A chat with... John Fearnley


Foremost amongst the band of players who helped to win the old Tyldesley Rugby Club its laurels was Mr. John Fearnley, of Astley. Throughout his long connexion with the club he rendered splendid and consistent service in the three-quarter line, and not only at Tyldesley but in every part of the county he was known as an exceptionally fleet-footed back, and a sure and fearless tackler. Alike in attack and defence, he was a player whom opponents knew and feared, but - and this is a matter regarding which Mr. Fearnley takes justifiable pride - they had never reason to impugn the fairness of his methods. In all his games he played clean, and both on and off the field he bore an absolutely irreproachable reputation. It was a matter of surprise to the club's supporters that he was never accorded county honours. In the opinion of many good judges of the game both at home and elsewhere his performances fully warranted his selection as a county representative, but somehow his claims were overlooked except on one occasion when he was wired for to play for Lancashire against Westmorland, but the message did not reach him.

Mr. Fearnley began his football career at the age of 17 with the Astley Village Club. Alf. Jackson, a Leigh man and captain of the Astley team, took him in hand and taught him to play three-quarter. He assisted the club for two seasons, and in the following year he was asked to play for Tyldesley vice Fred Shaw, who had transferred his services to Swinton. The invitation to Mr. Fearnley came from George Woodward, who though playing with Tyldesley, then resided at Astley. To quote Mr. Fearnley's own words, "George asked me if I would go and play for Tyldesley if he could get me on the team. I said I would. I was chosen to play, but the boss I worked for would not let me off, and they had to get someone else. George said he would try and get me on the team again for the following Saturday, and he added "If you don't come this time you have finished." When Saturday came I got permission to go, and I played against Castleton Moor, near the Red Lion at Tyldesley. It proved a good day for me, because I happened to drop a goal and we won the match. I should be about 19 years old at the time. After that I played with the team regularly; indeed, I never missed a match after for eight years. I never played with the second team in my life.

"Mr. W.H. Ramsden was with me at threequarter, but for a long time a difficulty was experienced in finding a regular man for the other wing. We had only threequarters of course, in those days. For a time Jack Shaw filled the position, but ultimately Fred Shaw came back, an I went from centre to wing threequarter. After a time we removed to Well-St., and whilst there we won the Worsley Charity Cup, the West Lancashire Cup, the West Lancashire Cup, and the Lancashire Cup. We also took part in three nine-a-side contests, one at Eccles and two at Swinton. I remember the two Swinton contests very well. We were beaten the first time by Swinton, whose side included Valentine and Dicky Lockwood, the Yorkshire international, but they only won because of the confusion caused by their wearing the same colour of jerseys as ours. A pass intended for one of our men was sent by mistake to a Swintonian, and they scored as the result and won the match. We met them again in the following year, and on this occasion we beat them. Our team was captained by Buff Berry in this contest, and we each got a silver cup for our win.

"I well remember Buff Berry coming to Tyldesley. I played against him at Kendal before that; he was then a member of the Hornets' team, and I had the game of my life in that match. On the Kendal side was Walker, Knight, and Hogarth in the three-quarter line, and Berry and Cross at half-back. We had never been accustomed to the long passing game, which was Kendal's great forte, and their style was an eye-opener to us. I was a good runner in those days, and they found me some running to do. Our men did not know how to tackle Berry, and I was running after him from one end of the field to the other. As soon as I left Knight to tackle Berry, however, the ball went back to Knight, and there was no doing anything with them. We lost, and if ever I finished a match dead beat it was on that occasion. I shall never forget it. After it was over I could scarcely crawl to the dressing room.

"Coming away from the match, a Kendal supporter said to me "Do you know Jim Valentine?" On telling him that I did, he said "Can he run faster than you?" I told him I didn't know. "Buff" joined us at Tyldesley the following season, and he worked a big transformation in our play. He showed the backs how to play the long passing game, and once we had got it off, we were equal to any team we met, and better than most. We always had one of the best sets of forwards in the country. By his individual play "Buff" strengthened our team immensely. In my opinion he was the best half-back in the world in those days, and the long-passing methods he introduced made our backs as good as any set in the north.

"We met all the clubs and the best players going at that time. Among the crack players we encountered in those days were Lockwood, the Yorkshire international, Sutcliffe, of Heckmondwicke, the champion drop kick of the world. H. Eagles, of Salford, and Ross and Payne, of Broughton. Fred Shaw was always a good man for Tyldesley, and if ever a gentleman walked on to a football field it was him. He was a splendid captain, and his authority was always loyally recognized by the players. We had a good second team, too, in those days. I remember at one time there was a regular exodus of forwards from the first team, and Alf. Smith, Jimmy Tinker, P. Battersby, W. Whitehead and Joe Worthington all came out of the second team and made the forward line as good or better than it was before. They were all well-made, speedy lads, and I don't think there was a forward set anywhere to equal them. It was a treat to see them pack. Most of them were used to getting behind tubs at the pit and they knew how to shove.

"I don't think the packing we see today comes anywhere near the standard of those times. I remember the match when we beat Widnes in the final for the West Lancashire Cup. I scored a try that day which was not allowed till afterwards. It happened in this way. I got the ball and was going down the field when I met Plumpton, the Widnes threequarter a very speedy player. To get past him I kicked short over his head, followed up, and was just in the act of dropping on the ball over the line when he collared me from behind, and held me back. We claimed a try, but the referee would not grant it, and it was called a disputed try. When the medals were being presented to us, however, a representative of the County Union said the question of the disputed try had been before them, and they had decided to allow it.

I finished my football career about 1896. When I retired from the game I had put in 14 years' service with Tyldesley. I was told there would be a handsome present for me form the club when I had finished, but I have not received it yet. Neither did I get the cap which I was told some of my Atherton admirers had bought for me. Something must have happened to it, for it never reached me.

"During all the time I played for Tyldesley I only remember being spoken to once by the referee, and that was in the match against Dukinfield at Tyldesley. The visitors had a Cheshire County man in their team. His name was Tempest, and he had a nasty habit of striking our men in the face when we past him. He had done this previously at Dukinfield, and he repeated his tactics at Tyldesley. I warned him once or twice after he had struck me, but he did it again, and I went up to him and put him on the ground. As I was getting up he kicked me over the eye, and I retaliated. The referee, Mr. Dillon, of Warrington, ordered us both off the field, but Mr. S.I. Middleton intervened and spoke a word in my favour, and the referee withdrew his order.

"On the last occasion I played against leigh I scored two tries, and as I was going over Mather-lane bridge afterwards, one of the Leigh spectators shouted out, 'And they said he were done up; I should like to see him when he is full fettle.' Several of my relatives used to play for Tyldesley, and I remember in one match we played we had Aaron Fearnley at full-back, I was at threequarter, J.T. Fearnley was at half-back, and P. Fearnley was in the forwards. There were thus three brothers and my nephew in the team. It is a singular fact that Oldham never beat Tyldesley at Well-st. whilst I was playing with them, and my chief opponent, Jack Hayes, only scored on one occasion in those matches. A good many people will remember an incident which occurred in match against Oldham at Tyldesley. When the game had been in progress some time, I told my colleague, Fred Shaw, that I was unwell and should have to retire. Just as I was getting ready, the ball came towards me at centre. I caught it on the bounce, dodged all opposition, grounded the ball over the line, and without stopping, jumped the rails and left the ground. My sudden departure puzzled the spectators, who laughed very heartily for some time afterwards.

"Another incident which occurred when we played Manchester Rangers come to my mind. The Rangers brought with them a speedy man, a Scotch international, named Patterson. When I went on the the field Shaw said to me, 'Jack, you must watch that Patterson. He is a Scotch international and very fast.' I met Patterson 19 times that day, and he went to the ground 19 times. Near the finish I said to him, 'Why don't you try a short kick?' I regretted giving him the advice afterwards, for he acted on it, and the next time I met him he kicked over my head, shot past me like a bullet, and scored. I simply hadn't a ghost of a chance to stop him.

"I never got my county cap, though I ought to have had it once. It was when Lancashire were playing Westmorland at Kendal. They wired for me on the morning of the match, but our secretary thought I should be unable to get there in time, and he did not trouble to warn me. I did not know of the message until the following day."

With utmost thanks of course to Mike Latham for the source material