Book of the Week; Godfather of rugby league, man of mystery

The Memoirs and Sporting Life of Tom Mitchell

By Tom Mitchell

(Echotime Inc, hardback, pounds 16)

HOW IS it possible to resist a book with a chapter entitled "Kruschev and Rugby League"?

Tom Mitchell, who died earlier this year, not long after completing his autobiography, would be the only man who could bring the two things together, along with musings on silage, watercress and Workington Town, without it all reading like an elaborate spoof.

This, as you will have gathered by now, is something of a mixed bag, but then Mitchell was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary range of activities and interests.

He was best known in rugby league circles as the driving force behind Workington, the Great Britain manager on the successful and legendary 1958 tour to Australia and, latterly, as the elder statesman - even "The Godfather" - of the game.

But he was also a working farmer, mile-runner and mountain-climber, a qualified chemist and a much-travelled government operative whose journeys abroad, including the one on which he and Nikita got down to business, were surrounded by a certain air of mystery.

There are those who believe that he was, in essence, a spy and they will find nothing here to dissuade them from that opinion.

What is certain is that his contribution to the game he loved was immense and that is duly reflected here, especially in his accounts of the early days of a new club at Workington and the most detailed description yet of that momentous 1958 tour.

He is particularly good on the cloak-and-dagger business of signing players from rugby union. He might or might not have been engaged in espionage in Russia and points east, but he certainly was when he ventured into South Wales or the Scottish Borders.

Quite how such a distinctive figure, with his luxuriant beard and extravagant hats, expected to avoid being recognised is not clear. In fact, you suspect that was all part of the fun.

This is not so much a life-story in the conventional sense as a trawl through a remarkable man's memories and mementoes. At times, it seems to be in no particular order or priority, although it has its own internal logic. There might be more here about silage than the average rugby league supporter feels he needs to know, but it is all part of the overall picture.

Apart from Kruschev, Mitchell meets up with Picasso, King Farookh and Burgess, Philby and McLean - not a Workington front row, but the notorious spies.

He is at his warmest and most vivid, however, recalling the players he signed and celebrating the qualities of men like Gus Risman, Brian Edgar and the tragically crippled John Burke.

You could field a useful side as well from "The Ones Who Got Away", players with whom Mitchell met and negotiated - all incognito, of course - like Barry John, David Duckham and Andy Irvine.

It comes as a surprise, in fact, that a man often regarded as a patron saint of rugby league kept such a big foot in the other camp. To him, a good rugby player was a good rugby player and, reading between the lines, Kruschev seemed to think the same.

Dave Hadfield

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Project Administrator

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Administrator is requ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn