Lancashire Cup 1908
Greatness is measured in many different ways. Here we will look at a truly Great moment in the history of the Wigan Rugby Football Club. Of course, not many people know the stories of days gone by, where the stories to to myth, and then to legend and then forgotten. The 1908-09 season for Wigan was the best season Wigan had until 1994. They swept all before them, apart from the Northern Union Cup (Challenge Cup), losing in a semi-final against Wakefield Trinity... but that's a bit of a blip on the seasonal record. Here we will look at just one part of the 1908-09 season: The Lancashire Cup. I shall let the story unfold but first let us set the scene...
If you have been following "Offside" you may be familiar with the story first hand. Wigan had begun the start of the 1908-09 season in blistering form, winning their opening six matches against Aberdare, Ebbw Vale, Hunslet, Salford, Huddersfield, and Hull FC. Joe Miller rocketed to the top of the try scoring charts having made 13 tries in six matches, with James Leytham, the Wigan Captain chasing close behind on 10. Despite this great start, a number of other teams had a faultless record on a 100% win rate: Oldham, Halifax and Wakefield Trinity but Wigan were ploughing on. As the giddiness of September went and the autumn drew near, focus and minds were set on the upcoming Lancashire Cup ties. During the off season, the first round ties were drawn; Wigan were to be sent on a trip to Widnes in the first round scheduled for November 7.
When Wigan went to play Leigh on October 3, they were unbeaten of course, and our supporters were proud of that fact. To of them who accompanied the team took a large banner with the inscription, "Wigan, the Unbeaten Team." Unfortunately, Wigan did badly; they were without three of their best backs, and Leigh won easily. As the score against Wigan mounted, the banner was lowered until it disappeared from view. But, alas, this as only a blip. Strong wins followed against Barrow, Warrington, Runcorn and Broughton Rangers as the Cup tie against Widnes drew near.
Wigan had asked Widnes to move the game to Central Park, money, more than anything. Widnes resisted as they were going through a period of trying to rebuild faith and interest in the rugby code in the town. To have a visit of Wigan was a good incitement for the locals. Wigan did not profit greatly y their visit. The gate money came to £70, and when halved, did not amount to much, especially for a club with huge expenses as Wigan. Widnes would have lost out on around £150 if they had moved the match to Wigan. But anyhoo...
Widnes put up a good fight in the first half, keeping Wigan to nil despite an onslaught of attack by the men in cherry and white. As soon as the second half started, Wigan showed their real power. Jenkins, showing fine speed, ran in a couple of tries which woke up the Wiganers. Lance Todd, the other centre, finished off a great passing move and after good work by full back Sharrock, Jack Barton got Wigan's fourth try. In the end, Wigan ran out 14-02 winners. As expected.
The real excitement came when the second round draw took place: Leigh. Straight away, talk was had about attendance records being broken in Leigh, and despite losing earlier in the season, Wigan were not afraid of the challenge that had been put to them.
A by-now routine win in the League against Rochdale Hornets sandwiched the Lancashire Cup ties between Widnes and Leigh. Wigan were minus a star though, Joe Miller suffering an ankle injury against the Hornets, would be out of the line up for several weeks. With Wigan's strength in depth, the committee opted for Walter Creevey to deputise on the wing alongside Lance Todd, and apart from a few like-for-like changes in the forward line, Wigan were at full strength.
In the Football Notes of the Wigan Observer the week of the match, they state that they 'behove a certain section of the Wigan public to abate their enthusiasm and talk rationally. One hears a victory of twenty points spoken of. As a leading player said the other night, these are just the men who call the Wiganers harsh names if a slip is made.' Although the Wigan supporters were feeling confident, and why wouldn't they, the players were not taking their current form for granted.
As it were, a record crowd did indeed turn up at Mather Lane, Leigh. It was questioned how there was no accident given the size of the swell. Despite the weather and heavy ground, the match ended in a 3-3 draw. Leigh had the better of the first half but in the second, Wigan turned it around. It would have been Wigan's game had it not been for the Leigh full-back Clarksons magnificent play in defending the continued Wigan attacks. It took Wigan until the final quarter to try and get some openings and many people thought that the Leythers would collapse. In the end, the try came via Bert Jenkins close to full time. For Leigh, Wigan old boy Sam Johnson had earlier score for Leigh. The result for Wigan was a satisfactory one. For Leigh, they were thrilled yet felt unlucky not to advance. Given the conditions and the spirited play of Leigh in front of a record crowd and a mud pit, not many Northern Union side would have escaped with so much as a draw. A replay was in order the following Monday.
And now for the drama. Monday's replay attracted another wonderful crowd at Central Park, one which would have made the Leigh Committee very happy indeed. Wigan won by eleven points to five, and was thoroughly deserved. But it wasn't as straight forward as that! It had turned out that Massa Johnston, Wigan's forward, had left the pitch for a moment to change his torn jersey. Leigh protested that a rule had been broken due to this act. The general feeling, from a Wiganers' point of view, was that Leigh did a foolish and unsportsmanlike action in protesting on so trivial a ground. Leigh were thoroughly beaten. This escalated to the Northern Union authorities who met on Tuesday to order a replay, but ordered Leigh to pay their own expenses in the matter, instead of making Wigan pay them as they had full power to do. It was common knowledge that the Leigh directors were not unanimous on the decision; at least one protested on the ground that it was unsportsmanlike. The re-scheduled replay would take place the following Monday at Central Park.
As for the game itself, which was in the end voided, Wigan won by eleven points to five. A break from what happened on the first match, the Wigan forwards from the off assumed their dominance over their Leigh counterparts and slowly ground them down. The Leigh full-back Clarkson did not continue his form that he showed on the Saturday, this time being outplayed by Sharrock. Given the wider pitch at Central Park, Jimmy Leytham had more room to show his skills and profited by gaining two tries. The other try was gained by Lance Todd, who visibly deteriorated throughout the match after first getting an injury to his back on the Saturday. Joe Miller's replacement Creevey showed good signs, but spurned his chances, chances hat Joe would or could have scored himself.
With a build up of fixtures coming, and this second round Lancashire Cup tie going to a third match, the Wigan public were not so keen to watch Lancashire against Australia at Central Park on Wednesday December 2nd. Most Wiganers had opted to watch the Monday game, and most were not allowed to take more time off to watch another match. For the players involved, Creevey earned a Lancashire cap. It helped being local to Wigan, but thoroughly deserved the honour given his performance by gaining a try.
As far as the League was concerned, Wigan to this point were firmly at the top of it. Hot on their heels were Oldham and Halifax, who had played a game less but had only lost once similarly to Wigan. In the context of the season, Halifax aren't really a part of the story and Wigan did not have a fixture against them during the season. The big deal were Oldham who would go on a similar run to Wigan... but that will come...
A fixture against Salford was next on the agenda for Wigan on November 28th. Joe Miller returned from his ankle injury yet Lance Todd, still suffering the effects of his last two efforts against Leigh, was told to rest up. Wigan won via a late Massa Johnston try.
Employers in Wigan were starting to grumble at the fact that many people were asking for time off work to watch rugby. Another Monday and another Cup replay against Leigh. Third time lucky? If ever people needed to be convinced that Wigan were worthy of their place in the semi finals then there was no doubt come the end of the 80 minutes' play. Leigh were beaten soundly by seventeen points to three. Despite the Leigh club having two of their star men absent, viz., Tom Johnson and Bennett, Wigan would have won anyway. Johnson suffered a serious injury for Leigh during Saturdays engagements and it was felt with regret in Wigan circles. Despite rivalry, it was always good to show respect and honour to opponents.
The match was dominated by the Wigan backs. Joe Miller made a triumphant return to action with two fine tries; it would have been more if the Leigh full-back Clarkson wasn't in tremendous form! The same could not be said of James Leytham. Our Jimmy was having a dip in form at this present time. Massa Johnston played the match despite being very unwell. The previous evening he had the assistance of a doctor and missed a committee and players dinner whilst being at home in bed. To be fair, the game need not have much description other than Wigan were superior in every department, save for the full-back play of Leigh's Clarkson (although Sharrock was superb for Wigan).
Enthusiasm for the Lancashire Cup was by far hugely ramped up when the draw was made for the semi final. Warrington were the would-be visitors to either Central Park or Mather Lane. of course, Wigan eventually got through after three attempts. November 5 saw 20,000 cram into Central Park to witness the semi final tie of the Lancashire Cup Competition. The Warrington secretary stated that Warrington would turn out their "auxiliary Cup team' on account of their absentees. They were without their Welsh international forwards and George Brooks via ineligibility and also of their county half-back Brook who was injured. As for Wigan, they were at more or less full strength, given your choice of Barton or Blears in the forward pack.
Despite being underdogs, Warrington started the wiser. The Wire got ahead through their international man Jack Fish who clattered into a defending Sharrock and Miller to get over the line. The collision was a hard one, and when Warrington failed at goal, Fish and Sharrock were being taken off the pitch through injury. Luckily, both returned soon afterward just as Wigan went up the other end for Leytham to score in the corner after a fine bout of passing. Jimmy failed at goal to level the scores at 3-all but from now it was all Wigan.
Another fine piece of play between Johnny Thomas, Lance Todd and Bert Jenkins ended with James Leytham scoring in the corner to get his second try of the match. Despite the difficult angle, Sharrock tried his luck with a goal, which was successful and meant Wigan went in at half-time 8-3 to the good.
Fred Gleave furthered Wigan's lead to 10 points when Lance Todd ran half the length of the field and prevented the Warrington back Tilley from clearing a long punt. The resulting scrum gave Gleave the chance to get over, and Sharrock did the necessary with the boot. Wigan held on the leir lead as Warrington grabbed a score back. But in the end, Wigan won 15-10. The two sides were equally matched: Warrington the more determined, Wigan the more clinical.
Another League fixture came the following Saturday, with Warrington returning to Central Park. Wigan would be understrength a Bert Jenkins, Nat Silcock and Johnny Thomas were in London playing for the Northern Union against Australia. Did Wigan have an eye on the Lancashire Cup Final the following week? No. Gomer Gunn and Neddy Jones were more than adequate replacements for Jenkins and Thomas. Both players were county men but for Wigan's strength in depth, their first team chances were limited. Silcock's replacement was an easy one, Barton coming in. As for the opponent for the Final: Oldham.
At a meeting of the Lancashire County Union, Runcorn had brought a protest against Oldham from the other semi final tie. Their protest was dismissed as being 'frivolous'. The Final would be held at Broughton Rangers' Wheater's Field ground in Manchester on Saturday, December 19th, kick-off 2:40.
The Northern Union League table showed everyone that Wigan and Oldham were locked together: Played 14, Won 13, Lost 1 Percent 92.85. The local press were having a visual nod to this (above). Only tries and goals scored separated the two clubs and with a League match only due to be played at the end of January, the Lancashire Cup tie was seen as an early indicator of which team would stumble first en route to the Championship. Oldham were the current holders of the Lancashire Cup and it was sure to be a wrestle.
On the Monday, the Wigan committee met to consider what team to choose. They had initially chosen Creevey as a fifth three-quarter back with one less forward but on game day this experiment reverted back to default.
On a dull, rainy day, Wigan produced one paragraph in their long famous history. The railway companies never missed an opportunity when it came to Wigan, and many trains were packed full of Wiganers heading into Manchester. Despite the high ticket price, the stands were packed and despite the weather, 21,000 were inside the stadium to witness the contest, with receipts of £584 19s., it was a record for a county cup match at the time.
In the end, Wigan's team was Sharrock; Leytham, Jenkins, Todd and Miller; Gleave and Thomas; Ramsdale, Silcock, Whittaker, Barton, Johnston and Cheetham.
Both Wigan and Oldham play in cherry and white hooped jerseys, so earlier in the week, representatives of both clubs met to toss a coin. Wigan won (Slevin's luck) which meant Oldham played in their plain white jerseys. Oldham won the toss for kick-off, however, and Silcock got proceedings under way.
Wigan had the early territorial advantage on a ground that was getting heavier all the time - and the Oldham jerseys getting blacker. Punting the ball was the early order of the day. Oldham nearly got a major advantage when a kick to full-back Sharrock wasn't held on to properly. Jim had a shaky start to the game and after a juggle, eventually managed to drop onto the ball, else Oldham would have been in. Again Oldham pressed and broke the deadlock after an initial rare error from Johnny Thomas. The Wigan half-back failed to deal with a kick but just had enough time to kick the ball dead. From the resulting scrummage, a Wigan forward was penalised for being offside. The referee had clearly been keeping a hawks eyes view on the culprit. Alf Wood, the Oldham full-back opted to kick for goal. After bouncing off the crossbar, the ball went over to give Oldham a 2-0 lead.
Despite the tempo of the Wigan players being turned up, Oldham soon afterward increased their lead. The Wigan right hand edge were exposed as Joe Miller and Jim Sharrock suddenly found themselves out numbered 2 to 4. Sharp passing enabled Cook to get in at the corner, but Alf Wood this time failed to covert the goal.
Wigan were soon in. After an initial break from Bert Jenkins, Fred Gleave managed to trick the Oldham defence by drawing them in towards Leytham on his outside, but instead passed to the open Massa Johnston who bolted for the line to score. Leytham missing the conversion attempt.
Another penalty for Oldham occurred near the Wigan line after obstructing Cook by charging him after he had made a kick. Alf Wood kindly took the two points on offer.
By now, the Wigan forwards were getting the better of the Oldham pack in the scrimmage, which made Leytham make a tactical decision by bringing Massa Johnston out of the forward line and play as an extra three-quarter. The Wigan committee had toyed with this idea earlier in the week but bottled it. Leytham gave it a go. A sustained Wigan attack finally paid off when Oldham were penalised with which Sharrock added the two points just before half time was called.
With the darkness closing in, talk was had as to whether or not the match would end up being finished! Wigan started the livelier, endlessly trying all they knew how to reduce the deficit. Fred Gleave made an early break, passing to Johnny Thomas who, if his pass would have been correctly executed, would have gave Leytham a certain score. Bert Jenkins was next to break away but the whistle went for offside. Massa Johnston, now playing in the three-quarter line, did not know whether he was helping the silky combination of the Wigan backs or hindering it, or at least, a section of supporters were starting to get this impression.
Joe Miller was next to have a great effort. He broke away with a fine burst of speed but yet again ended up in touch. James Leytham drew Wigan level after Oldham were penalised. This unsettled Oldham somewhat as they seemed to be rocking for a while. The Wigan forwards, namely Silcock and Whittaker, were playing tremendously well by now. It only meant a lack of judgement by the Oldham forward would guarantee a Wigan score.
Oldham rallied and nearly went ahead when Tyson, the Oldham wing, kicked well over Sharrocks head to get away, but he stepped into touch at the wrong moment. The game now was hit for hit. Wigan attack, Oldham attack, yet the defences held firm. A penalty was awarded to Wigan after Johnston was the victim of a foul charge, yet Leytham missed the difficult attempt.
Soon after, Bert Jenkins was knocked off the ball. The touch judge apparently thought this was a case of obstruction, and came on to the field. Most of the spectators must naturally have thought a free kick to Wigan would have followed, but were very astonished to find the free kick given for the other side. Alf Wood gave Oldham a 9-7 lead with time ticking down, much to the anger and boo's coming from the Wigan supporters.
Luckily, the light did not get any worse, else the referee would have cut short the Final due to poor light. Wigan needed every second remaining to get back into the game. It did not help when Fred Gleave received an injury to his shoulder, but he managed to resume play. Wigan bombarded Oldham with everything they knew. And then...
"A try Mr. Renton!"
With time now running out and the score 10-09 in Wigan's favour, Oldham were awarded a penalty. It fell to Alf Wood win it for Oldham from quite a distance at goal. One could only imagine what the atmosphere as like at that moment. Silence? Nervousness? I would imagine it was all slow motion. Alf Wood kicking the ball, it flying through the air towards the posts, spinning in the air. Then from silence a growing roar erupting from the Wigan spectators as the ball fell under the crossbar and the referee blowing for time. Wigan had won and the spectators rushed onto the field in their thousands, the players of Oldham falling to their knees, of Wigan swamped and held in the air, mobbed.
The Cup was presented by Alderman Collinge, of Rochdale, the Lancashire president. The Wigan players eventually lined up on the grandstand, and were received with thousands of cheers from the throng that surged round.
Alderman Collinge said it was neither necessary to take up much of their time to make the presentation. He said that it had been a battle of giants that day and that it had been said many a time that when Greek met Greek then came a tug of war; and he had not the slightest doubt that both teams during the week had felt that they were going to meet opponents who would be worthy of their steel, and whom it would be a very great honour to defeat. He went on congratulating both clubs, saying how much of an honour it would be that Lancashire had two evenly matched and terrific teams. It was simply Wigan's year this year, and he knew that both clubs would contest against each other greatly during the course of the season. (He wasn't wrong, but that's another story).
James Leytham, Wigan's brilliant captain, received the cup, and thanked Alderman Collinge for what he had said. Councollor Counsell, the Wigan chairman, proposed a vote of thanks to Alderman Collinge, and the proceedings concluded on the field with three hearty cheers for the President.
The news from Broughton was received with the deepest interest in Wigan. Hundreds lined street corners and outside the Wigan Observer offices on Wallgate to hear of news from the match. There was much anxiety throughout the whole 80 minutes. Those telegrams showed how Wigan were fighting an uphill battle, and when the last one came announcing that they had finished one point ahead, the enthusiasm was unbounded. It was said that such a scene was not often seen in Wigan.
Wallgate was thronged with people at half-past seven to witness the triumphant return of the players. When they did arrive, there were thousands of people outside of the station. Two char-a-bancs, each drawn by six horses, were drawn up. One was occupied by the Old Borough Band that played "See the conquering hero comes", the other was soon filled with the players ad members of the committee, and as they drove off, with Councillor Counsell waving the Lancashire Cup aloft his head, the air resounded with the cheers of the people. A drive was undertaken round the town, and the progress of the party was enthusiastic in the extreme.
There were some absentees. The most notable of which was captain James Leytham who had rushed back to his home in Lancaster to attend to his wife who was in the process of giving birth! Isabel Leytham was born, the first of three children Jim would have. The other absentee was Lancelot Todd. Upon arriving back at Wallgate, Todd hurriedly made his way to the New Royal Court Theatre to take up his position in "The Geisha!". Lance was a very active member of the local amateur operatic society and was due on stage that evening. He missed the celebrations that went around town but instead, he was to have his own congratulations on stage. Mr. Arthur Ellis had included within his Rajah song a verse referring to Wigan's victory, and the fact of "Catching Oldham bending" the Cup was brought to the stage. Lance proudly held the Cup aloft whilst the audience applauded heartily.