Remembrance Day Sunday

On 27th September 1917, just over one hundred years ago, Leigh football hero Paddy O’Neill was killed in action on the battlefields of Flanders.

He left behind his family in Brunswick Street and a host of memories for the fans of Leigh Rugby League Club who idolised him.

On 30th September 1916 almost a year before his death Paddy had returned home on leave from the front and played for his old club, Leigh in a war-time friendly against Broughton Rangers at Mather Lane.

He won the man of the match accolade as Leigh won 14-0 and was cheered from the field as the game ended in the sunlight of a late summer evening.

And now he was dead.

The news sent shockwaves throughout the town and affected everyone despite the numbing feeling that years of bad news from the battlefields had already inflicted.

It is for Paddy O’Neill and his brave comrades that Leigh Centurions directors, staff and players will assemble on Sunday at Leigh Cenotaph and as the Parish Church clock strikes eleven and the sound of the bugler’s Last Post fades into the crisp morning air they will mark the simple and moving ceremony with the laying of a wreath.

We will remember them.

Paddy O’Neill was a Leigh Irishman, a giant of a man, a footballing great.

He was one of the greatest forwards to ever play for Leigh.

In the 1905-06 season he was at his peak as Leigh won the Championship for the first time in the club’s history.

Fearless, strong and clever he had great footballing ability and could cover in any position.

A collier at the Nook Pit in Tyldesley he often played for Leigh with the pit dirt still on his brow, finishing a 12-hour shift in the cramped and dangerous conditions underground, hewing at the coalface a mile or two from the surface then emerging into the chill of a winter’s afternoon to uphold the pride of the town in battle on the rugby field.

In 1911 he was transferred to Dewsbury, news which was greeted with great dismay by the Leigh supporters.

Somehow he continued with his work as a miner that was combined with travelling over the Pennines by train for training and matches at Crown Flatt.

Less than a year after joining Dewsbury O’Neill helped them to arguably the greatest moment in their history. Dewsbury lifted the Challenge Cup with their victory over Oldham in the final.

Come the war O’Neill carried on his work as a miner until he answered the call of King and Country, joining the Royal Garrison Artillery. His training over, he was sent to the Front in 1916 with the battle raging at its fiercest.

Paddy O’Neill had volunteered to lead a rationing party to the battery during a period of heavy bombardment when he was struck by a shell. He died within two or three minutes from terrible injuries. His commanding officer wrote that he was a very brave soldier and highly popular among his comrades.

Just as he had on the rugby field Paddy O’Neill showed bravery, leadership and teamwork. He was fearless and strong, in his prime. He was 37 and left a widow and two children.

His son Stanley carried on supporting Leigh and Paddy’s brother James, also an ex-Leigh player, helped bring him up. In 1921 Stanley and his pet dog were the Leigh mascots as the club fought through to the Challenge Cup Final.

They defeated Halifax at the Cliff in Broughton, winning 13-0, one of the greatest days in the club’s history. Stanley operated the old scoreboard at the Mather Lane ground. In the mid 1920s a young boy approached him and asked him if he needed any help.

“Please,” Stanley replied. “You do the away scores and I’ll do the home ones.”

A great friendship was born that endured for many years.

That young boy was Tommy Sale.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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