Of all the players that had played for the Wigan Rugby Football Club, none stand above James Slevin. He was the most famous and important player the Wigan Club would have until James Leytham journeyed South in 1903. Today, Jim is forgotten and unknown to almost anyone connected with the game of rugby in the town. This is not right.
James Slevin was born on the 29th November, 1861 in Ireland, stood 5ft. 11in., and weighed 13.5st. "He possessed a fine and powerful physique, great speed, and a wonderful tackling and handing-off power". He was born to play Rugby. As said a feature on him from the Liverpool Echo in 1890.
Jim attended the Wigan Grammar School and had a gift for speed and running. He started aged 14 in a local athletics competition winning his running race. In September 1877, Jim won a quarter-mile handicap race in a smidge under 61 seconds. He could also run 110 yards, aged 16 in around 12.4 seconds. He was a member and captain of the Wigan Hare and Hounds Club. He was a fine hurdler. He was a prolific winner, his biggest wins being over the 220 yard hurdles at Preston and Wigan in 1881 and 1882, at Rainhill and Wigan in 1883 and plenty more besides.
He had all the qualities for a rugby player. It was at the Hare and Hounds Club that he, along with other notable members such as W.L. Baldwin and A. Hodgkinson, formed the Wigan Wasps aged 18.
He was a remarkable athlete, full of energy and speed it was natural that the rugby game would suit his qualities.
His career at Wigan spanned from 1879-1891 and was Captain for the best part of it. He was a three-quarter back playing mainly on the right wing and had held the Wigan try scoring record until James Leytham turned up at the start of the 20th century.
His debut came against Chorley St. Lawrences on November 8, 1879, playing at half-back alongside J. Baines. The next game, however, against St. Elizabeths, Aspull, would see Jim settle himself onto the wing position for the rest of his career. "...strange to say, I have commenced and continued the same place all through my football experience. I have thought several times that I am getting too heavy for football, but with the slightest bit of exercise I seem to come to my old form". Speaking during an interview in 1888, Slevin added that he was losing his speed as he aged, but adapted his play to dodge opponents, which more than made up for his loss of pace.
During the earlier years, when Wigan Wasps turned into the simpler Wigan Rugby Club, Slevin was happy to leave the captaincy to others such as Charlie Cronshaw or Charles Holt. Slevin was a quiet man but did his proverbial talking on the rugby field. He led by example.
Speaking in later life of his time when the Wigan Wasps were starting to get on their feet, Slevin found the conditions at Upper Dicconson Street hard going, "For some time we battled in the open, but we became sufficiently enterprising in time to have the enclosure canvassed round, and we well remember Charlie Cronshaw obtaining the collecting boxes from St. Thomas's Church to enable us to make a collection at matches."
As for his statistics:
APPEARANCES - 290
TRIES - 131
TROPHIES - 8
If he were to be included in any try scoring chart for the Wigan Club, he would sit inside the all-time top 20 try scorers ahead of the likes of Lance Todd, Andrew Farrell and Pat Richards. He was a very popular footballer not only in Lancashire but in the country. Touring sides often asked how Jim was doing and he was a key factor in clubs such as Cardiff and Neath taking Wigan on board when the colliers made their annual trips to South Wales. When Wigan played Salford, arriving at the train station the Wigan team were mobbed with enthusiastic supporters from Salford asking "Is Slevin here? Is Slevin playing today?"
The game was much different back then and was arguably a lot harder to score a try. It was a remarkable achievement. Slevin was mercurial when it came to scoring tries. Saying this, it took Jim a good while to get going. The first couple of seasons since 1879, the Wigan club were still trying to fill fixtures and actually play them. It wasn't until the 1883/84 season that Slevin had managed to score regularly. Each season with Wigan, Slevin was the clubs top try scorer until he retired, even with other notable players such as 'Jack' Anderton, Hindley Smith and Dickie Seddon.
He had an amazing knack for winning the coin toss, indeed, it was often reported as quite a shock when Slevin lost a coin toss such was his success rate. He was respected by all his men. Even on Tour, it was reported that on a trip back from South Wales, chief prankster Jack Anderton would have many players on edge and couldn't sleep knowing that Jack would do anything given the opportunity. All players except Jim, nobody, not even Jack, would attempt to get at Slevin. Not that he was mean, angry or tough, quite the opposite, he was respected.
The more successful Wigan were, the more success Slevin gained. He won eight trophies with Wigan before retiring: The Wigan Union Charity Cup on six occasions and the West Lancs Cup twice. Indeed, his last game for Wigan (before coming back twice more in the next few years) was a Cup win against Aspull in 1891, as captain.
The captaincy became Jim's permanently at the start of the 1886-87 season after the retirement of Charles Holt. It also coincided with Wigans move to Prescott Street but he didn't forget his memories of Folly Field.
"We fought many a gallant fight on the Dicconson-street ground, more particularly with our formidable neighbours of Aspull. Somehow or other I always fancied the Dark Blues frightened us; the en from the Moorlands were in those days a power, and they continued to be so until such players as Dicky Sedon, Pilkington, and charlie samuels were induced to come across their own order and throw in their lot with Wigan. Those Charity Cup struggles, however, served a very good object, for some of the 'gates' produced upwards of £100 in aid of the Infirmary"
Indeed, Slevin had many a good game and some memorable great tries were scored by him. In particular against Manningham on February 2nd, 1888; "Manningham were a crack side in those days. During the encounter I received the leather in my own twenty-five, and after handing-off a few of the opposition ran the full length for the try. The Tykes claimed that I had gone into touch, and as the referee declined to give a decision on the point, an appeal was lodged with the County Authority, which awarded us the try". Indeed, the Wigan press were furious. It states that the referee told the two captains to settle the matter themselves with Slevin ordering Tom Brayshay to make a place and try for goal (he missed the conversion). Once time was called, the referee stood in the centre of the field and waited to be escorted off by policemen!
His final game for Wigan entitled him to have another contender for his greatest try, maybe, he saved his best 'til last. Crossbar writing in his Football Notes in the Wigan Observer after Wigans Cup Final win over Aspull comments on the following.
"Just as much scoring took place in the second half, slevin breaking through the Aspull defence. Here I must make a pause, in order to give the captain's effort it's due notice. I have no hesitation in saying that this try was the finest Slevin has ever got, and I question very much whether a more brilliant piece of business has ever been done on a football field.If it has I should like to have seen it, that is all. W. Halliwell (smiler) was seen careering across the field towards Slevin. Reaching the quarter flag his way was barred by two or three sturdy Aspullites, and Halliwell turned the ball over to Slevin, for the purpose, I suppose, of kicking, which seemed the only thing to do. The captain thought otherwise, for he whisked round the two or three Aspullites named and rushed on. The course was anything but an open one, but Slevin threaded his way beautifully, eluding all opposition in the most brilliant fashion, and completing a magnificent run from his own 25 by sprinting right behind the posts amid a storm of applause. Well played, Slevin!".
Slevin's own thoughts on great performances brought him to a match against a hand-picked team by the Athletic News's editor Tom Sutton. Sutton brought a team packed full of internationals and county men to play Wigan on March 23rd 1890. "On that occasion, I had the distinction of registering three tries, and also dropped a goal, whilst the local representatives had the honour of sending home internationals and county men without any of the laurels" he told the Wigan Examiner in an interview many years later.
earlyWIGANrugby's finest moment for Slevin came on New Years Day 1890 when they faced Swinton in a match seen as whoever won were the Champions of Lancashire. You can read about it here . It was a battle of the Jims: Valentine and Slevin. If it wasn't for Jim Valentine, the International three-quarter, Slevin would have had countless County honours. Jim Slevin took his men and 3-4,000 Wiganers to Swinton and won. Slevins finest moment in my eyes.
Jim also was selected to tour with the first English team to visit the Colonies in 1888, "As a matter of fact, I had the agreement in my possession, but I did not sign it, and Jack Anderton went out in my stead". What could have been!
Jim Slevin photograph from an interview with the Wigan Examiner
At the end of the 1889-90 season, Wigan's most successful to date, Slevin asked to resign as the captain of the club at the clubs AGM meeting. Of course, nobody would allow this to happen. Earlier in the season at the turn of the year, Slevin changed his mind on retiring from Wigan as he had an offer of work in South Wales. He changed his mind luckily. Of course, when the 1890-91 season came into life, Slevin was in full armour captaining the side for another season. He finally retired at the AGM in 1891. Jack Anderton had raised the issue as to next seasons captain, and to loud applause he suggested that Slevin to continue in the role. "I beg of you to retire! I've been running and footballing for seventeen years and I think it is time to have a rest". All men in the room knew it was coming. The batton was passed onto Dick Seddon to elad wigan into a new era.
Joe Clegg, the Wigan secretary and footballing Old Boy, immediately pushed for an amendment to the rules whereby the number of vice-presidents should be raised to four, instead of three, to honour Slevin in recognition of his work at Wigan. Slevin stayed on the board for many years and was a popular regular at Central Park where he would escape from the stresses of his job as the Chief Electrical Engineer for the Wigan Borough. Even in the days of Leytham and Sharrock, the wigan crowd often referred to "Slevin's Chuck" which was a sort of sleight of hand trick with the ball to beat opponents.
Today it is hard to believe that Slevin is not remembered alongside the names of Boston, Ashton, Sullivan and Hanley. If it was not for James Slevin and men such as Chalie Cronshaw, Wigan would be an Association Football town. That is a fact. He was the greatest Wigan player until James Leytham turned up and then again until Jim Sullivan took up residence for, it seemed, forever. We need to remember James Slevin.
Today he lies in an unmarked grave at Ince, Wigan. He died 31st July, 1917 at his home in Swinley from pneumonia after a brief illness. His funeral being a private family affair.
With my skill set I cannot fully do justice to how great James Slevin was but believe when I state that he is more than worthy of a Hall of Fame induction.
Jim Slevin's unmarked resting place, Wigan Cemetery, Ince. Each year, as with Charles Cronshaw close by earlyWIGANrugby shall remember Jim and family.