As rugby league mourns the passing of the legendary Don Fox, his lifelong friend and long-time Featherstone team-mate Joe Mullaney pays tribute to a true sporting giant.
CRAB apples, chestnuts and a rolled-up jumper are unlikely to feature prominently in the training regime of modern players but they played a big part in the making of one of rugby league's finest scrum-halves: Don Fox.
Don was my half-back partner at Featherstone for 12 years but our association went back further than that, a lot further.
We grew up on the same street in Sharlston, Albert Terrace – I lived at No 4 and the Foxes were at No 6 – and the two of us were inseparable from an early age, even though Don was 15 months younger than me and in the year below at Sharlston School. His brother Peter was too old to play with us and Neil was too young but I think he learned a lot from watching us play.
There were half-a-dozen or so of us who were close friends and rugby was our obsession, even when we were 'laking' in the grounds at Nostell Priory hunting for crab apples and chestnuts.
We'd pass and kick whatever we found even then and when we got back to Sharlston we'd usually end up on the Common or village green playing rugby with a rolled-up jumper for a ball. We never had a ball, except on the rare occasions when Dennis Chalkley's dad, who was secretary at Sharlston Rovers, allowed us to borrow one, but it did us no harm.
You never saw kids with a rugby ball back in those days, or boots for that matter. When it was dry you played in pumps, if it was wet you played in your wellies. Maybe that's why kicking a heavy wet ball in rugby boots didn't seem so hard once we signed for Featherstone.
Don signed before I did and went through the junior grades at Rovers. When I signed, they gave me one game in the under-18s and then I was straight into the first team.
He was a natural footballer, he loved scoring points and the two of us knew instinctively what the other was going to do. Once we got out on to the pitch it all came naturally to us.
In our first 10 seasons at Featherstone, I made 316 appearances and Don made just four more; I scored 85 tries and kicked seven goals while Don kicked 349 and bagged 151 tries.
He could create tries but he was a great finisher, as I said, a player who just loved scoring.
Don wasn't what you would call a deep thinker about rugby. His mind would wander in training when the coach, Harold Moxon, would try going through set moves.
It was a bit of a laugh, really. Harold only had three moves - called Move One, Two and Three – but Don could never remember what they were. We'd go to a scrum and I'd say 'Move 30.'
"Don would just nod and then do what he felt was right when the ball came out."
Away from the rugby field, we both worked at Sharlston Pit where I was a saddler and fire officer and Don was a joiner. It's fair to say he was a better scrum-half than he was a joiner. The pit manager was a rugby follower and me and Don were 'looked after.' We got away with murder and never had trouble getting time off to play or train.
I retired from rugby at the end of the 1964-65 season and within a few months Don left Featherstone to join Wakefield, where he finally got to play with their Neil. Even I couldn't have told Neil to clear off because he was too young then!
Neil was a great kicker of the ball but he didn't play at Wembley in 1968 because of injury. Don was also a great kicker but if I'd have been Wakefield's captain in the Cup final I wouldn't have asked him to kick that last goal.
Most of the goals Don kicked for Featherstone were from to the right or left of the posts. It didn't matter how wide out the kick was, you could rely on Don to hit the target.
Unfortunately, he was always a little bit unpredictable in front of the sticks. It would have been a big call but I know for certain I would have had the guts to say 'Let someone else kick this one, Don.' I did that many, many times at Featherstone where Jackie Fennell always had the kicks in front of the posts.
I once walked into Sharlston Club, where Don's dad was steward, and as I stood at the bar this voice boomed from
the reading room: 'You have a go at this one from the touchline, Donald; here's an easy one, you can have a go now, Jackie.'
It was Don's dad. He never could understand why I did what I did although he probably had a better idea after Wembley.
That missed goal changed Don. He didn't seem to dwell on it but the press were always referring to it and I have no doubt it contributed to his illness in later life.
A lot will be said and written about the death of the player who missed that match-winning kick against Leeds at Wembley and about the death of a world class scrum-half but I'll always remember Don Fox as the nicest, most decent man I have ever known.
Joe Mullaney was talking to John Ledger.