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FEB/MAR 2023 ISSUE
May 11th 1968 should have been a glorious day for Wakefield people. Thousands of fans had travelled south to support their rugby league team in the final of the Challenge Cup at Wembley, playing arch-rivals Leeds. But the weather did not augur well. As the rains came down, fans and players realised that the pitch was waterlogged and the game was all but unplayable. Despite this, the match went ahead. The players slid around the muddy pitch, their attempts at play hampered by the terrible conditions. Wakefield played as well as they could - and the game culminated in a conversion kick in the last minute of the game. If Wakefield were to score, they would win the game. Right-prop Don Fox stepped forward to take the kick. Don had a reputation as an ace kicker. The crowd could rely on Don to convert and win the game – and the final - for the club. And he missed.
Jack Fleming was one of the 87, 000 fans there on the day. “We went on a bus and we got there about 10 minutes before kick-off,” recalls Jack. “It was absolutely sodden. The pitch never had time to dry out. It spoilt it really. But it was an occasion you’d never forget.” When Don Fox missed the goal, Jack and the rest of the fans knew the game was lost. “It was just disappointing when the result came,” he says. “But just getting there was amazing. The run we had to get to the final. It was just the rain on the day. It dominated everything.” Brenda Jones was there too. “I was 14. I remember crying all the way home. It was the first Wembley final I’d been to. I’d supported the club since 1963.”
“The 60s were a special time, when the whole city were behind the club. We used to get crowds of over twenty thousand people
Geoff Oakes played for Wakefield Trinity, but he wasn’t on the pitch in May ’68. “I didn’t play because I had a broken leg,” he reveals. “I was there though. It was an incredible occasion. All the flooding made it quite a match. Players were sliding all over the place. We should have won, really. We were robbed by the referee. He made a big mistake.”
At the time, a lot of Wakefield fans blamed the referee for his poor decision making. Should the game even have gone ahead? Tragically, the official John Hebblethwaite went on to take his own life shortly after the game. Curiously, though, many fans didn’t blame Don Fox for missing that fateful kick. Lifelong Trinity fan Brenda remembers the crowds of local people packing into Wood Street when the players returned to Wakefield. “Don was the only player fans wanted to see on that day on the balcony,” she recalls. “They wanted to show their support for him, show that they didn’t blame him for the loss.” Joan Watson was there too. “He missed the goal because it was so wet,” she says. “The ball was so heavy. It was a sad day.”
Lee Robinson is Wakefield Trinity’s official historian. He puts the miss into context: “People forget that Don Fox was a superb player. Take that goal kick out of the picture and he was magnificent. He broke all the records when he played for Featherstone. He signed for Trinity in 1965/66 and one of the reasons we got to the finals in 67/68 was Don Fox. Anyone that played with him would tell you he was a magical, mercurial fellow. He could do things with a ball you’d never seen before. That kick was just unfortunate. Without Don Fox we wouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. But at the final, it was that wet, his boots were that sodden, they were like sponge. The ball just spun off his boot.”
The Watersplash Final went down in history – but as a loss for Wakefield. This was unusual though:
“The 1960s were a good time to be supporting Wakefield,” insists Joan Watson. The club went through a golden patch, winning pretty much everything over a ten-year stretch. It’s a period that looms large in any fan’s memory. Ernest Jones was at the Watersplash Final in 1968, but he was also at Wembley in 1962; that year’s Challenge Cup Final had a more positive outcome.
“I was only in my teens then,” says Ernest. “We went down all the way to London a steam train!” There used to be special services, put on by the club. The players went by train too. “It was the first train I ever went on!” reveals Geoff Oakes, a twinkle in his eye. The camaraderie of the supporters was a thing to behold. “The whole of Wakefield went down,” thinks Brenda. “All you saw were rosettes and streamers hanging out of cars, all the way to London.” Joan travelled to London when the team played Huddersfield in ‘62. “We went down really early in the morning,” she says. “We were walking on the Mall and the Evening Standard drew up beside us and took a picture. We were on the front page!”
The 60s were a special time, when the whole city were behind the club. “We used to get crowds of over 20, 000 people,” says Lee Robinson. “Once the crowds came in the money came in and they could buy new players. Everyone went to Wakefield Trinity on a Saturday afternoon.” As well as large crowds at matches, fans used to come and watch the players train: often 3000 people would be there, just watching a training session!
One player that can remember it all is Geoff Oakes: “I came down here in 1958 and started playing for the first team in ’59. In 1960 we started to win virtually every match. We became one of the best sides in the league. There were quite a few local lads back then. The farthest lived at Otley. You got a more friendly atmosphere within the club. They were good times. The winning was the main thing! And from our point of view, the wages as well. They were the best days. I was a hooker. I was born just across the road.” Winning all those games brought the players a celebrity status. Joan remembers that the team went on to Sunday Night at the London Palladium. “They met Shirley Bassey,” she chuckles.
Though some remember Don Fox for that missed goal in 1968, most Wakefield fans have only positive things to say about Don and his brothers Neil and Peter. All three Fox brothers played for the club in the 1960s, though Neil was the standout star. Neil Fox was born in 1939 and became the youngest player to debut for the club – he was only 16. He set rugby league’s all-time points record, scoring 6,220 points during his career. Don Fox was known as a master tactician. Peter John Lindley, a firm supporter and local printer, wrote in his book, “Don was a match winner and a tactical genius”. Despite his short career with Trinity, Don will always be remembered as the club’s greatest tactician. The eldest brother Peter had a successful playing career, but found most acclaim as a coach, notably for Great Britain and England in the 1970s.
Lee Robinson has plenty to say about the Foxes: “What a family! I’ve known Neil Fox for a long time. When I was a physio, I used to treat him. I’d sit down with him and he’d tell me the history – the 1963 cup final, for example. The three brothers are all from Sharlston and all played rugby league. Peter Fox went to Featherstone Rovers, as did Don – but Neil went to Wakefield. He didn’t want to follow his brothers and Wakefield were going places, so he signed for the club in 1956. The rest is history! He had nearly 20 years at Trinity and broke every record we had: points, goals, tries. Later, they brought Don Fox in and Peter too. Peter Fox was the coaching guru of the time. Put them all together and you had three legendary characters.” Peter and Don died some years ago; Neil is still alive but not in the best of health. Despite this, he is remembered fondly by locals in the city. “There’s a new bypass near the Trinity ground – they’ve called it Neil Fox Way,” says Lee. Fans are hopeful that a statue of Neil at the Belle Vue stadium will be erected too. “He’s a very humble man,” admits Lee. “He says he doesn’t want it. Tough! You’re going to get one! People talk about who the greatest rugby league player is – but nobody can touch Neil Fox.”
Other stars of the 60s include Ian Brooks, Derek Turner, Fred Smith and Harold Poynton. Poynton captained the team in the 1968 Watersplash final. His wife Kath Poynton recalls the 1960s with huge affection. “We are very proud of the time,” she says. “They were great times and a great team. We always knew they were going to win!”
A curious highlight of the 1960s era was the filming of the “kitchen-sink” British drama This Sporting Life. This gritty northern drama, directed by Lindsay Anderson, was adapted from a novel about a rugby league footballer. Richard Harris played the starring role, a miner called Frank Machin. The crew filmed both at the Belle Vue ground and around Wakefield city centre.
Wakefield Trinity players featured in the film as Harris’s fellow team-mates. The story goes that Richard Harris was told that rugby league was tough and that the players would go careful with him. Harris said, “No, just play as you are.” Lee Robinson takes up the tale:
“In the first scrum, our captain Derek Turner slammed him – and he was out!” Harris was unconscious for a few moments! You can see the scene in the finished film – and local legend has it the Turner’s punch broke Richard Harris’s tooth. Despite this unfortunate incident, players had fond memories of the actor. “We had three weeks with the people who were making it, down here in Wakefield,” remembers Geoff Oakes. “Then a few days away in the studios. We had some days in Halifax. They paid us £30 a week. All the stars were mixed in. He was a super guy.”
The finished movie also featured fans. The film crew recorded a match to get images of the team and the crowd. “I was in the crowd,” says Ernest. “We were playing in a cup tie with Wigan. They took scenes of the crowd. I was stood in the corner with my Dad. Fred Smith gave an overhead pass to Neil Fox. And in the film, they cut it so Richard Harris took the pass!” There were more instances of camera trickery. “They actually had cardboard cut-outs on the terraces to act as the crowd,” says Lee. Despite these show business deceptions, the local people welcomed the film’s cast and crew to the city and most remember the film with affection. The film certainly added to the feeling that the 1960s were a special time for rugby fans.
Pearline Stoddart (Miss Sweetie) came to Bradford in 1961 and trained to be a nurse. “All I wanted to do was nursing,” she says.
HOOKED ON HISTORY
Lee Robinson is Wakefield Trinity’s official historian. He manages the heritage Facebook group and makes a podcast about the club’s history. He trained as a physiotherapist and actually worked for the club in the 1980s and 90s. We asked Lee to share what he does for the club – and why heritage is so important.
The Fox era was way before my time. But my Dad and my Grandad were Wakefield Trinity fans. My Grandad went to Wembley in 1946; my Dad went to Wembley in 1962 and 1968. I first went with my Dad in 1973 – that was my first game. And I got hooked. It was my local team. We didn’t have soccer around here in Wakefield. I’m a Leeds United fan, but that’s nine miles down the road. So we never had a football team and when you were young and not a lot else was happening, Wakefield Trinity was your thing.
I never threw a programme away. Every match I went to, I kept a programme. Always there in a cupboard at my parents’ house. And I’m glad I didn’t throw them away, because when social media came along, I realised there was no real history about Wakefield Trinity anywhere. These programmes, back in the 70s, were pretty good. They weren’t just team sheets, they were 14 to 20-page documents, full of history. So when Facebook came along, I set up a page and started uploading programmes. The history and heritage of the club. It was just a hobby really. At the time, in 2012, Wakefield Trinity had gone into administration and they’d been taken over by another group. And they had no records, no history, nothing. The administrators took everything – not a bit of history. There were some books written but no records. So I thought I’d start it. People would say to me, “We’ve no idea about how many times we’ve played Leeds, what was the score against Leeds in 1973?” And I could tell them. I sort of became the official historian. It was a hobby that progressed.
"We have a lot of history and heritage in this club – and we are very proud of it"
The next thing I did was the Heritage Numbers. We wanted to find out every player that played for the club. We started in 1895: the full back in that very first game was “number 1”, the winger was “number 2”, the centre was “number 3” – and so on. I went into the archives, looked at old copies of the Wakefield Express and I found every player that had ever played for the club. All the way up to the present day. There was around 1000 players. And every time a new player debuts for the club we add another number on. Then we did certificates to present to players and ex-players. It’s about respecting the team and the club. A thank you to the players: we haven’t forgotten you. Neil Fox may have played 570-odd games, someone else may have just played one. But all the same, we thank and respect them. It’s a celebration of the club.
We set up the Past Players Association – we did pie-and-pea nights to attract people. Social media was brilliant, we could track them all down. Gradually we brought them all back and we have various events (dinners, a golf day, that sort of thing) to look after past players. You track down old boys who haven’t been back for years. I brought a fellow back the other day. Only lives in Leeds but hadn’t been to the ground for years. His wife died, he was on his own, so we brought him back – it’s worth its weight in gold. We want to remember everybody.
We have a lot of history and heritage in this club – and we are very proud of it. There are some rarities. There’s programmes from the old days that tell a story. For some reason, Wakefield toured South Africa in 1962, which was unusual. How the link with South Africa started, I don’t know. Great Britain was touring South Africa at the same time, so some of Wakefield’s star players couldn’t be named in the team. They were playing for England. We borrowed three South Africans and they played as guests. And some of them were so good that we brought them back! We signed Gert Coetzer in 1962.
As well as the website and the heritage work, I write books too. I wrote the biography of Ian Brooks. He was a star player who joined in 1962. The other thing is that I do a weekly podcast with my son. I do all the research and I’ve got all the memorabilia. So every week, me and my son interview a past player. And we do a bit of historical recollection. We have a thing we call the Trailblazers where we feature players you might not have heard of. We’ll mix and match with modern-day and historical people. One thing we do is push for Heritage Rounds. We love the old kits. Some of the modern kits are awful. So we push for old shirts to come back. In the first hundred years of the club we only had 2 or 3 designs; now it changes every year. So when they go back to the 60s and were that shirt – and they sell it in the shop, it sells ten times over. We love it!
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