Kenneth Wolstenholme and rugby league

This post was originally published on on 14 May 2010.

Tomorrow is FA Cup Final day, so what more appropriate time to reprint the boyhood rugby league memories of soccer's most famous commentator, Kenneth Wolstenholme, originally published in his 1999 autobiography Fifty Sporting Years and It's Still Not Over.

He was born in 1920 into a well-to-do Lancashire cotton family that fell on hard times during the depression of the late 1920s. Short of money, his family could not afford private education for him so he ended up at a local state school in Swinton, where he takes up the story.

'The cotton trade was particularly badly hit [by the depression of the late 1920s].We left the Priory, and instead of going to a public school like Edna and Leslie, or a famous grammar school like Neil [his brothers and sister], who was a pupil at Manchester Grammar, I found myself at Cromwell Road Council School in Swinton. And I loved every minute of it.

'As far as education goes we were given a sound grounding in the three Rs, and the more you think of the three Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic (there has got to be a little poetic licence somewhere) - the more you realize that those three subjects were the very foundation of learning.

'It was a long walk to and from school and we worked hard. We also played hard, but the main game for the boys at Cromwell Road was rugby . . . Rugby League, not Rugby Union. We had a good school team, far too good for me to be a member because frankly I was never any good at the game, but I loved Rugby League, and still do.

'We were lucky enough to have the school not more than a drop kick away from Station Road ground, home of the Swinton RL Club, one of the best in the league. Not too far away was the Willows, home of Salford, Swinton's deadly rivals. Whenever the two teams met the ground was packed with spectators, and what rugby they saw.

'I remember going to watch a Test Match al the Swinton ground - England against Australia. With a number of my school chums I was allowed to sit inside the small concrete wall at one end of the field, just behind the try line. It was a rough, skilful rugby. The only thing it lacked was any scoring. Then, in the very last minute, England launched an attack.

'My chums and I were sitting on the grass not far from the corner flag at the end England were attacking. The excitement mounted as the ball moved swiftly from one English player to another, then suddenly the England loose forward - I think his name was Frank [it was actually Fred] Butters and that he played for Swinton - broke clear. He was being chased by at least three Aussies so it was touch and go whether he would make the try line before he was grounded.

'Suddenly one of the Australians pounced and made a desperate lunge at Butters, who dived for the line at the very moment the Australian grabbed his ear. We had a close-up view of the Englishman touching down for a try... and also a close-up view of his ear being partly torn off his head. It was the winning try, but what a price to pay for it. If I remember correctly, Frank Butters wore a skullcap for the rest of his playing career. [In fact, Kenneth's memory is playing tricks here. The match is the famous 1930 0-0 drawn Ashes Test match and it was the Australian scrum-half Joe 'Chimpy' Busch who went in for a try at the end of the match, only to have it disallowed. Fred Butters was injured making the tackle that stopped the try. For the full story see p. 124 of Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain.]

'Exciting and memorable though that fantastic victory was, there were just as exciting and memorable moments in the schoolboy Rugby League tussles which were organized by the Daily Dispatch, one of the Kemsley newspapers produced in Manchester. The Daily Dispatch Shield was our FA Cup. In fact it was run on the same lines as the FA Cup, or should I say the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

'Schools from all over the area entered and the big prize was a place in the final, which was always played on a senior Rugby League club ground. Warrington, Widnes, Wigan, Salford, St Helens and Swinton had their share of finals, but it seemed tome that Central Park Wigan was the venue which most closely filled the Wembley role. Every season Cromwell Road were favourites to win the prized Daily Dispatch shield.

'Sadly, the Daily Dispatch which did such a lot for schools rugby, and for our entertainment, went out of business like so many other provincial papers, soon after the Second World War.'