Obituary: Jack Hilton

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The Independent Culture
JACK HILTON had a distinguished playing career for Wigan and Great Britain, but undoubtedly made a bigger impact on the history of Britain's most successful rugby league club long after he had retired.

He was already a long-serving member of the large and unwieldy Wigan board of directors - indeed he was taking his turn as chairman - when the club was turned upside down by a boardroom coup in 1982. Three relatively new directors - Maurice Lindsay, Jack Robinson and Tom Rathbone - wanted to reverse the club's decline by effectively taking it over, getting rid of the rest of the board and running the operation on what they regarded as a properly businesslike basis.

Hilton was an unlikely revolutionary, but his vision of the potential of the club was sufficiently similar for him to throw his lot in with the radicals. Although he ran a string of sports shops, Hilton admitted from the start that he did not have much spare money to invest, but the others saw the advantages of having him on board.

Unlike them, he was an ex-Wigan player and, according to Lindsay's recollection, "being well-known and respected in town was able to provide a friendly face for the revolution". Or, as Robinson puts it: "He made the four of us a good blend." So the Gang of Three became the Gang of Four, with Hilton included among the new directors for a "cut-price" pounds 10,000 whilst six other members of the old board were unceremoniously dropped in rugby league's version of the Night of the Long Knives.

Hilton provided continuity and respectability by remaining as chairman and diluting the impression that the club was being appropriated by flash arrivistes. Lindsay and, to a lesser extent Robinson, were the driving forces and Rathbone provided much of the finance, but there was more to Hilton's role than that of a mere figurehead.

Lindsay has referred to the value of Hilton's "quiet wisdom" and the way that, unlike many ex-players, he was not consumed by nostalgia for the past, preferring to concentrate on what could be achieved in the future. That turned out to be beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Starting with the John Player Trophy in 1983 - their first trophy for 12 years - Wigan embarked on a campaign of collecting silverware that saw them dominate the British game to an almost unhealthy extent for over a decade. Hilton took his turns leading the team out at Wembley, but most of the time he remained a quiet, dignified presence in the background, looking on benignly whilst his beloved club demolished all comers.

Hilton handed over the chairmanship to Lindsay in 1987, but remained on the board until 1996, when he resigned in protest against plans to sell the Central Park ground, after completing more than half a century of involvement with his home-town club.

Although he first played professionally for Salford, he had joined Wigan as a young winger after being wounded by shrapnel in the wrist and thigh in North Africa during the Second World War. He was a regular in Wigan's excellent post-war side until 1953, when he took over as sprint coach. His Wigan career saw him score a prolific 122 tries in his 137 appearances, including a hat-trick or better on no less than 13 occasions.

His most memorable year was 1950, when he was one of eight Wigan players selected to tour Australia and New Zealand. He played two Tests for Great Britain in each country - the sum total of his international career - but the most remarkable fact is that Wigan still managed to win the championship final after more than half their team had departed on tour.

Dave Hadfield

Jack Hilton, rugby league player and administrator: born Wigan 2 May 1921; married 1947 Olive Smith (one son); died Wigan 23 December 1998.