Keith Mills: Stalwart of Wigan RLFC across five decades


Keith Mills was one of the longest-serving and most recognisable backroom men in the history of Wigan's rugby league club and the only man to have also played football for Wigan Athletic. Though his professional careeras a rugby league player was brief – 25 first-team games and nine substitute appearances from 1967-69 – he had more claim to the honorary title of "Mr Wigan" than many who pulled on the famous cherry and white hooped shirt more often.

After his playing retirement, forced by injury, he served the club as physio, kit man, match-day host and lottery manager. On top of that, his familiar presence at Central Park and later at the JJB (now DW) Stadium spoke of continuity and essential decency. Generations of players came to rely on him for help and advice, as witnessed by the number who posted messages after his death paying tribute to him.

Shaun Edwards, now coaching in rugby union, recalled how Mills had always been on the scene. "Throughout my entire playing career, he was a constant source of inspiration," he said. Andy Gregory, Joe Lydon, Inga Tuigamala and Jason Robinson were among the other former Wigan players to acknowledge his part in their careers. More than one ex-player, when they visited him in hospital recently, made the point that he had picked them up off the ground often enough, and now it was their turn.

To the average fan, the dominant image of his stint of almost 50 years at the club would be of him dashing on to the pitch to patch up a wounded gladiator, but he did much more besides. He was a utility forward, at his best in the second row; the highlight of his career was when he was called at short notice into the Wigan team to play the 1967 Australian tourists. A side which included legends like Eric Ashton and Billy Boston – another to send his condolences last week – beat the Kangaroos 12-6. Mills was never one to brag about his playing record, but that was a proud achievement in anyone's book.

If one thing irritated him, it was the deep antagonism between followers of Wigan Rugby League Club (now Wigan Warriors) and those of the town's football team, despite the fact that they share a stadium. Unusually, Keith Mills proudly had a foot in both camps. An all-round sportsman and a considerable local cricketer in his younger days, he was good enough as a goalkeeper to play three games for Wigan Athletic's reserves in 1970.

He remained a season ticket holder through the move from Springfield Park and the Latics' dizzying rise to the Premier League. He was possibly the only supporter who believed that the Latics should play not in their traditional blue, but in cherry and white, to emphasise the civic identity they share with the rugby club he served for so long.

Keith Mills, rugby league player and club employee: born Wigan 7 May 1944; married Anne (one son); died Wigan 16 April 2012.