Roger Millward 1947-2016

- - Tonight Rugby League Cares hosts the Rugby League Hall of Fame tribute to Roger Millward and Mick Sullivan, two Hall of Famers who died this year. Unfortunately I won't be able to make it, so I'm posting my obituary to Roger that appeared in the May 2016 edition of Forty20.

How do you know when you have finally grown up? Of course, you can leave school at 16 and vote at 18, both of which officially admit you into the adult world. And there are other landmarks too. Leaving home. Moving in with a partner. Having kids and getting a mortgage.

But the ties of childhood linger deep into adulthood, and the moment of change is hard to identify. Musical tastes, TV shows, even food extend long into the decades of life. And for many men and women, the sporting experiences of childhood burn so bright that they never depart. The club you support, the matches you remember, and the players you idolised bind you to your formative past, when the world was new and the future was limitless.

For me, growing up in Hull in the 1960s, Roger Millward was the player I idolised. My dad took me to see Hull KR a few days after my eighth birthday. We’d already gone to a couple of Hull Dockers’ matches before just to see if I enjoyed going to a match. I did and, just as my grandad had taken him to Rovers in the 1940s and his dad had taken him before World War One, on 11 October 1969 we went to see Rovers play Featherstone Rovers.

I’d already heard about Roger. The were other boys at school who were Rovers’ fans and Roger was the player they talked about most. He didn’t do much in this match however. Most of the attention was on Cyril Kellett, Rovers’ former full back who was making his first appearance at Craven Park after transferring to his hometown club. But every time Roger got the ball, there seemed to be a fraction of a second when the crowd held its breath, waiting to see what he would do.

Roger Millward, with ball, captains the 1973-74 Hull KR side.

Roger Millward, with ball, captains the 1973-74 Hull KR side.

I was hooked. Not just on the game but on being a part of the crowd. It was an experience that I’d never experienced before. The sense of camaraderie. The quick-fire wit. The reminiscing. The complaining. The women with bee-hive hair-do’s who I’d never met before who insisted on feeding me sweets. The fact my dad seemed to know most of the people in the crowd. And best of all, the collective joy when Rovers scored.

From then on, my dad started taking me to every home match. ‘What will Roger do this time?’ became the question I’d ask every time we started out to match. 

The answer was pretty much everything. Roger was a master of all the arts of rugby league. A geometrically-perfect passer of the ball. A laser-like kicking game. A sense of anticipation that bordered on the clairvoyant. And a turn of speed that could take him through the narrowest crack in an opposition defence.

His stats don’t really tell the story. 207 tries and 607 goals in 406 games for Rovers are the candles on a multi-layered career. He first lit up the game as a teenager in an ITV-broadcast amateur competition in the early 1960s. He was snapped up by Castleford in 1964, his hometown club, but when it became clear that great Alan Hardisty was the first-choice stand-off, he transferred to Rovers in 1966.

In no time at all he became the idol of the fans. He was simply the best player ever to play for the club. What’s more, he was quite possibly then the best player in the world - which, at a time when the club was struggling to rebuild the team, was a source of immense pride to all Rovers’ supporters. 

What made him such a great player was more than his command of all of the skills of the sport. His greatest attribute was an intuitive sense of how the game was unfolding and what was going to happen next. In attack he could anticipate a gap and race through it or pass to someone else to burst into it. When a team-mate made a break, Roger would time a run to pick up an off-load that would leave his opponents flat-footed. And in defence, he seemed to be able to predict opponents’ moves before they knew themselves, picking off passes that often led to spectacular interception tries.

He commanded the pitch with an authority that very few players had. Alex Murphy led by charisma and the arrogance of unlimited ability. Wally Lewis was a general leading his troops from the front, never retreating. But Roger was a chess grandmaster, always several moves ahead of everyone else, ready to attack at the slightest sign of weakness. It’s difficult to think of an equivalent today - maybe the closest would be if Jonathan Thurston was the same size as Rob Burrow.

Roger was probably at the height of his powers playing for Great Britain against Australia. The unforgettable second test of the 1970 Ashes tour saw him brought into the side and score twenty points to level the series, and then scoring the try that sealed the third test win to bring home the Ashes for the last time. He became as feared by the Aussies as much as he was by Rovers’ club opponents.

There was no satellite TV in those days and we had to wait until the following week to see the highlights on Grandstand. Like every other Rovers’ fan I felt an enormous sense of pride that our Roger had won the Ashes. Eddie Waring’s commentary on the try that sealed the third test - ‘Millward, MILL-waaaard!’ - is seared into my memory.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was as the architect of Rovers’ gilded age between 1977 and 1986. He took over as coach in the most harrowing of circumstances when Rovers’ great Harry Poole dropped dead of a heart attack in 1977. Supported by the equally astute Colin Hutton, Roger built on Harry’s foundations to win everything, including the famous 1980 all-Hull Challenge Cup final and three championships. In the early 1980s he tried to persuade the board to make the players full-time as a way of building for the future. They disagreed, and shortly after Maurice Lindsay took Wigan full-time and built one of the great dynasties of the game.

In 1980 I left school and went to Warwick University, so I became a long-distance supporter. But even in the rugby league deserts that I lived in, I found that people had heard of Roger, partly through Eddie Waring’s nicknaming him Roger the Dodger, but mostly because they had seen his incredible skills on TV. The first time I went to Australia, a taxi driver asked where I was from. When I told him Hull, he said ‘Roger Millward’s town’. Going through Auckland airport security on another visit, the guard made a crack about the losing British Lions union side. ‘I’m leaguie so it doesn’t matter to me,’ I said, at which he confessed he was too. Roger’s name once again cropped up as he frisked me down. 

When he coached Rovers for the last time in 1991 and came onto the pitch to take the applause from the crowd, tears flowed freely from me and many other fans. It was more than the closing of an era for the club, it seemed like the end of our relationship with Roger. He was leaving us, and a little part of each of our pasts had gone too. 

He had a season coaching Halifax but his heart didn’t seem to be in it. Although he had had many disagreements with Rovers’ directors over the years, he was so inextricably linked to East Hull that in many ways he was Rovers. Once he left, his magic deserted him.

I was lucky enough to meet him several times in later life, most notably when he was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2000. More than once, I found myself thinking ‘I’m talking to Roger Millward!’ as if I was eight again. He became a school caretaker in Kippax, and I often wondered if the kids at the school, which included a young Ryan Hall, realised that Mr Millward was one of the greatest footballers of any code anywhere in the world. I’m not sure Roger even appreciated how good he was - he was just an ordinary bloke blessed with a very extraordinary talent.

And now he’s gone. A man who had been a formative part of my life, the player who more than anyone else showed me the magic of rugby league. He died just a few weeks after my dad went into a home due to Alzheimer’s disease. He doesn’t remember much now, but he still asks how Rovers are doing. I haven’t told him that Roger’s dead yet. The two events seem to mark the final severing of the ties that connected me to my eight year old self.

And I‘m not sure that want to grow up yet.