The day brave Blackpool Borough lost to classy Cas

Blackpool and Castleford take the field
Blackpool and Castleford take the field
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It was the finest moment in the eventful, often fraught history of Blackpool Borough Rugby League Club.

Forty years ago, they made the rest of the rugby world sit up and take notice by their remarkable progress to the final of the Players Number Six Trophy Final where they met Castleford at The Willows, then the home of Salford RLFC.

Back then the league was split into two divisions.

Castleford, packed with stellar names like Malcolm Reilly, Steve ‘Knocker’ Norton, John Joyner and Gary Stephens, were third in the first division, while that archetypal Cinderella club Borough were struggling second-bottom of the division two.

There was to be no fairy-tale ending as Cas won 25-15, but Borough did themselves proud and even led at one stage by 10-5.

The underdogs scored three tries though Howard ‘Smiler’ Allen, Joe Egan and Paul Machen against five by Cas.

It had been a tremendous effort by Borough, who had claimed the scalps of Barrow, Bramley and Workington before a semi-final against Leigh at fog-bound Borough Park.

Recalling that semi-final Blackpool prop forward that day Jim Hamilton, now 66, said: “It probably wasn’t as bad to play in as it did to watch on television; I think the BBC had a lot to do with the match going ahead. If the match hadn’t been on, they wouldn’t have had anything to show on Grandstand!”

Winger Doug Robinson had another reason to remember the Leigh match, saying: “I was in the police force. I finished work that day at 7am, managed to get some sleep and was playing in the afternoon!”

But then Robinson, who is now 72, was used to juggling work with rugby.

Before turning to the 13-a-side code with Borough, he played for Fylde.

He recalled: “There were times when I had to do split shifts; I’d work four hours, play in a match for Fylde, and then do another shift with the police after the game!”

Blackpool Boorough may have been massive underdogs against Castleford in that Player final in 1977, but Jim Hamilton and his committed confreres refused to be cowed by the lofty reputation of their Yorkshire rivals.

He said: “They may have been superstars, but we were determined to show that we could match them.

“How shall I put it? We had some nasty unpleasant characters up front like myself, ‘Smiler’ Allen and Joe Egan – that’s where we had Castleford because they weren’t as strong in that department.”

Allen was one of the game’s great characters of the time and an old-fashioned hooker.

That was in the era when there were properly contested scrums in the 13-a-side code.

Hamilton said: “I have seen ‘Smiler’ winning scrums by 18 to three. He was lightening with his foot in the scrum; nowadays, hookers can get away with feeding the ball straight into the back row.

“Smiler was a match for anyone, though that all depended on what his attitude was on the day.”

Hamilton was very much at the forefront of Borough’ challenge that famous afternoon four decades ago.

And Borough showed that they had the talent to aim higher, gaining promotion to the top grade after a managerial change behind the scenes which saw coach Jim Crellin leave the club to be replaced by Albert Fearnley.

At the time of that Player final, Hamilton was cementing his reputation as one of the best prop forwards in the country.

Indeed, he was in line to tour Australia with the Great Britain squad, but he broke his leg and suffered a similar injury three games into his comeback, meaning a £12,000 move to Warrington was shelved.

One surprise about that 1977 Player final was the 4,512 crowd at Salford; by contrast, that day there were 10,000 at Vale Of Lune RFC to watch Lancashire beat Gloucester.

Doug Robinson, the Borough full-back, was used to playing in front of big crowds as and England schoolboy rugby union international.

“I played two games against Wales, one ended 0-0 and the other we lost 9-3 – there were 24,000 at one of those games! he said.

Robinson is long retired from the police force, while Jim Hamilton retired at 48 from his senior engineer’s job at Heyham power station, investing in properties in Lancaster and is now renovating another in France.

Blackpool Borough team: Reynolds, Robinson, Heritage, Machen, Pitman, Marsh, Newall, Hamilton, Allen, Egan, Gamble, Groves Pattinson. Substitutes: Lamb, Hurst.