Forget eye-watering salary bills, flash cars and WAGS, author David Waddington tells about the Yorkshire footballers who really summed up the spirit of the beautiful game. ‘From The Pit To The Pinnacle’ – a feature on Coal, Goals and Ashes in the Yorkshire Post.
Given the chance, the world of public relations would have a field day with the West Riding County Football Association Cup.
It’s not exactly snappy title for a club competition and even as an acronym it’s unpronounceable. What it needs is a rebrand and perhaps a high-profile sponsor to lend a bit of glamour.
However, back in 1963, when football’s greatest extravagance was a couple of half-time cigarettes, the world was a very different place and at the end of that season victory in the cup for Fryston Colliery Welfare, a humble Second Division team, would provide a fitting final chapter in a true David and Goliath story. To the 11 men who turned out that day, the WRCFAC was the equivalent of holding aloft the FA Cup at Wembley.
David Waddington is not sure whether he was at the match or not. He may well have been as his father, Peter, was captain, so he often spent his weekends on the sidelines. Even if he wasn’t, he’s heard so much about the game and the team’s surprise triumph over out-and-out favourites, Bradford’s Thackley FC, that he’s lived every one of the 90 minutes a hundred times over.
A few years ago, realising the 50th anniversary of the biggest victory in the club’s history was approaching, David thought it might be nice to produce a commemorative programme of the game, including a few memories from the players, who had once been drawn from the thousand or so miners who worked down the village pit.
However, David soon realised that the story of Fryston Colliery Welfare’s day in the sun deserved more than a few pages of a local newsletter.The story of that one small Yorkshire club blossomed into Coal, Goals and Ashes, a book which is as much a social history of a Yorkshire pit village and a glimpse back in time to when football was truly a working class game as it is a chronicle of an individual club.
‘When I started out on this project, my motivation was purely personal,’ admits David, professor of communications at Sheffield Hallam University. ‘I was six- years-old when Fryston won the cup and I really wanted to record the events of that day for my dad. But as I began to interview more of his fellow players I realised that they had a real story to tell, not just about that particular season, but about how life used to be. Someone once said that the people of Fryston’s whole world revolved around the village boundaries, many of them rarely even crossing the bridge to Castleford. They were right and that exact same spirit of togetherness manifested itself in the football team. Fryston was socially isolated, the working life was hard, and I think that toughness came out in the spirit in which they played the game.’
The story of Coal, Goals and Ashes (to explain the title would, says David, ‘spoil the final chapter of the book.’) features a benevolent pit manager who prized his workers’ welfare alongside productivity, a veteran hero in a man named Freddie Howard who would return to be Fryston’s lethal weapon on cup day and an entire side who while they may have harboured dreams of being spotted by a Walter Winterbottom or an Alf Ramsey, were also happy to play simply for the camaraderie and the promise of a post-match table reservation at the local social club.
It also follows the history of people whose fortunes were tied so closely to the colliery which was already struggling to break even. It finally closed in the 1980s.
‘These were the days when a side was reliant not on any scientific or systematic coaching regimes, but on natural skill and the spirit of togetherness,’ says David. ‘Back then the training, if it happened at all, consisted of a few stretching exercises, a couple of laps around the field and few shots at goal. Even on match days there was not any particular talk of tactics.
‘However, these players knew each other inside out. They were had either been born in Fryston or worked or lived there and most could tick all three boxes.’
While for the most part, the lives of the Fryston players revolved around the pit during the week and the often waterlogged football pitches at the weekend, the team did have an occasional brush with the big time.
‘During the war among the many Bevin Boys conscripted to work down the mines rather than being sent off to the front line were a number of the country’s top footballers,’ says David. ‘I guess it was thought to be a slightly safer occupation and eight ended up at Fryston, including the legendary Bradford Park Avenue player Len Shackleton.’
Shackleton, who was the original showboater, would later play for both Newcastle and Sunderland and his skill along with that of the other footballing Bevin Boys left a lasting impression on the Fryston side.
‘A couple of the players were talent spotted by some of the bigger clubs,’ says David. ‘However, one turned down an offer to move full-time to Halifax Town in a favour of a part-time contract so he could continue to play with his friends in the village, while another of Fryston’s stars, Freddie Howard, packed in an opportunity with York City because he said the 20-minute train ride from Castleford was too far to travel.’
Howard was to be the star of that cup final in 1963. By then a veteran who had been out of the squad for some time, he was drafted back in as an emergency measure. While Thackley FC might have been the superior side on paper, Howard, dressed in the club’s traditional blue and white strip, scored a winning goal which the Bradford players would remember for ever.
‘One of the players told me they could have beaten England that night,’ says David. ‘And you know what, I reckon they probably could.’