West Lancashire and Border Towns Union Cup -1889
The greatest trophy that Wigan won before we won the Lancashire Senior League during the 1901-02 season was undoubtedly the West Lancs Trophy! To give its full name, the West Lancashire and Border Towns Rugby Football Union competition was competed for by teams in and around West Lancashire. Elsewhere I shall try and write about the West Lancs Cup as a whole. Let's get straight into it...
The opening round of the competition started on the first weekend of March (4th). Wigan were drawn against an old friend from yesteryear in Southport Olympic. The Olympic were not the force they once were but a committed band of Old Boys help keep the club together since their stronger days of the late 1870s and early 1880s. It was good for Wigan to play them again just to meet old acquaintances if nothing else. It was 100% certain that Wigan would win. The fixture list is below. Apart from Wigan, Tyldesley (with England International "Buff" Berry) and Aspull were seen as the strongest to lift the trophy at the end of March. St. Helens weren't the force we'd assume they were back then, although they were a growing organisation. Some notable absentees from this fixture list are St. Helens Recreation (arguably the stronger of the glass-town teams) and inaugural winners Warrington and Leigh. These three clubs for example were still on the committee of the Union but did not enter for 1889.
The Woodman Rovers were a junior Wigan District team who often supplied the town team with players once they blossomed. The "Pluckies" as they were called had a fantastic run in the West Lancs junior competition prior to this senior comp. Lesser rated sides, for context, were Boothstown, Blackrod, Litherland, Tuebrook, Eccles and Pemberton. St Helens and Walkden fell into the possible finalists category too.
Round 1 - Weekend of 2nd March, 1889
On to the game with Southport. The game with the Olympic happened on a monday evening because money talks. Wigan had a home tie against St Helens Recreation on the Saturday which attracted a large gate of 6,000 paying spectators (we won). Kindly, Southport agreed to the Monday gig AT Wigan instead of the drawn Southport trip. As for the other other fixtures on the Saturday: Tyldesley 16 Boothtown 1; Pemberton 28 Eccles 9; Aspull 6 St. Helens 0; Tuebrook 13 Woodman Rovers 7; Walkden of course got a bye. Blackrod and Litherland were still to play.
For the Southport game then as stated in this match report, Wigan were aided by a couple of second teamers. Against the "Recs" on the Saturday, Wigan were more or less full strength.
Pilkington, the fullback; Hunter, the half back; Atkinson, Brayshay, Lowe and Dempsey, the forwards, were all rested. Of course, being a Monday evening tie there was still an issue of being available from work but in general Wigan had a good relationship with local businesses and collieries to allow their players to leave early. Here, simply, Wigan didn't need to be full strength and to be honest not much more can be said of the tie!
Aspull had a tussle of a tie away at St Helens, having several men absent but such was the strength of their second team they edged out victors into round 2 in front of a healthy attendance of 5,000. 300 enthusiastic Pembetonians travelled the fair distance to Eccles, much to the surprise of the 'quiet locals'. A young John Winstanley (who later joined Wigan in 1893-94 made a star contribution to an easy win. The other local Wigan team, the young "Pluckies" of Woodman Rovers ran out of steam losing out to the senior Tuebrook 11-7.
The second round draw was made before the Southport match and was as follows:
Aspull v Pemberton
Tuebrook v Walkden
Tyldesley v Wigan (or Southport Olympic)
Blackrod v Litherland
The first drawn teams had the choice which ground they played on and the referees, it stated, were to wire the results of the matches straight after the match to Mr. F.T. Parry, Stag's Head, Hood Street, Liverpool. I like the way this worked the technology they had back then!
Round 2 - Weekend of 9th March, 1889
A year earlier, Wigan faced Tyldesley in the semi final of this competition, played at Warringtons' Wilderspool stadium in front of a giant 10,000 spectators. Tyldesley had the better day on their way to their West Lancs Cup triumph. So now, Jim Slevin and his men wanted to avenge that defeat. It wasn't to be so easy.
Fully seven-thousand spectators, many from Wigan taking advantage of cheap train tickets, lined the ropes at Tyldesley's ground. Both teams were full strength, Wigan welcoming back those who missed Mondays tie. Unusually Slevin lost the toss. Jim had a knack of winning tosses, quite an expert. Losing meant Wigan had to start the match kicking against a strong wind. The game was a tough battle during the first half, play went up the middle with glimpses of back play that saw Slevin make a few short kicks which came to nothing other than good field position.
Wigan finally broke through when Billy Halliwell kicked across to Mitchinson who nearly got over the line. From the loose scrimmage, Dicky Seddon dropped a goal giving Wigan a lead of 6 points. From this moment Tyldesley attacked and besieged the Wigan line. After mounting pressure, "Buff" Berry, the International, was awarded a try, much to Wigan's Ellis Wardle's objections that he in fact touched down. Their kicker Shaw missed an almost certain kick. At half time the score stood 6-4 in Wigans favour.
On the change of ends, it was heard by the match reporter that some supporters were prophesying an easy Wigan victory given the strong wind in their favour. Tight play again resulted from the restart. Slevin saved a good chance of a try from Tyldesley when the "Bongers" dribbled the ball almost the full length of the field, Jim kicking dead just in time. The ball seemed to rest in the middle for much of the second half although Wigans fullback Pilkington made an attempt at goal, just going wide. Not even a minor point was registered in the second 40 and at the call of time, the score read 6-4. Due to the unique rules of the West Lancashire Comp (note that scores are numerical unlike "1 Goal 2 Tries 3 minors" for example) Wigan and Tyldesley had drawn the game as there was no clear winner. On consultation, an extra 10 minutes each way was agreed upon. This extra twenty minutes' play proved fruitless as, try as they might, neither team could gain a clear advantage. It was said that it was one of the hardest games ever fought.
The Wigan team were in good form, Mitchinson, Halliwell and the Old Dog Slevin being repeatedly applauded, while Seddon, who played injured, played well too. The game headed for a replay, Wigan's first replayed game and also first match that went into extra time! (concerning a Wigan match).
Before we see how Wigan got on in the replay here are the results of the second round matches. Litherland and Blackrod finally got to meet to settle their differences but Tuebrook may have wished they needn't have bothered against Walkden. As with many a Pemberton game, it wasn't all too easy for the dark blues of Aspull. Pemberton were known to have quite a bad reputation when it came to their supporters (Norley Hall Massiv Innit) and they didn't disappoint. Aspull had led comfortably and when a try was disallowed by the referee for Pem (quite rightly they were offside) the Pemberton supporters saw this as a starting gun for their torment. Upon leaving the field at the end of the game, Mr. McLean, the referee, was surrounded by Pemberton spectators and brutally kicked. Some Aspull men came to McLeans aid in time before it got any more serious. The Pemberton clubs version of events stated that Aspull had told the press that the Pemberton players had incited the spectators to mob the referee. Pemberton were on the defensive as always and even called on Aspull to apologise for their version of events if the West Lancs Committee had an investigation that proved anything differently. The Pemberton players however were not involved in the attack on the ref.
The draw for the semi final ties were as follows:
Wigan or Tyldesley v Walkden - played at Leigh
Aspull v Litherland - played at Widnes
the Final was to commence on the 30th March.
The replay with Tyldesley saw Dick Seddon miss out due to an injury with his leg, which he had limped through a week previous. Baldwin came into Dickies place. here is the report.
The Athletic News at this point was talking of a Wigan v Aspull final even before the semi finals having been played. Walkden were an emerging team and in time would win the competition eventually. Aspull though, would find Litherland quite an easy scalp.
Semi Final - Weekend of 23rd March
However, the Wigan supporters did not care much for the semi final at Leigh. They may have read the Athletic News and almost any other publication citing an easy Wigan win. Jim Slevin was absent after picking up an injury against Tyldesley and Wigan were still without Seddon. Hunter and Baldwin filled in the three-quarters whilst Ellis Wardle made his usual cameo in the halves, taking Hunters place alongside Billy "Smiler" Halliwell.
To start with, the weather was fine but within five minutes spitting turned into full rain, meaning slippyness. I cannot say much for this tie as the premier points came right at the end via a try from Wigan forward Dempsey. Ellis Wardle failed at goal. It was a fairly well contested match. It was apparent that Wigan did not need to exert themselves too much, keeping Walkden at arms length. The Wigan backs hardly had chance to shine given the state of the pitch getting muddier and slippier as time went on. It was fitting that Dempsey gained the try, justice to a tough slog in the middle of the field for 70 or so minutes.
Wigan won the tie by 1 try and 5 minor points to nil. Next stop, the final.
For Pemberton however, things were not looking rosey at all. At a special meeting of the Union, the question of holding another meeting was asked regarding whether to suspend Pemberton. The Unions secretary had suggested that all the members of the West Lancashire Union be asked to sign the requisition.
WIGAN VERSUS ASPULL
Here at earlyWIGANrugby I cannot stress enough how big this game was. It was the Wigan-Saints of the pre-Northern Union and this tie between a small colliery village and a small colliery town in a dirty (lovely surely?) corner of West Lancashire attracted the largest crowds of any code of football, dwarfing gates seen at at Glasgow Rangers, Aston Villa or Blackburn Rovers. The rivalry was bitter. The two clubs operated in different fixture circles for many years, only drawn together in Cup matches, which, back then, were THE games to view. Aspull had the upper hand when it came to the West Lancashire Cup, they beat Wigan in the final of the 1887 competition, played at Fairfield in Liverpool quite convincingly (although Wigan had their excuses that day, eg, witnessing a death at Wallgate station due to a crush on the platform). Aspull too had lowered Wigans colours on many occasions during the Wigan Union Charity Cup Finals of late. I could go on, a book could easily be written between the two... But we went again: Wigan vs Aspull...
Final: Wigan v Aspull - 30th March 1889
The rallying call by "Crossbar" in the Wigan Observer needn't have been written. Wigan could play Aspull anytime anywhere and the crowds would flock. Tremendous interest was had in the borough as the village of Aspull drained itself of inhabitants, swelling the railway platform at Dicconson Lane train station and headed to St Helens. Special facilities were offered by the railway company, and from Wigan the numbers that availed themselves of the cheap fares were enormous. Both sets of supporters thought their men would have the upper hand but all sets of supporters agreed that the game would be a close one.
The Final tie was held at the Recreation Ground, St. Helens, and every preparation was made for the expected large crowd. Crowd estimates ranged from 7,000 to 8,000+ depending on which match report you read. The two teams arrived in St. Helens earlier in the morning and rested in hotels before battle commenced. Captain Jim Slevin jumped the ropes with his men behind, who consisted of the following:
J. Pilkington, fullback; J. Slevin (captain), R. Seddon, J. Mitchinson, three-quarter backs; J. Hunter, W. Halliwell, halfbacks; W. Atkinson, T. Brayshay, E. Wardle, J. Lowe, E. Bullough, E. Dempsey, J. Hatton, J. Telford, and S. Swift, forwards
T. R. Jackson, fullback; J. Baines, E. Morris, J. Roberts, three-quarter backs; J. Cartwright, "Daff" Hulme (captain), halfbacks; J. Lindsay, Jas. Lindsay, T. Mulroy, T. Monks, J. Donnelly, G.Croston, W. Haydock, J. W. Holding and W.H. Birchall, forwards
Referee: Mr. Beswick, Swinton
Umpires (neutral): J. Barnes, sen. and T. Finney
Wigan were full strength. At half past three the coin toss was had amid the greatest excitement. Slevin uncharacteristically lost the toss, and Billy Atkinson began proceedings...
Pure joy! An immense crowd gathered round the grandstand, where the Cup was on exhibition, at the close of the match, and tremendous cheers were given for Wigan.
Mr Parry, as secretary of the West Lancashire Rugby Union, said that it was his great pleasure, in the absence of the Mayor of St. Helens, to ask the president of the St. Helens Football Club to present the cup. They would all agree with him that Wigan deserved the victory and that they had tried to get their hands on the trophy for a good many years, and had at last succeeded! He continued stating that when the Cup competition began back in 1884, the rugby game was not nearly so popular as at present, and at the present time, with all due respect to the Association game, it was "not in it", like the man who fell out of the balloon. The crowd laughed at that dark joke which was a reference to, I assume, an accident in the North Sea by a Dutchman.
Mr. J.T. Mearns said he had much pleasure in presenting the cup on behalf of the executive of the West Lancashire Union. He endorsed Mr. Parry's remarks with respect to the Association game that it was not to be compared with the Rugby code in West Lancashire, and he as also sure about it in St. Helens. He hoped that Aspull would not be discouraged by their defeat but that they would try again until they are in possession of the cup for a second time.
Mr. Mearns continued by stating that everyone was glad to see Slevin present, to loud applause. He had long been a favourite in the football world, and they had as good an opinion of him and the game he played in St. Helens as anywhere. They were fully agreed that he was a most gentlemanly player. On behalf of the executive of the West Lancashire Union, he had the great pleasure in handing the cup to Slevin, the captain of the Wigan team. At this point there was loud and "continued cheering".
On Behalf of the Wigan players Slevin sincerely thanked Mr. Mearns for the presentation. There was no one more pleased than himself that they had won the cup, and he hoped that they would stick to it. With respect to the losing team, they had given them a good game, and he wished them to give three cheers for Aspull. levin was then carried shoulder high off the ground
I wish I was there.
For Aspull, their supporters headed home disappointed. A letter in the Wigan Observer suggested that Aspull only "wished a fair field, an honest referee - who would give him his decision without fear or favour - and they would have played Wigan in the "Legs of Man" (Wigan HQ) yard had it been large enough for football purposes". Diddums. In reply, a Wiganer stated that the author was "the last of the empty-headed silly ones out Aspull way. I should have thought that four defeats in succession by one club would have taken the nonsensical bounce out of anyone".
Those Wigan Slevinites indeed! The Wigan forwards were in top form with Billy Atkinson and Tom Brayshay the pick of the strong men. The halfbacks of Hunter and Halliwell, for Wigan, and Cartwright and "Daff" Hulme, for Aspull, were about as equally matched as you could get on a football field. Slevin never played a better game and his throng of supporters were proud of him. He kicked with great judgement, and set his men a good example in playing a temperate, cool game. Dick Seddon, who was still suffering with a dodgy leg, gave a great account of himself.
It was party time back in Wigan once the thousands of supporters returned that evening at Wallgate station. The Wigan team spent the next day having an enjoyable excursion via wagonette to Southport in celebration. (So Wigan travel to Southport when it suits eh?)
As for Pemberton, who had the honour of being suspended by a committee who had no power to suspend, were now reinstated to the competition as it turned out.
The West Lancashire and Border Towns Union Cup competition was the high point to date of the Wigan Club. Slevins men would go on to defeat Poolstock a month later in the Charity Cup final (Aspull decided to withdraw but that's another story) which meant the first Double Cup season. They'd achieve that feat again the following season when the Cup competition turned into a League format in a season where Wigan defeated Swinton on New Years Day 1890 to, unofficially, become Champions of Lancashire. This was the golden era of Wigan Rugby before the great split of 1895 and needs to be recognised. The most important trophy won until the 1901-02 season when the club on the Lancashire Senior competition (basically division 2 title) and indeed the Lancashire Cup fully for the first time in 1905.
Those Wigan Slevinites!
*Thanks to Neil Ormston for the photographs