Obituary: Tom Mitchell

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IF TOM Mitchell was not the most important single figure in the world of rugby league over the last 50 years, then he was certainly the most colourful. With his Old Testament white beard and his broad-brimmed hats, he was an unmistakeable presence and, across many different facets of the game, a hugely influential one.

A Cumbrian farmer who also worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, he first became involved in the sport when he joined the board of the newly formed Workington Town. They entered the Rugby League in 1945 and, under Mitchell's expansive leadership, which included bringing in players of the calibre of Gus Risman, quickly became one of the most successful clubs in the game.

He was too energetic and charismatic a figure to be confined to his native county. He was the team manager of the 1958 Great Britain tour to Australia, which was, at the same time, the most controversial and the most successful the Lions have ever undertaken. Mitchell, always proud to be regarded as "a players' man", took their side in a series of conflicts that led to near-mutiny. All was forgiven when they came home with the Ashes and a record of just one defeat on the whole tour.

He was chairman of the Rugby League in 1961-62 and afterwards revelled in being regarded as "The Godfather" of the game. Never afraid to go out on a limb, his was the one voice raised on the Rugby League Council in support of the British Amateur Rugby League Association when it was struggling for an autonomous existence in the early 1970s and others, with more limited agendas, wanted it strangled at birth.

In his autobiography, The Memoirs and Sporting Life of Tom Mitchell, published earlier this year, he also revealed more about a fascinating and varied life outside the sport he loved.

His work for the Ministry of Agriculture took him all over the world and he recalled meetings with the likes of Nikita Khrushchev and King Farouk. When Harry Edgar, then editor of the magazine Open Rugby visited him earlier this year, Mitchell, as well as insisting on arm-wrestling his younger guest, produced a piece of pottery given to him by Picasso, whom he had met on several occasions. "We had a mutual interest in ceramics," he explained.

Mitchell could be mysterious about the precise nature of his many trips abroad. His contemporaries on the committee that selected the Cumberland county side recall phone calls from him at four in the morning from Beirut, advancing the claims of one player or another.

He was the founder president of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and twice stood, unsuccessfully, for Parliament. His other sporting achievements included climbing the Matterhorn.

But rugby league was the great enthusiasm of his life, even if he became saddened by some developments towards the end of it - not least the decline of the club he had done so much to build at Workington. Keeping the club afloat, he said, had cost the Mitchell family "three separate fortunes". As recently as last year, he bailed them out again when debts threatened to close the club.

The activity that perhaps sums him up the best is the way that he raised money for a young Workington player, John Burke, who was paralysed after breaking his neck playing for the club. Mitchell also had his estate in Malta converted for wheelchair use, so that Burke could use it whenever he wished.

Thomas Mitchell, rugby league administrator: born Workington, Cumberland 16 May 1914; married 1942 Emily Wedgwood (one son, one daughter); died Workington, Cumbria 8 September 1998.