7th May 2020, 18:50 | Workington
This week’s celebrations of the 75th Anniversary of VE Day will focus the nation’s attention on the momentous events of 1945. For Workington Town, that year had an added significance – having been founded during the War in December 1944, they were admitted to the Rugby League in April, and played their first game as a senior club in the first round of fixtures in the post-War era, against Broughton Rangers on August 25.
Within a year Tom Mitchell, the force of nature who was a member of the club’s first Board, had signed Gus Risman, the captain of the 1946 Lions tourists known as the Indomitables – launching an era of success which included the club’s only Championship success in 1950-51, and continued with three Challenge Cup Final appearances at Wembley in that decade, most famously the victory over Featherstone Rovers in 1952.
Mitchell, a Cumbrian farmer who worked for the Ministry of Agriculture – and whose life included climbing the Matterhorn, meeting Khrushchev and discussing pottery with Picasso – recalled the post-War mood in his autobiography, published shortly before his death in 1998.
“Town were fortunate in entering the League in a time of austerity,” he wrote. “Everything was rationed, the War had just ended and people were craving high-class sporting entertainment. Workington vowed from the outset to give the Cumbrian public the best we could possibly afford.”
Eppie Gibson, who made more than 300 appearances for Town in the 1940s and ‘50s, shared some further memories of that era with Mike Latham for the Workington chapter of his book on British Rugby League grounds, The Groundhopper’s Guide.
“It was just after the War and there was a lot of deprivation,” Gibson explained. “Men were coming back from the War after serving in the forces and there was great excitement. It was a boom period for the game as a whole.”
Town played initially at the Borough Park home of the town’s football team, Workington Reds, where the great Bill Shankly spent some time as the manager. The club had already begun the development of Derwent Park – supervised, inevitably, by Mitchell - but post-War scarcity meant it was not ready for first-team rugby until February 1956, when they beat Salford in a Challenge Cup first-round tie.
Derwent Park has seen so many memorable matches since then. Fast-forwarding several decades, it was the stage for two classics in the 2013 World Cup, with Steve McCormack’s Scotland team drawing 30-30 with Italy and beating Tonga 26-24.
Workington were founder members of the Super League in 1996, after a number of successful seasons under the coaching of Peter Walsh featuring the Welsh duo of Kevin Ellis and Rowland Phillips, and the rampaging Fijian forward James Pickering.
There was a poignant reminder of a successful era in the 1970s with the recent death of George Graham, who was chairman as Town reached four consecutive Lancashire Cup finals including a 1977 triumph over Wigan at Wilderspool.
Jimmy Woolaghan was only a toddler when the War ended, and Town were founded, 75 years ago. But this week the 78-year-old, who has been involved with the club for over four decades in coaching capacities and other off-field roles, reflected on a few of his own special Derwent Park memories – as he prepared to launch a fundraising initiative by walking a 3.5-mile circuit of the town five times a week.
Woolaghan’s highlights included:
A disagreement with Tom Mitchell, “as Tom had knuckled my dad and someone else in the ear – Tom ended up buying my dad a drink to say sorry”;
“Spending Sunday nights in the bar above the old squash courts at DP with John Jones, David Beck, Ian Thompson, David Smith and Billy Pattinson”;
“Beating London at Old Trafford” – in the Divisional Premiership Final in 1994;
“The year before that Town had lost to Featherstone at Old Trafford in the same Final – my dad, my mam, Johnny Jones and his wife Ingrid were in Ibiza, where they found a quiet pub and watched the match – dad wearing a Jimmy Pickering playing jersey which came down to his knees”;
More recently, carrying the goalkicking tee for Town’s prolific half-back Carl Forber;
And perhaps most colourfully, playing a match for Dewsbury’s A-team against Workington – “when I had my nose broken in a tackle”.
Details of Jimmy’s “Toddle for Town” are on the Workington Town website.