Rugby legend: Phil Kitchin and some of his rugby memorabiliaThe man whose silky stand-off skills made him a crowd favourite at the Recreation Ground and Derwent Park during the 60s would like nothing more than both his old clubs to rise to future glories in their own right.
He is extremely worried about the exodus of so many outstanding young footballers from the area like Hornets youngster James Donaldson pictured.
Phil, himself a teenage prodigy at Kells, envisages only one real solution to arrest the talent drain: one strong combined “super” club for West Cumbria. A club not only good enough to hold its own in Super League but certainly one that the most promising local youngsters will want to aspire to play for.
With so many outsiders asking ‘why can’t Cumbria have one combined team playing in Super League?’ Phil says: “I can’t see the reason why we can’t. The county side I played in came up against the cream of Lancashire and Yorkshire and regularly beat them.”
His own aspirations wouldn’t necessarily mean the demise of either Whitehaven and Workington as separate entities.
Why not, he suggests, have two “feeder” clubs competing at a lower level still playing competitive rugby bringing youngsters through for a top tier West Cumbrian side?
“Why should we keep developing great young players just to go and play for Wigan, St Helens, Bradford, Hull and the likes?” he asks.
The views of Whitehaven RLFC’s new honorary president, Phil’s views are entirely personal in what he sees as the best interests of Cumbrian RL, for which he graced for so long both as an international player and successful coach.
He’s also 100 per cent behind plans for the Whitehaven community sports stadium which he hopes one day will host crowd-pulling Super League matches.
Could he ever see the two West Cumbrian clubs coming together to give Cumbria the strongest possible Super League side, considering the way the goal posts have changed since the original merger proposals caused so much strife?
He replied: “I think so..... for the talent we keep producing alone.
“Bearing in mind there is limited talent and much of it is being taken out of the county, that’s the only way we will keep youngsters – having a joint team going to go into Super League. We haven’t an argument at the moment, not where keeping good youngsters is concerned.
“To keep the talent we’ve got to go for the combined option, as much as some people still might not like it; we’re losing too many promising players.
“At junior level, in every age group, apart from their own competitions, Copeland and Allerdale play as West Cumbria.”
What about the idea of playing alternatively at Whitehaven and Workington? “It would be a start,” says Kitchin.
“Things have to be talked about, not argued – once you get into argument you’ve forgotten how to talk.”
While previous amalgamation moves have caused so much dissent, Phil says: “Personally, I thought it was the only way forward even then.
“At the end of the day all we want is a top team, get one going and ideally keep the two present ones, allied to it as feeder clubs for West Cumbria, not for Lancashire and Yorkshire, even London. It has to be something the public buys into. Easily said but we have to make it happen.”
As a trustee of Copeland Sports Stadium (Cumbria Academy of Sport) Phil Kitchin recognises the previous conflicts which have arisen over where a new community sports stadium ought to be.
By the same token he appreciates that Haven’s future and perhaps that of West Cumbria as a whole lies in the development of the planned Pow Beck stadium.
“Hopefully they’ll be laying the first brick before too long,” he says.
“It’s what everybody wants to see, it’s been going on that bloomin’ long.”
One of the few to have played in a Cumbrian side good enough to beat Australia, Kitchin would love to see a re-born county team.
“Lancashire and Yorkshire played against each other in the so-called State of Origin type games, that went right down the bloomin’ hatch and Cumbria was left for dead. Now, next month, we’re going to get England playing The Exiles who in years ago would have been Other Nationalities. For me, at the end of the day the Great Britain or England team should play the likes of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria – just look how well Cumbria did against England in the Garry Purdham Memorial game. Just look at the crowd which turned up.
“Cumbrian lads raise their levels so high in these representative games. Pride bursts out of their chests, the crowd alone lifts them.”
Kitchin made his Cumberland (scoring) debut as a 19-year-old alongside legends such as Dick Huddart, Syd Lowdon, Bill McAlone, Brian Edgar and Ike Southward.
“We played Yorkshire at Whitehaven. Don Wilson was loose forward that night, Sol Roper scrum-half, me stand-off. Bobby Vincent put me over for an easy try, Dick Huddart was actually in the centre but it didn’t stop the great second rower scoring a hat-trick of tries even though his opposite number was Neil Fox.
“When we played in the old County Championship it was a mix of largely local stars (Ike Southward, Brian Edgar and Sol Roper) mixing with the likes of Dick Huddart and the Drake twins who would come up from St Helens and Hull for the honour of turning out for Cumberland.”
Phil Kitchin, at the age of 15, followed his dad down Haig Pit, trained practically every day on the Kells Welfare Ground, won a place in the all-conquering Kells side of the late 50s and was snapped up by Whitehaven after captaining England under-18s.
What would a 15-year-old Phil Kitchin do today? “I’d have to say I think I would have been away, the same as these kids today, especially when they are also getting the chance to move to a big club and keep up their education at the same time. Bingo, you are suddenly among the best in the coun-try, it’s the only way forward for the kids as things stand until something happens here to give them the chance to play at a higher level.
“What’s forgotten sometimes is that it’s the local junior clubs who foster this talent to make Super League clubs want to sign up the kids at such an early age.
“All I ever wanted was to play for Whitehaven.
“Leigh were keen to sign me. I remember a cheque book being place on the table in our house but it was Whitehaven for me. All my heroes were there, the Huddarts, McAlones and McKeowns.”
Kitch is nows now “a president” twice over – he already holds a similar position in the BARLA West Cumbria Youth League.
Before accepting the Whitehaven presidency from the late Mr Richard Woodall, Phil consulted wife Brenda, and “Spanky”, John McFarlane, lifetime friend, team mate and fellow Kells Ender.
“Spanky phoned and said ‘Do I have to salute or what?’ – we’ve had a good laugh about it!” he joked.
“In the end I told Ralph (Calvin) I would be highly honoured to take the job on. They’ve already had me on my feet meeting sponsors and making little speeches about the games.”
With Haven bidding, along with Town, to get a place in a proposed extended Championship proper next season, Phil says: “We’ve got to get into it, the division we’re in now is a backwater but you’ve got to have the talent along with a bit of money to add the extras as I call them to give you a real sporting chance.
“Reaching those two Grand Finals gave us just a flicker of the taste. It was good and it’s what we have to aspire to again.”
Since Phil Kitchin’s halcyon days there’s a big difference in the way talented young footballers find a pathway into the professional code.
He reflects: “Now it is as much about Academy sides and Scholarships, young players soon get noticed and suddenly they’re off before even playing for their home town clubs.”
Kitchin himself joined Whitehaven as a teenager from one of Cumberland’s most successful Cumberland junior teams – Kells – and made his way up through Whitehaven’s A team.
But one thing hasn’t changed over the years – it’s all about finding and grooming talent, he insists.
Phil himself coached a Whitehaven team in the old First Division, losing matches against the cream of the game by only a few points but still got the sack, it still rankles (and hurts) a little!
Nevertheless Kitch not only helped Cumberland win County Championships but coached a Cumbria side which won it as well.
“I was probably the only coach in the country at the particular time to beat New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and France.”
One of his most momentous playing feats was skippering Whitehaven to their triumph over New Zealand at The Recre in 1965.
Another was being a key member of the Bill Holliday-led Cumberland team which toppled a Test strength Australian line up (Johnny Raper & Co) on Derwent Park a year later.
“We won the County Championship that year which is why we would be given the game against The Kangaroos, which tends to prove a point.”
Phil’s own Test selection came against New Zealand in ‘65-66 beating the Kiwis in the first Test at Swinton in 1965 but he reflects: “I actually enjoyed playing for Great Britain under-24s better.
“We went to Toulouse and beat France 17-5; Doug Laughton was in our pack, in the backs was Ken Senior, Keith’s dad and we didn’t even have the chance to play in our own jerseys – someone forget to bring the England strip.”
His one and only full Test appearance also rankles.
Frank Myler was playing centre outside Kitchin and the story still goes that Phil got only one pass from his scrum-half Tommy Smales but all the same conditions were grim and not great for Grandstand viewers even though Britain won.
Recalls Phil: “Alan Cave wrote in the old Daily Herald that ‘this kid Kitchin deserves another chance’....it never came.”
A bad groin injury over the next few months probably dashed Phil’s chance of going on the ‘66 Tour of Australia with Brian Edgar.
Achievements outweighed any disappointments – being officially ranked as Whitehaven’s best-ever stand-off (The Immortals) and one of the first members of the club’s Hall of Fame is pretty satisfying alone.
“Finishing my career at Whitehaven and getting involved with BARLA was fantastic for me, doing what I like to do.... coaching, especially young players.”
Paul Sculthorpe was just one big name to benefit from the Kitchin know-how along with some notable Cumbrian lads.
“I had three wonderful trips to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.”
Later, with demise of RL in West Cumbrian schools, it was Kitchin, alongside Paul Charlton and the late Ron Morgan.
“We advertised in The Whitehaven News for kids to come down to the Recreation Ground on the old whippet field and on the first night I think we had 76 kids from all over – but only one rugby ball!
“I said: ‘Charlo, what the hell are we going to do now?’ We set the kids off on a lap round the ground. Next day I went out and bought a coaching manual.
“It’s also a question of how to put it over and organise as well as know how. Look at Phil Larder, Phil played under me at Whitehaven, he couldn’t really tackle but went on to coach Great Britain and help win the RU World Cup for England.”
Phil played with some fine scrum halves, from Sol Roper to his friend Dave Hazeldon, but fondly remembers playing for Town alongside the former Irish and British Lions golden boy, the late Ken Goodall.
Now his focus is on helping to build RL at Whitehaven in particular and West Cumbrian RL in general.
“Presidency brings its rewards – such as a good crack with David Seeds after the game...and talking to the sponsors,” he laughs.