Five Drives... and a Kick
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Next issue deadline: 19 December 2011
THE BATTLES OF BOXING DAY SEENG STARS AT CHRISTMAS
oom for four more on top”, the shrill, piercing cry of the young conductress rose above the smoke and crispness of the cold December afternoon as we jostled each other in the dash for seats on the top deck of the one o’clock Saints Special bus.
It was St Helens versus Wigan - rugby league’s answer to the Roman Games.
A sea of flat caps, hardly out of their Christmas wrappers, trilbies and buttoned overcoats could not hide the contented faces of the miners and glass-workers on their way to the peak of everyone’s Christmas - the match! Jokes and ribald comment were passed to and fro as the young girl attempted to take the fares while we sipped a nip of rum from one of the many hip flasks held in reserve for the ceremony of drinks and turkey sandwiches among workmates at half-time.
After what seemed an age we were deposited outside the ground in Knowsley Road to be met by yet another tide of red and white scarves making its way past the bales of straw removed from the frostbitten pitch that very morning. With the smells of straw, rum and fish and chips from the local shop, we all knew it was Boxing Day again.
Like all youngsters of my age in the 1940s and 50s, the Boxing Day derby was the highlight of the Christmas festivities. And so it was in the 1960s and early-70s when I played in them for Saints and later Widnes.
Sadly though, despite all my preparations and abstaining from food and drink on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I spent the first five Boxing Day mornings of my league career walking the pitch at Knowsley Road or Central Park, pressing the heel of my shoe into rock-hard ground and debating with team-mates whether or not the pitch was fit for action. Amazingly, despite retiring to bed at 11.00pm having only drank a glass of sherry and half a bitter, and gone without my favourite pudding and thick custard, I never played a Boxing Day game for half a decade.
For all my preparation and care on the previous two days, arguing about conditions and resisting the advice of home directors who, contemplating the loss of a huge gate and the accompanying cash jackpot always felt the ice would thaw by kick-off, became something of a tradition. As did those wanders over frost or snow-covered fields, often to the accompaniment of “Frenchie, you’re going soft,” from fans desperate to watch a game whatever the dangers.
When agreement to play between the
Christmas crackers: Ray French and the all-conquering St Helens team of 1965-66
Ray French teams and referee was finally reached in 1966 - despite the pitch resembling a concrete schoolyard - I was never so elated and satisfied in my career. The whole day and accompanying post-match camaraderie crowned my Christmas. Never mind the effects of a pain-killing injection in my back hurriedly inserted at half-time... oh, and a jab of the needle too for our full-back Frankie Barrow. Ignore the pain from knees scraped raw on the ice-rutted turf. Put to one side the £40 pay packet (!) and the line of praise from reporter Jack Bentley in the Daily Express: “French did the grafting and tackling of two men”. Afterwards, everyone - players, opponents, directors, reporters and especially the supporters - rubbed shoulders in the bars and clubhouse.
The fact that the great Billy Boston had smashed into me so often that my shoulders would ache for a week, and that my nose now needed straightening, meant little as we enjoyed the warm festive glow of a win.
Whatever the difficulties of playing over Christmas it was part of my heritage and helped to provide harmony between all clubs whether they won or lost. Hardship and selfdenial never mattered, certainly not later in my career at Widnes, where under my captaincy we never lost a match to the conditions on Boxing Day.
Did global warming begin to become an issue in the 1970s? Our only problem was finding a restaurant open on our way to the game on the bus. Once en route to Doncaster, it looked like we’d have to go without our then traditional pre-match Boxing day lunch until our Chairman, Jim Davies, came to the rescue with two boxes of Golden Wonder crisps, donated by the local manufacturer. So much for all the nutritional and dietary advice our pampered players receive today.
And so much for my glowing words on behalf of the club when persuading former Saints’ second-row team-mate John Warlow to join me in a black and white hooped jersey weeks earlier: “You’ll like it at Widnes.They really do look after you. Nothing is spared!”
Whether playing or not at Christmas the players, coaches and fans certainly found the holiday period a testing but rewarding experience.
December 2011 Forty-20 7