A potted history of rugby league in Warrington

Introduction

Warrington Wolves rugby league football club has a long and illustrious history as one of the most prominent and successful clubs in the sport.  Founded in 1876, they were one of the original clubs that seceded the Rugby Football Union in 1895 to form the code of football now known as rugby league.  They play in Super League, the top tier of the professional game in the Northern Hemisphere, and are the only team to have always played in the highest league competition through its various guises [note 1].  They have been crowned league champions three times, and winner of the Challenge Cup eight, as well as picking up numerous other honours.

The team are nicknamed ‘The Wire’, a shortened form of ‘Wirepullers’, the moniker given to the club in its early years in reference to the major industry of the town.  They officially appended Wolves to their name in 1997, the second name change in their history; the first occurred at the end of their inaugural season when they dropped Zingari from their title, following the demise of an earlier Warrington club, and bore the town name alone for the next 120 years.

Various histories of the club have been written, with the first major published piece being Bill Gavin’s Warrington Rugby League Football Club Centenary 1879-1979.  Whilst notable for being the first such work, it does unfortunately contain some inaccuracies, most prominently in reference to the club’s formation date being 1879 [note 2].  More recently Neil Dowson issued an illustrated history, 140 Years of the Wire, which provides a nice overview of the highlights of the club’s existence, together with some great images of memorabilia, key events, players and matches.

More in-depth coverage of specific eras is provided by a series of highly recommended titles by Gary Slater (Jack Fish: A Rugby League Superstar which in the process of describing the career of Fish, covers the period from 1898 to 1911; and So Close to Glory: Warrington Rugby League Football Club 1919 to 1939) and Robert Gate (The Great Bev, covering the achievements of the incomparable Brian Bevan, and the period from 1945-1962).  From 1973/4, annual yearbooks (initially published by John Player, but later Shopacheck, Rothmans, Gillette & League Publications Limited) were produced giving a detailed overview of the season.

Given this available information, the history overview provided below focuses on what has not been covered as much, namely the club’s formation & early years, with a brief outline of subsequent periods.  It is my intention to produce a more detailed summary of the highlights, and lowlights, by season to complement the detailed match records once these are loaded to the site. Watch the Latest Updates section for more news on this.

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Formation of Warrington Zingari

In the summer of 1876 seven young men decided to form a football team.  Based in one of the burgeoning industrial towns of Lancashire in the north-west of England, they followed one of the vogues of the middle Victorian era, when sports team were springing up across the region.  An earlier club had already been formed in Warrington, bearing the town name since 1872, and playing teams from neighbouring towns, so Warrington Zingari was chosen as the name for the newcomers.

The seven founding fathers were William Wallington, Ebenezer England, Ernest Early, Thomas Rathbone, Thomas Wallington, George Brown & George Edwards. 

Although the majority were members of Warrington cricket club, which was formed in the 1840s, there was no official link with the summer pastime.  It may have been that winter recreation was being sought after the end of the cricket season, but the Zingarians appear to have been independent from the outset (in contrast to some football teams which were formed by cricket clubs to provide players opportunities to play sport after the end of the cricket season).  Although it is often suggested that there was a specific meeting to form the new club, this may be apocryphal; it is likely that the social connections of the founders and the transient nature of organised sport at this rapidly changing time meant that Zingari was a natural evolutionary step borne of recreational desires, rather than an official product created by some Big Bang event [note 3].

Newspaper reports at the time were carried based on the provision of information from club secretaries, at least until teams were well established enough to warrant independent reporting.  As such, it is unclear exactly when the first game of the new club was; the first recorded game though was away at Penketh on 28 October 1876, resulting in a defeat by a goal to nil (Penketh also scoring 2 tries and a minor, though only goals counted in scoring at this time).

The first win for the fledgling team came in the next recorded match some three weeks later, when victory was secured at Lymm Wanderers by a goal (and minor) to nil.  It was a further two months, on 13 January 1877 that another game is reported, which is presumed to be the first recorded home match, played on a ground at Wharf Meadow, where Riverside Retail Park now stands, in the return fixture against Lymm Wanderers.  This match, together with the only other recorded game from the first season, at Flixton on 24 February 1877, resulted in a draw.

The founding fathers all featured in these games, with the Wallington brothers, and George Edwards present in all four.  Sadly, no scorers are recorded, and we will likely never know who can lay claim to the honour of being the first Warrington scorer.  All games played were ‘friendlies’ in the sense that there were no organised competitions at the time; indeed, this was the case until 1886, and even then the majority of matches were not part of structured league or cup contests.  Not until the Northern Rugby Football Union was formed in 1895 did this trend reverse.

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Zingari become Warrington Football Club

The period was noted for the rapid expansion of towns across the country, and Warrington was no exception.  It was usual for clubs to play on available land in close proximity to the urban centres, but as these began to sprawl, securing suitable playing venues was a constant challenge.  This appears to be a key reason for the demise of the original Warrington team, as their ground on Sankey Street was lost to building work meaning they had nowhere to play after the 1875/6 season.  With no incumbent bearing the town name alone, at the end of their first season, Zingari dropped the suffix, and henceforth became known as Warrington Football Club.

It is interesting to note that reference to ‘rugby’ in club names or reports at this time is few and far between.  Teams and games were usually referred to as ‘football’, and clarity only provided if necessary that this was under either “Association rules” (i.e. as prescribed by The Football Association formed in 1863) or “Rugby rules” (i.e. those of the Rugby Football Union (“RFU”), formed in 1871).  In practice strict adherence to either would not have been necessary anyway, as clubs were not usually members of either organisation (at least initially), and matches were not part of any official competition, but ad hoc in nature (though usually were arranged prior to commencement of a particular season).

The code of football chosen was often pre-determined by that of local opponents and dominant clubs in the region.  Thus the choice of Rugby rather than Association was a given for a Warrington based team, given the preponderance of clubs aligned to the former between the major conurbations of Liverpool and Manchester.  Given the dominance of the round ball game in the two cities in the twentieth century, it is likely surprising to many that the dominant code across southern Lancashire in the latter half of Queen Victoria’s reign was rugby.  The Liverpool and Manchester (rugby) Football Clubs were formed in 1857 & 1860 respectively by old boys of Rugby School, far earlier than the soccer clubs of the city [note 4].  Both clubs were prominent in the early years of the RFU, providing international players and RFU presidents, and bordering towns apparently took inspiration from their illustrious big-city neighbours in following their chosen game.

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The club’s status grows

Evidence of early games, players, opponents and locations is fragmentary and often contradictory.  The first 10 years or so of the Warrington club are difficult to piece together, but it is clear that gradually the standing of opponents improved, and the prominence of the club rose.  Whilst the county was dominated by the Manchester & Liverpool clubs, the ‘second tier’ clubs of the intermediate towns, such as Warrington, Widnes, Wigan, Runcorn, Leigh & St Helens become increasingly well supported, and self-assertive.  Games between the stronger teams were soon attracting crowds of several thousand interested spectators, keen to witness the game first hand, and cheer the locals to victory.

These remained challenging times however, not least in terms of securing suitable venues to host the increasingly large number of patrons.  In the first eight years of existence, at least five different grounds were used, though it’s possible that the club had to move every season in this time, before settling at Wilderspool. [note 5]

The team also absorbed a number of local rivals during these formative years, with Padgate Excelsior & Warrington Wanderers both joining the fold, such that by 1884 the club was very much the focal point of civic pride as the prominent sports team of the town.

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Competitive games are launched

Football’s growing popularity in the north was fuelled by the establishment of knockout cup competitions, with the Football Association Challenge Cup (the FA Cup as it’s more commonly known, launched in 1871/2 for members of the Football Association), and Yorkshire Challenge Cup (launched in 1877/8 for Yorkshire RFU members) generating an increased interest in their respective sports, and being significant cash creators for the clubs pulling in the punters as a result.

The situation is Lancashire rugby was in stark contrast to the dribbling game in the county, or their Yorkshire counterparts.  The gentleman’s clubs of Manchester & Liverpool were aligned with the general RFU view that cup competitions were contrary to the spirit of the game, and would only serve to encourage professionalism (and on the latter point, at least, they were to be proven correct), but in truth they were trying to hold back an irresistible force.

Manchester succeeded initially in suppressing the upcoming clubs’ desire to wrestle control of county affairs away from it.  When the Lancashire RFU was formed in 1881, at the instigation of Broughton, Manchester Rangers, Free Wanderers, Swinton & Birch, Manchester declined to be involved.  However, they soon intervened to wrestle back control, and the potential for any cup competition was delayed.  By 1884 however, a semi-autonomous sub-union of West Lancashire & Border Towns, had been formed.  As well as serving to provide an even more localised representative team, the new union set about establishing a cup competition, and in March 1886 the West Lancashire & Border Towns Challenge Cup commenced.

Warrington were founder members of the West Lancs RFU, and had also joined the RFU proper by January 1885.  They commenced their own cup campaign, and thus played their first ‘competitive’ game with a home tie in front of 2,000 spectators against Lymm & Oughtrington on 6 March 1886.  Whilst the official RFU scoring system at the time still decreed that a majority of goals, and if level, a majority of tries, should decide the outcome, the new competition used a points scoring system, thus: “A goal placed after a try will count eight points, a goal kicked from the field of play six points, a try four points, and all minor points one each; a majority of three points being necessary to secure a victory”. [note 6]

The generous points on offer allowed Warrington to rack up a significant margin against their near neighbours, with a 69-0 victory despite only four of the nine tries, including a hat trick for Jack Massey, being converted.  Warrington were rewarded with another home tie, and an attractive one at that:  10,000 attended to see Widnes vanquished, by a more modest 14 points, but again, the opponents were kept scoreless, a feat that was repeated in the quarter-final the following week when St Helens were crushed 52-0.    Fairfield Turner notched another Wire hat-trick, whilst Tommy Barnes weighed in with a brace, to go with his pair of dropped goals.

This set up a mouth-watering clash with Runcorn, who had become the Wire’s early major rivals.  An impressive crowd of 12,000 gathered at Widnes confirming the appeal of knockout football.  What followed was not to prove a good advert for the sport however.  Both sides were reduced to 14 men following a fight between several players, and the scores were locked at 2-all, after the exchange of a couple of minors each, when a Runcorn player went down injured and could not play on.  When the referee refused to let the earlier offender return to take his place, the Runcorn captain ordered his players from the field, and the match was abandoned.  The committee of the new union ordered that a replay take place, and on the Wednesday following, just 2,000 managed to get to Southport to see the Wire secure safe passage to the final, with a 30-14 win.  The bad blood between the clubs over the incident was long lasting, and it was a further six years before they met again.

Warrington meanwhile met Aspull in the final on Liverpool College Grounds, at Fairfield, before 6,000 patrons, as favourites to take the cup home.  A close contest ensued, and the only major score was Tommy Barnes’ drop-goal in a 9-1 victory.  At the first attempt the Wire had secured silverware, and with it bragging rights over the local neighbours.

The success of the competition ensured its return the following season, and Warrington again progressed nicely through the early rounds, again securing victories over St Helens & Widnes.  In the semi-final a single Tommy Barnes try, together with a couple of minors, was not enough to overcome Wigan, who upset the favourites with a 12-6 win, and Warrington suffered their first ever competitive defeat.

The defeat mattered little in the club’s standing however, and opponents from further afield were now being secured.  Matches with the leading Yorkshire clubs were now on the fixture card, and the likes of Hull, Wakefield Trinity & Manningham were added to an already impressive list of opponents which now included many of the leading clubs in the north. 

1889 brought with it the novelty of a game against the first tourists, the New Zealand Native Football Representatives, and whilst defeat followed, a double was secured over the eponymous Rugby in 1889/90.

Whilst Warrington, for reasons that are unclear, did not take part in the West Lancashire Cup in 1887/8 & 1888/9, the trophy was put to alternative use in 1889/90.  The year after soccer’s Football League was launched, the West Lancs RFU also embarked on a new venture which secured more regular fixtures and guaranteed revenue for its clubs than the lottery of a knockout cup.  Consequently, Warrington travelled to St Helens on 7 September 1889 for their first ever league fixture, in the newly formed West Lancashire League.  A 12-4 win was secured, but defeat at Wigan followed a fortnight later, and mixed results became the order of the day, with half their 14 games being won by the season’s close; Walkden, Leigh, Widnes, Tyldesley & Aspull were the Wire’s other opponents in the first campaign.

League football was evidently not to club’s liking however, and they declined to compete for the next couple of seasons.  They had enough other attractions to keep interest amongst members high though, with tours to South Wales and even overseas, albeit only to the Isle of Man, being undertaken.  As if to signal the shifting balance of power, even the great Manchester club saw Warrington at worthy opponents by 1891: the Wire secured victory at home, and shared the spoils in the return fixture.

1892/3 finally saw the introduction of a county-wide competition, some 14 years after one had existed in Yorkshire, in the form of the Lancashire Club Competition.  Despite two years in the competitive wilderness, Warrington’s standing saw them gain entry to the First Class Competition amongst the leading clubs in the region.  With a wider catchment area, the standard of football was understandably higher, making Warrington tally of six wins & four draw, against their five defeats an acceptable return. [note 7]

The league was deemed a success, and continued for a further two seasons; however, the 1894/5 season descended into farce, and preceded the split that was to define the game of rugby for a century.

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The great schism: The Northern Rugby Football Union is born

Whole books could be, and of course have been, written about the split in the game of rugby in 1895 [note 8].  Class struggles, a desire for the northern clubs to control their own destiny, a need for regular competition to provide funds to attract and retain the leading players, and of course be able to compensate these players with ‘broken time’ payments all undoubtedly played their part, and the relative importance of each will likely be debated as long as the game of rugby league is played.

What is certain is that at a meeting on 29 August 1895 at the George Hotel, Huddersfield, 21 clubs agreed to secede from the RFU, and form a Northern Rugby Football Union (“NRFU”). [note 9]  The upshot was a league competition of the strongest clubs in the north of England, and arguably the whole country.

The final season prior to the breakaway saw farcical scenes in the Lancashire Club Competition.  Three clubs, Leigh, Salford & Wigan, were suspended for professionalism, and placed (joint) bottom of the First Class Competition.  With automatic promotion and relegation, they thus faced dropping down a tier, and potential financial ruin caused by a loss of league fixtures against the other top clubs.  Warrington negotiated this minefield, but were amongst the majority of Lancashire clubs who resigned en-masse from the competition in July 1895, clearing the path for a breakaway union.  They were also at the fore of the meetings leading up the decisive final chapter at the George Hotel, and present amongst the clubs voting to leave the RFU, thus becoming founder members of the NRFU.

Just two weeks after the momentous decision, Warrington succeeded in defeating Hunslet at Wilderspool 5-4 in their opening match in the new competition.  It was something of a false dawn, as four successive defeats followed, which set the tone for a tough first season; the combination of the top teams in both counties naturally leading to another rise in the standard of opponents.  A 13th place finish in the 22 team league was achieved through 17 wins, 5 draws, and 20 defeats.

After only a single season of cross-county competition, the number of clubs electing to leave the RFU and join the rebels meant a restructure was necessary.  It was decided to revert back to county based leagues, and Warrington duly lined up in the Lancashire Senior Competition, though again only managed a mid-table finish.

The introduction of the NRFU Challenge Cup in this second breakaway year did at least offer the possibility of competitive fixtures against those of the White Rose county, and in fact saw the Wire fare better than in the league.    Ultimately though, it was a trip across the Pennines to Huddersfield, for the semi-final against Batley, that ended this particular campaign, as the Gallant Youths marched on to be the first winners of the famous trophy.

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Success in the turbulent pre-war era

The competition format remained fluid throughout these first few years of NRFU rule.  As more clubs joined, and the county leagues expanded, it was felt necessary to re-introduce a more localised competition to provide derby opportunities that were sometimes denied by teams playing at different levels.  The old WLBTCC trophy from rugby union days was used under a confusingly similar, but slightly different, title of South West Lancashire & Border Towns Challenge Cup (“SWLBTCC”).  Warrington did not take part in its first season in 1899/1900, due to a dispute over the splitting of gate receipts, but the following season, made the final against Leigh.  After a drawn match, Warrington felt unable to raise a team for the replay, so forfeited the trophy.  A major reason for this, was that the SWLBTCC final came just two days after their first Challenge Cup final, which also ended in failure, Batley again taking the Wire’s scalp.

A first trophy in the new era followed the next season though, when the Wire picked up the South West Lancashire League (the replacement competition for the SWLBTCC), when a play-off was required to beat Widnes after the teams finished level on points.

The 1901/2 season also saw another breakaway, with the creation of the first ‘super league’, and again Warrington were to the fore.  They were one of 14 teams who elected to leave their respective county leagues, to form the Northern Rugby Football League (“NRFL”), bringing together the top teams from across the north once more.  The clubs left behind continued in the old county leagues, but after just a single season it was all change again, as more clubs joined the NRFL, leading to the need for two divisions – at least for three seasons, before it was a case of ‘as you were’ for 1905/6, as the clubs elected to revert to a single, cross-county league, as had been the case 10 years earlier for the first NRFU season.

1905/6 also saw the introduction of county cups, and in 1907/8 county leagues were also added to run concurrently with the main championship, giving a stability to the competition format that was to remain (with the exception of war-time adjustments) for over 50 years. [note 10]  With fundamental rules changes, most notably the abolishment of line-outs and reduction in players to 13-a-side, and the alignment of points for all goals to two, there was no chance of reconciliation with the RFU, and the foundations of a new game were well and truly laid.

Warrington’s success in the early years of the new code extended beyond the minor sub-county competitions. [note 11]  After suffering defeat in the 1904 Challenge Cup final at the hands of Halifax, the men in primrose yellow and blue eventually succeeded in bringing home the cup in their third final the following year, beating Hull Kingston Rovers 6-0 at Headingley Stadium, Leeds, before nearly 20,000 people.  The first Warrington superstar, Jack Fish, scored both tries, which led to euphoric scenes on the players’ return to the town.

The feat was repeated just two years later, when Warrington won the first 13-a-side Challenge Cup final 17-3 against Oldham, Fish again leading the way with a try and four goals.  A Lancashire Cup final defeat to Broughton Rangers occurred in the same season, before yet another Challenge Cup final appearance in 1912/3; this too ended in defeat however, this time to the great Huddersfield ‘Team of all the Talents’.

Warrington’s league form throughout this period remained mixed, though the result was a relatively consistent mid to top-half of table finish: a high of 5th was achieved in 1904/5 & a low of 18th in 1911/2 & 1912/3.

The start of the First World War did not at first affect competitions, with the decision being taken to carry on as planned, in part due to the mistaken belief that the campaign would be brief.  Competitive fixtures were suspended for 1915/6 however, though in any event Warrington did not take part in the friendly matches arranged due to difficulty raising a team.  They did partake for the following two years, and also took part in the hastily arranged Lancashire League played during 1918/9 following the cessation of hostilities.

 

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So Close to Glory

The inter-war period was a time of great growth for the game in the town.  Wilderspool Stadium was modernised and extended, becoming one of the finest venues in the sport, and being awarded host status for Championship Finals, Challenge Cup Semi Final, and tour games.

The team responded to this upsurge in interest, with a significant improvement seen in league performance.  After finish in a record low position of 20th in 1923/4, the club improved to ninth the following season, before finishing second, and securing a first ever spot in the top four play-offs, in 1925/6, by virtue of 27 wins from 36 games.  Swinton were despatched in the semi-final, before a showdown with Wigan ended in disappointment.

The Championship Final defeat set the tone for the era: further defeats followed in the 1935 & 1937 deciders, together with losses in the 1928, 1933 & 1936 Challenge Cup Finals.  More local honours were secured however, with the Lancashire Cup victories of 1932 & 1937, whilst in the Lancashire League, a runners-up spot in 1920/1 was bettered with a first title in 1937/8.

The club was consistently challenging for the game’s top honours, and with a bit more fortune may have hit greater heights.  As it was, war intervened again, and the team was disbanded.  Wilderspool was given over to the war effort, being used as a storage depot, and the club went into hibernation after a couple of seasons playing in the War Emergency (Lancashire) League.  During this period, an incorporated body, The Warrington Football Club Limited, was formed, and after the cessation of hostilities, the team was set to ascend to even higher heights.

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The golden era: Bevan, Helme, Bath et al

The 1945/6 season offered little clues at the glory years that lay ahead.  A young Australian sailor, named Brian Bevan debuted as AN Other, on trial for a contract, that fortunately the club saw fit to award him.  He would return for the start of the 1946/7 to embark on a career of mind-blowing proportions.  Not only will his 740 tries in 620 games for Warrington almost certainly both stand as records for all-time, but the period of his incredible scoring feats remains the peak of the Wire’s success.  During his 16 seasons, Warrington won three Championships, two Challenge Cups, six Lancashire League titles, the Lancashire Cup, the Television Trophy, topped the league on four occasions, finished second three times, and appeared in a further three Championship & two Lancashire Cup Finals.

It was a boom time not only for Warrington, but the game, with post-war Britain seeing a surge in demand for sporting contests, which rugby league benefited from greatly.  Crowds of over 20,000 were common at Wilderspool, with a record 34,304 witnessing the top of the table clash with Wigan in January 1949.

Bevan was not the only Wire superstar of the era, with many all-time greats appearing at this time.  Harry Bath, Gerry Helme, Albert Johnson, Harold Palin, Bob Ryan, Jim Featherstone, Albert Naughton, Eric Fraser, Laurie Gilfedder, Jim Challinor, Ray Price & Bobby Greenough all being future hall of famers thrilling the fans as the honours rolled in.

The club’s first Championship was secured in 1947/8, when Bradford were defeated 15-5 at Maine Road, Manchester, before 69,143 people.  A first Challenge Cup triumph under the twin towers of Wembley followed, with a crushing 19-0 humiliation of Widnes in 1950, before the pinnacle of Warrington’s achievements was reached in 1953/4.  Consistent league form secured the Lancashire League, and saw a second placed finish in the main table to Halifax.  The two clubs met at Wembley for the Challenge Cup Final, playing out a dour draw, before the now famous replay at Odsal Stadium, Bradford in front of a world record official crowd of 102,569.  Helme picked up the Lance Todd trophy as man of the match, and his try, with one from Challinor and a goal from Bath was enough for an 8-4 victory.  Just three days later, the same foes met in the Championship Final, before a much more modest 36,519 witnessed the Wire secure their first, and to do date only, ‘double’ success, by the narrowest of margins, with Bath’s four goals just enough to see the Warrington men home 8-7.

By the time Bevan, and many other club greats had retired or moved to pastures new, the game was in a more perilous state, and changing times, for society & the sport lay ahead.  This led to more changes in formats and competitions, after a long period of stability, and many ups and downs in fortunes along the way.

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Highs and lows in a changing world

The long debated league format was eventually re-vamped for the 1962/3 season.  Two divisions were again adopted, but this time lasted just two seasons, before it was a case of altogether again.

Dwindling attendances, and increasing financial pressures led to the Rugby Football League and the clubs looking to alternative formats to try to draw in the punters and revenue.  The first was the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy, played as the name suggests, under lights, that was inaugurated in 1965/6.  Lights were installed at Wilderspool ahead of this, and opened with a friendly against Wigan on 28th September 1965.

In 1971/2 the Players No.6 Trophy not only offered another chance of silverware, but became the first title sponsored competition in the sport, as the club started a long association with tobacco and alcohol backed manufacturers that in part characterised the game for a generation.

The old competitions remained, and Warrington kept the trophy cabinet in some use, with wins in the Lancashire Cup (1965) & Lancashire League (1967/8).

However, through this period, Warrington slid away from the dizzy heights of the post-war era, to a lowly 22nd in the league in 1971/2.  This precipitated a period of transformation, as under a new owner, Ozzie Davies, the ground was altered almost beyond recognition with the construction down one side of a leisure club, whilst the team on the pitch was also rebuilt, under the guidance of player-coach, and all-time rugby league great Alex Murphy.

Top spot in the league was achieved just two season after their nadir, but it was the 1973/4 season that was arguable Warrington’s most successful for 20 years.  They first became the only ever winners of the Captain Morgan Trophy, before the Players No.6 Trophy was secured for the first time.  Consecutive weekends in April saw the Challenge Cup, thanks mainly to Derek Whitehead’s boot, and then another new short-lived competition, the Club Championship, added to the collection, for an impressive four-cup haul.

Sporadic success followed over the 20 or so years, with the Lancashire Cup secured three more times, before it was abandoned after 1992, and the various named John Players Special Trophy/Regal Trophy also won three times, together with a famous Premiership win in 1985/6.

The game grappled with the encroachment of TV, a switch to Sunday games, and the permanent adoption of two divisions and abandonment of the Champiohship Final in 1973/4.   However, it was the spectre of TV that loomed largest over the game as it headed into the centenary year of its breakaway from the RFU, threatening to split the game again, and change the sport forever.

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The revolution will be televised

The game of rugby league was formed in the southern hemisphere in 1907 when a group of New Zealanders followed the lead of the pioneers 12,000 miles away in the old country, with the professional game being established in Australia a season later.  For much of the next 88 years the British held the upper hand in playing terms, but the latter part of the twentieth century saw the Australians especially very much in the ascendancy.  The upsurge in popularity of rugby league down under, and the expansion of the game to new regions made it a key battle ground for TV companies fighting for broadcasting rights for the crown jewels in the Antipodean sporting calendar.  In the ensuing war, the two major media moguls Down Under, Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch sought to sign up clubs and players to the original Australian Rugby League backed competition, and newly formed Super League respectively.

As the fight for rugby league in Australia & New Zealand raged, the game in the northern hemisphere faced problems of its own.  Entrenched in it heartlands along the M62 corridor, with many under-invested dilapidated stadia, on the playing front the vast majority of clubs were still employing part-time playing staff, and finding they could not compete with the well invested Wigan club who dominated the game with eight consecutive Challenge Cup wins, and seven consecutive Championships in the late 1980s & early 1990s. 

It was by no means inevitable that the British should be drawn into the fight for TV rights & control of sport’s destiny half a world away, but when an offer of £87m was made by Murdoch’s News Corporation, owner of the BskyB satellite TV network, who already held broadcast rights for league matches, there was only ever going to be one conclusion.  That the game would be required to switch from its traditional winter season to summer, and clubs who had existed for 120 years would be required to merge with their most bitter rivals mattered little.  Vehement opposition from fans led to the abandonment of the merger proposals, and after much confusion and politicking, the top 10 clubs, Warrington amongst them, were joined by a fast tracked London club & newly formed Paris outfit in the new Super League competition.

Against this backdrop the game had the small matter of it Centenary celebrations and a World Cup to deal with.  With the need to switch to summer, this led to a bizarrely constructed 1995/6 season, running from August-January, with October blanked out for the World Cup.  Warrington displayed indifferent league form but found themselves in a semi-final of the Regal Trophy at St Helens.  Nothing foretold the debacle that followed, with a humiliating 80-0 defeat precipitating the departure of coach Brian Johnson, and a run of seven defeats.  It was an ignominious end to Warrington’s existence in the winter game.

Under a new coaching regime of ex-Wigan boss John Dorahy, and returning Wire legend Alex Murphy, and with leading youth prospects Iestyn Harris & Paul Sculthorpe establishing themselves, the new era started more optimistically.  A 22-18 win at Leeds in the first summer game (albeit in March), set the platform for a solid season.  Fifth place in the inaugural Super League followed, but that was as good as it got for a long time.  Warrington became a ‘selling club’, first losing Harris to Leeds, then Sculthorpe to Saints.  Both went on to have stellar careers, garnered with international honours, individual accolades, and many a trophy, whilst Wire fans were left to rue what might have been.

The club became a mid-to-bottom half of the table team, offering the odd glimmer of hope with a big-name signing, or promising cup run, but in the main they remained firmly with the also-rans, whilst Wigan, St Helens, Leeds & Bradford dominated; at least this quad-opoly could be considered progress after the one-club show seen prior to the switch to summer, as the increased broadcast revenues allowed all clubs to invest in full time squads.

The shining beacon of light for Warrington fans, that offered real hope for the future, manifested itself in the prospects of a new stadium.  Despite a long, proud history at Wilderspool, it was clear to many that the club would not achieve lasting success in its traditional home.  After abortive plans for a ground based in the outskirts of the town, the front runner became an option to play just to the north of the town centre, on the old Tetley's brewery site, as part of development funded by supermarket giant Tesco.  A protracted planning process dragged the agony out, but eventually, after significant local support, permission was granted, and ground eventually broken.  In 2004 Warrington moved to the Halliwell Jones Stadium, after over a century at Wilderspool.

The club very nearly said farewell to the old ground outside the top flight for the first time in their history.  2002 threatened the proud record of continuous top level rugby more than any other.  Only when Wire stalwart Paul Cullen became the third coach of the season did survival seem possible, and eventually their status was secured.  Cullen’s focus was on leaving Wilderspool with pride, and this was achieved with a first ever play-off appearance since the re-introduction of this format to crown the champions in 1998.

Optimism abounded at the opening game at the HJ, when over 14,000 packed in to see Wakefield vanquished; it proved a false dawn.  Warrington reverted to Super League-type, missing the play-offs and finishing mid-table.  Some progress was made over the next few seasons, but signings of the calibre of Adrian Morley, who went on to become the most capped England/Great Britain player of all-time, Australian international Matt King, Britain international Martin Gleeson & a short cameo from the man dubbed the player of his generation, Australian Andrew Johns, meant the fans, and cash-rich owner Simon Moran demanded more.  Cullen eventually left following a run of poor form, and his successor James Lowes had a short-lived reign in charge before he too became a victim of bad results that did not match expectations.

With a new ground, solid fan base, squad of international players, seasoned pros, and solid young prospects, backed by a wealthy, committed owner, it seemed all the ingredients were there for the club to kick-on and challenge for honours again.  It just needed a man to lead them to the promised land: enter Tony Smith.

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Good things come to those who wait

On 14 March 2009 Warrington travelled to the capital to face the London Broncos.  The embarrassment of an 8-60 defeat was bad enough, but the abuse given to scapegoat Matt King was sufficient for him to retaliate with an inappropriate gesture to the frustrated fans; it was Warrington’s tenth successive defeat, an unwanted club record, and left them bottom of the league.  It was also Tony Smith’s second game in charge.

Less than six months later, Warrington returned to London.  This time they were victorious, in what was Smith’s 27th game in charge.  More importantly, it marked the Wire’s first major trophy in 35 years, as the win came against Huddersfield in the Challenge Cup Final.  Their place in the big game had been achieved through defeat of Wigan, thanks in no small part to a Matt King hat-trick, which thus ended his path to redemption.

That Smith had done what no Warrington coach in three decades had managed was achievement enough; that he had completed this turnaround in just 25 games is remarkable.

Buoyed by this success, it seemed there was no stopping Warrington now.  In 2010 they retained the Challenge Cup for the first time in their history, with a crushing 30-6 defeat of Leeds.  The season also marked the high-tide in Super League, with a third placed finish.  The mark did not last long, and in 2011 Smith led Warrington to a first table-topping season in 38 years.  Leeds gained some revenge though, by denying the Wire a maiden Grand Final appearance, with a 26-24 defeat in a gripping season finale, only for the tables to be turned again at Wembley the following season, when Warrington made it three Challenge Cups in four years, this time by a not-that-much-more-modest 35-18 margin.

Whilst the 2011 side broke records, scoring for fun, in 2012 Warrington showed more composure when it mattered.  The result was that elusive Grand Final place at last, as they became only the sixth club to reach the Old Trafford show-piece event in its 15th year.  The opponents were inevitably Leeds, who edged a tight contest 26-18, retaining the title from fifth position in the league, repeating the feat they had achieved the previous season.

Warrington did not have to wait long for a second chance, but 2013 again saw defeat, this time to local rivals Wigan.  There followed the dis-mantling of an ageing team, with Adrian Morley, Brett Hodgson & Lee Briers all leaving.  Smith’s abilities were again to the fore, as he steered a team in the process of metamorphosis to semi-finals in both league and cup, but the Midas touch deserted him in 2015, as Warrington finished a disappointing sixth, though they did make the semi-final of the cup for a record breaking fourth successive year.

2016 marked a return to form however, and took Warrington to the brink of unprecedented success.  It was, however, a case of what might have been.  The League Leader’s Shield was again secured, but both the Challenge Cup Final (10-12 V. Hull FC) & Grand Final (6-12 V. Wigan) ended in defeat.

The fans’ focus is clearly on a first Super League title, to end a Championship wait that now tallies to 62 years, and some will not judge Smith’s tenure ultimately successful without this.  The prospects for the club’s future remain bright however, and if history is anything to go by, the generations that follow can look forward to more success for the men in primrose yellow and blue.

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Notes

[1] It is often claimed that Warrington have never been outside the top flight, and it is correct that since league football started in 1889, Warrington have only ever played in the top ranking competition.  However, that is not to say they have had an unbroken stint of top level rugby in all this time, as this run has been punctuated with three breaks as follows:

1) Whilst they were founder members of the West Lancashire League in 1889, they elected not to play in the competition in 1890/1 & 1891/2, before re-joining league football for the start of 1892/3, becoming inaugural members of the Lancashire Club Championship First Class Competition.

2) No league competition was played between 1915/6 & 1917/8.  ‘Merit tables’ were published from the friendly games played throughout this time, but the club did not play in 1915/6 due to a lack of players that resulted from so many fighting for King and Country in the First World War.

3) During the Second World War the club’s Wilderspool ground was requisitioned for the war effort, and with no suitable venue for home games, they did not participate in the Wartime Emergency League which operated from 1941/2 – 1944/5.

 

[2] Ironically, this is after Garvin chides those who refer to other dates, claiming they “have not done any research as far as Warrington is concerned”.  In his defence he does base the 1879 formation date on a misleading secretarial report published in 1889, which is the source of the long-held belief that the club was formed three years later than is now believed to be the case.

[3] I must, in part at least, take the blame for pervading this possible myth, having uncovered a key piece of information portraying the founding fathers, where a (single) meeting was referenced.  The information in question is WH Wallington’s obituary in 1926, when fellow founder E England refers to a meeting at St Paul’s Church on Bewsey Street.  It is believed that there were no meeting rooms at St Paul’s, which throws this claim into some doubt.  The evidence supporting the existence of the founding fathers more generally, and their role in the club’s formation is more robust than this single report, but the particular mechanism of its formation remains the subject of conjecture in the absence of strong evidence.

[4] Everton and Manchester United (then Newton Heath) were formed in 1878, Manchester City 1880 (as St Mark’s (West Gorton)), and Liverpool not until 1892.  See also Gary James (2017): The origins debate – how soccer triumphed over other

forms of team sports in Manchester, Soccer & Society, DOI: 10.1080/14660970.2016.1276238 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14660970.2016.1276238

[5] Again, evidence on ground locations is ambiguous, and different sources conflict.  It may well be that even the long held belief that the final Wilderspool ground location was settled in 1898 (following a move from where Fletcher Street now stands) is incorrect, as there is some evidence to suggest that the ground may have been on this site earlier.  This is an area I hope to research further in due course, to arrive at a more solid conclusion.  At present, I’m inclined to go with the same conclusions as Neil Dowson in 140 Years of The Wire, at least until it is proven otherwise.

[6] Warrington Examiner, 13 March 1886

[7] Only one game was played against St Helens Recreation, which explains the odd numbers of fixtures.  I would be indebted to anyone who can explain why this situation arose.

[8] Rugby’s Great Split: Class, Culture and the Origins of Rugby League Football, by Tony Collins is essential reading on the matter, and what I consider the authoritative text on the matter, though The Rugby League Myth, by Mike Latham & Tom Mather offers an interesting alternative perspective.

[9] Although 21 clubs were in attendance, the vote was 20-1, with Dewsbury electing not to join the breakaway.  Stockport & Runcorn joined the other 20 clubs in the first NRFU season.

[10] The South West Lancashire League had something of an unclear ending.  Certain reports refer to this ending with the introduction of the Lancashire League in 1907/8, though tables and references to it are made subsequent to this point, and Warrington were reported in the local press as both runners-up in 1907/8 & winners in 1909/10.

[11] Warrington also won the SWLL in 1903/4, and were runners up in 1902/3, 1904/5 & 1906/7

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