Eric Ashton had a number of distinctions in the world of rugby league. He was the first man to win the Challenge Cup as player, coach and chairman, as well as the first to be appointed MBE for his services to the game. He also captained the Great Britain team that won the 1960 World Cup. Perhaps most extraordinary, he was the one man who united the antagonistic sporting towns of Wigan and St Helens in admiration and gratitude for what he did for their clubs.
Brought up close to St Helens' ground at Knowsley Road, Ashton played a trial for the Saints' "B" team at the age of 15, but they showed little interest in him and for a while he became disenchanted with rugby. It took National Service in Scotland to rekindle his enthusiasm. He played rugby union for the Army and was looked at by Leigh before Wigan offered him a six-match trial. Long before that they had seen enough and offered him £150 to sign.
It was the start of a dazzling career at club level. Between his arrival in 1955 and his retirement as a player in 1969, Ashton played 497 times, scoring 231 tries and 448 goals. The statistics only tell part of the story, however, because with Ashton there was always the issue of how the points were achieved, rather than merely how many.
Ashton's style was described as classical and cultured, built on skill and timing rather than sheer force. The main beneficiary of this was another young player recently arrived from a stint in the forces, Billy Boston. If there has ever been a better combination of centre and winger for club and country than Ashton and Boston then nobody has yet made a convincing case for it. Ashton prided himself on giving the Welshman quality possession, and the scissors move they perfected was one of those sporting ploys – like Stanley Matthews' dummy or Shane Warne's "wrong 'un" – that everyone knew was coming but few could do anything about.
Despite that level of expertise, Ashton began his Wigan career on the wing, playing well enough to win selection for Lancashire after just seven first-team games, but he was far from happy in the position. It took the arrival of Joe Egan as coach to bring him his destined place in the centre and, before long, as captain – a role he took on at the age of 22. "It was a lucky day for me, Wigan and Great Britain when Ash moved to the centre spot," said Boston.
With Wigan, Ashton was captain in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley six times, leading them to victory in 1958, 1959 and 1965. By the time of the first of those victories, he was already established in the Great Britain team.
He had made his début against France in the 1957 World Cup, and his eventual total of 26 caps included the victorious 1958 and 1962 tours of Australia, the latter as captain. He also captained Great Britain when they won the World Cup in 1960. His wing partner in many of these internationals was Boston, while his combination with another great centre, Neil Fox, had that same "made in heaven" quality.
Ashton's stature in the game was recognised with his appointment as MBE in 1966. By that time, he was player-coach at Wigan, carrying on purely in a coaching capacity from 1969 to 1973; that was followed by a season in charge at Leeds, before coming home to St Helens in 1974.
Conscious of their blunder in letting such an obvious talent slip through their fingers, Saints had made attempts to sign Ashton as a player, though always baulking at what would have surely been a world-record fee. But they did bring him back as coach, a role he filled until 1980. In his first year, St Helens won the First Division Championship for the one and only time and the following season, in 1976, Ashton returned to Wembley to guide a Saints team, branded "Dad's Army" because of a supposed excess of veteran players, to victory over Widnes.
Ashton handed over the coaching reins to Kel Coslett in 1980, and became a club director in 1992. He served as chairman between 1993 and 1997. In that capacity, he led the side out at Wembley in 1996, when victory over the Bradford Bulls gave him his unique hat-trick of Challenge Cups as player, coach and chairman.
Ashton continued on the board after his stint as chairman, always an influence for decency and straight dealing, if occasionally bemused by some of the clashing egos around him. In 2005, he was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame. "The game has lost one of its greatest players," said the Saints' present chairman, Eamonn McManus. "He was one of the best during a golden era for British rugby league."
A minute's silence for Eric Ashton was held before the match between Saints and Wigan on Good Friday. Nobody else has been held in greater affection by the two rugby league tribes of south Lancashire.
Eric Ashton, rugby player, coach and administrator: born St Helens, Lancashire 24 January 1935; MBE 1966; married (two daughters); died St Helens 20 March 2008.