A chat with... "Offside"
The subject of our sketch this week will be familiar to all in local and county rugby circles. His Football Notes are read by thousands of rugby enthusiasts each week in the "th'Observer," as he proudly calls it. Our subject can trace back his association with the rugby football game back to 1862, "I was a young lad working as an apprentice cooper in the workshops near Mesnes back then. I saw one of the local gentlemen, who were very well-to-do, carrying a leather oval ball towards the shooting ground at Folly Field, which was later used as the Wigan Clubs first playing ground a decade later," he recalls. "I followed him and started to watch the practice match and was hooked instantly by it. I joined in a few practice sessions which was ran by Henry Ackerley, a well known local solicitor and part of the gentry, until in 1863 I think it was when arguments arose regarding the finances of the club. They literally took their ball home."
"Offside" continued his work as a cooper but did not have a playing interest when a new football club was formed in 1872, "I did not like cricket, by now I had a bit of work with Thomas Wall, one of the Football Club members, whose family ran the Wigan Observer, and I guess you can say I had a passion for writing. I put two and two together and started to freelance in local sports rags."
"I was quite fortunate, you could say, that I did not get my own 'Football Notes' when the rugby football game exploded in the early 1880s," "Offside" states, "because I was a keen supporter and enjoyed travelling with the boys and singing and swearing at the grounds, you know what I mean. 'CrossBar' did a magnificent job and I learned a lot off him, and also won a lot of money playing Dice and betting too!"
"I had a successful business in the town and you could say I was one of the go to gentlemen for any rugby gossip or news. I had never been a member of the Wigan Football Club but I always liked to think I had one hand in the pie, so to speak. I got an offer from 'th'Observer' to take over from 'CrossBar' and I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn't? I would have expenses paid for, a nice seat in the Press Box, squawking like a Parrot with rugby gossip, I couldn't say no!" "Offside" said.
"So how did you come by the name of 'Offside'?" asked our interviewer.
With a grin, "I guess you have never heard me on the terraces berating the referee! I am quite known for it, even in the Press Box. You could say that is it an obsession. I can recall a match on Christmas Day 1901 against Stockport. We were away and I was doing my notes. Wigan lost 5 points to six I think it was and tempers on my part were running high. It wasn't a large crowd and I got sent out of the stand for continually shouting at the referee for his offside decisions. A member of the away support, Cyril Wagg, had to tell me what happened for the rest of the match so I could write it up."
"Did you ever go on Tour with Wigan?"
"Yes, 'CrossBar' always stayed over in Wigan when Wigan went on their South Wales tours, and I went in the capacity of a supporter. My business interests in Wigan allowed me to work when I wanted of course. I compiled notes and telegrammed what I had back to Wigan so it could be included in the paper.
"I remember once that Jack Lowe, the Wigan forward in 1888 or so, lightened up the party by extracting teeth!"
"Which players stand out for you in the pre-Northern Union days?"
"James Slevin was perhaps the most respected and important captain the Wigan club has ever had. I have a great friendship now with Jim ever since he was Mine Host of the Black Bull. It was a travesty that he never represented Lancashire for he scored some remarkable tries, like the one at Manningham when he ran through the whole field to score, a try that was awarded half a year later! Or the best of the lot in my view was his last try in his last match against Aspull, he again ran through everyone in typical fashion to end his glittering career. Without Slevin, there would be no rugby in Wigan today. I liked watching "Ned" Bullough and "Billy" Atkinson work in the pack too. You know, "Ned" is the only Wigan player to have played for the England International team? Atkinson got a call up but, if you recall, he suffered a seizure a week before, tragically."
"Jack Leech, in his reminiscences, recalled a time when a supporter travelled many miles to see James Leytham but cold not get into the stadium, did anything like that ever happen to you?"
"Oh yes!" stated "Offside", "You may say that I quite openly abuse my position to get people in stadiums across the North. I am joking of course! But there was a time when a group of lads playing in Little London asked me can they get into the ground when Wigan were playing Barrow. I used to walk past these kids on my way to matches and they were keen rugby fans but had never seen a match. I told them to follow me and I made the excuse that they were part of a new initiative by the Wigan Club to one of my friends on the gate on the Popular side of Central Park. He let them all in, and nobody found out, until they read this."
"I once had a dreadful time getting onto the Hull Kingston Rovers ground. It was the first time I had been there in my Press capacity and I lost my bag at the station at Goole. Trying to explain who I was to the steward in Hull was a hopeless task. In the end I had to pay for admission and then worm my way into the Press Box like a Soviet Spy."
"How does the game of today compare to those in the seventies and eighties?"
"Oh, it is a lot better. Have you seen that Rugby Union muck? I have to write about the Wigan Rugby Union club these days of course, but the game has vastly improved since we went down to thirteen men. The field seems to be larger and more open play can be had. Players like Fred Gleave and Johnny Thomas can really show their worth, and luckily, they do that!"
"The players today, who stands out for you?"
"James Leytham, our captain. I will say this as simply and as heartfelt as I can. I hope that in many generations to come, James Leytham will be thought upon as one of the Greatest the Wigan Club has ever had. He epitomises everything that a rugby footballer can be: skilled, feared, not bitter in defeat, wins with grace and above all else, a gentleman. Wigan will never have a player of the calibre of Leytham, and if they do in the future, not many will surpass him."
"I used to escort Jimmy to matches, meeting him at train stations here there and everywhere. He still lives in Lancaster so travels a heck of a lot to matches. In those moments as a journalist and above all else, a friend, you get to know the real man behind the player."
"Which game stands out for you?"
"Many, many a game. The match on New Years Day at Swinton in 1890 is up there as one of the greatest I have witnessed. The joy on people's faces in the town afterwards, the likes of which I haven't seen since. Everyone was nodding at each other and wishing each other a Happy New Year. That was a good evening, defeating Jim Valentines' 'Lions'.
"Recently, the Lancashire Cup Final against Oldham over on the Broughton ground was very special. I nearly lost myself a couple of times. I was reporting back to Wigan the events as they happened, as well as doing my notes. That alone is enough for any man to do, let alone the emotions of being a supporter in one of the greatest matches Wigan ever played. When Alf Wood's penalty kick dipped underneath the crossbar at the call of time I can't describe what went through my old body! I think I scribbled what happened in my notes and ran to the Wigan singers at the other side of the field! One of my friends Jimmy Morris of Hardybutts, asked me what I was doing and reminded me of my Press duties. I skipped back across the field to the Press Box to prepare my notes for the presentation!"
"You lead a very active social life" asked our interviewer.
"Yes, I like to keep active. I have been going for many winters and hopefully many more to come. I normally frequent in the Three Crowns pub, not least because they have a good supper put on, but I can mingle with a lot of committeemen. When tensions get high in the big Wigan games, I do forget myself sometimes and start shouting at the referee from the Press Box. I have no shame in leaving my perch and joining the singers in the terraces to sing the glories of Lance Todd or Tom Whittaker. I enjoy playing Dice and trading whippets too. You could say I am local celebrity in the town but I think of myself as one of the townspeople.
"Lastly, what is your real name? enquired our reporter... "It's..."
With utmost thanks of course to Mike Latham for the source material from the Wigan Examiner