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

Dave Hadfield
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:20

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

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