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

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Keith Bridges

When Peter Fox took over at first team coach, the battle for supremacy in the number nine shirt was an almighty three-way battle between three very talented players. In typical forthright fashion it didn’t take Fox long to make his mind up. He moved Vince Farrar definitively to prop forward, Dennis Morgan had to be content with A team rugby and later played for Doncaster and Bramley. The all-important ball-winning role went to Keith Bridges. Once established in the team, Bridges began to show his uncanny range of skills and quickly became recognised as fastest striker of the ball in the league. The weight of possession he could offer to his side was worth his place alone, but also good ball-handling skills in the loose and tireless defensive work made Keith Bridges a vital part of any team he played in. He formed a formidable front-row line up, first with Les Tonks and Jimmy Thompson, then Thompson and Vince Farrar. They were the platform on which Rovers built one of their best ever sides. Keith made his Great Britain debut in 1974 on the Lions tour to Australia. It was the first of his three Great Britain caps, but it was a tour shortened by injury in that debut game. He also won seven England caps and appeared in the 1975 World Cup squad alongside Steve Nash and Thompson.

          Keith went to Wembley twice with Featherstone in 1973 and 1974 (and later with Hull, against his home town team). The blatant thuggery that took concussed him in the 74 final was surely a major contribution to our defeat that day. In 1977 he picked up the first of his four championship medals. Within a year Rovers had made a big mistake by selling both Thompson (to Bradford and Farrar (to Hull). That and a year-long injury to Bridges saw Rovers relegated in 1979. The club cashed in and sold Keith to Bradford where he linked up with Fox and Thompson. £23,000 looked like plenty of money at the time but considering what he achieved, it was a giveaway price. Bridges won the Championship with Bradford in 1980 and 1981, and then in 1983 with Hull FC.

At the end of his distinguished Featherstone Rovers career Keith Bridges had played 235 games and scored 44 tries. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Milan Kosanovic

Born in Lika in what is now Croatia in 1932, Milan Kosanovic’s family was Serbian which would inevitably create problems in that trouble-torn area. He saw his country invaded by the Germans in the Second World War, and when the Ustasha regime came to power his family had to flee their homeland to avoid being massacred. Milan was nine years old. The Kosanovics eventually ended up in a Displaced Persons’ Camp in Halifax once the war was over and they started to make a new life for themselves in West Yorkshire. Milan was soon trying his hand at rugby league and was soon signed by Bradford Northern, where he played for six years, establishing a strong enough reputation as a hooker to gain selection for Yorkshire (perhaps even then the qualification rules were open to interpretation). He then played for Wakefield for three years where he won a Challenge Cup winners medal at Wembley and became a film star (sort of). He and many other Trinity players were extras in ‘This Sporting Life’, some scenes of which were shot at Belle Vue in 1962.

In February 1964 Milan transferred to Featherstone and quickly became first choice hooker. His Rovers debut was against his adopted hometown of Halifax, in what was an easy win that day, with two tries each for Kenny Greatorex and Malcolm Dixon. Skipper Dixon and Les Tonks were to become Milan’s regular front row partners over the next three years. In 1965 Kosanovic faced a challenge for his number nine shirt from a young and upcoming Vince Farrar, who then switched to prop forward with great success.

In the 1966/67 season it was Graham Harris after his place, and both players played some great rugby at the side progressed through the rounds towards our second trip to Wembley. Milan played most of the league games that year, but Graham was preferred for the Cup clashes, and so Harris got the nod for Rovers’ big day out against Barrow at Wembley. Kosanovic was on the bench, but didn’t get a game. With that, at 35 years old, he retired after 94 games as a Rovers player and 307 in his whole career. He managed just one try for Rovers, but try-scoring was hardly the hooker’s job in those days.

Later in life he ran a wine bar in Halifax called “Milan’s” and died in 1989 aged just 57.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Willis Fawley

Signed from the local juniors, Willis Fawley made his debut in March 1951. He was immediately marked out as a very useful player as, allied to his necessary ball winning skills in the scrum and his exceptional strength, he was a quite speedy player in the loose, capable of causing havoc in the opposition defence. His major rival for the number nine shirt was veteran Bill Bradshaw, and a battle royale developed between the two throughout our Wembley season of 1951/52. In the end, it was the old head Bradshaw who got the nod at Wembley. From the following year Fawley established himself as first choice and went on to have one of the longest careers in Rovers’ history.

He was first choice hooker for Featherstone for ten years, seeing off the challenge of a number of talented youngsters, including Peter Barraclough and Dennis Morgan. Veteran Stan Moyser had a shot, but Willis was invincible. In 1959/60 he scored 17 tries, an unheard of haul for a number nine, showing his value in the loose, especially a good understanding with clever ball-handling loose forward Cliff Lambert.

It was his benefit year in 1960/61, and Fawley was still at his best. When Walter Ward gained favour in 1962, Willis became captain of the A team, still playing his same consistent game. It was not until Rovers signed Milan Kosanovic in early 1964 that the writing was on the wall for Fawley’s career. He continued to play on, offering sterling service to the reserves in the twilight of his career. Just before Rovers went to Wembley 1967, the soon-to-be-retired Willis played his symbolic final match on 5th of April, now aged 37 years old. In total, he played 372 games for Featherstone and scored 59 tries.

There can be no doubt that to play for Featherstone Rovers for seventeen straight years you have to be a hard man. Nothing typifies this aspect of Willis Fawley’s character more than Boxing Day 1954 and a game against Castleford. Fawley’s head collided with the goal posts with such ferocity that a crack rang out around the stadium and the crowd fell silent fearing the worst. The posts continued to reverberate as Fawley was stretchered off and his stricken colleagues continued playing (no subs in those days). Incredibly after about fifteen minutes, the unstoppable hooker came back out onto the field to rapturous applause and battled on to help Rovers to an 8-all draw. A true Rovers legend.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Arthur Wood

Arthur Wood
As the Second World War came to an end, Rovers were looking to lift themselves out of the doldrums they were in throughout the 1930s. In order to do this, they would rely, as they always had, on the emergence of quality local players.

          Three such players were Herbert Nash, Walt Garner and Lister Mogg who all filled in at hooker for varying spells in the immediate post-war period. Then in late 1947 Rovers picked up a youngster from Streethouse who went on to become an England international. Taller than average for a hooker, with curly ginger hair and a distinctive running style, Arthur Wood stood out on the field for his hard work in defence and also in the loose. These are admirable attributes in any player, but the hooker’s job was to get the ball from the scrum and in that area Wood excelled too.

Before long he won his county cap for Yorkshire against Lancashire in 1950. One possibly unique occurrence took place in a home match against Keighley. Wood was sent off early in the game, showered and changed, and with nothing better to do, he caught a bus to Leeds where the Rovers A team were playing later that same afternoon and played for them! When he wasn’t getting sent off, his form was such that he started to be talked about as a potential international and that inevitably sent bigger clubs sniffing round to try and tempt him away.

Continuously good performances won him an appearance for England against Other Nationalities (the old style “Exiles” team) in April 1951. He became the first Rovers player to be capped by his country since three-quarter Tommy Askin had played for Great Britain in Australia in 1928. Unfortunately, Arthur’s days as a Rovers player were numbered. Within a month, Leeds had stepped in with a record £3,000 offer, the highest fee the club had ever received for a player, and Wood was off to Headingley. He had played 105 games for Featherstone Rovers over four seasons. One of the first problems he had at his new club was their strict rule of all the players turning up to matches in a collar and tie. Arthur Wood had neither and had to spend part of his first wage packet on said items.

Whilst he was at Leeds Wood won more county honours with Yorkshire but no more international caps. Rovers had been reluctant to let Wood go, but, as ever, the money came in handy. Those ‘in the know’ at the club also realised they had a very promising young hooker coming through the intermediates by the name of Willis Fawley and perhaps the loss of Wood wouldn’t be too keenly felt.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Vic Darlison, Joe Golby & Jim Bowden

Vic Darlison played for Bradford in the 1948 Challenge Cup final
As Rovers’ depressing battle for survival continued throughout the 1930s and 40s, what kept the club alive was their ability to attract sufficiently talented local juniors, showcase them by giving them first team rugby at the earliest opportunity, then selling them to the highest bidder. Of course, the impact on the first team squad was devastating and Rovers were often bottom or thereabouts of the whole league. But the money from transfer fees was quite simply the lifeline that kept the club alive.

From the late twenties Rovers had been well served by a rough and ready prop forward by the name of Oliver Darlison. After 120 games in the first team he was sold on to Huddersfield. A few years later Oliver’s younger brother Vic was given his first run out at loose forward towards the end of another poor season in 1935/36, when Rovers sell-sell-sell policy was really taking its toll on the playing field. Vic Darlison’s true position was hooker and though it appeared that Percy Morris had a mortgage on the number nine shirt it wasn’t long before young Darlison had ousted the old-timer and made it his. His Rovers career was all too brief spanning just 51 games, before a deal was done at the beginning of 1938/39. Rovers swopped Darlison for veteran Joe Golby from Wigan.

Although Darlison was a class player to lose, it was a decent bit of business as Golby gave Featherstone Rovers very good service in the twilight of his career. Despite having played much of his career at Dewsbury and then Wigan, Joe was originally from Streethouse and so was ‘coming home’ at the end of a notable career. He was hooker for Rovers in the 1940 Yorkshire Cup final, and was up against, oddly enough, Vic Darlison! Despite being a Wigan player, Vic occasionally guested for Wakefield Trinity during the war. There was obviously no love lost between the rival number nines as both men were sent off together in the second half, but Golby had the last laugh, picking up his winner’s medal.

Such was Golby’s form that although Rovers had initially signed Jim Bowden from York as Darlison’s replacement, he couldn’t get in the team. Golby’s consistency mirrored that of the everlasting Percy Morris, playing 118 games in four seasons. Eventually time caught up with him, and Joe Golby moved to Batley to finish his career.  Bowden now finally got his chance and he served the club well, playing 88 games in 6 seasons as well as kicking a creditable 46 goals. Rovers have not had too many goal-kicking hookers over the years. 

Meanwhile, Vic Darlison had left Wigan for Bradford Northern who reached the war-time Challenge Cup finals of 1944 and 1945 where Vic played alongside Eric Batten. Vic had time in February 1945 to pop back to Featherstone to play a cheeky game for Rovers as a war-time guest player. He brought his mate Eric Batten with him who played on the wing and scored a try as Rovers beat Huddersfield 14-7. Two months later they were both running out for Bradford in the Cup final against Huddersfield. So the seeds had been sown in 1945 for Eric Batten to come back to Featherstone more permanently after the war. Vic Darlison (and Eric) went to Wembley with Bradford three years running from 1947 to 1949, giving him a total of five Cup final appearances.