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Friday, 19 December 2014

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Kitchin was a key ingredient in a recipe to transform Town

A FEARED pack led by Fijian giant Jim Pickering and a back line laced with golden oldies such as Des Drummond and Ged Byrne.

This was the recipe that took a transformed Workington Town to back-to-back Premiership finals at Old Trafford. And a coveted place in the first Super League as a nice bonus!

There was also room for a few talented local lads in a side which gave West Cumbria its first big match representations for a decade; notably Whitehaven-born Wayne Kitchin, and his lifelong friend Stephen Wear.

Before eventually joining his home town club, Kitch made well over 100 first team appearances for Workington. While his skill and nuggety commitment were unquestioned, his was an eventful career which kept him in the headlines.

There were colourful claims of breach of contract (by both club and player), and transfer requests which on the first occasion resulted in Town putting a young Kitchin on the list at an eye-watering £150,000, illustrating really how much the club wanted to keep the talented lad from Kells.

Though St Helens came a calling, the move never came off, which with hindsight may have been a blessing in disguise because despite some trouble-strewn times, Wayne’s decision to dig in at Derwent Park made him a valued member of the side alongside some star players from home and abroad.

Not only this but a determination to hold his own in the face of stiff competition for places saw Wayne Kitchin pull off one of the best positional switches in rugby league at the time; his move from scrum-half to loose-forward was described as a revelation.

There were plenty of accolades. Right from the start of his professional career, as one of the game’s hottest teenage prospects, Wayne was awarded one of the Halbro/Open Rugby Shooting Star Awards. “You have to be a special kind of young player to ooze the kind of class Wayne Kitchin shows despite playing for a struggling Town team,” it said.

And then much later, facing competition for the No 7 shirt from Dean Marwood, Open Rugby decreed: “Talent and strength, as well as the perception of coach Peter Walsh, has enabled Wayne to switch from scrum-half to play superbly at loose-forward.”

Being the son of a famous international father, Phil Kitchin, Wayne admits that he was probably born “with a rugby ball in my hands” but pointed out: “My mam was saying only the other day how they used to have to push me down the road to play rugby with a ball and strip.

“It wasn’t until my last year in junior school (Kells St Mary’s) that it took off for me when we held a Sevens competition. From the age of nine or 10, rugby league was going to be my game, so it proved.

“Until later life (until I got slower) I was always scrum-half. I must have played every position except prop.”

Schoolmates Wayne Kitchin and Stephen Wear were half-back mainstays of a very successful Kells St Mary’s under-11 side which won just about everything. Even from an early age the pair had an understanding which was telepathic. It also served them well for the St Benedict’s under-15 RU County Shield winning side, right through to rugby league in the brilliant Kells under-19 team, Great Britain Young Lions and Workington Town, also signing on as professionals at the same time.

So what was the difference between you?

“Stephen, at stand-off, was a bit quicker. He had so much skill, quick thinking, quick feet. I just made sure I supported him when he opened up the gaps. It paid off more often than not.”

The dynamic duo was part of a whole host of Cumbrians on the 1989 BARLA Great Britain Tour of Australia; Dave Elliott, Chris Rudd, Gary Chambers, Andy Southwell, Barry Williams and Martin Eldon were the others.

Kitch figured in both Tests (as a substitute), Stephen started the second at stand-off against the junior Kangaroos.

“I think the only games we lost were the two Tests. In the first, they absolutely trounced us, but we were up against future superstars such as Brad Fittler, who scored about four tries. In the second Test there was only about 12 points between us so we’d obviously improved.

“The fact is that playing up here, we didn’t really know how good we actually were at that age even though we were good enough to play in National Cup finals with Kells.

“I remember playing Wigan District on the pit field at Kells. We came out of the changing rooms in Copeland’s old black strip, a bit scruffy looking; the Wigan lads emerged looking a million dollars, that knocked us off our game, but we soon realised they weren’t any better than us – it was just the smarter strip!

“A lot of those boys went on to sign for the likes of St Helens and Wigan but it was only really because it was the area they lived in. When we local lads were competing for a Britain spot, you realised they weren’t any better than us.”

Soon after returning from the Tour, bosom pals Kitchin and Wear (both Sellafield apprentices) turned professional not for their home town club but for Town.

Both played their part in getting Kells to the Under-19 and Open Age National Cup finals (at Wigan’s Central Park) but, on the day, the pair turned out for the Under-19s only to be beaten by the renowned Widnes Tigers (39-16).

Kitchin, Gary Chambers and Dave Elliott were outstanding.

Says Wayne: “We signed for Town in ‘89, putting our names to 10-year contracts, stupidly, but for me it wasn’t too bad considering I was there long enough to play in two (divisional) Premiership finals.”

Who was the Town coach then?

“My dad! I only had a few games under him before he was sacked.”

Signing Kitchin and Wear in the face of some stiff competition was seen as a Workington masterstroke to help take the club out of the doldrums.

“We were supposed to be part of a youth policy but looking round the only youth policy at Derwent Park was me and Stephen,” Wayne declared.

“From our point of view, it was probably more of a panic move. We didn’t know for sure if anybody else would come in and want to sign us. I always wanted to sign for Haven but being a young lad I was impressed by the money.”

When Town fuelled their ambitions by snapping up the Great Britain scrum-half Ray Ashton, it was said the place wasn’t big enough for the pair of you?

“It’s true that as player-coach Ashton obviously wanted to be on the field controlling the game. I had to fight for a place. It was an eye-opener. Supporters probably thought I wouldn’t get on with Ray, but the fact is it just made me work a lot harder to get back in the side, me having to push him out.

“It came to me saying: ‘Listen, I’m playing better than you, you should be putting me in,’ but he said: ‘No, I’m playing because I am controlling the game better.’

“It got to the point where at one training session we had a boxing ring set up, we both went hell for leather. It cleared the air, and in the end I looked up to Ray Ashton. He did me a big favour. I regained my place and it put me on a higher playing level.”

Ashton’s eventual departure heralded the arrival of Australian coach Peter Walsh and the good times rolled with those successive Premiership finals.

It signalled the arrival of some big name players.

“We probably bought the best part of a good team,” said Wayne. “When you had the likes of Des Drummond, Ged Byrne, Phil McKenzie, Mark Mulligan and James Pickering, plus the Barrow lads, it was good just to hold down a position in such a strong outfit.

“Unfortunately, around this time, Stephen left Workington. There were a lot of strange things happening. After a training session I was given my wages in an envelope, my contract money was also there. Stephen walked in the office after me, got his wages and walked back out. No contract money. That was the end of it.

“He went to Whitehaven first, then to Halifax for a short while but to treat him like that wasn’t good especially as Ged Byrne (a classy stand-off for Wigan) hadn’t even arrived.

“For me, versatility has been a blessing; playing loose-forward, hooker, second-row, scrum-half and at Whitehaven even full-back for a few games.”

Wayne played in both the Stones Premiership finals at the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford. Town lost the first (1993) to a formidable Featherstone who included the likes of Paul Newlove but, the following year, were victorious against London Crusaders. Heady days.

“Playing at Old Trafford before around 40,000 spectators was so special. These were double-header finals, so fans were in there for the day. It was fantastic, I still think the RLF should be doing this today rather than playing the Super League and Championship finals at different venues.”

Career highlights in anybody’s book?

“Absolutely. Mind you people still say to me: ‘You should have passed that ball to Ged Byrne in the ‘94 final and he would have scored.’

“Maybe not to Ged but I should have thrown to Mark Mulligan inside. It was a big occasion, white line fever probably, but never mind. We were a long way ahead, we won, and it got us into Super League.

“This was a hard challenge, we weren’t full-time professionals, which 99 per cent of Super League were. Suddenly we had to go to work, train and come up against the likes of Wigan, St Helens and Leeds.

“I enjoyed it. We got some thrashings off some of the bigger sides, but we shocked a few others including a win over Warrington at Wilderspool. Even though we got relegated, we did ourselves proud for being a part-time side in Super League.

“One of our last games of the season was at Wigan. We knew we were already down and, in our heart of hearts, we knew exactly what was going to happen.

“What else when we were up against the likes of Jason Robinson, Martin Offiah, Shaun Edwards and Andy Farrell. I’d played in direct opposition to Edwards a few times but just couldn’t get near the guy.”

Post-Super League it seemed to be the beginning of the end for Town with the club’s ambition of bringing in top calibre players on big contracts starting to back-fire.

“I think that’s what caused the break up really. Some of the lads were being paid mega-bucks,” Wayne reflected ruefully.

Town-Haven derby games were always special, a bit spicy.

“Once at The Recre (playing for Town) I had a bust up with John Routledge, an early bath for me and, as I walked off, Routy was laughing; next minute he was behind me in the changing rooms, sent off as well. It was always a battle out there but the good thing was that we were sharing a few pints afterwards.

“The only other time I got marching orders was playing for Whitehaven at Widnes. There I was sitting in the changing room feeling sorry for myself when David Seeds came in. David had been kicked in the face, lost some of his teeth; it made me feel a lot better.”

Wayne’s second transfer request at Workington finally brought him to The Recre, but it was the first request that shocked the RL world at a time when he was one of the game’s best rookies. It almost made him a Saint.

“St Helens’ coach Mike McLelland came up and said: ‘Wayne, how do you fancy coming down to Knowsley Road for a couple of months?’

“But what did Town do? They put me on the list for £150,000.

“I had to laugh because Bobby Goulding had just gone from Wigan to Leeds for £90,000 – and he was Great Britain captain.

“Town said they’d halve the fee. I just had to laugh again.”

Edwards and Goulding were among the best No 7s he ever faced.

“Bobby and me and were once on Sky Sports’ Boots ‘n’ All together as a promotion for Super League. Trouble was we both had a bit too much to say! He was saying he’d just taken Widnes to a Challenge Cup final, and I replied that he should try and take Workington Town to Wembley!

“Anyway, I stopped training at Derwent Park and got accused of breach of contact.

“It could have changed my life going to St Helens, but at the same time I did get the chance to play for Town in two Premiership finals.

“The second transfer request was about contract money. The club was paying big wages to certain players but couldn’t find more meagre amounts for local lads like me. I made an appointment with the RFL saying Workington Town weren’t paying my contract money. The upshot was that I played one more game for Town and they made me a free agent. I still haven’t been paid.”

So it was on to Whitehaven – better late than never.

“I’ll always remember Ralph (Calvin) coming to see me and the first words he said to me: ‘Wayne, we’d like you to come but we’ve got no money.’ I enjoyed my time at Whitehaven, even though I was probably carrying a bit too much weight.

“I’d already played against the likes of Aaron Lester, Sos and Fats. I also had high regard for Stan Martin; he was a real players’ coach. Stan knew what he wanted from the team, and how to get it. He liked to be close to his players which meant having a drink with them as well.

“Whitehaven was good. I really enjoyed it and played in a few different positions – hooker, loose-forward, scrum-half, stand-off, full-back.

“I don’t think just about every team hated to come to The Recre; a lot more so than Derwent Park at that time. I’d supported Whitehaven all my life and so actually getting there was a tick in the box.”

One of Stan Martin’s eventual successors, fellow Kiwi Kevin Tamati, wasn’t exactly Wayne’s cup of tea.

“He had a door that was open that nobody ever wanted to walk through! Kevin just wasn’t approachable. I think he was signed up at Whitehaven for who he was and what he had done as a great player for Widnes and New Zealand.

“Paul Cullen coming in was a breath of fresh air. He brought that professional mentality. For example, if you told Paul you were on back-shift Tuesday, then he’d say: ‘We’ll see you at training Tuesday morning.’

“I can remember just me and Howard Hill going down and getting the legs run off us, just the two of us.

“Paul was probably the start of the success that came under Steve McCormack. He had the dressing room and definitely had it scared as well but not in a bad way.

“Had he stayed I think he would have taken the team a long way. For me, being able to play in so many positions was probably an advantage. I’d never have been able to push Lester out of hooker.

“My dad wasn’t a bad coach either; he took me and Stephen together in our younger days on Kells Welfare, gave us some great advice but, mind you, I think I was known more as ‘the son of Phil’ than just Wayne.

“I’m proud of my dad for what he’s accomplished; the only time I ever saw him play was watching a video of him playing for Great Britain against New Zealand.

“When Paul left, that was it finished for me with a hip injury – I’ve now got a false one in now – but I started doling a bit of coaching with Kells under-16s and enjoyed that for a few seasons.

“One of the highlights came when I was still playing for Town. Cumbria against Australia (at Derwent Park) in 1992 against the likes of Brad Fittler, Bob Lindner, Mal Meninga, Allan Langer, Paul Sironen, Glenn Lazarus and Bradley Clyde.

“I remember standing next to Dean Marwood before the game in our team line-up, shaking the mayor’s hand. Dean asked what I was laughing at, I just said: ‘I can’t believe how big and powerful these players are. We did okay as well, a lot of local lads mainly against superstars. What an experience.

“Phil McKenzie was probably one of the most gifted players I have ever played with and Ged Byrne probably the most under-rated. What he could do to change a game was unbelievable.

“Big James Pickering was also outstanding and I’d also have to name Colin ‘Buck’ Armstong. Buck and me never really saw eye to eye – we both liked to say what we thought – but for a local prop I’ve never seen him take a backward step.

And at Whitehaven?

“You have to talk about Aaron Lester, haven’t you? He could change a game on the flip of a coin. He could do something special and lift the whole team.

“David Seeds is another in that bracket. Seedsy wanted to win every single game coming off battered and bruised all the time.”

No real regrets for the former BNFL Young Powerhouse winner?

“I’d still love to have gone to St Helens, at least for the experience,” he laughed.

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