1901-2 Lancashire League
On the 4th June, 1901, a meeting of the General Committee of the Northern Rugby Union took place at the George Hotel, Huddersfield. Twenty-three delegates were present. It was to be an important meeting as they met to discuss and implement the establishment of a new Northern Union league.
It led to a long and animated discussion. It's formation was ultimately confirmed by 12 votes to 11. Leigh and Brighouse Rangers, who had formerly been opposed to the formation, went over to the other side and decided to vote in favour of the new venture.
The bye-laws, which had been agreed by the clubs in the League, were brought up and adopted by the Union. The important rule that concerned Wigan was that the club having the lowest number of points at the end of the season shall retire from the League, and it's place shall be taken by the accredited champions of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Competitions. If you haven't had guessed already, Wigan were not to be included in this new venture and of course, they did not vote for the League and was part of the "11".
The reason for this exclusion was simple; they finished 9th in the Lancashire Senior Competition during the 1900-1 season and were not ranked high enough to trouble the selectors on scraping into this new League. The clubs comprising the new League will be Hull, Hunslet, Huddersfield, Halifax, Batley, Bradford, Brighouse Rangers, Oldham, Swinton, Salford, Broughton Rangers, Warrington, Runcorn and Leigh. As you can see, once Brighouse and Leigh felt that they were to be included to the top tier, they changed their minds. Both clubs finished in 7th place in their respective County Leagues the previous season.
At an adjourned annual general meeting of the Club on the 7th June, the members were anxious to hear how the club stood with regard to the formation of the Northern League. Mr. J. Underwood, the club's representative on the Northern Union Committee, made an important statement. He said they never thought it all likely that there would be a Northern League; as he told them a fortnight ago they had no fear of any such League forming, and he then thought they might rest assured that there was no chance of any clubs being left out. Several meetings had been held in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the originator of the Northern League scheme was Mr. Skinner, of Halifax. It was the Halifax people who had rammed the Northern League down the throats of the others to such an extent that they were bound to go along with it, that it was the flowing tide, and something bigger than they were accustomed to, and something good for their patrons during the coming and succeeding seasons.
Underwood went on, "Had it not been for traitors, there would have been no Northern League today". Mr. Platt, the secretary of the Northern Union, suggested that they (the clubs left out in Yorkshire and Lancashire) should have a senior competition amongst themselves. These clubs would include: - Wigan, St. Helens, Stockport, Millom, Barrow, Rochdale Hornets, Widnes, Birkenhead Wanderers, Lancaster, Morecambe, Tyldesley, and Altrincham. Mr. Platt also suggested that the South-West Lancashire Cup Competition should be formed into a League, and that they should abandon the "knock-out" principle, and play home and away fixtures. The clubs in that would be Runcorn, Warrington, Leigh, Wigan, Widnes, and St. Helens. It would be termed the South West Lancashire League, and the meeting would notice that such a scheme would assist to fill up the fixtures in the Northern League.
By the end of June, 1901, Wigan had secured a new ground to play their matches on: Springfield Park. The old Frog-Lane/ Prescott Street ground was tired and not really fit for purpose any more. You can read more about all this here.
The rugby club during the long hot summer of 1901 were feeling positive. The committee found themselves with a strong team who got their act together at the back end of the previous season (how they wished to have that sort of form at the start of it) and indeed, their form at the back of the season saw them being one of the strongest clubs in the League. They believed that 'lesser; clubs such as Birkenhead, Ratcliffe, Morecambe, Altrincham, and Lancaster were quite rightly not of the quality of Swinton or Oldham and the Wigan club could see themselves heading the Lancashire Senior League. A new player in Downs, formerly of Tyldesley, had been secured but it was unclear which position he would play. Barr, Eckersley, Rouse and Nixon were to be the backline with Nelson, Rothwell and Lees in the halves. The Wigan forwards would greatly be unchanged except for the retirement of Prescott.
Now, you may be thinking Hull Kingston Rovers?
The reason why Hull Kingston Rovers showed their face in the Lancashire Senior League (and not the Yorkshire equivalent) was that the Rovers refused to obey a boycott by the remaining Yorkshire clubs who weren't as fortunate enough to be included into the Northern Rugby League. Hull Kingston Rovers wanted to play 'friendly' derbies with Hull FC. This wasn't something that the other Yorkshire Senior Clubs liked and so they were expelled from the Senior Competition and requested to join Lancashire instead.
With the team more or less comfortable and identical to the one that finished the previous season so strongly, there was cause for optimism for the Wigan Club. Members attended the Railway Hotel, Wigan rugby headquarters, after a Thursday night practice session in mid-August. A considerable number of member's tickets were issued, being a marked increase on the number taken up the previous season.
So it came to be. Saturday September 7th, 1901. Wigan v St. Helens. As the start of the match report above indicates, the game with St. Helens was more or less a 'four-pointer' as it was the opening match of the Lancashire Senior Comp. and of the South West Lancashire League. the players showed from the off a determination that they should do their best. Wigan were nearly full strength, only missing Eckersley who missed the game due to an injury picked up at training at the Springfield Park ground falling hard on the cinder track. He was replaced by Webster.
It was noted that around 400 Wiganers made the journey along the new Great Central Route to the Boundary Road ground to see Wigan kick off with the wind at their backs yet with sun in their eyes. It wasn't long before Wigan opened up the scoring, Bert Webster picking up a loose ball from a scrimmage darted clean between two opposing centres and ran. Before being clattered by the Saints fullback Faulkes, Webster laid the ball off to Jimmy Barr who ran half the length of the field to score.
The game was in the forward pack for most of the first half. The St. Helens backs failing to capitalise on anything positive the forwards gave them meant that Wigan were never really in any trouble for much of it. Downs, who was playing at fullback for Wigan , filled many of the 400 travelling fans with apprehension, because he made a 'reckless' flying kick in the first half, began to play a very safe and cool game.
Eventually, Rouse and Nixon found an opening and ran up field towards the Saints goal. Playing as though he were to pass to Nixon, he circumvented his opponents, and seeing an opening ran over in an 'exceedingly smart manner'. This was the game for Wigan and a positive start for the 1901-2 season.
To give an account of every match in the 1901-2 season would be silly. You would fall asleep or click elsewhere (if you haven't already). In short, Wigan won their opening six matches against St. Helens, Morecambe, Rochdale Hornets, Lancaster, Birkenhead, and the reverse fixture against Rochdale by mid-October. 68 points For, 14 Against. The committeemen of the Wigan club had every right to feel optimistic for the season. St. Helens were seen as one of the clubs to beat and Wigan did it comfortably.
These fortunes were equally felt with the Wigan public too. Five thousand spectators attended the first rugby game at Springfield Park to witness Wigan defeat Morecambe. It was said that the electric trams in the town reaped a little harvest. Every available tram was packed to its utmost limits. It was also 'pleasing to find one time supporters again rallying round the club, and the grand stand was graced by a number of ladies, which also is a distinct sign of the times and an encouraging feature', noted the Wigan Observer.
A special train carried Wigan supporters to the Athletic Ground, Rochdale to witness Wigan's third win. A significant number of people gathered around the Wigan Observer offices on Wallgate to hear news of the result. It was more proof of the renewed interest taken in the game - the crowd waiting in the street keenly watching for the arrival of the news.
Another five thousand spectators assembled for the visit of Lancaster 28th September. It was noted that "It is many years since the Rugby Club had anything like a bank balance, but we understand that the people will give whole-hearted support to a successful team, and should this success continue the club will be placed in a highly respectable financial position."
With Lancaster not up to their full strength, it was an easy victory for Wigan by a goal, three tries to nothing. Rothwell, Barr, and Eckersley were the scorers with capital individual tries, and the Wigan forwards also continued to show their good form, obtaining possession twice out of three times, and dribbling well.
The Birkenhead game, in front of 3,000 on a wet afternoon at Springfield Park, showed where the Wigan team is weakest and strongest at the present time. In the Forwards, it is superior to ay team met so far this season; it is behind where the principle faults betray themselves. The same old tale of lack of combination could be told in the backs. It was seen that there wasn't the cohesion which is so greatly to be desired, especially on Wigan's right wing. The problem seemed to be Rouse and Nixon, the latter playing a rather disappointing game against Birkenhead. It was said that he lacks in judgement and nerve. The half-back pairing of Nelson and Rothwell do not show any striking combination. This said, however, the Wiganers are high on enthusiasm and willingness to do their best.
As a small reward for his forward play, the Wigan Captain Harry Ball was selected for a Lancashire trial match under the 'Possibles' team, which was played at Wigan's Springfield Park ground on October 16, 1901. He was rewarded with a reserve place.
Rochdale Hornets visited a wet Springfield Park, where upward of 4,000 spectators witnessed a struggling Wigan win. The same faults were shown in the Wigan team - that being a lack of combination and understanding in the half back positions.
Wigan's biggest match of the season thus far came against Widnes on 19th October. Both teams were leading the League, winning all of their six matches. Around a thousand people occupied the special train set up by the Great Central Railway Company that headed to Widnes. Great jubilation erupted at half time in the town of Wigan as news spread that Wigan were ahead by six points to three. However, this turned to bewilderment when the final message came, showing that wigan had been unable to increase their score, but that Widnes had added another five points to their total. It wasn't just a loss in the Senior Competition, but also a loss in the South West Lancashire Competition. People who did not see the game were anxious to know what had happened to the Wigan team that they should finish so badly. Apparently, the reasons were given as few and far between. Simply, Widnes finished better and the reporter for the Observer suggested that the referee 'was weak in the exercise of the powers he possessed.'
The Widnes players were a rough lot to say the least. This is where the lack of authority, it was sensed in Wigan quarters, came from. The referee was seen to be talking a lot to the widnes players for their rough play but that was about it. One of the talking points was when a Wigan back was trying for a free kick opposite the Widnes posts. He was charged over in such a way that he lay stretched out on the field unable to move for some time. Did the referee award a free kick? No. He, instead, ordered a scrimmage.
The above cartoon featured in the "Liverpool Express" highlighting Wigan's defeat to Widnes. It seems to be the Widnes Chemicals suffocating the Wigan player on the floor!
The biggest gate of the season so far turned up at Springfield Park for the visit of Barrow. The game was remarkable for the fine goalkicking on each side. Bowker, of Barrow was equally matched by Wigan's Nelson. There was an improvement in the Wigan half back play, finally, yet there was still suspicion of selfish play on the part of Nelson. The biggest improvement for Wigan was seen in the three quarters. Downs was moved into the centre position to partner Rouse, whilst a new trialist Macauley was tried at fullback. Macauley did not start very well. His kicking was seen to be a failure but as the match went on, he improved. The reason he was dire with the boot was because he was wearing boots much too big for him!
With Nelson kicking three goals, Dick Rothwell got Wigans sole try in an entertaining match, Wigan winning 9-6. It was a good job too for the Wigan Treasurer that the past few matches held at Springfield Park attracted large gates. Wigan were not due to play a fixture at home during the whole of November!
The Great Central Railway Company again offered their services when Wigan faced a trip to Altrincham. Around 250 Wiganers took advantage of the slight dip in rail fare and accompanied the Wigan team to Cheshire at the start of November. Altrincham were sitting at the foot of the table, having lost all 7 of their opening ties and having failed to secure a single try! Wigan were hot o the heels of Widnes at the right side of the league table. So was it inevitable that Wigan would win comfortably? In short, yes. A 28 points to 2 victory was easily secured. The Man of the Match fell to Jimmy Barr: four tries he registered along with two goals.
A week later, another attractive journey was to be had and cheap rail fares were yet again offered by the rail companies. Around three hundred Wiganers accompanied the team to the seaside resort of Morecambe on November 9th. Indeed, it was reported that half of the 'gate' that day were Wiganers, pleasing the Morecambe officials. Wigan came up trumps by winning 17 points to nil, with Eckersley scoring a brace, adding to the tries from Barr, Rothwell and Rouse. Eckersley was in fine form, which must have delighted the Wigan followers and the Committee, he had a hand in two other tries too. For Wigan, they were to have a week off (due to frost and fog with their game against Radcliffe) before travelling back Bowland-way to face Lancaster. Meanwhile, Widnes were kicking on in the League and remained undefeated after 11 matches.
Fine footballing weather, along with 300 enthusiasts, accompanied Wigan up to Lancaster in the return fixture. The county town were quite confident of giving Wigan their second defeat of the season. They had every reason to be too. It was the hardest match that Wigan had encountered so far that season, narrowly losing to the colliery town by 5 points to 2. Lancaster were buoyed by the fact that wigan had never beaten them on their ground (a ground with many ups and down downs you couldn't tell if you were playing uphill or downhill!). There wasn't much between the two sides and at halftime, two cracking goals from each side (Nelson and W.H. Hall of Lancaster) saw them level at the break. The travelling Wiganers thought that the week off had been of great detriment to their favourite team. The play was careless and erratic, and wanting of accuracy. Several chances went begging for Wigan in the opening quarter yet, as has been seen throughout the season so far, the defensive side of things had no reason to grumble at. A long journey to Barrow awaited the Wiganers next.
It was one long journey too far for Wigan, as yet another away trip to the northern extremities of Lancashire finally took its toll on the colliermen. A series of events hampered the Club and all didn't seem to be as merry as once was first thought. At the very start of the day there was trouble with one prominent forward who imagined himself entitled to as much payment as a back player, and the team did not take the field in that harmonious spirit which has prevailed so far. However, a disgruntled forward almost definitely unsettled the team, it wasn't the major reason for Wigan's second loss of the season. The main factor was a serious injury to Eckersley, which came about in a curious manner. He had made a brilliant run right through the thick of the Barrow backs, and was rushing along to plant the ball behind the posts, when he tripped himself, and came to the ground with such a force that he seriously injured his collarbone. It was the hardest line possible for Wigan. A certain try was lost, and the player was practically incapacitated for the remainder of the game. E. Yates helped out in the centre from the forward line but, well, failed.
As for the disgruntled forward: step forward Harry Ball. He was served with a suspension by the committee of a fortnight and would miss a friendly match against Hunslet and the Altrincham game a week later.
During the week off, Wigan travelled across the Pennines to have a friendly match with the Hunslet side. Three new forwards played - Barton, a finely made Wigan lad, Vickers, formerly of Askam, and Hornby who had helped out Wigan before. The first two named were chosen to play against Altrincham the following week. Jack Barton would o on to play nearly 200 games for Wigan in a successful decade which Wigan grew from its current position to be the premier club in the league. But back to Altrincham...
The match with Altrincham was high scoring for Wigan. Jimmy Barr grabbing a hat-trick, Benny Rouse and Fred Lees grabbing two, whilst Rothwell, Webster and Halliwell added to the fun. Of course, it was a one-sided affair but a glance at the League table saw that Widnes were still unbeaten after fourteen games. The difference between Widnes and Wigan on the point-scoring front was nothing. Both teams had the same amount of goals and tries (and points), with Widnes commanding a slightly better defensive record. The only real difference was that Wigan had a game in hand but were still four points adrift of the Chemics.
The following week, Wigan were up against Birkenhead Wanderers again. But, the game never took place. On the Friday before the match, the secretary of the Wigan Rugby Club wired to Birkenhead to know if the ground of that club would be fit to play the following day. There was no reply. A second telegram was sent on Saturday, and again there was no answer. There was only one course open to the Wigan team, and that was to make the journey. This they did, and on arrival at Birkenhead were told that the match could not be played as the ground was too hard. It appears to have been a distinctly unfair proceeding on the part of the Birkenhead officials, and it means useless expenditure of the Wigan funds. No doubt that Wigan would raise this issue with the governing body! The frost had made the ground altogether too hard for rugby football and with the Wigan committee knowing that the Birkenhead ground was not covered, they telegrammed in perfectly good time, twice, to ask whether the game would go ahead.
Alas, the show must go on. And on it went it did in conditions which were vile. Snow and rain accompanied Wigan on Christmas Day to Stockport. The scene was one of mu and water, and the players were indescribable after a few minutes play. Stockport won 05-06 simply as their forwards simply dealt with the conditions that bit better.
St. Helens were due next on Saturday 28th December. It didn't happen.
It's only St. Helens, who's bothered?
Avenging a Christmas Day defeat? No problem! Stockport turned up to Wigan on New Years Day with up to an estimated 6,000 spectators in at Springfield Park. Eckersley was a victim of the snow storm against Stockport on Christmas Day and Lees was missing in the halves. Harry Ball occupied a back position and played really well by all accounts. With the ground still being heavy from the festive bad weather, the going was tough. Wigan edged their opponents, keeping them at arms length all the way through and via tries from Barr and Roue, they did enough to defeat Stockport by 10 points to 3.
The following day, January 2nd, Leigh travelled to Wigan for a South West Lancashire League game. If you recall, Leigh weren't on Wigans Christmas Card list after jumping ship and opting to vote for the newly formed Northern League back in August. As a filler, Leigh were on the fixture card to face Wigan in the South West Lancashire Competition. Rain threatened, the grass was soft and slippery, ad the wind blew with a great force. it was a horrible day (the weather, not because of Leigh). The four-thousand spectators were rewarded by a brilliant exhibition displayed by the Wigan team. There were many who, before the match, thought Wigans chances of winning the game were rather remote. Leigh were not exactly a second rate club, or had ever lacked in the back depeartment, but in every department Leigh were woefully overplayed. Tries from Harry Ball and Jimmy Barr were enough to nil the Leighers and gain an important 2 points for the SWLL competition.
Meanwhile, Widnes lost over the New Year, meaning a glimmer of hope for Wigan at the pointy end of the table. With the Wigan Club having another week off, this time no fixtures scheduled, they did a bit of business with Swinton. E. Yates, the Wigan forward, was exchanged for W.H. jones, a Swinton three-quarter. Jones had not been on the best of terms with Swinton.
The Dark Greens of Runcorn were next, which meant another train journey to the banks of the Mersey, this time for the South West Lancashire League. Wigan lost. Given the strength of that particular Runcorn squad, and that they were a quality team in the league above, Wigan made a brilliant account of themselves. Despite a try by Webster and Joe Nelson converting the goal, Wigan were edged out 8 points to 5.
Eyes, however, were focussed on the Hull Kingston Rovers match a week later on January 18th, 1902. The Rovers were mid-table but had played far fewer games than the teams above them. Their appearance at Springfield Park was eagerly awaited and talk was of a record attendance for the ground. These estimates did not disappoint. Over 7,000 people turned up to set a Springfield Park record for the time. The receipts would have formed a very handsome addition to the funds of the club. The people were able to see a game that was most keenly contested and full of spirit, but yet did not contain any of those fine movements which have made Northern Rugby Union play so famous. Even though Wigan won, they didn't show the form that was expected of them. Against a more quality team, Wigan would have lost. The Wigan back line failed to play as well as we know they could have done. Macauley was uncertain at full back, and gathered the ball badly. Smith, the Hull KR fullback outplayed him in all aspects of the game.
The game was won when a minute before time, Wigan were a point behind the Humberside club. Some spectators were leaving the ground, the Wigan Walk shall we say. Wigan had gone down to fourteen men (remember they still played 15-a-side) after Ellison's knee gave way and had to retire. The fourteen gave one last push with the clock ticking, and Billy Halliwell, the forward, gained a free kick within kicking distance. The ground fell silent as Nelson took aim. It was a long and difficult kick, with a heavy greasy ball, but the ball sailed beautifully between the posts and the match was won. Spectators and players alike went "off their heads" with excitement, as the Wigan Observer put it.
Perhaps an important signing for the Wigan club at this point is that of Jack Hesketh. Hesketh would become revolutionary for the Wigan club, a former wrestler, his training techniques would lift Wigan to the very top. His exploit, in time, will be elsewhere on this website.
By the end of January, the prospects of the Club were looking bright! The Club were plodding along nicely in the League but a new ground had been obtained for the 1902-3 season. During a meeting in the basement of the Public Hall, a meeting took place to discuss and acquire a new ground off Greenough Street - what would become Central Park. Again, you can read about it here.
Wigan had a lovely week off at the end of January before preparing themselves for a trip to Millom. however, old Jack Frost had his say which meant the game did not go ahead, Wigan's third postponement of the season so far. Wigan again went for the telegram option, asking the Millom Club whether the game should go ahead before travelling up there. No reply came so Wigan despatched an official up to Millom who made a report, which the Wigan committee were satisfied by not to travel. The League status changed a little during Wigan's rest period. Widnes had yet another win and extended their lead at the top of the table to 6 points, whilst St. Helens had moved to within 2 points of the collier men.
Sadly, the weather was still not great by the time Radcliffe were on the fixture card in mid-February. The weather was finally getting warmer but just too late for Radcliffe. If Wigan were to continue their assault on the League and on Widnes above them, they next had a daunting fixture away against Hull Kingston Rovers, or as the Wigan Observer called it 'the cemetery of the hopes of all visiting clubs'.
Eight train saloon carriages made the long journey to East Hull filled with Wigan supporters eager to see if their heroes could make that much wanted assault on Widnes. In all, there were no less than 7,000 spectators at Craven Street for the match. In a tight contest, Jimmy Barr was Wigan's hero in the fourth quarter when he threw himself onto the ball after a kick by a Wigan back and scored the deciding try.
Spring was now upon the town and a spring was in the step of the Wigan Club. March 1st saw the visit of Millom to Springfield Park. The recent success of the away win at Hull Kingston Rovers and the several weeks which had elapsed since the Wigan public had seen any rugby meant that a crowd of 7,000 turned up to see Wigan win by 8 points to nil thanks to tries by Nelson and Rigby, rounded off with a goal by McCauley.
Talk, however, was all about the League. The main reason of thought seemed to be that Widnes had ahead of them a harder run of fixtures compared to that of Wigan. Widnes, despite playing good football and still having lost once during the season - to Wigan's three - will slip up sooner or later. Some publications were already installing Widnes to the Northern League, or seemed to be.
The first of the re-arranged fixtures took place on a Thursday night (6th March), when the Wiganers made the trip to Birkenhead. A 17 points to 2 win not only saw the Wigan forwards obtain mastery in the scrimmage, but the backs passed finely and this led to all the scoring being done by the threequarters. Jimmy Barr nearly missed the game due to an injured leg, but decided to give it a go. A good job too as he scored a hat trick of tries all served up on a plate by man of the match Eckersley. Eckersley also scored and supplied Rouse with the other try.
An article in the "Northern Express" says; - There is no doubt that the present position of the Lancashire Senior Competition is causing much anxiety to the officials. So far as can be gathered only about two of the clubs, Wigan and Hull Kingston Rovers, are paying their way properly, and it is certain two or three of the organisations will drop out before next season. Mr. Welsh, the chairman, fully recognises the fact that some drastic measures will have to be taken if the remaining clubs are to be successful. What he advocates as a scheme likely to be beneficial is an increase in the present Northern League, and the formation of a second league, the same as in association football. Asked about what clubs he thought ought to be promoted, Mr. Welsh replied, Wigan, Widnes, and Hull Kingston Rovers. His reason for selecting these is that the two Lancashire organisations have clearly proved the pick in their own county, whilst Hull Kingston Rovers have throughout shown allegiance to the league. This is more than the other Yorkshire Senior clubs have done, and as Lancashire clubs have endeavoured to reach the league in a legitimate manner, Mr. Welsh thinks any promotion should see them having first recognition.
I wonder what the St. Helens organisation thought of that?!
Next up on March 8, 1902, were Radcliffe. Nestled between Swinton and Bury, the old Radcliffe club had seen better days and better famous players had long left the scene. They were currently sat at the bottom of the League having only won once during the season and also having had points deducted for a breach of rules. All bets were off in what would be a by now routine Wigan win. The previous week, Hull Kingston Rovers battered Radcliffe, due to the fact that they only took with them thirteen men, with two of those being the baggage men and two others committeemen!
The weather didn't help and only 2,000 people bothered to turn up at Springfield Park to witness a 22-0 winfor the colliermen. Even though the ground was heavy going and muddy, it didn't take long for Rothwell to make a breakthrough running in from the half back position to score. Although Nelson failed at the goal attempt, he kicked a goal from a mark by Harry Ball. Before halftime Jimmy Barr scored his 20th try of the season. Benny Rouse and Barr again added further tries with captain Nelson adding three more goals in a win that saw 5 goals and 4 tries.
What was pleasing for the spectators was the news coming out of Widnes. St. Helens were busy making their own assault at the pointy end of the table and handed Widnes their second defeat of the season, allowing Wigan to leapfrog above them at the top of the table. Widnes, as you can see, had played two fewer games than Wigan. The two clubs were due to meet on the 19th, the Wednesday after the Northern Union (Challenge) Cup weekend in what could be an early title decider. The Wigan forwards had by now a strong feeling that the championship ought to be assured for them as they scorn a the idea of being beaten by any pack. The only issue for Wigan are the backs.
Attention now was focused on Bramley, who play a strong forward game. Wigan had never progressed far in the Northern Union Cup competition and all eyes and thoughts were mostly on the Widnes match the following Wednesday. The Wigan forwards were on top form and were the major reason for the narrow 2-0 victory, a drop goal on the stroke of halftime via Rothwell being the difference. The day was bright and cold with a wind blowing from end to end. The Wigan Captain Joe Nelson secured the toss and played with the sun at their backs, which fell into Wigan's favour. The first half was all Wigan attack but they couldn't get the result they wanted. The Bramley backs doing well to clear time after time.
But now to Widnes on Wednesday night. A record crowd, especially for Springfield Park, gathered to witness the battle with the winner almost certainly having the momentum to go on and win the League. On anticipation of a large crowd, the committee raised the gate prices at sixpence. Some thought that due to an increase many people would be turned away but the committee insisted that the extra cash generated would go towards the new ground fund. The Widnes match had been running in the thoughts and imaginations of the people for weeks, the game above all others the people were waiting to see. The price hike didn't make a difference at all!
The contagion spread to sober sided shopkeepers, the crowd rolled on to the ground in one thick, apparently unceasing stream. A large number of rugbyites came with the Widnes team, and these swelled the crowd of people that came from every part of the district. Estimates were made that over 10,000 people crammed into Springfield Park with the gates coming in at £192 14s. 3d., a handsome sum which should prove o great service to the new ground fund (Central Park).
A huge cheer erupted when Jimmy Barr made his appearance after he missed the Bramley game via an injury picked up in training, (Or was he being rested?). Wigan started the match, losing the toss, into a stiff wind and it took a few minutes for the excitement of a large crowd to calm the Wiganers down. The key, as always for Wigan, were not to take ay risks and let the forward pack do what they do best.
After Benny Rouse made a dashing run, Widnes were penalised under their own posts. The crowd expected the scorekeeper to be busy at this point by Nelson failed at goal it was said, to his own disgust. The Wigan Observer called it 'galling'. Wigan held on for the half despite the gripping wind and went in with the scores tied nil apiece. Apparently, the spectators were in jubilant mood knowing that they had the advantage of the wind in the second half and many were talking of a win.
With this wind the Wiganers inaugurated a kick and rush tactic all through the second half. Viewing the way that the ball travelled, the wind was fierce which meant that Widnes had to practically defend for the majority of the second half. For Widnes, they had two or three chances in the Wigan half, and on one occasion had a very good opportunity to score.
The deadlock was eventually broken midway through the second half when Widnes were penalised for 'becoming highly obnoxious and unnecessary... (which) inflamed the passions of the people.' Twice this happened, and twice Wigan happily converted the penalties by Rothwell and Nelson.
Being four points ahead, the play of Widnes and the roughness in the forward did not die down. A thin lead still made may of the 10,000 crowd anxious. On a few occasions the Widnes left wing did threaten but the Wigan backs of Rouse and Webster stepped up and tackled admirably. Towards the end of the tie, Joe Nelson found a pass to Rothwell who, finding his way barred on one side, rushed round to the blind side of the scrimmage and got what many people considered to be a reasonably good try, although he did knock down the corner flag in the act of scoring. The referee consulted his touch judge (who was from St. Helens... of course...) who then disallowed the try. After the game, Rothwell stated that it was one of the best tries he ever scored!
The Widnes line continued to be battered but their defence held firm time after time. Wigan finally won what could be considered a great game by any means, but was certainly one of the hardest contests in the history of the club, and they fully deserved their victory for their dash, their insistence, and their reliable and splendid checking of any Widnes movement.
Wigan lost 16-0 away at Castleford in the second round of the Northern Union Cup. The less said about that the better.
In the League, Wigan still had to play Radcliffe, St. Helens and Millom. But before then a couple of fixtures against Leigh and Warrington in the South West Lancashire League. These clubs, you will remember, were in the league above so a good performance was in order over the Easter period.
First up was an away trip to Leigh. Earlier in the season Wigan beat their neighbours by 8 points to nil. This was to be the first of seven games in a little under three weeks to end the season. With the League not certain to be in Wigans hands, and with a lack of reserves, the South West Lancashire League could be seen as a good time to rest a few players, or at least not try 100%.
If this was the case, the players did not get the memorandum. In front of 4,000 spectators, 800 travelling from Wigan, on Good Friday, Wigan triumphed 4 points to nil thanks again to the kicking of Rothwell and Nelson. This was the third game without any try being scored by Wigan. A few prominent players were absent for this clash, named Eckersley and Barr in the backs, Halliwell, Hilton and Yates in the forwards. Despite this, the Wigan defence held firm, helped too by the lack of execution by the Leigh backs who knocked on a few occasions when a score was possible. Wigan could have increased their lead when Rothwell ran half the length of the field but collided with the goalposts whilst trying to dodge the Leigh fullback. A win, and two points more in the South West Lancashire League.
On Easter Monday Wigan travelled to Warrington. A day out in Warrington was always well attended, even in Jim Slevins day. Even today! 1,000 Wiganers took advantage of the cheap train fares offered by the Great Central Railway company. Hampered with injuries in the backs, Wigan were still determined to make a good show of it. Harry Ball managed to get over for a try and a goal by Nelson gave Wigan 5 points, but ultimately Warrington were too strong and ran out 10-5 winners. In the second half the Wigan forwards absolutely held the game, and Warrington were almost continuously defending. The passing and general play of the wigan backs was poor, as had been the case for the majority of the season. The Warrington back four of Fish, Dickinson, Harris and Company were playing at a different level. Herein lies the issue with Wigan and ultimately why they were playing in a "second division" as it were. In time, (1903), the Wigan club would start to build the Greatest backline the Club had ever been honoured to have with the signing of James Leytham... but that's for another day.
The return match with Warrington at Springfield Park on April 5th would be a chance for Wigan to rest up and be strong for the continued assault on the Lancashire League. The weather was again awful and the pitch was a quagmire. In an unremarkable match Wigan lost 7-0 and with it too any slim hope of carrying off the South West Lancashire League Trophy in a few weeks time.
Sad news disrupted the thoughts of the Wigan Club in early April. Joe Clegg, a Wigan stalwart passed away. He was one of the original members of the 1879 establishment club and latterly helped with the management of the club. He also went into business with Tom Brayshay in the hide and tanning business. He died after a long illness at quite a young age.
Wigan got back to winning ways against Radcliffe with a comfortable and expected victory. Again, not muh was to be said of the match, but Wigan now held a six point lead over Widnes in the Lancashire Senior Competition but having played three more games. Only St. Helens on April 12th and an away trip to Millom in the rearranged fixture on a Monday evening stood in the way of Wigan and the Championship. Anxiety was still high amongst Wiganers due to the relative poor form of the back division.
Eckersley, the centre, was fit again to face the Saints. It is quite evident that he is the best back Wigan have. Jimmy Barr is lost without him. The game against St. Helens counted towards the League and South West Competition but the only two points Wigan were bothered about were those of the Lancashire Senior Competition. A loss here would make Wigan having to rely on Widnes slipping up.
Luckily for Wigan, St. Helens were not up to their usual form, the form which first defeated Widnes a couple of weeks past. They put up a good fight. Having gone behind to a goal by Wigan's Nelson, the Saints replied with a goal themselves. This was the only scoring on their part. The Wiganers now bent their backs to the business and some excellent play was seen in the forwards and backs. The re-emergence of Eckersley was visible. His kicking aided the Wigan forwards whilst his passing and running made him be the most finished back player in the side. Jimmy Barr capitalised on some fine play by Eckersley who made some room open up and again, Joe Nelson gifting Barr another try under similar circumstances. Jack Hilton in the forwards was the pick, dripping with dash and style (I imagine) he seemed to be continually where the ball was. This gave Wigan a deserved 11-2 victory with only a trip to Millom remaining two days later on the Monday evening.
There had been for a long time much worry over this particular trip to Millom. A lot of clubs this season had used their field as their own graveyard, falling victim to the tough play of the Millom forwards. But for Wigan, all they had to do was win one more game to be in the driving seat at the head of the Competition. In the end they gave a fine exhibition of football, which ended in a victory for them by 8 points to nil. A vast crowd had assembled in Wallgate, outside of the Observer office, to hear the result, and there was the 'greatest jubilation.' The interest taken in this match, and the presence of large numbers of people in the streets waiting for the news proved conclusively what a revival of Rugby football had taken place in the town. The players who scored for Wigan were Nelson and Barr, and that was all in the second half.
All Wigan could do now was sit and wait... and play Runcorn in the remaining fixture of the South West Lancashire League at home. In the end it was a tame affair. Nothing was at stake and little interest was given to it. Runcorn won 2-0 but Wigan played most of the game with a man less, as Webster was roughly tackled which broke his collarbone. He was carried off to the Infirmary, where his bone was set and then taken home to rest.
Barrow were Wigans saviours as they heavily beat Widnes. Again, a lot of anxiety was felt in Wigan as Widnes had a narrow victory over Rochdale Hornets, a dropped goal separating the sides, meant that Barrow had thousands of more supporters willing them to defeat Widnes. Quite a number of Wiganers attended the match and described it as being one in which Widnes were practically played to a standstill. It was a sad evening for the Widnes team and their supporters, but it would be idle to say that there was not great jubilation in the Wigan camp.
A meeting of the Committee of the Lancashire Senior Competition was held at the Exchange Hotel, Manchester, on the Tuesday after the Runcorn match in mid-April. Amongst other issues, discussion took place regarding the match between the Champions and the Rest of the Competition, a game which ended the season like they did in the old West Lancashire and Border Towns Union days. They passed this following resolution:- In the event of Widnes winning their remaining two matches, which would place them on terms of equality with Wigan, a test match will be played at Warrington on Monday, April 28, kick-off 6:30p.m. If, on the other hand, Widnes fail to equal the Wigan club's score, the latter club will play the Rest of the Competition at Wigan on the same time and date.
The team chosen to represent the Rest of the League consist of Hopwood (Stockport), full back; J.H. West (H.K.R.), C. Lewis (H.K.R.), T. Lewis (Birkenhead), Hadwest (Morecambe), three-quarters; Leytham (Lancaster) and Barry, half-backs; Treweake, Brown (Birkenhead), Briers (St. Helens), Carney (St. Helens), Douthwaite (Lancaster), Burrows (Stockport), Shaw (Altrincham), and Lewis (Radcliffe). Reserves: Liverage (St. Helens) and Turner, three-quarters; Anderson, half-back; Mellor and Bilton, forwards.
Note the name of Leytham. One, James Leytham.
Luckily for Wigan, no game against Widnes took place. Widnes cracked under the pressure and finally came up short, leaving Wigan to become the Champions of the Lancashire Senior Competition.
The last game was Wigan v Rest of the League, and the public was attracted by this interesting encounter and by the fact that the cup and medals would be distributed to the Wigan players. There were a few changes to the team named a week previous at the Meeting for the Rest of the League (see above, teams in brackets played). Not much could be said of the game, as Wigan won by three tries to nothing. The play of a certain James Leytham did not go unnoticed in the Press as he was singled out for splendid play in the halves.
Once the game had ended, there was a big rush to the grand stand where the Lancashire Cup stood exhibited, to see the presentation to the Wigan Captain; and a scene of much enthusiasm followed. Joe Nelson and the other Wigan players being loudly applauded as they lined upon the stand. Present was Mr. Houghton, of St. Helens, Chairman of the Northern Union; Mr. Walsh, of Stockport, Chairman of the Lancashire Senior Competition; Mr. Jevons, the town clerk of Wigan, president of the club, and Mr. J. Prescott, Chairman of the Wigan Committee.
Mr. Walsh handed the cup to Nelson with appropriate wishes for the success of the club; also the championship medal. The medals for the players were of the most handsome design, gold, with the County coat of arms worked out in enamel. It was understood that the names of the players would first be inscribed on them before they would be presented. Nelson expressed his pleasure at the kind way the cup had been presented to him on behalf of the Wigan team. He hoped it would not be the last cup gained by the team.
Mr. Jevons begged to thank Mr. Walsh for coming down to watch the match and presenting the cup to the Wigan team. In the second place he warmly congratulated the Wigan team on the splendid season they had had, and on winning the cup. He knew they would all agree with him that the team thoroughly deserved it. In the middle of the season when they were about three matches behind Widnes they stuck to their work, and finally they worked their way past Widnes. He trusted that if they went into the Northern League next year they would give the same account of themselves, and, if they would stick to their players, he was sure they would do so. Personally, he had had very little to do with the team, but they ought to thank the chairman of the committee, Mr. Prescott, for the interest he has taken in the club, and the way he had furthered its interests during the whole of the season.
Mr. Prescott said it gave him much pleasure also to thank Mr. Walsh for the way in which he had presented the cup and medals. It was a great pleasure to him to have their friends with them that day to see the Wigan team defeat the Rest of the League. It had been said that sometimes the Wigan players were not triers, but he could assure them from that platform that their team had always been a trying team. Although they might lose, they lost with good grace, and they always came up smiling again, and tried to win the next time. He firmly believed that if they did enter the Northern League they would win more matches than they would lose. He was not going to say they were going to win the Northern League Cup, but one never knew. Old Wigan had won cups in the past, they had won the cup they saw there that day, and why should they not win other cups? He id not desire to take all the credit that the president had attributed to him, for he was only the chairman of the committee, and only one, and he could assure them that now they had a very good committee, because it was a working committee. But it was not the committee who had done everything; it wa the people who had rallied around them. He thanked them all for their support, and he asked them for help in their new venture. They had embarked upon on a new ground scheme, and they were spending about £1,000 to make it one of the best of its kind; and he asked that the people of Wigan should give them their hearest support and assistances.
The cup was next taken to headquarters, and various toasts were proposed. Both teams afterwards had tea at the Dog and Partridge Hotel.
Believed to be around the 1901-02 season.
(will need to confirm names)
Most source material: Wigan Observer, Wigan Examiner, The Athletic News, Wigan Archives, Mike Latham, WiganWorld, Keith Bowen, Myself M. Selby.