Scratching, eye-gouging, biting, holding, kneeing, kicking, punching. In any game where there is full contact there is a darker, uglier underbelly.
Now, some people say that is just part of the sport. It can happen sneakily within tackles. All the emotion and aggression of the game can explode into a fight on the pitch.
And the authorities are always trying to counter this and make the game fair. From the cards, to sin-binning, to video replays. But my favourite ever enforcer of fair play was a supporter. A 57-year-old grandma called Minnie Cotton.
Now Minnie Cotton, I’ve only ever seen one photo of her. She is probably the most stereotypical 70’s grandmother you can imagine. In this photograph, she’s wearing a long, thick black coat with a collar, she has tight, curled grey hair and quite a stern look on her face, a big umbrella and a very big handbag.
She was a lifelong supporter of St Helens. I mean, she was born in the club really. Her dad was on the board, her mum washed the kits, she married a player and, when her husband passed away, she began to become a landlady for the players.
In the 1970s she was the landlady for a second row, 15 stone forward, a Welshman called John Warlow and she used to come and watch him play every week. In the semi-final of the Challenge Cup she spotted, from the stands, John Warlow getting elbowed in the face, and the referee didn’t see it. Now, her and a group of supporters around her began to shout and jeer their outrage. But Minnie Cotton marched onto the pitch in the middle of the game with her umbrella and attacked the offending player. Chased him around the pitch and she was escorted off by three policemen and told off severely.
Three weeks later, she wanted to go and watch John play again and the ground staff said: “You’re allowed back in as long as you don’t bring your umbrella Minnie.” And she said “Okay, that’s fine.” And she came to watch the match.
Now, it just so happens that in this match, in the second half, one of the biggest fights in Rugby League history broke out when nearly every player joined in. I like to imagine Minnie sitting in the stands, maybe sitting on her hands, tapping her foot, biting her lip. But she didn’t hold it in and she marched onto the pitch again and this time she didn’t have her umbrella. So she marched into a fight of 26 rugby players, singled out the man who she thought had given her John too much . . . and uppercut him with her handbag instead, and knocked him flat on the floor. She was escorted off by six policemen this time and was almost immediately interviewed because she’d become quite famous for doing this and said that she “can’t abide unfair play and if the boys can’t play fairly, they can’t play at all.” Fair enough.
The thing I love about her, is that when she hit that player, it worked. Twenty-six men stopped fighting and stared at their feet like they’d been told off by their grandma. Which they had. You know, even now, some stadiums don’t let you take umbrellas. Now that’s probably for sight lines, to stop the people behind you not being able to see. But I like to think it’s that the authorities are worried that, somewhere, Minnie Cotton is still lurking.
On August 4th 1914, England declared war on Germany. And by 1916, the Rugby League, like most organised sports had ground to a halt as the players answered the call of duty and volunteered for service. Now there are hundreds of stories from this era that I can tell you about. But there’s one that sticks in my head that I keep coming back to, and that’s the story of John Jack Harrison.
Now, John Jack Harrison was, by all accounts, an extraordinary rugby player. He was a real Roy of the Rovers character. He married his childhood sweetheart, Lillian. He played most of his career for his hometown team, growing up just around the corner. He was a star in a team of stars, playing 116 games, scoring 106 tries. And when he answered the call of duty, he won two medals in jus a matter of months: the Military Cross and the highest, most prestigious medal any soldier can win, the Victoria Cross.
Now, the 1913-14 season, the last before the war broke out, was probably John’s finest. He scored a record 53 tries in a single season, a record that has never been broken. One of those tries was in Hull’s win over Wakefield Trinity in the Championship Cup and onlookers that season would marvel at his calmness in the chaos and they would comment on his graceful ability to dodge tackled and comment on the way he weaved and duped his way through the line of he defence. He was inevitably selected for a prestigious tour of Australia, a tour that would never happen, unfortunately, because war took over.
In 1915, his sweetheart, Lillian, gave birth to a baby boy, Jackie, and just a few months later, he followed over 2,000 Rugby League players to enlist.
Now John was posted to the 6th Platoon East Yorkshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant and almost immediately placed on the front line. Within three months, he had won the Military Cross for bravery and gallantry in the face of the enemy and just a mere two months later, his heroics on 3rd May culminated in the presentation of the Victoria Cross.
When the medal was presented, the London Gazette printed the official citation and I’ve got a copy here:
“For the most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice in an attack. Owing to darkness and the smoke from the enemy barrage and from our own, and to the fact that objective was in a dark wood; it was impossible to see when our barrage had lifted off the enemy front line. Nevertheless, 2nd Lieutenant John Harrison led his company against the enemy trench and under heavy rifle and machine gun fire, but was repulsed. Reorganising his command as best he could in No Man’s Land, he again attacked in the darkness, under horrific fire, but with no success. And then, turning around, this gallant officer, single handed, made a dash at the enemy machine gun, hoping to knock out the gun and so save the lives of many of the men in his company. His self sacrifice and absolute disregard of danger was an inspiring example to all. He had been reported missing and is presumed dead.”
Members of John’s platoon on that day recall his calmness in the chaos and they were quoted as saying how they watched as he left the safety of their cover under machine gun fire with just a pistol and a mills hand grenade. And they watched as he dodged his way through the shells and weaved and duped his way through the barbed wire. And then they watched as he fell and in the last moment, threw his grenade. And then the guns went silent and the platoon were able to advance and take the position with no further casualties or losses. They searched for his body, but they never found it.
I cannot begin to comprehend the bravery and the self-sacrifice of that man. To make that decision in that moment: a truly, truly incredible thing. But if I’m honest, that’s not the image that sticks in my mind when I think of that story. The image that sticks in my mind is the presentation of his medal. It was presented personally by King George V in March 1918, almost a year after his death. And it was presented to his widowed sweetheart, Lillian, and his little boy, Jackie, and the image that sticks in my mind is of his little boy, who will hear so many things but never really know how extraordinary his dad was.
For this last story, I wonder if you can help me with your imaginations to start with. I’d like you to imagine that you are high up in the sky as you can, surrounded by the clouds. And from this high, you can see as far as the crow can fly. From the castle below you, over the rooftops of the houses and high-rises, out into the countryside and the hills beyond.
And from this height, you can hear as far as you can see. The faint chugging of trains in the distance drifting slowly towards you, getting louder and louder as they get closer and closer until they come into view, snaking their way through the countryside. Their tracks are snails trailing back to where they have come from, and as they travel, they seem to converge together, and it’s clear that they are all heading for the same place: To the castle below you. Thousands and thousands of people are on these trains, murmuring with excitement, singing their anticipation. And all around you in the sky are black, purple, grey clouds, grumbling with intent, ready to dump their ? at any second.
As the trains arrive, their doors open, and from the height you are what looks like black dots step out: Tens, hundreds, thousands of little ants continuing their pilgrimage to the castle with two towers below you. A castle that that morning, had been given a ? by the very clouds that surround you now. And as they make their way, they are joined by people emerging from cars, escaping from the underground, thousands and thousands of people heading to the stadium. And as they enter, their murmurs turn to ? Surely they cannot cancel. Surely they’ll play the game. …?… fingers pointing at a man desperately trying to sweep the water off the pitch. If they cancel now there will be a riot.
Minutes turn to hours, and the stadium is bursting until it looks as though it’s going to explode and….? And the players emerge from the tunnel and the ground erupts with the roars of 90,000 fans cheering their teams on. A whistle sounds, and the first half starts and time and action become a blur as one half of the stadium rises to its feet cheering at the tops of their voices before slumping back down again as the other half rises up in protest. Everything flies by in a flash and then suddenly, another whistle and the first half is already over and the roars of excitement turn to murmurs and chatter and predictions and laughter and arguments.
And it’s catching. You want to be a part of it in the stadium. But you are so high up. So you start to wriggle and you start to fight the bonds that hold you in the clouds. And then slowly, you break free and you start to drift gently down, down, down. And the further you fall, the faster you fall, faster and faster until the ground and the stadium are rushing towards you. Things become clearer: the faces and the emotions of the supporters, the brilliant colours of their shirts and their scarves. And soon, your vision is filled by the faces of a father and a son arguing and laughing in equal measure about the game, the boy no older than ten. And then you hit him, on the side of the face and you explode into a hundred glistening water particles upon his cheek. And as the boy looks up, he sees a million, billion other water drops, just like you, falling from the clouds as if shot from a gun. The clouds have opened and they are throwing everything they have at this game.
Within minutes there is nothing but water. But still the players emerge from the tunnel, ankle deep in a lake. But they are determined to play on and their determination just makes the crowd shout louder. Nothing will stop them. And as the water drips from their hair and they strain to see through the water splash, the referee blow his whistle and the second half starts in utter chaos.