Some Reminiscences with... Joe Leech
Joseph Leech worked for the Wigan Examiner during this golden age that is covered on these pages at earlyWIGANrugby. He wrote series after series on the Wigan club, including player interviews, match reports and opinions. In 1914 he enlisted into the War, and after a short period of training he was sent out to France to help with the Allied war effort. Mucking in with everyone else, he did. It was his skills as a shorthand writer where his role changed within his Regiment. He spent a good three years in I, suppose, a relatively safe(r) position at the Regiment headquarters before he was assigned to a new Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, and was sent out with them to France.
He was lucky enough to spend a week sightseeing in Paris at the end of the War, and on his return to Wigan, he was informed that he had been awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre for his three years good work in the Orderly Room. When the War ended, he resumed his duties in the journalistic arena, which gave us many a good story.
In 1946, he was the Editor of the Wigan Examiner and produced a booklet: "Soccer and Rugby: 50 Years of Association Football in Wigan". Here, I will share what he wrote. But firstly, a big thanks to Wigan fan and eWr follower John White for sharing this! I hope you will find interesting.
The match at Prescott Street ground which stands out in my memory was the one against Oldham, on Good Friday, 1896. I did not get on the ground in the orthodox way, and I saw little of the play. The entrance to the ground in Cricket Street, off Prescott Street, was closely packed with spectators anxious to watch the match and two lots of turnstiles were quite inadequate to cope with the crowd. There was a system in those days of selling boys' tickets from a yard in Cricket Street, and the crush was so great that the yard wall was pushed over. Hundreds of people swarmed over the railings without payment because they failed to get through the turnstiles. Officials and others collected money from many who entered the ground that way. Wigan won by 18 points to 5.
The field was surrounded by spike railings and it was not an unusual occurrence for the ball to drop on them and burst, so that the Club had to have a good supply of balls for such eventualities.
There was no dressing room accommodation on the ground; the players of both teams dressed at the Three Crowns Hotel, Standishgate, and at other times at the Legs of Man and the Railway Hotel, Dorning Street. They were conveyed in a horse drawn wagonette along Frog Lane and Prescott Street.
In those days, when the telephone was more or less in its infancy, results of matches played away were telegraphed to Mr. Ashton, tobacconist, in Wallgate. For very important matches, a large crowd gathered in the vicinity of that shop and when the telegraph messenger was seen to enter there was a rush to the window to see the result on the telegram.
SHAKING HANDS WITH SCORER
Tries were not scored in the Prescott Street days with the same regularity that they are now. When Jim Barr, who had just recently signed on for Wigan, scored a magnificent try and was was walking back along the touchline, arms were stretched out and scores of delighted spectators shook hands with him. It was the only occasion that I have seen a player congratulated in this way during the progress of a match.
How many people remember Groves United, of Hull, playing a Northern Union Cup-tie at Prescott Street? Wigan were drawn against them away, in 1899, but for a guarantee Groves agreed to play the match at Wigan, and were beaten by 28 pts. to 3. This was the highest score recorded by Wigan under Northern Union rules on that ground, the next biggest being 25 against Liversedge in 1896.
In a match between Wigan and Rochdale Hornets, at Rochdale, on March 19, 1910, a spectator made a bet that Wigan would win and he "gave ten points." At half-time Rochdale held a lead of eleven points to nil, and as Wigan would have to score 22 pts. more than their opponents in the second-half for him to win his bet, the man who gave points paid out during the interval. He "paid for his learning." Wigan scored 24 pts. to the Hornets' nil and thus won by a margin of 13 pts. The spectator who had won his bet refused to accept the return of his money.
TRAINING AT THE SEASIDE
Only once, I believe, did Wigan go to the seaside for a week's training for an important Cup-tie. That was in 1907, when they were drawn to oppose Salford, away, in the second round of the Northern Union Cup Competition. They players did not seem to have benefited as a result of their stay at the seaside -they were beaten by 18 pts. to 5.
In season 1908-09 Wigan were drawn against Wakefield Trinity in the Northern Union Cup semi-final at Wheater's Field, Broughton. As Wigan had to play St. Helens at Central Park on the previous day, Good Friday, they selected the second team for that match in order to rest their first team players. St. Helens had great difficulty in beating the Wigan reserves - by 8 pts. to 6. Wakefield Trinity, however, defeated Wigan by 14 pts. to 2.
CONFIDENCE IN SULLIVAN
Jim Sullivan kicked such a vast number of goals, and his fame had spread almost throughout the country, thus some spectators at other Clubs' grounds seemed surprised when he filed to kick a goal, even from a very difficult position. I went with Wigan to Newcastle in March, 1938. When Sullivan was taking a shot at goal from a wide angle and fairly long range, a spectator in front of the Press Box exclaimed, "I'll lay six to four he kicks it." Probably the fact that the bet was not taken was because other people had quite as much faith in Sullivan as the man who offered six to four. Sullivan did not kick a goal on that instance.
Another Jim who was widely known and whose brilliant football attracted large crowds was Jim Leytham. I had an unusual experience at Oldham before the 1914-18 war. The train on which I was travelling stopped for some time at the hill a few miles outside Oldham. It was packed with followers of the Wigan club, and many of us who had doubts about reaching the ground in time, left the train and began the long trek to the ground. When I arrived I was informed by one of the thousands outside that the gates had been closed. "I shall get on," I said. The spectator, who looked very disappointed, told me that he had travelled nearly eighty miles to see Jimmy Leytham play and he could not get on the ground. "I'll give you five shillings," he said, "if you can get me on."
When Leytham scored the first try against the New Zealanders in that memorable match on November 9, 1907, the spectators near the corner on the "popular" side leaned against the fence with such force to see him running for the line that they broke the fence down.
Leytham was the finest exponent of the kick past the opposing full-back I have ever seen. He timed the kick so perfectly that he usually caught the ball on the first bounce. After the match, George Smith, the New Zealand wing three-quarter, who subsequently signed for Oldham, said, "I'm not going back until I can get that short kick through of Leytham's off the perfection."
After one cup final against Oldham at Broughton, a Wigan player was walking to the dressing room. "Aren't you coming for the presentation?" he was asked, "What's the use," he said, "when we've lost." Wigan had won.
WIGAN, THE UNBEATEN TEAM
When Wigan went to play Leigh in October, 1908, they were unbeaten and their supporters were very proud of the fact. Two 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.
There were some very amusing incidents during the Rugby League Cup-tie between Wigan and Flimby & Fothergill, at Central Park, in 1925. It will be remembered that Wigan won by the record score of 116 pts. to nil. Tries were scored with great frequency and some of the opposing players got tired of walking a considerable distance to their own line while Jim Sullivan kicked goals. Some of them eventually began to hide behind Wigan players and one remained standing behind a police officer. In fact the players did anything to avoid the walk to their own line. The number of tries scored was 24 and Sullivan kicked 22 goals. Although so badly beaten, Flimby & Fothergill were quite happy: they shared the biggest "gate" of their career.
Another cup-tie against a junior team was that which Wigan played at Askern Welfare Ground, Doncaster, in 1933. There was a crowd of about 5,000 and in order to prevent people watching the match free a large stretch of canvas had been erected on the road side of the ground. It was a cold day and I remember the envious glances of some Wigan followers when the Askern officials brought hot coffee to the Press table at half-time. The table was fixed close to the touch line.
Tom Howley, the international centre three-quarter, was a great practical joker. On the trip to Australia with the touring side, one of the players mentioned that he required a haircut.
"The barber's very expensive," said Howley. "If you like, I'll cut your hair." The player consented and Howley carried out the operation. The result was by no means what the other player had expected and he did not hear the last of that haircut for a long time.
With utmost thanks of course to John White for the source material.