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Monday, 21 April 2014

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Haven’s troubles strike a chord with Keith

“THERE is often a lot of optimism in a Boardroom and therefore you wait for the good days coming, you always think they will come,” so says the man at the helm when Whitehaven RLFC suffered its first big financial crash.

And so it is that the club’s present troubles strike a chord with Keith Irving who with fellow directors strove might and main to ensure that Haven kept afloat in 1992.

The intervention of Albright & Wilson, Copeland Council and a group of local businessmen (known as the ‘92 Committee) injected investment and breathed new life into the club.

A new broom swept clean in the Boardroom, but not before Keith Irving, then one of the directors, played a major part in securing the funding to give the Recreation Ground a much-needed facelift.

Keith was given great credit for helping to attract £300,000 from the Foundation for Sport and Art providing much needed improvements including a new grandstand and upgraded floodlights.

There was also a new Haven coach in celebrated Kiwi prop Kurt Sorenson.

Keith Irving, having previously done hard graft for Haven (and Barrow) as a combative prop or second row forward, later moved into the hot seat with a familiar message: “I would ask the fans to support us. It is all very well to stay away but without their financial support through the turn-stiles we can’t go anywhere – anywhere being the invest-ment in the best juniors.”

It all sounds so familiar today as Whitehaven fight their way through, arguably, a second major crisis.

Says the ex-chairman, a former boss of Border Engineering: “It does bring it all back, but this is always the situation: you think you’re going to improve, that you are going to be able to bring in more income. If it doesn’t work out then you are heading for trouble.

“We’d heard things were going on behind the scenes, there was quite a bit of interest from outside, a number of people who collectively could put in a reasonable sum of money, along with the help from Marchon and the local council. We had done our best.

“All the Board at that time came off – there wasn’t an invitation extended to anyone to stay on,” he said wryly.

“On the field we were competitive, but results started to fall off, the fans obviously got upset, so you have a loss, a reduction in income.”

Turbulence, ironically at a time when some top players were coming in, the advent of a Kiwi invasion with the likes of Dave Watson and Kelly Shelford, both New Zealand internationals, along with Ian Bell.

Irving said: “We had the opportunity to bring in some very good overseas players, obviously we thought this was going to make the difference... and that the pounds would look after themselves.

“Dave Watson, in particular, was a class act and for a time we had some good results.”

How did you pull these deals off? – “You got a phone call, so-and-so are wanting to come over to England, can you accommodate them? Can we afford it? Perhaps we can but at the end of the day no, we couldn’t.

“We also had some top class locals such as Vince Gribbin who broke the club’s try scoring record around that time (91-92).

“Besides his achievements, what I also remember is Vince deciding enough was enough with all the skullduggery and thuggery going on in rugby league. Ironically, in one game, somebody stepped inside Vince and he automatically put his arm around the opponent, nothing more than a gentle slap across the face and he ended up with an eight match ban. The RFL were wanting to clean the game up but there was no fairer player than Vince Gribbin.”

Succeeding David Wigham in Haven’s hot seat, Keith declared: “I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything, even though there were some sleepless nights.

“When I first went on to the Board I was quite surprised, there were debts there then. You take it that you’re going to manage.”

Having been a Whitehaven player, what tempted you into the Recre Boardroom? – “I’d just finished 12 months on the Board at Workington (at Tom Mitchell’s request) following, shall I say, my unsuccessful attempt at coaching (Town) at senior level.”

Irving took over from a sacked Eric Bell with Ike Southward and Andy Key as assistants. They had some quality charges – Ian Rudd, Ian Hartley, Alan Banks, Bill Pattinson, Alfie McCarron, Ray Wilkins, Johnny Jones, big Harry Beverley, John Cunningham, John Lightfoot and Colin Todd but consistency was elusive.

“Tom (Mitchell) was quite disappointed and upset I’d handed in my resignation as senior coach, he persuaded me to stay on, if only for a year, on the Board. Probably not a good move because if you fail as a coach you really should get out of it.”

After hanging up his playing boots at Whitehaven at the ripe old age of 38, Keith cut his coaching teeth at Grasslot Miners, working wonders in a short time, the team reaching the Cumberland Amateur Cup final.

Grasslot’s then chairman Maurice Clark described their coach as a ‘giant of a man’ who had transformed their fortunes.

Wath Brow was Keith’s next stop. His coaching spell there proving as distinguished as it had been as a player who had won county and international honours. An open style of rugby, it was to yield rich rewards with some all-conquering success.

Before his transition from amateur to professional coaching, RLF council member Bill Oxley had said: “Keith is an honest man. It’s very hard to find that in our world.”

Irving and Wath Brow in the amateur code could not have been more mutually enjoyable.

Under his stewardship, Hornets were the inaugural winners of the BARLA Cumbria Regional League (1978) followed by a Silver Jubilee season which the club crowned by winning the Cumberland Cup for the first time in its history. The League Championship trophy was also lifted more than once.

“John Lightfoot was hooker and captain, John went on to Workington and later Barrow, the late Fred Graffin was a great fullback, but there many others who contributed to the success,” he said.

Wath Brow was the springboard for Irving to take the professional coaching reins at Workington. He also had his Cumberland county coaching credentials for good measure.

“I did have some concerns about going to Town, but the team was strengthened to a degree, we played well at times but, again, you must get the wins.”

Keith quit, at the age of 42. Town director Dennis Pattinson said colourfully: “The game is a jungle. Nice guys sometimes get hurt. Keith Irving is one of them.”

One senior unnamed player said: “To be a top (pro) coach you’ve got to be a bit of a bastard at times. In that respect Keith has his limitations.”

Ex-Great Britain scrum half Tommy Bishop was next to step on to Town’s coaching merry-go-round while Keith Irving got his first experience of Boardroom life – still at Derwent Park.

At Whitehaven Grammar School Keith was soccer mad – he later had a youth trial at Borough Park when Bill Shankly was Workington Reds manager – then another with Preston North End, not to mention lots of rugby union in the Royal Military Police gaining regimental rugby colours.

Back in Civvy Street (61-62) Keith and his mate Derek Davidson came under Jack Graham’s coaching wing at Wath Brow. Cumberland county honours quickly followed – and a championship triumph. Six members of the victorious Cumberland side were chosen for England against France across the channel – Harry Hanlon, Ronnie Barnes, Joe Ashbridge, John Rodgers, Jim Bowness and Keith Irving.

“We lost 17-16, the French ref made sure we didn’t win – I lost a bit of blood at the same time. I’d never had a hit like that unless it was when Billy Boston later upended me on the Recreation Ground.”

A tug of war ensued between Whitehaven and Workington for his signature before Barrow stepped in. He recalls: “The Barrow directors took me in the Boardroom and wouldn’t let me out till I signed. So I did there and then – £600 quid. A deposit on my first house.”

The legendary Jim Challinor, former Warrington and Great Britain Lions centre, was player/coach.

“I got on very well with Jim, he was fair and reasonable, but at the same time I was working in Scotland and the North East, I had my career to think about but I stuck in at Barrow whether I was playing for the first or the A team.

“In 1967 when my daughter, Denise, was born, Barrow gave me compass-ionate leave. Within days Ron Morgan was at me ‘why don’t you come to White-haven on loan and you won’t have to do all that travelling’ and Barrow agreed.

“I’d signed for Barrow in ‘63 and ‘67 just happened to be the year Barrow went to Wembley. And there I was playing on loan for Whitehaven.

“Would I would have played for Barrow at Wembley had I stayed put? I will never know for sure but a funny thing did happen. I went down on the train to watch the final, got on the tube into central London, came up the steps of the underground into Piccadilly, and there was the Barrow team bus stopped at the traffic lights! All the lads were waving at me.”

Barrow lost to Featherstone but were building a reputation for big rugby union signings such as Tom Brophy and later Keith Jarrett, the Welsh wonder boy.

Behind a strong pack, Barrow had one of the game’s great wingers, the flying Bill Burgess – “he could beat anybody on a sixpence” – and on the other flank was Powderhall sprint champion Mike Murray with Tommy Dawes (later Haven coach) fullback.

Keith went on: “At the end of my loan spell with Whitehaven I went back to Barrow – after missing Wembley!

“Within a year Barrow captured Keith Jarrett from Wales – I played in the game in which he made his debut before a packed house – 8,000.

“I was Barrow’s goal-kicker for a while but I had nothing on this fella. On his debut Jarrett put the ball down inside his own half, it went through the sticks towards the town end and over into the street – the biggest kick I’d ever seen. He was the nicest young guy you could wish to meet.

“I continued to play for Barrow, even though I was working away, and I was involved in bringing ‘Spanky’ (John McFarlane) from Workington, he was working for Border at the time. So I did the negotiation on behalf of Barrow to sign a second row who, ironically, was likely to take my spot, he probably did.

“In 1972 both ‘Spanky’ and I signed for Whitehaven. Jeff Bawden was the coach, I was more or less a stop gap but still played a lot. I had three good years at Whitehaven – until I was 38 years old.

“We played Halifax in a televised match, I came on as a sub and Eddie Waring said ‘here now comes Keith Irving and he’s the oldest player playing rugby today’.

“Among the Haven performers (and characters) were Billy McCracken, Jackie Davidson, Alex Cassie, George Mather was taking over as fullback and goalkicker, Alan Sewell and Rod Morris on the wings; Kitchin (Phil) was stand off, Mike Gracey, Barry Smith, Brian Rose and John Pringle, Harry Maddison, Bob McLean, Gordon Cottier.

“One game stands out amongst all others - a Friday night at Central Park, Wigan, in 1972.

“This was the first time (and only time) Whitehaven ever won at Wigan. It was quite emotional in the dressing room afterwards, Jeff was going round thanking everybody, it brought a tear to your eye.

“This is what I treasure most from my career. Even in the last minutes I had the ball robbed from me and I was panicking as they moved it across the field but the rest of the team did the tackling and stood firm. Only a league match but one to remember.

“What I didn’t know too much about when I switched from amateur to professional was how many hatchet men were around – I got some really good batterings.

“One weekend I had to have stitches out on a Friday at my own doctor and the club doctor was putting them back in on the Saturday afternoon.”

What else do I remember? – “Well my first game at Workington (for Barrow). I took the ball up and was tackled by the great Brian Edgar, it was one of those tackles where he had my arm trapped so I couldn’t pass the ball, then I heard Frank Foster shouting ‘get him on the floor’ and he’s running at me. He came and took both of us down and before I got up to play the ball my right eye had closed. I’m thinking why didn’t I just accept the tackle and go down.

“Another painful memory was when I was at Whitehaven playing Widnes. I’m the blind-side prop, John Pringle is open-side, we weren’t getting much ball, so I said to John ‘the next scrum we’ll change round just to see if it makes any difference’.

“Keith Ellwell, the famous Widnes hooker, had both legs outside the scrum so I gently, and I say gently, put my foot to move him back, next thing I had a fist like a bucket under my shirt and under my chin – it was Big Jim Mills! He had me. Again I thought why did I say to John Pringle we should change positions?

“But I had some great times, met some great guys whether it was at Barrow, Whitehaven, Workington, Grasslot or Wath Brow.”

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