A chat with... Johnny Roberts
The name of Johnny Roberts was for a considerable period familiar to thousands of enthusiasts in West Lancashire, and his prowess in the arena received general recognition among his fellows. We find his early career briefly sketched in a copy of "The Cricketers' Herald and Football Times," in it's issue of the 10th March, 1886. Roberts first saw the light of day on the 19th of October, 1865. At the age of fifteen, when he was connected with a Sunday school at New Springs, he and a number of colleagues desirous of participating in the winter pastime decided to form a club, which wa called the New Springs F.C. For a time this organisation prospered, and was regarded as a good local club, playing and defeating many others who thought no small chalk of themselves. Although Roberts' modesty would not permit him to say so, most of the victories of New Springs may be attributed to his fine play at three-quarter, for he seldom appeared without scoring. As is always the case with a player in a young club who develops form far above what is shown by his confreres, other eyes than those of his immediate friends see his play, and the inevitable outcome is some other club making overtures to secure his services. Many offers were made to Roberts whilst he was connected with the New Springs club, but so long as his club strove to stride higher up the ladder Roberts lent a deaf ear to his patrons - he was watched ad interviewed, but all inducements were unheeded, and he continued with the same organisation until the end of season 1883, when through soe laxity on the part of the Springs players (who deteriorated in strength) in turning up, and from the constant appeals made by the Aspull Club, which was regarded as the star combination of the district, he left Springs to play for Aspull. The latter club benefited to a great extent thereby, for Roberts' play was of a high order, and in the matter of scoring he quite took the shine out of a great many other players. The first season he had with Aspull - 1883-4 - Roberts registered some 16 tries, and the Aspull Club won the Wigan Charity Challenge Cup. He was afterwards appointed captain of the Aspull team, and he had the honour of playing twice for the West Lancashire Border Towns Union, against Batley and West Cumberland. With the exception of one season, when he assisted Leigh, Roberts wore the Aspull colours for ten years from the season 1883, and the last three years of his football career were spent with Wigan.
"Yes, I was playing with Wigan when the Northern Union was formed, and I wore the Wigan rig-out for half a season under Northern Union auspices," remarked Roberts, in answer to a question by an "Examiner" representative. "You will remember that in the preceding season Wigan had been suspended for approaching Frank Miles, the Salford three-quarter, and I think the punishment was a couple of months idleness. After the suspension was over fixtures were arranged, and I went on tour in the South of England. We beat the Devonshire crack team, Devonport Albion, by a try to nothing, and I got the try. That match was played in April, 1895."
"Perhaps it would interest our readers if you could mention the players who figured in that engagement?"
Roberts replied, "They were 'Soap' Winstanley, Teddy Flowers, Percy Jago, J. Walkden, and myself; W. Halliwell and J. Mitchinson; W. Unsworth, George Rigby, Bibby, Webster, J. Munro W. Benson, R. Darbyshire, J. Trow and N. McNamara. I remember that on the following Monday we crossed to Barnstaple and met the team of that place. It was described at the time as one of the most brilliant and enjoyable games of the season, and it took place before a big holiday crowd. E. Prescott played in the forwards instead of Darbyshire, and Wigan won by two goals (one dropped), to a try. That was the last season of the Old Rugby Union, so far as we were concerned. As I said, I had a brief spell under Northern Union auspices in the following season, my last match being against Hunslet, at Hunslet, and I ceased active participation in the pastime owing to a knee trouble."
"When I started with Aspull Daff Hulme and Cartwright were the half-backs, Dicky Seddon was the centre, and Pilkington the full-back. In those days the men I have mentioned were indeed in the picture. When I assisted Leigh, Jack Hurst, the famous Oldham three-quarter, was also in the team. Daff Hulme and Cartwright and Halliwell and Mitchinson were the best pairs at half-back, I knew od, and we met some crack halves in our time. Jimmy Valentine was a splendid three-quarter, but I regarded Dicky Lockwood as the finest three-quarter I ever met. T.W. Pearson and Norman Biggs, of Cardiff, were also excellent third line exponents."
"You wish to know what I look upon as the stiffest struggle in which I took part? Well, I should think it was when I was with Aspull, and in the final for the West Lancashire Cup against Warrington, at Liverpool. On that occasion Warrington beat us by a goal dropped by Tommy Barnes. Both teams set out fully determined to win, and it was a real hard tussle. Just let me reveal a little secret in connection with that particular event. In those days it was an unusual thing for players to go into training, but we each of us lost a week's wages as far as that match went, for we trained throughout the week. The secret, however, is in regard to another matter. We had hip pockets made in our knickers, and those pockets were filled with powdered resin. I can tell you there was no question of the leather slipping through our hands that day, and we got some fare grips of members of the opposing side! It was truly the most desperate game I ever played in."
"I recall that in 1887 Aspull were again in at the final for the West Lancashire Cup, and Wigan were our opponents. We won by 20 points to one point, though Wigan had in their ranks such players as Jim Slevin, Jack Anderton, Charlie Samuels, and W. Halliwell. When I joined Wigan Aspull were on the down grade, and Dicky Seddon, Dawson, and other players had thrown in their lot with other clubs."
"Your opinion as to the old and the new?" was a query which drew the following comment: - "I think the game at the present time is much superior, that is from the pen point of view. For my own part I would sooner see the old line out. It is, however, faster, though I do not think they sacrifice too much now for the combination - there is no loose individual thrilling rushes. Still I prefer the Northern Union rules on the whole."
"Your best try?" - "The finest try I think I ever got was against Swansea on the latter's ground. Swansea had a crack team in those days, and included the famous full-back and Welsh International, Bancroft. The leather came to me at one end of the field, and the try was registered at the other end."
Of course, in those days Roberts was something of a sprinter, and he placed many successes to his credit on the running track in various parts of the County. He still retains a keen interest in the game in which he for so long distinguished himself, and eve to-day the older followers of the pastime have nothing but the kindliest recollections for "Johnny Roberts, of Aspull!"
Roberts regarded the great Dicky Lockwood as the best three-quarter
...Put into Context
Before donning the famous Cherry and White jersey permanently, Johnny Roberts occasionally helped Wigan out many years before. It was common for players to help out other teams when needed. All the way back on New Years Day, 1885, Johnny made his Wigan 'debut', scoring in a win over Oldham alongside Charlie Samuels and Tommy Morris in the three-quarter line. Jim Slevin was absent due to a family bereavement.
As mentioned in his interview, Johny joined for the 1893-94 season when Wigan moved from three three-quarter backs to four. With Aspull fortunes deteriorating Johnny went downhill into Wigan. Wigan made a strong backline mixing experience with youth. Dicky Seddon was now ending as club captain and formed the old guard with Johnny. Whitehead and Winstanley were the youngsters. Roberts immediately became Wigan vice-captain behind Billy Halliwell. He occasionally captained Wigan in "smilers" absence. Roberts has the honour of being captain of both Aspull and Wigan, two of the greatest rivals long before St. Helens started messing about with us.
Roberts was a thorn in Wigan's paw for many a year in the mid-to-late 1880s. As mentioned, he was captain of Aspull when they beat Wigan in the West Lancashire Cup and Wigan Charity Cup Finals of 1887 and the great Wigan Cup final of 1886 in front of upward of 17,000 people during the last game at Upper Dicconson Street. He truly was a class player.
Johnny Roberts with Aspull, highlighted. He stands proud (although he doesn't look it) with the smaller Wigan Charity Cup and the West Lancashire Cup after defeating Wigan on both occasions. Dicky Seddon is sat middle, far right. What do Wigan do when players keep beating you? You get them to join you.