Billy Boston: They didn't need to sign me
On the unveiling of Billy Boston's statue last weekend, we look into the archives to 2013 and this interview with the league legend.
Central Park has been standing for 51 years and The Riversiders have been champions for two of the past three seasons. The year is 1953 and Wigan are in the midst of an indifferent start to the rugby league season.
Ten wins have been accompanied by six losses and a 19-all draw away to Bramley, but something special is about to happen to Wigan.
A 19-year-old winger from Tiger Bay is set to make his first team debut as a legendary 15-year stay at Central Park dawned.
But Billy Boston was at first reluctant to move to the town he still calls home 60 years on.
Playing for the Royal Signals rugby union team in the Army Cup Final at Aldershot in March 1953, Boston rattled up six tries against the Welsh Guards, prompting the Wigan directors to raid the bank.
“They (club directors) used to come down to South Wales but as soon as I saw any fancy cars I used to go home,” Boston recalled.
“One day they caught me up and they put so much money on the table.”
The middle child in the Boston household of six boys and five girls to an Irish mother and a father from Sierra Leone had made an impression wherever he went. And Wigan wanted him at any cost.
Boston continued: “They put £1,500 on the table and I said, ‘get rid of them mum, I want to stop here’.
“So she said put £3,000 on the table and he’ll sign, so they did.”
Wigan tried to suppress the news of their new signing until Boston’s release from the army but came clean after Eddie Waring broke the story in his Sunday Pictorial column. “I was in the army and I went home on leave,” Boston explained.
“I signed while I was in the army and they kept it quiet.
“Considering I hadn’t seen a rugby league game it was fantastic from the start. It was the best thing I ever did.”
Fantastic is certainly was. Boston crossed the whitewash on his first team debut on November 21 in a 27-15 win over Barrow.
He was gradually fed into the side having come from rugby’s amateur code, but still returned 14 tries from nine starts in his first season.
Wigan finished seventh as Warrington claimed the league championship but Boston had already done enough to earn his Great Britain call-up.
He was on his way to Australia where he began an international career which saw him play for his country 31 times.
But Boston was still learning the game he was making a name for himself in.
“They had me learning how to play the ball in corridors at the hotel,” he laughed.
“Everybody wanted to see me at their club. Everything got shoved on you straight away.”
Boston appeared in the 1960 World Cup and the Great Britain 1962 tour, following which he needed a knee operation which he says could have ended his career.
Pulling his trouser leg up to expose scarred legs, Boston explained: “It was always wet and muddy but the ground in Australia was jagged and rough. I didn’t wear knee bandages so every time I went down I was cut to ribbons.
“I always had to have an operation when I came back.”
Away from the field, Boston met wife Joan on a blind date 58 years ago at the old Hippodrome theatre.
“A team mate of mine, Roy Williams, was courting with a friend of Joan’s and organised a date. We used to go every Friday night,” said Boston.
Joan remembers being star-struck for much of that first night, and she feared not everyone would approve of her dating Wigan’s new super star.
“My first impression was my mother will kill me,” laughed Joan.
“We hardly spoke that night.”
With games taking place mainly on Saturdays, the town’s rugby league players had time for socialising - leaving Boston scratching his head as to how little training these so called professional players did.
“We only trained twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
I was in the army and used to do physical training and was in the gym all the time. I ran and played rugby but when I came to Wigan, which is a professional club, they only trained twice a week.”
Post game get-togethers usually took place in The Royal Oak on Standishgate, handy for its close proximity to Central Park.
During the day, Boston worked for one of the directors who signed him, Joe Taylor, making furniture at Pemberton’s.
Settled in Wigan, Boston never left once his playing days were over. Before retiring he had a variety of jobs, including having The Griffin pub at the bottom of Standishgate.
Boston explained: “I never learned a trade - now players are looked after but in those days that was it.
“At first I was a linesman at the post office and I really enjoyed that.
“But then I was offered a pub and Joan worked in Marks and Spencer - she didn’t want to know (about the pub) but we needed something and we went there and stayed 16 years - it was a good life and my daughter Angela took over after us.”
In Boston’s fifth season at Central Park, he was to start a relationship with a very special place and sentimental piece of silverware for rugby league people.
On May 10 1958, the Welsh wizard lined-up in the 13-9 Challenge Cup Final win over Workington, having helped the Riversiders to the final with a try in the 8-0 win over Oldham in the quarter-final.
Boston went on to appear at Wembley six times, winning three, and has mixed emotions of his experience at the National Stadium.
“Wembley - It’s fabulous,” he said with a smile.
“Six times isn’t bad out of 15 years.”
His second appearance came a year later in the 30-13 win over Hull, before losses to St Helens in 1961 and 1966 sandwiched the classic 20-16 victory over Hunslet in 1965.
The win over Hull produced his only two tries at Wembley, a stat which Boston gives the sense he wishes was different.
“I never saved my best for Wembley. I was never outstanding,” he explained.
But playing before crowds of between 66,000 and 98,000 didn’t touch the nerves of Wigan’s top all-time try-scorer.
“I never got nervous at Wembley but Dave Bolton and Eric Ashton did,” he said.
“Some lads would have a cigarette in the tunnel and David used to be sick.”
When Boston’s days at Wigan were up, after three Challenge Cups, a league championship in 1960, a Lancashire Cup and a BBC Floodlit Trophy - the now legend finished his playing career at Blackpool - after having initially announced his retirement.
He played 11 games for the seaside club, bowing out against Huyton on August 25 1970 but his memories of Blackpool - and his wife’s - are not exactly glittering.
“It was only for a few months and I was over the hill,” he said.
“I used to work and then go to training but I never got paid!
“At Wigan you got your kit hung up for you and your boots shone.”
Joan also shared less than fond memories of the year, where Blackpool finished bottom with six wins from 34 games.
She said: “At Blackpool he brought his kit home for washing and I said he must be joking!”
Boston continued: “The first week I went in for my wages and another lad said, ‘we haven’t had ours for the past month,’ at Wigan it was there every week - right on time.
“I got more injuries there in a few months than in 15 years at Wigan.”
Boston’s career, which returned 478 tries from 488 appearances in Wigan colours, took its toll on his body.
“I had to have two new knees when I finished - had cartilage and a foreign body out,” he said.
“The foreign body nearly finished my career. They never told us what it was and I had to go to Leeds to have it out.”
Since washing his kit for the final time, Boston has never felt the desire to leave the town he calls home.
Joan admits she would have been happy to go with him if he had chosen to return to Cardiff, but Boston’s heart is the town which loves him.
“I class myself as a Wiganer. I have no intentions of leaving,” he said as he celebrates his 60th year in the town.
“Wigan is a small place and I’ve been treated like a Lord. I even found a Wigan girl.”
Boston is a regular at both Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors games at the DW Stadium, insisting he will support any team bearing the Wigan name.
As much as Wigan has cast its spell on the great man, Boston’s influence spreads much further.
In 2012 he was named in Sporting Equals’ top 10 black athletes of all time, though he is passionately adamant he achievements are not just his own doing.
“For me, for rugby league, to get into that, especially when you talk about the runners and great sportsmen,” Boston reflected with a sigh of disbelief when speaking about the list.
“It’s not what I have done for the sport, it’s what the sport has done for me.”
In 1996, Boston was awarded the MBE, though he points out it was for his charity work and not for services to rugby league and he will feature in the rugby league statue due to be placed at Wembley.
One statue he is already part of, which he wishes was better looked after, is the bronze rugby ball at the Central Park Tesco, roughly placed on the spot where the Hilton Street turnstile to the Popular Stand used to be.
“Tesco - it is awful what they’ve done with that. It’s already wearing away,” he said, wishing the statue would have been placed away from the elements.
“It should’ve been covered up.”
But across town, at the DW Stadium where its biggest stand is named after him, Boston has watched on with admiration at the current crop of stars.
Wife Joan states Josh Charnley reminds her of how her husband used to play, and Boston shares her appraisal of the 2013 Super League top try-scorer.
“I met him and I only shook his hand and he started shaking,” Boston laughed.
“I like to watch him.
“I like Josh and Sam Tomkins. I told Sam when he first came to Wigan he would be great.
“I don’t know how he does his step - he can go either way -have you ever seen anyone who can sidestep both ways?
“I could do right to left but never left to right, he looks really slim but he has a lot of upper body strength - he’s rubbery.”
Boston admits he will miss Tomkins next term as the full-back plies his trade in the NRL, but the new challenge for the 24-year-old comes with a warning.
“He would have got a lot more honours if he hadn’t signed for New Zealand,” Boston said, though he is relieved Tomkins has not switched codes.
“The difference between rugby union and rugby league is money,” he explained before sharing the opinion that the 15-man code was not always a fully amateur game before turning professional in 1995.
“It’s a load of rubbish - even when I was playing rugby union I used to get travelling money,” he said.
“Cardiff to Neath cost me three and four in old money and they used to give me a fiver.
“I couldn’t spend it though - it was for my mum.”
But regardless of which players move on, Boston is assured the notorious production line will ensure success for years to come.
“Shaun Wane is doing well and the Wigan team - the top rugby players are all from Wigan.
The greatest of all I’ve seen, Brian McTigue, born and bred in Wigan.
“The Tomkins brothers, Andy Gregory, Shaun Edwards, Joe Lydon, John Barton, Frank Collier - all Wiganers.”
Such is Boston’s admiration for Wigan’s ability to develop talent at home, the man many regard as Wigan’s greatest ever player insists they didn’t need him.
He continued: “Where do they find them from?
“They didn’t need to sign me.
“Maybe they think it brings people in, people might get complacent so they will watch people from somewhere else.
“But they don’t need to. Look at them now, there is need for them to go out and buy anybody.
“This is such a small place with so much talent - and it’s in all kinds of sports - not just rugby league.”
Boston’s 60 years in Wigan have provided him, and countless others with the kind of memories people share, making him a recognisable figure to even the youngest and most novice followers of rugby league.
There were some bad times, such as his suspension in April 1956 following a refused transfer request after a Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Halifax and his transfer listing of £10,000 in 1963, which was resolved in time for the new season.
But these are overshadowed by a haze of euphoric images of try celebrations and adoring fans.
He was loved by the young fans who talk about him as adults and Boston remembers running out at Central Park fondly.
“There were kids leaning over the top when we were coming out of the tunnel - I think I lost my hair from them stroking my head,” he said.
But Boston’s happiest day came years after he played his final game.
He marks Wigan’s 27-0 victory over St Helens in the 1989 Challenge Cup Final as ‘the happiest day ever,’ after he took more than he thinks is his fair share of beatings from Wigan’s arch-rivals in his playing days.
“They beat us more than we beat them,” he said with a shake of the head which is a sure symptom of being a bona-fide Wiganer.
“They beat us twice at Wembley but (in 1989) we went and it was the happiest day ever! We had the photograph in the pub and I used to have to take it down before the Saints fans came in.
“We used to get all the fans and there were never any problems.”
Beating St Helens by any margin is important for Boston, though for Joan, the quality of the game is more important.
She said: “I’d rather have a game where it’s close - it’s good to watch - but Billy just wants Wigan to win!”
Boston has since seen his beloved Cherry and Whites smash records, sweep all before them, fall from grace and rise to the top again.
His playing career is just a small part of his effect on the town and the club where he is a member of the hall of fame.
“It’s short and sweet,” he reflected.
“I’ve been here 60 years now and you only play for 15 of those.
“Wigan is unbelievable and I’ve never regretted a minute.”