Ronnie Cowan, John Holmes and Syd Hynes. They had so many internationals. I don’t think anyone in the media gave us a chance, apart from the Leigh Reporter. You’re right though, we were a cracking side, and we had an unbelievable team spirit. We’d die for each other. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time I talk about Wembley.
RR: Tell us more about Murph.
I was lucky because I played with him at Saints. I’d been to the same school as him – St Austin’s, a big rugby school – although he was five years older than me. He was a superstar as a kid. When I was in the Under-11s, we played a final at Pilkington Recs’ ground. It was the curtain-raiser to a Lancashire-Yorkshire schools’ game, which Murph was playing in. There were about 5,000 people there because schools’ rugby used to be huge. Murph played alongside Jackie Edwards in the halves, and they were brilliant together. He then toured with the Lions as a teenager, which was unbelievable. He was brilliant at everything. He had pace – not even Tom van Vollenhoven could catch him over 25 yards. Alex made us understand the importance of pace at Leigh. We had a sprint trainer and we worked hard on it. He also had a brilliant kicking game and a great rugby brain. He could turn around a losing situation in seconds. He was the greatest player in the game. He was a motivator as a coach and, boy, could he motivate you!
RR: Who else stood out?
We had a great blend in 1971, with youngsters like David Eckersley, Paul Grimes, a Birmingham lad who had never played Rugby League, and also Derek Watts, Jimmy Fiddler and Stan Dorrington. Then there were the big, experienced players like the pack leader Peter Smethurst, Geoff Clarkson, who had a lovely short pass and Mick Collins, a Leigh legend. Age wise, Kevin Ashcroft, the hooker, and I were in the middle, at 26 or 27. The pack were all mentally and physically strong. Stuart Ferguson could kick from anywhere. Joe Walsh was the big character in the side. He was a comedian and hard as nails. Scrum-half Tommy Canning was injured, so Murph played there with me at stand-off instead of in the centres. It was only four tackles back then, so there was a lot of forward play and kicking. A kicker like Murph could kick them back 70 yards, no problem.
RR: You won the 1972 BBC Floodlit Trophy. What did you make of this competition?
A lot of players left after Wembley, so I was captain by then. We played Widnes in the final. Players like Geoff Fletcher and my brother Frank had come into side, along with more youngsters. The competition was a big deal. It was played on a Tuesday night and I loved it. We all worked, and I was a joiner on a building site. We’d finish at half past four. I’d rush home, get changed. You’d get to a home game easily enough, but if it was an away game, you had to have time off work.
RR: What do you remember of your early days at Saints?
It’s like a blur. I played for the school from the age of seven, and then for St Helens Schools and Lancashire. I played fullback. I went to Saints Colts, an Under-17’s team run by the club. We played teams like Blackbrook and Wigan St Pats and we won a lot of cups. In the Saints team, Dougie Greenall was a big influence on me. He had time for you, but – not many people know this – the first game I played professionally was actually for Whitehaven. I went to watch our Frank in the A-Team and Whitehaven turned up short of players, so I played second row for them. We lost 35-3, and I scored the only try. They wanted to sign me, and even offered me a job on a fishing boat! I was only ever going to sign for St Helens. Going down the tunnel at Knowsley Road and out onto the pitch in front of 20,000 fans is the greatest experience of your life as a young player. The nerves would kick in, but it was fantastic. I was so elated to play for St Helens because I’ve lived here all my life. I’m a big Saints fan to this day and I still have a connection because my granddaughter’s partner is Tommy Makinson.
RR: When you played centre, Tom van Vollenhoven was your winger. Tell us about him.
He was the greatest winger I’ve ever seen. To play with him was unbelievable. I’d watched him as a schoolboy, then I was his centre, which was incredible. He was a great bloke too. He told me not to worry on my debut and said, “Just give me the ball and back me up.” It was a pleasure to play with him. He’d turn half chances into tries. The try on my debut against Featherstone was like that. I made a half break and gave it to Tom. He walked around the winger and passed it back to me. He had pace and balance, but he was also a great defender. In one game at Central Park, Wigan had Trevor Lake, another great South African, on the opposite wing. All the Wiganers said he was far better than Voll. He made a break, but Tom ran diagonally from halfway and threw him into touch. He was a great defensive winger as well as being one of the best ever with ball in hand. I played with Berwyn Jones, an Olympic sprinter, but Voll had it all.
RR: You played on the two occasions in 1966 when Rugby League’s most infamous pitch invader, Minnie Cotton, made a name for herself. What happened?
We all knew Minnie because she was a fanatical supporter of Saints. John Warlow lodged with her and he was her favourite. Other players, particularly the Welsh lads, stayed with her and she cooked them meals. But she loved the bones of John. Anyway, he got into a bit of a fight in the Challenge Cup semi-final at Swinton. The next thing, Minnie is on the pitch waving her umbrella about, shouting to the Dewsbury forwards, “Leave him alone!” Our Frank got to her and led her off. But she didn’t care. Six weeks later in the Championship Final against Halifax, she stormed on again, this time with her handbag. She was a lovely lady!
RR: You moved into coaching and were in charge at Warrington between 1986 and 1988.
I did 25 years in coaching from assistant at Leigh after I finished playing, to the late nineties with Swinton. I was assistant to Billy Benyon and then Reggie Bowden at Warrington and then took over from Reg. We won the Premiership in 1986 with players like Les Boyd, Andy Gregory, Paul Cullen, Paul Bishop Kevin Tamati. We had a great team. Then I went to Oldham. We had some great players like John Cogger and Mike Ford, but we needed some young players. All the A-Team players seemed to be 28 or 30, so I signed Tommy Martyn and Chris Joynt. They were great players, even then. At 17, Tommy was right up there. We won the Second Division Premiership Final at Old Trafford and we even got to the Challenge Cup semi-final. We lost to Warrington but had a try wrongly disallowed in the last minute which would have taken us to Wembley.
RR: You coached your son, Tony, at Oldham and Swinton. Tell us about him.
He played for England Schools, so he became one of many young players we signed at Oldham. When I left Oldham, I got the Swinton job and took him there. He ended up playing well over 200 games for them. He was unlucky because moves to Halifax and St Helens fell through, so he never had the chance to play Super League. Sadly, we lost him four years ago because of a brain tumour. That’s the hardest thing in the world. Rugby is nothing compared to that. He was the fittest player. He was a care worker and a personal trainer. He and Steve Prescott were brought up together and Steve’s mum and dad are still just around the corner form me. Tony did all sorts for the Steve Prescott Foundation. I was so proud of everything he did.
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