In Memory Of Jimmy Fiddler

Leigh Centurions are saddened to learn that Jimmy Fiddler, a veteran member of Leigh’s 1971 Challenge Cup Winning side has passed away.

In the next few days we will be featuring a tribute penned by Jimmy’s daughter. Below is an article detailing Jimmy’s career, by Mike Latham.

The thoughts of all at Leigh Centurions are with Jimmy’s family at this sad time.

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Another member of Leigh’s 1971 Wembley Cup-winning side has sadly passed away; Jimmy Fiddler was aged 64 and died after a long illness.

Jimmy Fiddler was an old fashioned type of rugby player in many ways but would have flourished in the modern game. He was a front-on, toe-ended goalkicker, capable of negotiating angles and distances with aplomb even in the wettest and muddiest of conditions and was a superb ball-playing forward, capable of slipping out a pass when seemingly crowded out by opponents. He was also a fine tactical kicker and he had a great career, also playing two years down under in the National Rugby League and in France.

Born in Aspull on 21 March 1949, Jimmy took the professional ticket with Leigh in January 1967 after playing for Orrell RU club. He made his first-team debut in a 14-14 draw against Featherstone Rovers in February 1967 and after learning his trade in the A team alongside several experienced hands and in a brief loan spell at Blackpool Borough became a first-team regular in the 1969-70 season.

Fiddler became a key man in the Leigh pack shrewdly built by player-coach Alex Murphy and played a key role in Leigh’s path to Wembley in 1971 and in their amazing Challenge Cup victory over highly fancied Leeds. After missing the first three rounds Fiddler earned a pack place for the semi-final and played an important part in a dour 10-4 victory over Huddersfield at Central Park. With Dave Chisnall suspended for the final, Fiddler and Derek Watts partnered hooker Kevin Ashcroft in the front row alongside pack colleagues Paul Grimes, Geoff Clarkson and Peter Smethurst.

Fiddler was the youngest member of the winning side and opened the scoring with a coolly-struck drop-goal. In 1990 in an interview with me for the Leigh programme, he looked back at that great day. “It was an unforgettable occasion,” he recalled. “We were superbly fit and worked for each other. There were no ‘stars’, we all got on so well. As the coach drove up to Wembley we were all singing ‘You’ll never walk alone’ and the coach driver had to wait until we’d finished singing before we got out. In the tunnel before the game we were all laughing and joking and there were no nerves at all. I looked across to the Leeds lads and they were all quiet, nervously shuffling around and I knew then we’d win.

“The match went by so quickly, it was all a blur. I do recall a stoppage midway through the second half. I looked up at all the Leigh supporters behind the posts, it was a sea of red and white and I was choked with emotion and wanted the game to finish. Early in that season I’d been on the transfer list and Murphy came to me and said: ‘If you don’t come off the list you won’t be in the team and we’re going to Wembley this year.’ I came off and he was proved right.

“As a player Alex had just about the finest physique I’d ever seen and he was a brilliant halfback. As a coach he knew when to encourage and when to shout.”

Sadly the bulk of that Leigh side moved on to pastures new, several following Murphy to Warrington in the aftermath of the cup win, but Fiddler stayed loyal. Three years later, he was Leigh’s most influential player and captain as they went desperately close to retuning to Wembley, losing a controversial semi-final against Featherstone at Headingley.

“I was captain and all week before the game the press were ringing me up,” Jimmy recalled. “By kick-off time I was convinced we couldn’t lose so when we did it was devastating. Getting to Wembley and losing must be bad but not to get there at all is even worse. “

As the brilliant goal-kicking Welshman Stuart Ferguson faded from the scene Fiddler assumed the key role as goalkicker as well as pack leader and landed 95 goals in 1972/73 and 110 the following season. With a playing weight of 15-and-a-half stone he was a formidable forward and a clever one, usually playing with a distinguishing head band.

In the off-season of 1974 Fiddler played for Balmain in the NRL, creating a favourable impression even in a struggling side. He made 15 appearances and scored one try and kicked 40 goals. The following summer he played for North Sydney, again impressing as he scored one try and kicked 26 goals in 12 games. “That was the chance of a lifetime really,” he said. “There were only a few English players out there at the time- lads like Phil Lowe, Bill Ashurst and John Gray-so it was a real novelty. In those days, as there are today, there were so many clone-like forwards, head down and run and tackle all day merchants, so my style went down well and I got some running off me. My kicking went well also.

“The game was a lot more intense in Sydney,” Jimmy added. “In those days we were playing 40/50 games a season over here so once the season got underway the training wasn’t too hard. You kept fit by playing. Over there the training was gruelling all season and there were only 24 games, so every game was like a cup-tie. If we won I never bought a drink all night and everybody wanted to speak to me. If we lost everybody parted when I went to the bar and I was just a ‘no good Pom’ who had to spend a lonely evening.”

In the mid 1970s Jimmy also had a spell in French RL, playing for Limoux. “That really was an education,” he said. “I had to catch the Friday lunchtime flight from Manchester to Paris, wait around four hours for a connection and catch a flight to Toulouse and then have a one hour road journey. I trained with the lads on Saturday, played on Sunday and was at work in the pit on Monday. I played around 16 games and enjoyed it. The standard wasn’t that good and some of the refereeing was a joke. If you were playing away in a 50-50 match you had no chance of winning. But they were keen. At first they couldn’t understand why they had to make dummy runs at set moves- a case of not doing a wasted journey- but I did my best to educate them. The language was a bit of a problem but I picked up a few basics. Mind you, when you’ve got a gum shield in and you’re all excited in the middle of a match, pigeon French with a Wigan accent is rather hard to understand.”

By then Fiddler had moved from Leigh, joining Salford for a reported £10,000 fee in January 1975. He later was transferred to Bramley before re-joining Leigh for £5,500 in February 1978. He went on to make a total of 219 appearances for Leigh, scoring 33 tries and kicking 311 goals and 16 drop-goals. He last played for Leigh in a league game at Hull KR in January 1979 and was then transferred to Oldham before finishing his career with Bradford Northern in the 1980-81 season.

“As a way to finish it was superb,” said Jimmy of his time at Odsal. “We won the championship that season so I packed in at the top. But even though I’d just turned 30 I was finding the game a lot harder and I knew in my own mind it was time to call it a day. I reckon those seasons in Australia really did take their toll. “

An excellent goal-kicker throughout his career, Jimmy always favoured the traditional toe-end style. Explaining his reasoning he told me: “That’s one thing I find hard to understand about today’s kickers- so many are ‘round the corner’ types. If you look at most sports- cricket, snooker etc, the player gets directly in line with the ball and i always reckoned the old style of goalkicking was the best.”

In all he made 380 first team appearances in a notable career, scoring 55 tries and landing over 500 goals. He worked at Parsonage Pit among many rugby league players and supporters and always said his proudest moment was playing for Leigh in that never-to-be-forgotten Wembley final of 1971.

Jimmy Fiddler; born 21 March 1949, died 21 January 2014.