The long and rich history of Featherstone Rovers Rugby League Football Club

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Tommy Smales

In the history of any club there are stories of players bought and sold, some bargains, some solid buys, some wastes of cash, and some filed under ‘the one that got away’. In the latter group Rovers still look back on the failure to capture the youngest Fox brother Neil as perhaps our biggest oversight, but there can be no doubt that the departure of young Tommy Smales, understandable though it was at the time, also turned out to be a serious misjudgement. Released by Rovers at 22, he went on to captain Great Britain, and was a major figure in world rugby league in the early sixties.

Tommy started out at Rovers in 1951 when Ray Evans held the number seven shirt, and it was Tommy’s aim to take it off him. Smales’ task was complicated by the presence of a goal-kicking young half-back by the name of Don Fox and by a hernia operation which set him back. By 1955 it became clear that the scrum-half berth was Fox’s and Tommy was limited to A team rugby, filling in when Fox had tonsillitis, and even playing as Fox’s half-back partner when Joe Mullaney was injured. At Christmas 1955 Smales reluctantly moved on to Huddersfield for a fee of £1,000, having played 35 first team games in four seasons at Post Office Road. At Fartown he won the Yorkshire Cup in 1957, but the zenith of his career was the year 1962. First, he captained Huddersfield at Wembley, scoring a try against a Neil-Fox-inspired Wakefield Trinity. Although Huddersfield lost, a week later the same two sides met in the Championship final, and this time Tommy led his side to victory. That Autumn he made his Great Britain debut at scrum-half against France, the first of his eight caps. In November 1963 Tommy Smales captained Great Britain against Australia, himself at scrum-half and his erstwhile nemesis Don Fox at loose-forward. Britain won 16-5 with a try from Fox.

In 1964 Smales moved to Odsal after eight years at Fartown, and won the 1965 Yorkshire Cup with Bradford. He finished playing in 1967 with a season in Australia for the North Sydney Bears. He had two spells as head coach of Rovers; from February to May 1976 taking over from Keith Goulding, and again from November 1978 to May 1979.

After playing and coaching, Tommy gained an excellent reputation as a physical conditioner and many international footballers, including Ellery Hanley, were regulars at the gym over the Travellers’ Rest pub where Tommy was landlord. In his entertaining autobiography ex-GB international prop and SKY pundit Barrie McDermott played tribute to the Tommy’s skills as a masseur and physiotherapist calling him “one of the greatest characters in the game”, and after naming him as the physio to his all-time Dream Time called him “a really nice bloke and a true rugby league man”.

Ray Evans

By the summer of 1951 Rovers had been in the top flight of Rugby League for some thirty years. They were no longer the ‘babes of the league’ and having struggled through the great depression of the thirties and the Second World War, they were looking to make a lasting impact at the top end of the table. The effects of the coaching regime of Eric Batten were beginning to be felt and a new breed of player was emerging at the club; young, fit and eager for success. Batten’s squad-building included the signings of Ray Cording and Willis Fawley (1950), Don Metcalfe and Ray Evans (1951), Jackie Fennell and Mick Clamp (1952), Don Fox and Joe Mullaney (1953).

Once his national service was over, young scrum-half Ray Evans was free to concentrate on his rugby. Born into the game like so many, Evans’ family connections were however more extensive than most. He was the youngest brother of Wilf and Joe Evans two famous names from Rovers’ teams of the 1930s. He was also the father of Barry Evans and grandfather of Danny Evans. Ray made a winning first team debut in August 1951 against Rochdale, an occasion he marked with a try. The incumbent scrum-half at the time was stalwart Jimmy Russell, but Batten’s insistence on youth and agility gave Evans his chance and how he took it. With victories over Rochdale, Batley, Wigan and Leigh the club went all the way to the Cup final at Wembley. There, with Evans directing traffic at number seven, Rovers came off second best to a classy Workington side, but Evans had the satisfaction of notching Rovers’ second try, becoming one of only ten players in the history of the club to have scored a try at Wembley. A shame then that the tremendous Pathe News clip of the game available to watch on Youtube doesn’t cover Evans’ late consolation effort. The clip is worth checking out anyway, wonderful images of a bygone era.

Having hit the heights at Wembley it may have appeared to young Ray that a long and successful career at Rovers awaited him. He could hardly have imagined the fierce competition that he was to face in the seasons ahead from future giants of the game such as Don Fox and Tommy Smales. In the summer of 1953 coach Batten had quite a dilemma on his hands. The 22 year old Evans was playing as well as ever, but the claims of Fox (aged 18) and Smales (21) were hard to ignore.  Evans found it increasingly difficult to maintain his first team slot and in September 1954 he bowed to the inevitable and accepted a transfer to Rochdale for the sum of £1,500. He later also served Hull K.R. with distinction. In total he played 73 games for Featherstone and scored 22 tries in three seasons.

Jimmy Russell

Shortly after the end of World War Two, Rovers lost a pair of fine scrum-halves in Harold Moxon and Jack Higgins. The former retired after being badly affected by a fatal accident to an opposing player, and the latter could no longer continue after being plagued by injuries. As so often seemed to happen though, a ready-made replacement was waiting in the wings. Larger than life, cocky and irrepressible, a slightly comic figure with his bow-legged gait, Jimmy Russell had all the ingredients that a scrum-half needs, and a cracking hairstyle to boot. Jimmy actually started out at the Rovers around the same time as both Moxon and Higgins. He made his debut in April 1939 but within months the war had started and his nascent career was put on hold for a full six years when he joined the Army. Once the war was over, Moxon and Higgins were well established at half-back and it was 1948 before Jimmy got an extended run in the first team. He made the number seven shirt his own for five years, despite a strong challenge from another talented scrum-half Cyril Gilbertson. He helped the team through a couple of very difficult seasons, with Rovers near the bottom of the league. The arrival of Eric Batten in the summer of 1951 changed the club’s fortunes, but it also proved to be the beginning of the end for Jimmy Russell. It was in fact Jimmy’s benefit year, an honour he shared with Jack Blackburn. Batten began to transform a team of also-rans into a very useful unit, and Russell started most games in the early part of the season. As the year wore on, Batten turned to an up and coming youngster fresh out of national service by the name of Ray Evans. It was Evans who got the nod on Rovers’ run to Wembley, and when he deputised for Evans in a midweek game before the final, Jimmy Russell was playing his final game for Featherstone Rovers.
As a player Jimmy was never afraid of trying something different and would often make individual plays capable of bamboozling both opponents and team-mates alike. With his unpredictability, great leg strength and unique running style he was a real handful for defences. His 128 games yielded a respectable return of 28 tries.

Harold Moxon

On the whole the 1930s were dark days for the Rovers, full of struggle for survival in harsh economic times between two world wars, but honest hard-workers such as Allen Ward and Ray Hamer did their best to hold the side together. Early in 1938 the club had the great fortune to pick up another local lad from the Girnhill Lane juniors. He also happened to be the local cobbler. Within two years of his debut, Moxon achieved what no scrum-half at the club had done before, helping Featherstone Rovers to win their first ever silverware as a senior club. In a hard fought Yorkshire Cup final, Moxon was up against the well-respected Herbert Goodfellow, Sharlston born and star of the Wakefield team. Tenacious defence, inspiring teamwork and flashes of ball-handling brilliance, the hallmarks of many famous Rovers victories, brought the Cup to Featherstone for the first of only two such wins in our history. The second time we won it in 1959, Harold Moxon was our coach.

Harold went on to play a total of 112 games for the club in a career which was curtailed first by the war (he missed three years), and then by a broken ankle he got from crashing into the railings surrounding the pitch. He finished playing not long after witnessing at close quarters a serious accident on the field involving Wakefield player Frank Townsend who tragically died hours after the game. Harold was understandably badly affected by the incident and quit playing just weeks later. He was replaced at scrum-half by Jack Higgins, another talented footballer who had started his career in the early 1940’s when Moxon was absent. With Jimmy Russell in the reserves waiting for his chance, Rovers really were blessed with talent at that time.
Of course, Moxon’s contribution to the club ended up going way beyond a stint as the club’s scrum-half. He will be remembered as one of our greatest ever coaches, taking charge of the side from  1957 to 1963. His 264 games in charge was bettered only by Peter Fox, and his winning percentage of 63.83% is the fourth best in the club’s history. It’s a great shame that such consistency and hard work was never rewarded with a visit to Wembley. In six seasons Rovers lost four Challenge Cup semi-finals and one quarter-final. It’s still a mystery how that team never made it to the final.

With his cobbler’s shop that he ran with his brother on George Street, Moxon was part of another long tradition of links between the club’s players and local businesses. The whole story started with ale wholesaler George Johnson setting up Featherstone Rovers in 1902. Later, former wingman Ralph Asquith had a butcher’s shop on Station Lane for many years, as did Joe Hoyle. Another scrum-half Tommy Smales ran the Traveller’s Rest pub for many years and former chairman Bob Jackson had a radio rental shop.

Charlie Annable

When Rovers first joined the Northern Union in 1921 experienced campaigner Joe Kirkham was signed from Dewsbury to fill the vital scrum-half role. It would only be a matter of time however before Rovers began to develop their own talent in this position.

What would you say is the sign of a club’s most popular player in this day and age? Perhaps the number of replica jerseys you can spot amongst the crowd with his name or number on the back? Or the number of times he appears on the front cover of the matchday magazine? Back in the 1920s there was no club shop selling shirts and programmes were no more than flimsy team-sheets, but the fans’ idol would undoubtedly appear on a cigarette card. These stylish and highly collectable cards usually featured one player from every club in a set. Kids would trade and collect them, presumably at the expense of the health of their dads and uncles. Lord only knows how much damage they had to do to their lungs to get the full set. In 1926, Ogden’s cards picked out young scrum-half Charlie Annable in only his third season as a professional as our top player, and therefore cigarette card model. The boyish good looks and the rakish side parting were quite the fashion at the time. The pen portrait on the back of the card reads: “Charlie Annable has demonstrated to his club the value of local talent. He was born at Alverthorpe in Yorkshire, and as a youth he has time for development. He is an unorthodox worker of a scrum, for he is not merely content to get the ball but he kicks to touch to advantage, and at other times bursts round to receive a reverse pass. Though on the small side everything points to his receiving county honours.” Prophetic words indeed as Charlie went on to face the 1929 Australian tourists in Yorkshire’s colours, one of two county caps he won. He was unlucky not to win more representative honours, but at that time Wakefield Trinity had Sharlston-born superstar Jonty Parkin in their ranks.

Having arrived in 1924, Annable quickly set about making the scrum-half role his own for a number of years. In seven seasons in Rovers’ first team he played 196 games, though perhaps his biggest disappointment was breaking his collarbone in November 1927 which kept him out of the side’s marvellous run all the way to the Championship final. Jimmy Rudd filled in at ably scrum-half while Charlie was on the sidelines.

As so often happened throughout the club’s history there came a time when the committee felt they had to cash in on their talent and Annable was sold to Castleford for £400 in 1931. It was left to Wilf Evans and William Hayes to fill in the number seven shirt,  before the emergence in the mid 1930s of Allen Ward.

Joe Kirkham

Perhaps more than for any other position in the team, Featherstone Rovers has enjoyed an outstanding reputation for scrum-half talent throughout the history of Rugby League. On the 6th of June 1921, George Johnson local off-licence owners and chairman of the junior rugby team Featherstone Rovers went off to a meeting of the Northern Union (as it was then still called) in Manchester, accompanied by the club secretary George Brearley and Ackton Hall Colliery manager JW McTrusty, to apply to join the big boys. Rovers' application was based on an outstanding record in junior rugby, winning numerous cups and leagues every year since the end of the war in 1918. The club feared they would stagnate unless they had the chance to test themselves against the best. Rovers were duly voted in unanimously and played their first ever senior game against Bradford on 27th of August 1921. Hopefully the 90th anniversary of those two famous dates will be marked by the club later this year.

As befits a club who would become famous throughout the league for its production of players, it was largely local lads who turned out for Rovers in their first year, but the couple of signings they chose to make were telling. Prop John Willie Higson, a local lad who had played for Rovers way back in 1906 came back in the twilight of his illustrious career to add much needed nous to the pack. The committee then decided the precious little money they had would be spent on a scrum half and splashed out on experienced campaigner Joe Kirkham from Dewsbury. That first match at Odsal saw Kirkham paired at half-back with Jimmy Williams. Kirkham grabbed a debut try, Rovers won 17-3 and life in the Northern Union was off to a great start.

Later in that inaugural season Rovers tried out local new boy Joe Morgan at scrum half, with Kirkham shipped out to the wing, where he finished the year top try scorer with 11 of Rovers’ 64 tries. Kirkham was moved back to scrum half in 1922 and ended up with a career total of 69 games, scoring a very respectable 30 tries. His final match in 1923 coincided with the arrival of another promising local half-back Jimmy Rudd, who went on to enjoy lasting fame with Dewsbury. Rudd though played much of his Featherstone rugby at stand-off and the club had to look again for new scrum-half talent. Sure enough they found it in the shape of next time’s “Number Seven Dream”, Charlie Annable.