Grassroots football is the lifeblood of the game, John Grimbaldeston looks back at one of Lancashire’s more unusual league set-ups
It is a custom that certain games are associated with certain seasons, until the iconoclasts of Rugby League broke with that and experimented with summer Super League.
Football is a winter game, cricket a summer one, a rule reinforced by years of tradition.
The football-loving residents of the Lancashire countryside were, out of necessity, a little less bound by tradition: the mossy lands made for unplayable pitches, the truncated winter days allowed little time for recreation for the farm lads tied to the daily chores of milking, feeding and collecting eggs. And so someone came up with a radical solution: why not play football in the summer?
The Catforth and District Summer Football League seems to have been formed in 1922, as the old programmes list the first competition, the Tom Barron Cup as being won by Gresford Juniors, a team which also played in winter in the YMCA league in Preston, though where they were based, and indeed any information about them, is difficult to trace.
There was a “Gresford House” on Black Bull Lane, Fulwood, and logic would assume that the team would be from an area close to the north Preston countryside. Readers may be able to supply further details.
Important rules come first in the league’s annual booklets. The league should always be known as the Catforth and District Summer Football League, and rule number two identified the league’s target clientele: “young men of rural areas who have not the opportunity to indulge in Saturday football.” As a nod to the occupation of most of the players, there was a mid-season break for hay-time.
Because this was a summer league, the Lancashire Football Association refused requests for affiliation: football out of season was banned by the FA. The FA summarily refused to countenance anything out of the ordinary; women’s football was banned on affiliated grounds in 1921, largely because of the success of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and the crowds they attracted. Like women’s football, the summer league continued undaunted. “Perseus” of the Lancashire Daily Post supported both causes in his columns.
Perseus was also belatedly called in to advise after a peculiar incident over a penalty awarded three minutes before the end of time in a 1930 league match. The defenders argued with the referee and repeatedly kicked the ball away – the three minutes were soon up, and rather than allow extra time for the penalty the beleaguered referee blew for full time.
As the competition grew in popularity and prestige, an area for the league was designated and a residential qualification introduced, as local lads began to complain that better players were being brought in from Preston, and even Blackburn, and so the farm workers in the villages, for whom the league had been created, were not getting a look-in.
The league quickly gained the support of local dignitaries and businessmen – Lord Stanley provided a trophy, as did Catforth poultry magnate, Tom Barron.
In 1929, White Horse won the league and cup double, and their players were each given a clock as a memento, so there seems to have been no problem with financial support, or indeed support from the great and the good of the area as Lord Stanley presented the trophies. Bob Kelly of PNE was another celebrity presenter. Prizes were awarded at an annual dinner or a supper, whist and domino drive, often at the Sports Club in Catforth though in the fifties the league moved the evening to the Queen’s Hall, Preston.
Cup final crowds numbered 600 or more, but there were often only a few at the league games and the annual management meetings were only sparsely attended too, so the league was suspended for a year in 1931, then revived. It limped on for a few years, but in 1937 was suspended once more and did not start up again until 1947.
In 1949 there was a minor scandal when the treasurer embezzled a total of £64 13s. 10d over the course of three years, but though the case did go to court things were settled in a gentlemanly way as the offender was given a suspended sentence and returned the money in full.
In 1951 there was some reorganisation – two divisions were established and the reserve teams of the more populous villages allowed into the second tier, with the stipulation that any player who had played eight or more games in the first division was then not allowed to play in the second. A £5 penalty would be imposed on any offending club.
The fifties, sixties and early seventies were, in many ways, the heydays of the league. The best supported teams, such as Chipping, attracted regular crowds of 300 or more and local football-mad characters gave the teams and league as a whole a real impetus.
Fred Jenkinson of Eagland Hill FC was club president, owned Birk’s Farm on which the team played and was the team’s goalkeeper. He went down in legend when he was dropped and decided it was time the football field was ploughed – for purely agricultural reasons, of course, but if he wasn’t playing, no-one was.
League stalwarts like Fred, Les Blundell, Les Foden and Les Rawstrone, played for the clubs, ran the clubs, advertised in the fixtures programme and also refereed games involving other teams.
Barton’s president at that time was Willie Cunningham, PNE’s full back. He lived in Longridge – his address was printed openly in the fixtures programme – and he was a growling, glowering presence at matches, leaning on a goalpost and assessing performances with dour, acerbic comments: “If a load o’ hay went in the goal, he widna stop a handful,” he said of his goalkeeper, with a suitably agricultural metaphor.
Grounds were often just farm fields, at least away from the larger villages. Cows and sheep had to be shooed away before the start and players became experts in the effects of cow pats on a football’s trajectory. The names of the grounds in the programme added to the rustic flavour: Out Rawcliffe played “Behind Moss Edge Garage,” Eagland Hill at “Upper Birk’s Farm.” Usually the ground was the same name as the team, though: Catforth played at “Catforth,” as though the ground, tucked away behind Jenkinson’s garage, was obvious to any passer-by.
Refreshments were provided by an ice cream van around Catforth by Mr Jackson of Bunkers Hill, Catforth, who supplied alabaster-white, watery and tasteless ice creams from his rather ramshackle van, also known as Bunkers Hill.
Changing rooms and showers did not exist, sensible players came in their kit so they could proudly display their wounds and cow pat stains in the pub later.
The league carries on from season to season in a rather more ad hoc mode, with fluctuating teams and fluctuating structure, but despite the homespun, rather quirky nature of the league of old – how many leagues of any sport incorporate a break for hay-time? – the pitches and the changing facilities, Lancashire residents of a certain age carry happy memories of happy days.
* With thanks to John Gaskell (Catforth FC) and Jim Palmer (Garstang FC) for pictures and information.
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