Remembering St Helens and Wigan’s other professional teams

ABOUT the only thing fans of Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers will agree on is their claim to the showdown between the clubs from the east and west of the city being the only “true” derby.
The claim is based on the fact that, aside from Leeds Rhinos and Hunslet Hawks – the days of those two being involved in regular competitive derby matches having long since faded into the distant past – and perhaps the teams based in and around the Greater Manchester area, there are no other professional clubs based in the same town.
One of the biggest derby matches outside Kingston-Upon-Hull is, of course, the encounters between St Helens and Wigan Warriors, who have been crossing swords ever since a scoreless draw in the first season of Northern Union rugby.
At various points in their history though, each of these teams have had their own cross-town rivals.
St Helens became a two-professional team town in the 1915-16 season when the Pilkington Glass works side became one of three teams to join the ranks of the Wartime Emergency League, along with Featherstone Rovers – not the current team of the same name – and Brighouse Rangers.
Featherstone lasted just one season and Brighouse withdrew in 1919, but the club known as St Helens Recs continued in the professional ranks right up until the start of the Second World War.
Founded as recreation for the workers at Pilkington in 1878, the club were members of the RFU before switching to football in 1898, with this in turn being followed by swapping codes again to rugby league in 1913.
Recs’ first season playing in the paid ranks saw them finish a creditable seventh out of 24 teams on win percentage, with 15 wins, two draws and nine defeats from their 26 matches.
Every season of wartime rugby saw them finish above the more-established St Helens team and they became mainstays of what would become the Rugby Football League at the conclusion of hostilities.
Recs’ best season was arguably the 1926-27 campaign, where they won the Lancashire League and finished top of the Championship table before losing to Swinton in the play-off final.
They also beat St Helens in the semi-finals, which was a small measure of revenge for losing to their cross-town rivals in the Lancashire Cup final at Wilderspool in November of that season.
Recs did win the county cup in 1923 and 1930, as well as being runners-up on two other occasions, while their on-field success saw nine of their players earn caps for England and Great Britain during their time in the league.
However, the economic depression of the 1930s began to bite, with the effects of that and falling attendances conspiring to see Recs disband at the end of the 1938-39 season.
The team reformed as Pilkington Recs in 1949 and these days play in the National Conference League, as well as having an A team in the North West League and a thriving junior section.
Eight miles away in Wigan, the Warriors have always been the dominant rugby league force in the town, although there have been two attempts to set up another professional team there.
The first came in the 1921-22 season when amateur club Highfield, based in nearby Pemberton, were elected to the Championship.
However, they generally struggled and eventually became London Highfield, with the relocation to the Capital starting a nomadic life which would see them call Liverpool, Huyton, Rucorn and Prescot home before their eventual demise in 1997.
Another attempt to set up a second professional team in Wigan came in 1987 when Blackpool Borough, who had been forced to leave their home ground due to it being deemed unsafe in the wake of the Bradford stadium fire.
They were taken over by a consortium who relocated the team to Springfield Park, the home of Wigan Athletic Football Club, although the move was not welcomed by the more-established Cherry and Whites.
Nevertheless, the 1987-88 campaign saw Borough narrowly miss out on promotion from the Second Division, finishing fourth, as well as reach the Second Division Premiership semi-finals and John Player Trophy quarter-finals.
But while Borough had initially signed a five-year deal with an option for a further five years to play at Springfield Park, the partnership with Athletic was dissolved after just one following an argument over unpaid rent in early 1988.
Like Highfield, they became something of a travelling team, becoming Chorley Borough, Trafford Borough and then returning to their original home of Blackpool under the Gladiators moniker.
In a strange quirk of fate, they too folded in the same year as the club who could trace their legacy back to Wigan Highfield, by which time they were playing in the Alliance reserve league.
The history of these clubs further illustrates the precarious nature of professional rugby league. It is therefore testament to the strength of the sport in Hull that the city can continue to support two top-flight full-time sides.


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