The Fallowfield Challenge Cup Final 1900
Posted on May 1, 2018 by Ant Stewart
The second and last Fallowfield final was a local affair, as Salford and Swinton travelled the short distance to south Manchester to resume their great rivalry on the biggest stage.
The Lions and the Reds were led out by their brilliant (and ill-fated) captains, Jim Valentine and Tom Williams. As over 20 000 Manchester’s rugby faithful gathered on the velodrome banking to witness an intense encounter, rugby league’s VIPs dined and socialised on a glorious spring day.
The match was evenly-contested until Salford were reduced to 14 men for foul play. Valentine, despite a serious shoulder injury, led Swinton to victory by 16 points to 8, the crowning glory of his glittering career.
The Road to Fallowfield
For a time, it looked like holders Oldham were up for repeating their feat, especially after dumping fancied Halifax out of the competition. But the Spinners finally met their match in Swinton, a team with back play as metronomic and harmonious as that which had graced Fallowfield Stadium the year before.
Swinton confirmed the first Red Rose final after taking down Leeds Parish Church in the semis. There they would meet Salford, who finally ended Widnes’ brave run, helped this time by ending the match with more than ten men.
Coming into the final, Swinton were clear favourites. They manner in which they’d dispatched Oldham and the talented Broughton Rangers had raised numerous Northern eyebrows. Salford had scrapped their way through on occasion, but like Hunslet a year earlier, had built their run on a sturdy defence and ferocious front line.
1st round v Eastmoor. 53-0
2nd round v Holbeck. 17-8
3rd round v Oldham. 14-2
QF v Broughton Rangers. 9-0
SF v Leeds Parish Church. 8-0
1st round v York. 9-0
2nd round v Leigh 9-2
3rd round v Huddersfield. 6-5
QF v Rochdale Hornets. 11-3
SF v Widnes. 11-0
After all the Yorkshiremen had been removed, the powers that be decided to award the final to Broughton Rangers, thinking it wise after all the criticism they’d received the year before for not playing the game on a Northern Union ground. So close to Salford and Swinton, it would also guarantee a big attendance.
After the reaction this time, they must have thought they can’t win. The much-maligned Fallowfield suddenly had a great many friends, who pointed to the success of 1899, and argued that Wheater’s Field, nestled between a myriad of Lower Broughton terraces, was too cramped and too small for such a glorious occasion. They won, and Broughton were unceremoniously dumped. Fallowfield would hold its second final.
The Northern Union were, for once, praised for making this call. What was once a “condemned” enclosure was now a “splendid centre” for Lancashire rugby. After last year’s debacle, when Salford and Swinton tried to arrange a saboteur’s friendly on the day of the game, the Lancashire union made sure that no other matches of any note were arranged in the county that weekend. In any case, with a mouthwatering Manchester derby in store, any other match would have done well to draw more than a passing glance.
The teams: A tale of two captains
Swinton, the favourites, were a well-balanced side. They specialised in rapid, efficient back play based off a solid front eight, all facilitated by the two dynamic Welsh half-backs Davies and Morgan. They had youthful vigour, anchored by some wise old heads. No wiser was that of Jim Valentine, the Lions’ captain.
James Valentine was born in Pendleton in 1866, and lived and breathed rugby for most of his short life. At eleven years of age, he was turning out regularly for Brindle Heath, and beginning his long tradition of tormenting oppositions from the three-quarter line. At seventeen he was briefly a Broughton Ranger, and he also played for Pendleton before joining Swinton in 1884. He never left.
Prior to the split Valentine had represented England rugby union on four occasions, but in 1896 he was banned for life after he followed Swinton over to the Northern Union. Valentine first earned a living boiling soap, but as his reputation grew, he went on to become a pub landlord, as had so many leading “amateurs” of the North at the time.
“One of the most modest men breathing,” Valentine did his talking on the field of play. Aside from his skill and his stoicism, he was known for being rather accident-prone. He was severely injured on multiple occasions, including one incident at Wakefield, 1885, wherein a doctor, examining Valentine on the pitch, promptly declared that Jim had but ten minutes to live. Yet, somehow, fifteen years later, he was still strong enough to lead his beloved Swinton out in a cup final, one last time.
Salford’s forwards were said to have the edge over the Lions pack, but the Reds lacked depth in the backline. In the days leading up to the match, Salford captain and centre Tom Williams was struggling for fitness. Without Williams, went the argument, Salford didn’t stand a chance. Thankfully, Williams was able to recover in time to buoy Salford and restore an element of mystery to the proceedings.
Thomas Williams was born in 1874, in Penrhiwfer, “a quaint little village in Glamorganshire.” He, like Valentine, grew up steeped in rugby tradition. By his early-twenties he was captain of Llwynypia, and was tipped to soon wear the red of the Welsh national jersey.
However, in 1897, he chose instead the red of Salford and went North, maintaining his fine reputation along the way, lauded for his pace, his tricks, and his passing play.
Off the pitch, Williams was known for his “cheery countenance” and “good humour,” belying Salford’s ill-deserved reputation as a rough, uncompromising outfit.
The 28th April 1900 was a glorious sunny day. The committee had inspected the Fallowfield pitch and found it to be in fine shape. Those in the know expected an “exceptionally open” game, which would tip the contest in Swinton’s favour.
Across the Pennines, green-eyed Yorkshiremen kept a watchful eye on proceedings. The Yorkshire committee once again boarded the train to Manchester, but found their journey to be far more peaceful than that which they had made the year before. In Manchester itself, excitement had been building all week for the meeting of the two old rivals on the biggest stage in club rugby.
“Already the partisans of the receptive clubs meet in popular club resorts and fiercely argue out the chances of either” (Manchester Courier, 23rd April 1900)
The Committee began their big day out at the Victoria Hotel in Manchester, where they sat down for lunch. At 2.30 the charabancs would be waiting for their procession down to Fallowfield, where they would enter at the Levenshulme entrance, reserved especially for them.
Meanwhile the gates for everybody else, at the Manchester and Fallowfield entrances, opened at 1pm. Ticket prices ranged from a shilling for “Boys” to 2s 6d for a spot in the enclosure. There were two ways you could get in for free, however. The hard way was to write to the secretary of the Northern Union, J. Platt, arguing that you were so valuable to the Northern Union that you deserved a complimentary ticket. In this instance, it of course helped immensely if you were friends with one of the committee.
Alternatively, you could chance it on the day. Judging by some estimates, thousands managed to get in gratis. You wouldn’t know it reading the Yorkshire papers, who steadfastly quoted the official (paid) attendance, ensuring everybody knew that they did the cup better than the Lancastrians.
There was, in all likelihood, about 22 000 in attendance when the time came to get the game underway. Over in the Pavilion, proceedings more resembled Royal Ascot than a rugby match, as the Challenge Cup continued to develop into the annual fete for rugby league’s great dignitaries.
“The pavilion was gay with the glorious-hued gowns of the ladies just as the front benches in the enclosure were sombre with the dark masses of the respectable attire of officialdom.” (Athletic News, 30th April 1900)
Salford boasted a brand new kit as they took to the field. The Reds won the toss, and decided to play the first half with the wind, that was not really blowing with any effort. Perhaps it was the gentle breeze, or their fine new garbs, but Salford started with intent and soon found themselves deep in enemy territory. The Reds spread the ball wide to the three-quarters, but Swinton’s backs were too quick and too wily to be fooled. Not done yet, Salford changed tack, instead battering their way toward the corner, where (who else but) Tom Williams was waiting to sneak over the line. Griffiths converted.
Swinton 0-5 Salford.
Swinton, sluggish, had to jolt themselves into action. Davies and Morgan took this duty, and their swift passing found its way to Messer, who darted his way to the try-line. Captain Valentine converted.
Swinton 5-5 Salford.
Salford were next to attack, once again using their aggressive forward line to pressure the Swinton defence, and it eventually buckled after a loose passage of play; Pearson took the ball and then the plaudits. Griffiths missed.
Swinton 5-8 Salford.
Swinton themselves went through the backs, and once again their play was too hot to handle. Morgan and Davies started it off again, and by the time Salford had realised what was happening it was too late, as the Swinton wing Lewis was already racing away to the try line.
Swinton 8-8 Salford.
The two teams now thought it charitable to give the scorers a rest for the rest of the half, but continued to entertain the Fallowfield crowd with a keenly-fought encounter. However, as the interval approached, Jim Valentine was forced off the field with yet another shoulder injury to add to his collection. Salford, smelling blood, upped their intensity, and would have retaken the lead but for the last-ditch defence of Davies.
Salford, however, once more proved to be their own worst enemy. Brown (sent off against Hunslet in 1899) again saw red for foul play. Valentine rejoined the field (though this would have never been allowed today), ensuring that Swinton had a numerical advantage for the rest of the game. Half-time, 8-a-piece.
As the game resumed, Swinton’s backs continued to run rings around Salford, who clung on for dear life. Lewis scored in the corner, but was judged to have a foot in touch. They would not be denied for long. The lesser-spotted R. Valentine took the ball from Messer and scored under the posts. Jim converted.
Swinton 13-8 Salford.
Swinton kept coming, and Davies confirmed the Lions’ victory with a score from close range. Salford, true to form, never accepted defeat until the final moment, but Swinton’s backs were too clever for the depleted Salford defence to smother.
Swinton 16-8 Salford.
As in the previous year, the trophy and medals were then presented by the wife of the President of the Union, who in 1900 was Mrs J.H. Smith of Widnes. That year, for the first time ever, the two teams were also given £50 each.
Then it was speech time. First, Mr. Smith pontificated with glee, before handing the platform over to Jim Valentine. Ever modest, Jim seemed even more uncomfortable addressing the crowd than he had done after hurting his shoulder. Tom Williams, gracious in defeat, congratulated the Lions and thanked his team for the effort.
“The speech-making over, Valentine, by virtue of his position did his best to sample the contents of the cup, a feat in which he did not display over much dexterity, owing no doubt to his injured arm” (Athletic News 30th April 1900)
The aristocracy of the Northern Union then hopped back into their charabancs and returned to the Victoria Hotel for dinner where, as the Athletic News (30th April 1900) noted, “no rude footballers were present to spoil the harmony of proceedings.” However, the Yorkshire representatives were in little mood to hang around in central Manchester, the meal went off without toasts or formalities.
Swinton, meanwhile, headed over to the Spread Eagle, where they took tea. The victors then, by all accounts, proceeded to return to the village very, very slowly, perhaps to show off the trophy on their way through Salford. Back home, speeches and celebrations followed throughout the night.
Salford and Swinton continued to play at the peaks of the Northern Union game until the war. However, their feats of 1900 were soon to be eclipsed by their younger, less prestigious neighbour, Broughton Rangers, who in 1902 became the first team to win the league/cup double, fielding one of the finest sides ever to grace a rugby pitch. In the challenge cup final at Rochdale that year, the Rangers once again denied Salford and Tom Williams a chance at cup glory.
Jim Valentine retired from rugby the following year. The Challenge Cup success was a fitting finale to a career that had help shape the development of English rugby over two decades. His retirement, however, was short lived. In 1904, whilst on holiday in Barmouth, he was struck by lightning and killed. He was 37. Valentine is buried in Pendlebury, near Swinton.
Tom Williams also met a tragic end. After retiring from rugby due to water on the knee, Williams followed in Valentine’s footsteps and became a pub landlord (at the Park Inn on Tatton Street). He then took up a job as a checker on Salford docks, and lived in Lower Broughton with his wife Caroline and his five children.
Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Williams joined up with the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry as a Private. A year later, he was sailing to Gallipoli to serve as a sapper (combat engineer), when he contracted typhoid. He was treated at Alexandria Military Hospital in Egypt, where he succumbed to the fever, aged 39. Williams is interred in a war cemetery in Chatby, Egypt.
In spite of another successful final, Fallowfield would never again host a major rugby match. After 1900, the Northern Union returned to using only the grounds of current teams, until the Challenge Cup found its permanent home in Wembley Stadium.
A few decades later, however, Manchester would once again serve as the backdrop to some of rugby league’s biggest games. The league final would prove very successful during its stay at Maine Road, as has Old Trafford in more recent years. The latter has also hosted two World Cup Finals.