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Long Room

Roses cricket: Welcome to the club that’s neither one thing nor t’other

by Scott Oliver 15 minute read

The Yorkshire-Lancashire divide – the Roses rivalry – runs deep. So what happens to a cricket club that’s a bit of both? Literally straddling the two counties, Todmorden CC is a mixed-up kid, as Scott Oliver, plunging into the Pennine valley where east meets west, discovers.

You’re either one or the other, aren’t you?

Red or blue, in or out, Brexiteer or Remainer, uppers or downers, Blur or Oasis, dead or alive, Gerrard or Lampard, cats or dogs, tomayto or tomaahtah, ketchup or HP, Mac or PC, smooth or crunchy, still or sparkling, Marmite or “nah, mate”.

Lancashire or Yorkshire.

One or t’other. You can’t be both. Unless you’re Todmorden, that is.

Nestled at the confluence of three narrow Pennine valleys, the former mill town officially sits within the West Riding of Yorkshire, with residents paying their council tax in the Calderdale district, which is headquartered in Halifax. They have an Oldham postcode and Rochdale telephone numbers, however. Both Red Rose towns. Their police, fire and ambulance services are provided by West Yorkshire. The Anglican St Mary’s church in the centre of town belongs to the diocese of Leeds, while the Roman Catholic St Joseph’s is in the diocese of Salford.

Despite its West Yorkshire location, Todmorden Cricket Club have been a member of the Lancashire League for all but six years of the competition’s history, switching from the nascent Central Lancashire League (CLL) in 1897. For 120 of those 121 years they were the only Yorkshire-based club in the league although, with the recent collapse of the CLL, they have this year been joined by Walsden, the neighbouring village barely a minute down the train line toward Rochdale and newly installed as Tod’s arch-rivals: a Yorkshire derby in the famous old Lancashire League.

Tod have won only five titles, the last in 1957, giving them the longest drought of the traditional 14 members. So it would have been a tad frustrating to see Walsden – easily the smallest community of the league’s 24 clubs – storm the first half of the campaign, winning 13 out of 13, and become odds-on favourite for the title in their debut campaign. In late June, the clubs had played a first competitive match since the 19th century, Walsden winning a Friday-night T20 game on the last ball, with £742 taken on the gate and £4,000 at the bar.

Prior to the redrawing of county boundaries in the Local Government Act of 1888, the Lancashire-Yorkshire border ran straight through Todmorden, passing under the imposing arches of the railway viaduct overlooking the market in the centre of town and on south through the grand neo-classical town hall, built in the Victorian era at the height of Todmorden’s weaving boom. Local couples getting married there could dance from one county into the other on the ballroom floor, while its ornate pediment depicts classical figures in a friendly embrace, personifications of the two counties: Yorkshire represented by the iron and wool trades; Lancashire by cotton.

The border also used to run on a shallow diagonal straight through the cricket club’s beautiful Centre Vale ground, passing under the so-called Boundary Tree. On certain pitches on the square you would be batting in one county and facing bowling from the other. When WG Grace played there for the United South against the United North in 1874, the doctor clumped a few boundaries from Lancashire into Yorkshire and vice versa. The club’s crest reflects this dual identity, bearing both a white and red rose – sometimes Lancashire first, sometimes Yorkshire, although it isn’t entirely clear whether this is an attempt to be diplomatic, an oversight, or the work of mischievous sign-painters that was never corrected.

Perhaps a fraction small to serve as a first-class outground, Todmorden have nevertheless hosted numerous county second XI matches. Indeed, both Lancashire and Yorkshire have used it as a home venue, sometimes playing against each other in the same season, the teams taking turns to use the home dressing room. There have been a total of six “rosebuds” matches played at Centre Vale and Yorkshire are yet to win any of them.

Brian Heywood was a long-time Todmorden opening batsman and is now a keen local historian who co-authored a 392-page history of the club, In a League of Their Own, with his parents Freda and Malcolm, the latter a former president of the Lancashire League. Heywood insists that “culturally and in sport, the town identifies much more closely with Lancashire than Yorkshire”. He adds: “Like Pudsey and Scarborough, it’s much more of a cricket town than football or rugby. When those team sports were developing in the late-19th century, rugby was the dominant sport down the valleys towards Halifax and Rochdale, and football up the valley towards Burnley. Todmorden didn’t develop a strong identity in either sport, although in football it is, like Hebden Bridge and Keighley [both in Yorkshire], a Burnley FC town.”

Having signed up in September 1890 for the inaugural Lancashire League – or North East Lancashire League, as it was originally known – Todmorden resigned without bowling a ball. It was the peak of the Challenge Match era, and the club were keen to keep options open and their prestigious fixture programme intact. Thus in 1891 they played Manchester at Old Trafford, Leeds at Headingley and Bradford at Park Avenue, as well as a host of other leading clubs including Bingley, Keighley, Dewsbury Savile, Barnsley and Burnley. “Of their 38 matches,” says Heywood, “24 were against Yorkshire clubs and 14 against Lancashire clubs. Little wonder Todmorden was reluctant to confine itself to fixtures in one league.”

However, local cricket leagues – inspired in part by the success of the Football League, founded in 1888 – were sprouting up across industrial Yorkshire and Lancashire. Come summer 1892, the Huddersfield and District, Leeds and District, Pudsey and District, Spen Valley, West Riding Central, West Riding and West Yorkshire leagues were all underway. “Every Yorkshire team that Todmorden had ever played was playing in a league,” says Heywood. “Some were in two leagues. Todmorden foresaw the decimation of their Challenge Match fixture list and became founder members of the South East Lancashire League – renamed the Central Lancashire League – in late 1891, playing their first season of league cricket in 1892.”

Maintaining a skeleton Challenge Match programme alongside their new league commitments became unsustainable, and so Todmorden hopped into the Lancashire League for the 1897 season, becoming its 14th club (the league had an unchanged membership from 1897 to 2016, a world record for longevity for any league in any sport). Todmorden’s Lancastrianisation was sealed, or so it seemed.

***

Lancashire-leaning this West Yorkshire town may well be, but cut the club with a knife and it would bleed both red and white. Arriving at the ground on a glorious midsummer Sunday afternoon as England were slamming six past Panama in Nizhny Novgorod, the first person I meet is gateman and treasurer John Vickers, born and bred in Bolton but an honorary Todmordian of 37 years and very much a Red Rose man. John was on the gate in 1987 when a fierce hook from Rishton’s pro hit a passing car, causing its irate driver stop to remonstrate with Vickers. “It wasn’t me,” came the reply, “it was Viv Richards.” (The driver hadn’t heard of him.)

“We are committed Northerners,” affirms Vickers of the club’s divided loyalties, “and our attitudes and temperaments are very similar. However, there remains a friendly rivalry, particularly over cricket.” The operative word here is “friendly”, as illustrated by the response Vickers gets when accidentally under-paying for his bacon sandwich in the Red Brick Tea Rooms. “She told me it was obvious I came from the Yorkshire side of Todmorden. Then, they do say Yorkshiremen have short arms and deep pockets.”

Hailing originally from Hebden Bridge, the next train stop down the Calder Valley, club stalwart Ken Sutcliffe is dyed-in-the-wool Yorkshire. I catch him in the Members’ Bar pointedly sliding his freshly pulled but not-quite-full pint of bitter back toward the young barman: “Can you make that a Yorkshire pint, please?” Sutcliffe once lived on the west-facing slope overlooking the Burnley Road that runs the length of the ground and he vividly remembers instructing his pregnant wife that when her waters broke she was to “tell the ambulance driver to turn left” (a phrase that has now become shorthand for White Rose allegiance): 12 miles to a Yorkshire hospital in Halifax was evidently preferable to the seven miles to Burnley or nine to Rochdale.

For all the stereotypes, club president Nevil Sutcliffe (no relation) believes the rivalry is becoming gentler with time, in part the result of Yorkshire CCC relaxing their qualification criteria to allow “off-cumden” (outsiders) to be selected. “Back in the day, my own father and his brother, both Yorkshiremen, left wishes saying they didn’t want to be cremated in Lancashire and insisted the family had to take them to Elland – where the crematorium is further [from Tod] – instead of Burnley or Rochdale. Some of the older generation still don’t like to see the other county do well at all but I feel that is not the case these days – unless it’s a Roses match, when allegiances matter a great deal. Other than that, I find we want our own county to do well, but the other county is the next result we look for.”

The Todmorden XI for the day’s mid-table clash with Lancashire League newcomers Middleton is a five-five split between the Roses (ideal for the football warm-up), with the Indian substitute pro from Greenmount – the club of Gary and Phil Neville – yet to declare his loyalties. He’s here because rules stipulate that all teams must field a professional in every game – Tod have employed Fanie de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Mohsin Khan, Vasbert Drakes and Frank Tyson down the years, as well as the brothers of Hansie Cronje and the ex-Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke. This year’s regular paid man is the former England leg-spinner Chris Schofield, ruled out by injury, although his presence would of course tip the balance of the team toward the red corner. Some might say this would be apposite, for while Todmorden has forged a smattering of professional cricketers, including two Test players in Derek Shackleton and Lancashire legend Peter Lever, it has not yet produced one of comparable stature for Yorkshire (wicket-keeper Ken Fiddling played 18 first-class matches for the Tykes either side of the second World War, before a seven-year stint at Northamptonshire). Brian Close, the quintessential Yorkshireman, did “pro” for Tod in 1978 – presumably on the basis that, if he was ever going to play for a Lancashire League club, then it would have to be one based in Yorkshire – although he once cried off at the eleventh hour on a Saturday due to a pre-arranged golf day, leaving Tod pro-less and thus in breach of the rules. The league’s disciplinary board were rumoured to have taken great delight in fining “those Yorkshire bastards” £250. It wasn’t clear how much of that came out of Close’s pocket.

For quite a few reasons, one would be loath to depict a town as “schizophrenic”, but the waters are certainly muddier here than in most places. This was seen in Todmorden’s attempts to achieve ECB Clubmark accreditation – eventually secured from the Yorkshire Cricket Board after representations had been made on the other side of the Pennines and both counties had fought for their signature – and is exemplified by the clashes over district (schools) and county representative cricket.

Take first-team opening batsman Ben Pearson. A couple of years ago he made a hundred in schools cricket for Rossendale District – the valley due west where Lancashire League rivals Rawtenstall, Haslingden and Bacup are based – and immediately had his eligibility questioned; despite playing for Lancashire under-17s and turning out in the Lancashire League, he didn’t qualify to play schools cricket under the umbrella of a Lancashire district because his school, Todmorden High, was in Yorkshire. The Lancashire Cricket Board did not step in to arbitrate, so he had to sit out the rest of the district cricket season. The following year Pearson ended up playing for Rochdale District. In Lancashire. He was also playing county football for West Yorkshire but his eligibility was again challenged because he played his club football for Todmorden Sports, who were affiliated to the Lancashire FA, not the West Riding FA. “We had the exact same dilemma, but going in the opposite direction,” laughs his father Lee, a Leeds United season ticket holder who supports Lancashire CCC.

Brian Heywood had a similarly confusing situation in the late 1970s, playing schools cricket under the Calderdale/Yorkshire jurisdiction and county representative cricket for Lancashire on account of Tod being in the Lancashire League. “In 1975, ’78 and ’79 I played for Yorkshire Schoolboys, but in 1976 I played at the first Lancashire under-16s cricket festival and in 1979 for Lancashire Federation. In 1979 I represented Yorkshire and Lancashire in the same month.”

Madonna perhaps summed it all up best:

Borderline, feels like I’m going to lose my mind
You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.

***

Given all this, is it really true that there are distinct Lancashire and Yorkshire character traits discernible, to the knowledgeable eye, in the way a person acts, thinks, speaks? Is it all somehow in the flesh, pre-existing and guiding the sporting affinity toward its “natural” side of the Pennines, or do these traits emerge after a largely arbitrary choice of identification has been made (or enforced), one way or t’other? Or again: are the supposedly distinct quirks of Red and White Rose personality just a form of ribbing that got a bit out of hand and built itself a bogus mythology? Cricket Committee member Duncan Sutcliffe (no relation, either to Ken or Nevil) argues that there is a difference: “As a Lanky who worked all his life in Yorkshire, I would definitely say that Yorkshiremen take themselves far more seriously, whereas we can laugh at ourselves. Just about all Northern comedians you can name are from west of the Pennines. Perhaps the Irish influence couldn’t climb the hills!”

What about the difference in cricketing character? Heywood, who was coached at both Headingley and Old Trafford, concurs that Lancashire was the more chilled (cf. ’90s England coaches, Bumble and Illy). “It was serious, dour stuff at Yorkshire. Praise had to be earned. I was often told what I was bad at, but never anything I was doing well. Yorkshire under-15s went years without defeat – about 130 matches I think – and we were a part of that. We would bat into a position from which we couldn’t lose, then go all-out-attack to win. That is what we were taught, and it made us into better and harder cricketers. In my year, 1975, we won ten and drew five. We were in danger of defeat three times but batted our way out of trouble each time.”

Uptight in character, tight in defence, even tighter in the bar – the Todmordians of both persuasions seem to agree with this assessment of the Tyke character. Club chairman Mark Clayton provides a fitting example during the game against Middleton: when a collection hat goes round for the Indian pro’s half-century, he proudly shows me how to hide the amount of coinage being dropped in with the back of his hand. “That’s the Yorkshire way.” Not that the Yorkshire reputation for business acumen is entirely justified, he says, citing the time when a visit from the Lancashire League’s greatest-ever batsman – Bacup’s Everton Weekes, whose nine seasons along the A681 yielded all-time records for centuries (32) and batting average (91.60) – attracted a mammoth crowd to Centre Vale. “Apparently there was a queue of cars stretching 600 metres down the Burnley Road and past the town hall to get on the ground,” says Clayton. “Unfortunately, though, a Todmorden bowler spoilt the party by getting Weekes out cheaply, at which point Dennis Bloor, the club’s then vice-chairman, dashed outside and said: ‘Don’t bother, you’re wasting your time. Weekes is out.’ And they all buggered off. Must have cost the club a fortune!”

Clayton agrees with his president that the once prevalent “anyone but them lot” sentiments are on the wane: “Except for when they play Yorkshire, I’m happy for Lancashire to win.” The rivalry here carries a soft-edged and congenial air, precisely because “them lot” are always sat on the same bench or perhaps even sleep under the same roof: flesh-and-blood frenemies, rather than phantasmal foes of a fevered imagination. There may well be a salutary general lesson here, one that seems especially relevant for our era of populism and polarisation: when the “other” is rarely encountered yet continually obsessed over, the “us-them” divide inevitably becomes harsh and paranoiac, but when everything is this proximal and jumbled-up and familiar, the labels disappear and in the end you’re faced with just another flesh-and-blood human. Everyone becomes “us”.

Perhaps Tod’s mixed-up identity, this neither-one-thing-nor-t’other, this “both and rather than “either/or”, is the root of its palpably welcoming atmosphere and all-round vibe of “each to her own”. It’s the sort of town that French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida would no doubt commend for “destabilising the binary couple Yorkshire/Lancashire”.

***

Shielded from the outside world by the forbidding gritstone-capped moors like a father’s broad shoulders protecting a toddler from the biting wind, it would be easy to imagine Todmorden to be a place of over-stewed flat-cap insularity, closed-minded and inward-looking, but nothing seems further from the truth. The town boasts a righteously rebellious past – it was a hub of clandestine Chartist meetings in the mid-19th century, the working classes gearing up to widen the voting franchise, and also witnessed riots against the Poor Laws and workhouses. And it has a thriving and progressive activist present, with local groups Incredible Edible and Pushing Up Daisies involved in sustainable food production and humane conversations around death and dying. It’s chock-full of independent shops, too, and there’s a fully functioning theatre, more than a little unusual for a town of 13,000 people. Installations around town proclaim, simply, “KINDNESS”, one looming Hollywood-style on the hills below the disused Unitarian church. The initial impression that Todmorden is a small jewel in a magical stretch of trans-Pennine bohemia encompassing neighbouring Hebden Bridge – a place transformed by an influx of hippies in the 1970s – is confirmed when I hear that ex-Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker is upstairs recovering in the first pub I’d dropped into for an informal identity vox-pop (and, it turns out, amazing Thai food). The Golden Lion’s list of guest DJs is more what you’d expect in Ibiza or Berlin than a small Pennine market town.

Bedecked in St George’s crosses for the football it may have been, but Todmorden’s pavilion also hosts a monthly lesbian night (Hebden has the highest per-capita population of lesbians in the UK). A female couple with dyed hair and colourful tattoos and scanty clothing do a lap of the ground hand in hand and no one bats an eyelid. These are not the only gays in the village, Myfanwy.

One wonders whether this worldly openness is a function of Todmorden’s borderline existence, its refusal to slot into readymade identity categories. This is Tod: a bit of this, a bit of that. The Roses rivalry is here, but as amiable posturing, as pantomime. All the baggage handed down from history – the compulsory mutual enmity, the symbiotic loathing – is taken with a pinch of salt, and one suspects that if the two counties ever had to tie the knot, so to speak (say, for a North regional first-class team), ’appen they wouldn’t be slow to trumpet their joint superiority over the rest of the country.

But all that aggro seems far from proceedings on a sun-kissed summer Sunday afternoon, gazing across a snooker-table outfield overlooked by moorlands rising up from the steep-sided valleys flanking the Burnley Road. Here the chatter floats past in a soft Lancastrian Yorkshire Todmordian burr; an affable cross-generational interaction, the oldsters keeping a genial eye on the young’uns and “all that modern rigmarole” – knowing a little bit more than they’re letting on, or else being very good at hiding what they don’t know lest the juniors take advantage – and the young’uns happy to pause for a natter, too, stopping a bit longer than Respectful Obligation dictates and into territory that might be called Genuine Bonhomie. Thus the social fabric is stitched together.

Near to the main gate, near to the end of the game, Todmorden’s first female president Betty Whittaker is telling me about her seven-decade involvement with the club when a six is hooked over the hefty Yorkshire stone wall, the ball rebounding off a car and then just over her head and into my hands (it wasn’t Viv Richards’ fault). Soon Whittaker is being badgered by one of her brood of grandkids for pocket-money top-ups. Her husband Brian was a long-serving first-team player, starting out in the championship-winning team of 1957. Daughter Sarah works in the Red Brick on match days while son-in-law Stuart Priestley has the most first XI appearances for Tod and is one of two men to make 10,000 career runs for them. All four of their kids have played for Tod’s senior teams. Stuart is a big Lancashire fan and his daughter Evie plays for Lancashire Ladies and Burnley FC Women. Youngest son Noah plays for Yorkshire under-14s.

“We’re mixed up. We don’t know who we are”, Betty Whittaker remarks while handing over a tenner to one of the grandkids, reminding him that it’s not a gift but a loan and she wants it back. Judging by how unconvincing and resigned she sounds when saying it, my guess is she leans toward the red side of town.

The Autumn 2018 issue of The Nightwatchman, from which this article is taken, is a Roses special and available to buy here.

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