‘Aitch’ choses his ‘best of’ XV from Fylde & Hoppers

There’s just five weeks to go before Fylde welcome ‘Hoppers to the Woodlands on 14th September (ko 3pm) for another epic encounter. So what better way to gear up for one of the great local derbies in English rugby than chatting this week to probably the only player ever to have skippered both clubs, Keith Aitchison?

Keith played for Fylde as a youngster around 1972 and made his 1st XV debut aged just 17. By then he was already an England Schools cap and was marked out for a top rugby career, most often at fly-half but also at fullback.

After two seasons in the 1st XV in the mid-1970s he studied a business degree at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry, joined Cov RFC and had two seasons playing alongside some of the greats such as David Duckham. He returned to Lancashire and re-joined Fylde for the 1978-9 campaign.

He skippered the club in 1981/2 and joined Hoppers at the end of the 82-3 season after some 200 matches in the claret, gold and white. Another ten seasons or so of 1st XV rugby at Lightfoot Green followed, plus various roles at the Club once his playing days ended.

He wrote an interesting and amusing article for the Hoppers v Fylde match programme last season, picking his favourite XV from all the players he’d played with at both clubs. This is reproduced below, courtesy of Keith & Hoppers.

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Keith Aitchison’s Best of Fylde and Hoppers XV

The re-kindling of this weeks annual local derby between Hoppers and Fylde caused me to ponder on the great players and friends I was lucky enough to share the pitch with from 1972 when I started as a 17 year old at Fylde until 2004 when I finally ended my playing career (one more MooresTours excepting?) having happily graduated to the wonderful institution that is the Strollers at Hoppers.

Here I have compiled my “Best of Both” XV from my time at the two clubs. In addition to having what I think is the unique distinction of being elected captain at both Fylde and Hoppers, I also enjoyed a spell at Coventry RFC at a time when “Cov” could field 13 full internationals in the team including all time greats such as David Duckham, Peter Rossborough, Geoff Eveans , Peter Preece and Fran Cotton. The combined Hoppers/Fylde side I’ve selected here would have given them a run for their money.

Being an expert in such things , I’ll start in the front row (NB I once got “sent off “ from a coaching course for not taking seriously the 3 hour session entitled “Scrum technique as an attacking platform”):

1. I believe this is known as Loose Head and how I wish the likes of Stan Sherlock and Dave Tabern were playing today. Scrums seemed to happen without a lot of fuss and the ball came out most of the time. Dave makes my team in case he turns up and finds I’ve picked his brother and not him. He once jumped over the barrier and chased a supporter up into the stand at Orrell after he kicked brother Ray on the touchline. My Dad was pictured in the ensuing “fray”. Happy days.

2. Hookers are a breed apart and the pleasure anyone can get from being one is beyond my understanding. I was once put in a scrum by the pack as hooker at Fylde to teach me not to kick the ball dead from kick offs in practice and delay the ending of the training session; I didn’t take to it! Ray Tabern and Mike Dixon were nudging international honours at Fylde but Stuart Crane, Mick Billington and Mick Maddox at Hoppers and Glen Leeming at Fylde never seemed to lose one against the head even against much stronger packs. For me Ray Tabs gets the vote on the grounds of his fantastic all round game and superior, or at least more obvious, ability with the ladies, particularly in evidence on Fylde’s USA tour to celebrate the Bi-centenary in 1976.

3 The tight heads were a breed apart and always seemed to be strong silent types with a prodigious ability to drink; I tried to avoid them until later years when I could manage a pint. I have to mention the honour of playing against the legendary Stan Threllfall for Fylde but with him in the Hoppers Strollers, but the respective clubs outstanding players of my time were John Croasdell at Fylde and my all time hero Brent Horton at the Hoppers. Brent will simply be an automatic choice in every team I ever pick. How he did what he did I’ll never know but it was awesome to see and he probably saved my life at Halifax!

4/5 The Second Row combination is obvious to all since Bill Beaumont and Wade Dooley would be in anyone’s World XV . At each club were great players who either played with or instead of these two and Graham Cox and Dave Young who started together at Hutton GS but went on to Hoppers and Fylde respectively were fantastic and consistent players in their own right as was Alan Wylie at Hoppers. I once messed up a try scoring pass from Coxy 93 yards out at Birmingham ; ask him about it after the game; he remembers every detail. On a purely sentimental note I have to mention that at Hoppers we once picked Dave Parker as a one off to “do a job” in a famous Lancashire cup tie against Waterloo; we won in a frighteningly “intense” battle and Parks along with every other player that night quelled the very “physical” Waterloo pack. Not many would have remained on the pitch today one way or another.

6 In the modern fashion I’ll pick specialist open and blindsides , although at the time they were often much more interchangeable than now. At Fylde Alan Jones was a man to be avoided when going through his wall butting warm up routine and Tony Simpson or Ian Howarth were always excellent. Ian Ashton could play anywhere in the back row at either club but Mick Parker from Hoppers would be the first name I write on any team sheet; simply the bravest and best exponent of getting in the right place to win or stop them from winning the ball I’ve ever seen; Parks never seemed to mind the batterings he took as a result and was always on hand if I needed help. Priceless. Like Brent, a fixture in any team I pick.

7 On the openside, Glynn Dewhurst was superb but the best I played with was the same at both Hoppers and Fylde- Neil Leeming; Leemers enjoyed spells at both clubs in the same time periods as I did, and with his speed and power he really should have been knocking on the door of international selection . With Leemers and Parks in the back row I truly felt looked after at fly half .

8 Both clubs could offer up outstanding No 8s. At Fylde Max Kirkham had the sculptured physique of todays professional player 40 years ahead of his time whilst Mark Hesketh was silky smooth in everything he did. But at Hoppers I played with the superb Neil Ashton, legendry Roy Dransfield and peerless Dick Greenwood every now and again; as Dick taught the rest of us at the time everything about how to play our positions, Dick has to get the vote. In the same mould of superb Player/Coach, John Morgan was up there with Dick and was a fine all round back row forward in his own right who would get in any other team I selected if only he wasn’t Welsh.

So finally we get to the important boys!

9 The most important position on the field for me and what a list to pick from including three great lifetime friends in Steve Berry, Ian Wright and Dave Percy. Bez was my schoolboy Kirkham GS half back partner and was another to play at both clubs; he remains to this day the most naturally gifted all round sporstman I know. Can’t drink though. At Fylde I started with Brian Ashton and had to be told three times to stand further away…and I still could’ve gone wider. Micky Weir was a stalwart serial club captain and fine player at Fylde. Ian Wright, a fantastic player until his untimely premature death vied with Micky at Fylde and Dave Percy at Hoppers. What a collection of top no 9’s and that’s without mentioning John Bleasdale. But now I spring what might be a surprise by selecting Steve Kerry as my scrum half, and not just so I can play at No. 10! For me Steve would have been a top international rugby union scrum half and I played with a few that were; in style think Matt Dawson, England’s 2003 world cup winning scrum half; only Steve was faster, a more elusive runner ,a better tackler, a better kicker and a goal kicker too. See what I mean? If only Steve would have played the position he’d have developed the vision and tactical brain that was so evident in both his union and league careers. If I’d played outside him……Ah well he did ok anyway I suppose.

10 At fly half I badly want to play in this team but I have to share it with Hoppers Michael Lough, the player I would like to have been if I had to be Australian (which would be no bad thing in rugby terms by the way). I only got to play with Loughy on a Strollers tour but that qualifies for selection for this team. Ian Mc Donnell who I succeeded at Fylde in 1973 (!) was a similar classy player to Loughy. It says a lot that Paul Grayson has to be content with a role on the bench!

11/14 There have been some top wingers at both clubs. England trialist Tony Richards my first proper Fylde captain was a superbly elegant right winger and Chris Wilding was a fixture on the left when I started . Current Fylde coach Mark Nelson and the sadly missed Brendan Hanavan were the same when I left and in between them Tony Swift and Simon Smith who both went on to play for England were Fylde noteables. At Hoppers before moving to Fylde was the prodigous Mark Preston, an England A and top rugby league winger, so its no wonder that the Hoppers stars that are Joe Hindle, Alan Sayle and Keith “Dad” Brierley are struggling to feature in this side. So how do you pick just two? My answer is Tony Richards and Mark Preston. Speed, balance and finishing ability.

12/13 At centre I firmly believe that the current coaching penchant for inside and outside specialists is fundamentally flawed. From where I stood, playing left and right opens up a much greater variety of options for the fly half to play with and there were great individuals to pair such as Craig Whittam, Dave Stephenson and brother Ian Aitchison at Fylde. At Hoppers Malcolm Sloan was greatly under-rated as was Elier Jones at Fylde but the combinations of first Bernie Hudson with Barry Aspinall (before he went to Fylde) and later on John Chesworth/Jimmy Moore and or Dave Wittingham were fantastic to play with at Hoppers. Options opened up from every set piece. But here again might be a surprise to some. First pick centre for me is John Heritage from my Strollers days. JH was lost to the dark side of the professional game before it came to Union but is probably the most complete footballer I’ve ever played with, including the two England centres at Coventry at the time. JH would have kept both out of the team…..but cost the club a fortune.

15 And finally to fullback where Graham Fisher and John Nicholson stood out at Fylde but can’t get in my team because I have to pick John Chesworth ahead of Eric Dean and that takes some doing because both were outstanding at the basics and brave beyond belief when we were under the cosh. Chessy gets it because of his enthusiasm and willingness to run through every brick wall in the Hoppers cause…and because he’ll be on the remaining MooresTours trip for my final game….ever.!

So my “best of both” team (with apologies to those I’ve failed to mention or pick) is:

1. Dave Tabern (Fylde)
2. Ray Tabern (Fylde)
3 Brent Horton (Hoppers)
4 Bill Beaumont (Fylde)
5 Wade Dooley (Hoppers)
6 Mick Parker (Hoppers)
7 Neil Leeming (Fylde/ Hoppers)
8 Dick Greenwood (Hoppers)
9 Steve Kerry (Hoppers)
10 Michael Lough (Hoppers) / Keith Aitchison (Fylde/ Hoppers)
11 Mark Preston (Hoppers/Fylde)
12 John Heritage (Hoppers)
13 Dave Whittingham (Hoppers)
14 Tony Richards (Fylde)
15 John Chesworth (Hoppers)

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