THE NORTH WESTERN CRICKET LEAGUE 1946-1972
Most of the younger members were in the forces, and the Club could not muster 22 players to turn out. Many friendly fixtures were organised through this time, but it was not until the 1946 season that league fixtures were reinstated. The change of nature of the South Lancashire League had prompted Thornham to look for “pastures new” already, and the Club joined the Saddleworth League for just one season in 1946. The reason for such a short stay in that organisation was a meeting of several gentlemen held in the office of a city merchant in Manchester during the October of that same year. It took just thirty minutes to form the North Western League, and for the second time in its history Thornham became founder members of a league. The change was effective: the next four seasons were to be the most successful since the days of the Middleton and District League.
This was a period of consistent strength across both senior teams, with experienced players supported by a growing pool of younger talent. An example was R. Ellis, a Second XI bowler who caught the eye with 7 for 11 when dismissing Greenmount for a paltry 23, and was promoted to the First XI, where, six weeks later he captured 9 Roe Green wickets for just 7 runs in a ten wicket victory against a Club well known to recent players. Bill Daniel had played First XI cricket for Thornham and now a new name, Tommy Daniel, came to the fore. He would become the most prolific run-scorer in the league for the next twelve years. A very proficient professional - H.A. Stansfield - strengthened the side, and his major achievement came in securing the First XI’s first honour since 1903, when they beat Barton Hall over a two night match on Burnage’s ground in August 1947 to take the Crossley Shield. Stansfield took 6 for 30 on the first night, and top-scored with 49 on the second night as the Club secured a 4 wicket win. After such a lean spell, this was an achievement to be celebrated, particularly as the Second XI also fared well in their own cup competition, reaching the semi-finals before being undone by the future first-class leg spinner Tommy Greenough, playing for Fieldhouse. Greenough took 7 Thornham wickets for just 19 runs. Greenough was not the only “up-and-coming” player to feature at Thornham in those years: in 1948 consecutive weekends saw performances from Brian Statham and Frank Tyson. Chasing Denton West’s 93 all out, Thornham reckoned without the fast, arrow-straight bowling of Statham, who took all of his 5 wickets by hitting the stumps, and conceded only 27 runs as Thornham fell just two runs short. Tyson was less eye-catching when Middleton visited the next weekend, taking 29 only two wickets as Middleton were trounced by 161 runs. July saw Thornham in the final of the Crossley Shield once more, but in a highscoring game they fell just 5 runs short of the 210 target set by Norden.
Future heroes aside, Thornham hosted some actual superstars of their time that year. The biggest crowd of this or many another season came when Manchester United F.C. paid a visit, fielding almost the entire eleven who had lifted the F.A. Cup at Wembley earlier in the year - their first cup success for 39 years. Stan Pearson topped his Cup-Final goal against Blackpool with an unbeaten 58 as United beat Thornham by 14 runs in front of an immense, appreciative crowd.
The best season of the Club’s history to that time came in 1949 when the First XI was completely dominant and romped to their first league title in the new league, thirteen points ahead of their nearest rivals. Under the astute captaincy of Arthur Wroe, Jim Galloway performed excellently as professional, with 437 runs and 63 wickets, and amateur players won both league bowling and batting averages: Tom Daniel scored 320 runs at a little under 30 and Tom Jacques’s 65 wickets cost just 7.7 apiece (including 6 for 6 and 7 for 10 in the two games against Norden). The feat was nearly repeated the following year, when Thornham finished as runners-up, but this year marked the start of a more mediocre spell in league performances as experienced players reached the end of long and illustrious careers.
This was an era when names familiar to our current membership start to make their mark. Notable among these is Paul Rocca. Most of Paul’s playing career was spent away from Thornham, and his early promise was signalled by his taking 58 wickets for the First XI as a 17-year-old in 1955. Paul was to feature in a rather unusual dispute which brought the Club into conflict with the league authorities in 1967. Despite his being a professional at St Anne’s in the Northern League at that time, Rocca was selected to represent his “parent club” in an Eastham Shield match against Newton Heath - in the Second XI! Perhaps the fact that the Shield had been donated by Thornham stalwart Jack Eastham 30 inspired the Club’s burning ambition to bring it “home”, and Rocca’s 8 for 22 in dismissing Newton Heath for just 50 played a major part in the victory that day. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Newton Heath objected. Professionals, they argued, were barred from Second XI games. The management committee agreed, unable to accept that Rocca was not a professional in their league (in fact, Thornham did not have a registered professional at that time) and therefore, despite his credentials, eligible for Second XI cricket. The result was nullified, and the game rearranged. Thornham handsomely won the replay, even without Paul’s services, but failed to progress much further in the competition. Another brush with authority, in the form of reformed Public Health requirements, made it clear that Thornham would only be able to survive if a new pavilion was built. The existing bar, kitchen, toilet and eating facilities were by now woefully unsatisfactory, and - in a scenario very familiar to our 2018 membership - the quest to finance a replacement of the existing structure began. It would be constructed to the rear of the wooden tea pavilion on the Rochdale Road side of the ground. A subscription list achieved £250 and a Christmas Fair in 1964 brought in a similar amount, but the funding of the new pavilion, erected in 1963, occupied minds for some years after its unveiling, and it was only as Centenary Year arrived that the interior neared completion
This structure was demolished in 2017, as the 150th anniversary of the Club marked the development of its predecessor.
The first century of Thornham ended on a satisfyingly triumphant note.
The First XI might not have captured league honours since the famous 1949 season, but the Second XI became North Western League Second Division Champions for the first time, under the captaincy of Doctor A. J. (Tony) Crook, ensuring that a championship flag flew over Thornham during its Centenary Year. The year of celebrations was described at the 1968 AGM - with typical understatement - as “a reasonable centenary year”. Such coolness may well have had much to do with two catastrophic events during the year: Club stalwart Nick Rocca had tragically passed away at the start of the year, and immediately after the season ended, fire gutted the 1914 pavilion, in which the ground machinery was now stored. Groundwork would have to focus on the clearing of charred remains and foundations rather than the ground improvements envisaged. The fire exposed the potentially destructive pitfalls facing village clubs like Thornham, and Fire Fund was established, soon giving rise to the “200 Club” which was to secure the financial future of the Thornham for years to come. A determined recruitment drive for 200 Club members followed, aided by the enticement of a significant final award on Week 52: a Hillman Super Imp car would be the first prize!
Every cloud has its own silver lining, however, and in Thornham’s case it was the insurance cover of the machinery and playing tackle destroyed by the fire. By the 1979 AGM, the Club was said to have “greatly benefited from the strength of the insurance companies” which “gave us the best ground tackle in the league - the contents of our groundsman’s hut being the envy of all”! While the First XI had a disappointing side, particularly given their “on paper” potential, it had been another successful season for the Second XI who finished third in the league - their highest post-war finish, and won the knock-out cup for their section. Amid increasing concerns about weaknesses in the administration of the North Western League, the Management Committee started to expand their horizons, applying to participate in both the National Village Cricket Competition and the Lancashire Federation Knock-Out Competition, and receiving acceptance for being included in the draw for each by 1972.
By October of 1971 severe reservations about the future of the North Western League were being voiced, and the Club Treasurer was co-opted to a similar position in the league to assist, but the Club’s mind was made up: increased efforts would be made to secure a position in a fresh league. There were three alternatives: the Central Lancashire League, the Saddleworth League and the newly formed, two division Lancashire and Cheshire League. It was decided to apply to both Saddleworth and Lancashire and Cheshire Leagues, and the latter enthusiastically accepted the application, for admission for the start of the 1973 season. At a time when players carry enormous quantities of their own kit, it seems quaint to reflect on a time - not so distant in the memories of those of us of a certain vintage - when a “team kit bag” would be the source of communal gloves, pads and bats. Indeed up to this time, the home side would provide kit for their own side and visitors. Changing times are reflected in a minute of the November Committee meeting of 1971, “that we support Woodhouses’ proposal and provide our own pads for away games”! The shift to a new league would involve a much greater step change in the Club’s evolution than the provision of its own leg protection, however. The Club would begin life in the L&CCL in the second division, and it was considered an imperative to gain promotion as soon as possible, to entice players wishing to compete in a higher quality of cricket, and preparations for the change focused largely on the ground. This was to prove enormously fulfilling and tremendously frustrating in nearly equal measure, as we shall see.