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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

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Rugby league’s greatest ever full-back

WHEN England won the 2003 Rugby Union World Cup in Australia, the players came home to a hero’s reception – they were all showered with MBEs, the manager got a knighthood and everyone was feted at Buckingham Palace.

Three decades earlier Great Britain’s unheralded rugby league team brought their World Cup home to an altogether different welcome. There was nothing royal about it.

“We flew back into Stansted got off the plane and there was no one there to greet us,” recalls Paul Charlton, the carpenter from Whitehaven who fashioned his way to rugby league stardom with Workington Town.

“We were then put on a bus which took us to Manchester. It would be a different today.”

Never mind, you’re in the record books as a World Cup winner with a coveted medal to show the grandchildren. “You’re joking!” he says. “No, we didn’t even get a medal, they gave us a plaque (wooden), it’s more like a cheese board. And I think we got about 50 quid for winning one of the greatest prizes in the game.”

Paul Charlton, universally known as ‘Charlo’ and nicknamed the Road Rocket, was the star full-back of the 1972 World Cup winning side, skippered by the late Clive Sullivan, whose length of the field try clinched the triumph at Lyon, France.

It was a round robin competition with Great Britain taking the cup on points aggregate.

“It was played in a huge stadium, not many spectators in there, but to draw 10-10 in the final against a great Australian team after beating them in the earlier round was a wonderful feat, Sully’s try was a sight to behold and we all felt on top of world,” says Paul.

Charlton was a Rolls Royce full-back in a team graced by backs of the calibre of John Atkinson, Steve Nash, John Holmes, Chris Hesketh, David Topliss and John Walsh, behind a powerful pack which included Phil Lowe, Colin Dixon, George Nicholls, Brian Lockwood, Terry Clawson and Mike Stephenson under the coaching of the late Jim Challinor.

For this genuine rugby league superstar the road to glory started on Fell View Avenue, Whitehaven, and the playground at St Begh’s School.

His imagination was captured just a little further down at the Recreation Ground where he worshipped the legends of the Whitehaven team of the 50s.

The journey also took him to Australia, at the peak of a glittering career which earned him no fewer than 20 international caps, along with club honours at Workington Town and Salford in a multi-talented team of Red Devils which brought showbiz to rugby league.

Friday night floodlit rugby at The Willows were fabulous razzmatazz affairs which attracted big crowds and personalities from other walks of life. Salford were known as the Manchester United of rugby league – both played it off the cuff and among the regulars at The Willows were Old Trafford Red Devils George Best, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law who recognised like-minded entertainers.

“They all came along to our games,” recalls Paul, “obviously they couldn’t stick around too long for drinks afterwards because they had their own match on Saturday afternoon, but I suppose it was also a kind of relaxation for them. We also played it off the cuff. Salford never had a structure, if it happened it happened but we had players who could make it happen, even if we were 10 points behind we could still win.

“The atmosphere was so fantastic we were jumping out of our skins, just wanting to put on a performance. All the players were superb, about 10 internationals, but what I always felt we lacked was an enforcer, somebody to give us that bit of steel.”

Salford were the money-bags club of the early 70s with chairman Brian Snape opening the purse strings to bring together an aristocratic mix of league greats and big union signings especially from the Welsh valleys.

“On the wings we had Maurice Richards and Keith Fielding, David Watkins in the centre, Mike Coulman at prop, all top union names, with Great Britain stars Chris Hesketh, Kenny Gill, Stevie Nash and Colin Dixon. With all these accents, Welsh, southern and me speaking broad Cumbrian, it was hard to understand each other, they didn’t know what I was on about but people say we served up some sparkling stuff.”

It was after Salford’s 1969 Wembley defeat that Mr Snape forked out a record £13,000 to prise Charlton away from his beloved Workington Town.

In his autobiography, Tom Mitchell, the Town chairman, said: “I was upset with one departure – that of Paul Charlton, but in the end it was outside any influence I could have used. I put on all the pressure I could muster and had the fee upped by another £4,000 to £13,000”.

Paul says: “I always seemed to be second string full-back for Great Britain and I knew my international career wasn’t going to take off unless I moved on. Within 12 months of moving I was in the Great Britain squad proper.”

He had already been crowned Rugby League Player of the Year and it was the World Cup that cemented his status as Britain’s most exciting (and reliable) all-round full-back, inviting comparisons with Gus Risman, the immortal he was to emulate in the Town, Salford and Great Britain No.1 shirt.

Sensational speed and spectacular long-range runs brought Charlton a world record 33 tries in one season from the full-back position, so outstanding that Welsh ace David Watkins described him as “the finest full-back I ever saw in the league game and certainly in J.P.R. Williams’s class as the best of the lot”.

Paul adds: “I went out to try to be the best. Although I had a reputation for attacking I prided myself on defence. If I missed a tackle it really hurt.”

And the hardest man to stop? – “Alan Smith, the Leeds international winger. John Atkinson was good, but Smith was so strong.”

Two years after the World Cup triumph, Charlo’s big dream came true – he was on the plane for the 1974 Tour of Australia and New Zealand. Many felt he should have been on the ‘66 and ‘70 tours when he was still at Workington but it was third time lucky and he played in all six Tests.

Did you always have that electrifying speed? – “No, I can thank Fred Hodgson for that. When I first went to Derwent Park, Big Fred, a 6ft 4in second rower, was pretty quick, I was always trying to beat him in training, then one day ‘whoosh’ I went past him and that was it, I got bigger and faster.”

What finally brought you back to West Cumbria (and Town) then? – “Me and Chris Hesketh were supposed to return Down Under and play for Parramatta but it didn’t happen and then I broke my collarbone. Mr Snape switched David Watkins to full-back so I decided I’d like to come back. I actually thought I was going to Whitehaven, but apparently when I was sold to Salford in the first place, Mr Mitchell and Mr Snape agreed that if I ever came back to West Cumberland it would be nowhere else but Workington. My hands were tied.

“Town were just building another good side again and it turned out to be outstanding. We had the Gorley brothers, Eddie Bowman, Billy Pattinson, Alan Banks, John Risman, Ray Wilkins, Korky (Ian MacCorquodale), Boxer Walker and Ian Wright and it ended up with us winning the Lancashire Cup, one of the club’s big ambitions - they’d been trying for 32 years.”

So, success finally returned to Derwent Park as Charlton skippered (and Ike Southward coached) Town winning the Lancashire Cup in 1977, beating Wigan in the final 16-13 at Warrington.

Paul says: “Tom Mitchell took us off to Corfu as a reward and the £100 we got for winning was the most cash I ever collected, but it meant nothing compared to holding up that cup and seeing what it meant to Ike and the rest of the lads.”

And you were heading for retirement? – “Well, the old legs wouldn’t go like they used to, so it was time to go.” But there was one more step, coaching Town back in the top flight during the early 80s.

How come you never played for your home town club? – “It’s what I dreamed of doing. When at school I used to go down to the Recreation Ground and even try and train with them; Bill McAlone, Bobby Vincent, Ron McMenemy, Bill Smith, Billy Garratt, Geoff Robinson and Dick Huddart.

You say your dad was your biggest influence, did he ever play? - “No, just the accordion! I’ll always remember starting my apprenticeship as a carpenter with James Leslie on Coach Road. John Tembey, who was a star at Whitehaven, was working there and getting a lot of time off to play football. When I told Mr Leslie I was going to sign for Town that night he said “if you do I’’ll want to see you in my office tomorrow. I’ve have had all this time off stuff before with John Tembey. It’s either your job or your rugby”. Next day we went to see Mr Leslie in his office and my dad said “what do you want to do, lad?” I said: “I want to play rugby.” He said “done then.”

There were 723 senior games, plus 20 internationals and a record-breaking 35 appearances for Cumberland in which he cherishes his county championship win under Brian Edgar’s captaincy in 1966, followed by his part in Cumberland’s defeat of Australia’s Test side in a thriller at Derwent Park.

Paul, who has always taken pride in the RL career of his son Gary, now follows the fortunes from his Australian home of his three grand-children; Luke is a budding hooker for Kells, Lewis, the younger brother, wants to be a ballet dancer, having won a coveted place at the Royal School of Ballet, while Amy, his daughter’s girl, excels on the track as a sprinter.

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