November 10th, 1888. That was was the date when a Wiganer, or at least a Wigan player, first represented Lancashire County. Billy Atkinson, the Great Wigan forward was the player who first gained this honour in Wigan colours, an honour that was very much long overdue on the County scene!
Back 'in day, the Lancashire Rugby Union first started on their County match journey on November 19th, 1881 against Cheshire, played at Whalley Range, Manchester. The timeless A.N. "Monkey" Hornby (below) captained the fledgling Lancashire team that day, playing at fullback. Hornby was an England international (and still is only one of two men to have captained England at Cricket and Rugby). He hailed from the Manchester club.
The make-up of Lancashire then consisted of six players from Manchester, four from Broughton, two from Swinton and singles from Manchester Free Wanderers (MFW), Rochdale Hornets and Cheetham. At the time, rugby had the power in Manchester and Liverpool. Places like St Helens and Wigan did not have much, if any, influence in these circles. Two more matches for Lancashire were played during the 1881-2 season; against Yorkshire and The Midlands. More debutants appeared as time went on of course, but they were still players from either the immediate areas of Manchester or Liverpool. Walton saw their first representative appear against Yorkshire on 26 November 1881, allowing the Liverpudlian Old Boy clubs to see representation at County level.
Slowly as the seasons ticked by, single players from Bolton and Oldham made an appearance for the Red Rose but even in 1884, the make-up of the Lancashire team was still dominated by the Manchester, Swinton and Broughton clubs, as well as Liverpool, free Wanderers and Broughton Rangers.
According to Tony Collins, the first type of football played in Manchester was of the rugby code and not association football. When the Lancashire Union was et up in 1881, the powerful Manchester club was automatically entitled to the roles of President, Secretary and Treasurer with all home matches to be played at the Manchester clubs Whalley Range ground (Tony Collins, Rugby Reloaded #157). So it was no wonder that the Manchester club and surrounding friends had dominated selection.
In places like Wigan, Warrington and West Lancashire, the rugby code was flourishing. In the cities of Liverpool and Manchester, the threat and popularity of association football was growing exponentially by the mid-1880s. Fed up of a lack of representation at county level, several clubs banded together to form the West Lancashire and Border Towns Union in 1885. Players like Jim Slevin, Charles Holt and Daff Banks of Wigan, Harry Speakman of Runcorn and Johnny Roberts of Aspull were present in West Lancashire's inaugural fixture against Batley in mid-September 1885.
Around this time when clubs like Wigan, Aspull and St. Helens Recreation were growing in reputation and starting to become more powerful than the older city clubs, association football made us see a clear shift in team selections. At a meeting in 1886 of the Lancashire Rugby Union, "alarm" was raised at the rapid rise of soccer in the area. A delegate from the Werneth club proposed to create a Lancashire Cup competition to rival that of the Yorkshire Cup and to rekindle interest in rugby (Tony Collins). Over in the West Lancashire competition, a cup competition had begun in March 1886 with a simple knock-out format. The Lancashire Rugby Union of sorts thought that by introducing a Cup competition would see a flirtation of professionalism, as had been rumoured over in Yorkshire. West Lancashire ploughed on.
It was not until January 1887 when the first representative from West Lancashire finally made it on to the Lancashire County scene: Fair Turner of Warrington. Turner only managed to play twice for Lancashire (against Durham and Somerset) but we were in. By 1887, the Swinton and Salford clubs were becoming very powerful organisations in Manchester. Against Cheshire in November 1887, Swinton had three representatives, whilst Salford also had three. But the names of Jim Valentine, Jim Mills, Harry Eagles and Rob Seddon were seen as a catalyst for what was to come in the future.
Within the immediate vicinities of Wigan and district, January 28th 1888 saw J. Pilkington, the Aspull fullback become the second West Lancashire player to represent Lancashire. Aspull at that time were a formidable outfit, touring places like Cardiff, Llanelli and Neath whilst also being the Champions of West Lancashire. By that November, West Lancashire had made more inroads with having a massive three representatives play against Cheshire. All three were in the forward pack: G. Woodward of Tyldesley, W. Dillon of Warrington and Wigan's own Billy Atkinson.