Peter Walsh is my all-time rugby league hero. He coached Workington Town from division three to the top flight between 1992 and 1995. In the game’s last full winter season, Walsh guided Town to 9th place, despite them being bottom (16th) at Christmas. Walsh was a magnificent coach, and when he was linked to the job again in 2008, I couldn’t resist phoning him up to ask about the rumours and to reminisce about the good old days!
WORKINGTON TOWN are currently advertising for a new Head Coach and if the Nelson Bay Swimming Pool Shop in Australia didn’t require the day to day running of its owner, the club would have a chance of enticing a favourite son back home to Derwent Park.
That man is Peter Walsh; coach of the club for three gloriously successful years between 1992 and 1995 and rated alongside the legendary Gus Risman as the club’s finest coach.
Workington have spent 12 years trying, but failing, to find another Peter Walsh. After finishing ninth out of 16 teams in the 1994/95 English first division in the pre-Super League days, Town have had little to smile about since. False dawn has followed false dawn and to illustrate the decline in expectations, a fifth-placed finish in National League Two this season, under the tutelage of caretaker coaches Les Ashe and Craig Barker, who given the circumstances have done a great job, is seen as something of a triumph.
Walsh took Town from third division no-hopers to successive promotions, with successive appearances at Old Trafford in the Divisional Premiership final thrown in for good measure.
“Coaching Workington was the best time of my rugby career, bar none,” Walsh told Rugby League World. “We’re desperate to get back over there and see everyone again, even after all this time but putting in for the coaching job just isn’t a possibility due to my swimming pool shop here.
“Mike Cunningham at the club is trying to get a re-union sorted out to get all that mob back together. That would be fantastic.
“The two Old Trafford appearances and winning the second division championship were fantastic but the biggest achievement by the club was finishing ninth out of 16 in our first season in the top division.”
Walsh had coached Lakes United – which sounds like an appropriate name for a new Cumbrian franchise – in his local Newcastle competition and brought to Cumbria with him a fullback and a prop – Mark Mulligan and James Pickering – who formed the backbone of the side through those three years. Alongside them were tough forwards Colin Armstrong, Peter Riley, Martin Oglanby and Brad Hepi, the talented Wayne Kitchin in the halves and Dean Marwood, an excellent goalkicker. The nucleus of the side was taking shape.
“One of the early games that I remember was when we played Wigan in the Regal Trophy in December 1992. It was absolutely freezing and the pitch was icy but I persuaded the ref to give the game the go-ahead. It was a tremendous day in front of 8,000 fans and Wigan only just got over the line, despite being two divisions above us and having all their stars in the team.
“Mark and James were fantastic for us right through those three seasons. Jimmy was so good going forward and Mark had a great kicking game. I went to Workington at first without a thought of bringing them over but when I realised they could be a huge benefit to the club, I knew I had to get them. It was as simple as that. They brought a lot to the town itself as well as the team. They were just icons in the joint.”
Pickering agreed to join Town the day before receiving an offer to join forces with Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Bradley Clyde et al at Canberra Raiders. Unsure what to do, Pickering spoke to his father who advised him that he had given his word to Walsh and should honour it. The Raiders went on to win the 1994 Winfield Cup while Pickering was fast becoming a Town legend.
“As well as Mark and Jimmy, we also had some great experience,” said Walsh. “We picked up Des Drummond, a fantastic finisher who could also make great yardage with the ball. Phil McKenzie was great out of dummy-half and always got us going forward while Ged Byrne was the total professional and did a great job for us. Unfortunately he buggered his shoulder up so bad and didn’t play in that first-division season.
“You always like to think that things will go well but there are no guarantees. They’re all committed people in Cumbria so it was a case of pointing them in the right direction.”
Clearly, the direction that Walsh was pointing in was upwards. A second-placed finish to Keighley in 1993 was followed by the club winning the second division championship in style the following year, thus gaining promotion to the Big League.
“We didn’t make the best of starts to our promotion campaign. Wayne Kitchin missed a last-minute kick against Huddersfield in a one-point defeat and then, incredibly, the same thing happened in another home game with London a few weeks later in the mud.
“But we got back on track although we had a scare on Good Friday when we lost 7-4 to Whitehaven and we lost the lead at the top of the league with only a few rounds left. But I said to my players afterwards in the sheds, ‘which dressing-room do you want to be in? Their season is over in a few weeks and we’re going to Old Trafford’. That sparked them up a bit!
“Then we hammered Keighley with a Des Drummond hat-trick and Doncaster lost, meaning that we went back to the top then we won at Bramley to secure the league title.”
Workington went on to win the Divisional Premiership final at Old Trafford three weeks later by beating London Crusaders 30-22, which made up for their narrow defeat to a Paul Newlove-inspired Featherstone a year before.
Walsh then began his preparations for a top-flight campaign but, unlike today’s trend of a promoted side making a multitude of new signings, Walsh only brought in Billy McGinty from Wigan, Vince Fawcett from Leeds and highly-rated local amateur Stephen Holgate from Hensingham – a club that provided a number of players to the professional game at the time.
“We only brought in a couple of players because, when you get promoted, you have to give players an opportunity to see if they can go to the next level. That’s what we did at Workington and it worked. We gave everyone a run for their money that season at Derwent Park. We were so unlucky to lose early games to Leeds and St Helens – that one due to a Bobbie Goulding forward pass in the last minute – but we got a big win over Halifax, who had a great side then, and that turned our season. We did enough in the end to get a place in Super League ahead of teams like Widnes, Featherstone, Wakefield, Hull and Salford.”
But that ninth-placed finish was as good as it got for Town. With the club guaranteed a place in that inaugural Super League season, Walsh announced that he was to accept an assistant coaching role at Illawarra Steelers while leading players Pickering, Mulligan, Hepi, Kyle White and Kevin Ellis also sought pastures new and Drummond brought down the curtain on his wonderful career. The heart was ripped from a team that has been in continual decline ever since but the club only had itself to blame for letting men of such talent, not least the coach, slip away.
“It was such a shame that it all fell apart for Workington so quickly,” said Walsh. “That’s the biggest disappointment I’ve ever had – the way it ended. A club has to get things right off the field and that wasn’t the case. There were a few problems behind the scenes.
“I had to come back home every year to re-new my Visa. While I was in Australia, Allan McMahon had taken over at Illawarra and offered me a three-year contract. I only had months left on my deal at Workington and there was no commitment for any more. Basically you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do and my wife was pregnant at the time. There wasn’t really much of a choice to make but it was unfortunate that I couldn’t leave on my own terms, say cheerio to all the supporters and let everyone know what was happening. There was nothing underhanded going on. I had a three-year deal with an Australian club and that was pretty hard to knock back, whereas at Workington it was just a year to year thing.
“When I left for Australia to renew my Visa, I had intended to come back but there hadn’t been any planning for the following season. There was some internal bickering and I suppose you could tell it wasn’t meant to be.”
Town’s recruitment for the truncated Centenary Season left a lot to be desired. Kurt Sorensen walked out on Whitehaven to coach Town – a disastrous move for the giant Kiwi while, on the playing staff, Town welcomed in the erratic Frenchman David Fraisse, London’s Mark Johnson and Logan Campbell, BARLA fullback Peter Livett and, for Super League, Lafaele Filipo, Jason Palmada, Brad Nairn and current Great Britain boss Tony Smith. Only Nairn, and possibly Campbell, looked like he would have challenged for a spot in Walsh’s side.
“Some of the guys they signed after I left were on more money than what Jimmy, Mark and myself were on put together and some people blamed me for those signings but they were nothing to do with me. They came in after I left. Even when I was there, I had nothing to do with what the players were paid. That was up to the Chairman and the Board. My job was to coach the football team.
“But I’ve always followed Workington since I left and I’d love to see Super League rugby in Cumbria. I’m not sure how it can happen because it looks like they’ll never merge and Whitehaven can’t go up unless they’ve done something miraculous to that ground of theirs. It was a pit when I was over there.
“As for Town, they seem to need stability. They’ve had a lot of coaches since I was there and some stability would help them push forward. I’d love to see things happen for them.”