1st September 2018
The concurrence of the Rugby League and Association Football seasons for most of the 20th Century suggests that one would struggle to find players who had combined the oval ball with the spherical one at the professional level. However, there is one example from over a century ago which is quite remarkable.
David “Dai” Davies, born in Llanelli in 1880, was a teenage rugby prodigy. He was a member of his home town rugby union side that lost only one of its 31 matches under the captaincy of Owen Badger in the 1896-97 season, playing at half-back. He signed for Swinton (for £20) in 1899, playing his first match in a winning side at Widnes. (Badger had preceded him to Swinton, having signed for £75 in 1897, though he had subsequently returned to Wales).
Within a year, Davies was a member of a victorious Northern Rugby Football Union Challenge Cup final team. Swinton won the trophy on 28th April 1900 by defeating Salford 16-8 at the Fallowfield Stadium in Manchester, Davies himself scoring one of Swinton’s four tries.
The following Monday’s Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser reported that the final had been “a great struggle” on “a fine day of bright sunshine with a breezy coldness in the air”. A “vast crowd of good-humoured and light-hearted sportsmen” – just under 18,000 paying spectators – had seen Davies score “a clever try”, which had been the last of the match and taken Swinton to their unassailable lead. However, perhaps the key moment in the game had been in the first half when, after a “regrettable incident” of “rough play”, the Salford forward William Brown was sent from the field.
In his authoritative Rugby’s Great Split (1998), Tony Collins has reported that the Swinton players’ winning bonuses ran to ten shillings in the first round, £1 in the subsequent rounds and £5 in the final. These were the rewards, therefore, for accounting for Eastmoor, Holbeck, Oldham, Broughton Rangers and Leeds Parish Church before the victory over Salford.
As ever, the contemporary newspaper reports enable us to place this major sporting occasion within its proper context. The dominant feature of this edition of the Manchester Courier was its detailed update on the progress of “The War” – the Second Boer War (1899-1902) – under a series of stirring sub-headings: “Fighting North of Bloemfontein”, “Dalgety’s Dramatic Stand”, “The Flight of the Boers”…
Remarkably, Dai Davies changed sports in 1902 and played for the next seven years in goal for Bolton Wanderers. What prompted his shift in allegiance is not clear – especially as he is reported to have had no previous experience of soccer at all – though one suspects that household economics came into it. He married Annie Salt in 1902 and they were to have a son the following year Tony Collins notes that, in the early years of the century, rugby league was in a generally poor financial state, whilst soccer was enjoying a boom period.
Bolton were relegated to the Second Division at the end of Davies’s first season, but they reached the FA Cup final in April 1904, when they were beaten by Manchester City. Another Welshman, Billy Meredith, scored the game’s only goal. The Bolton Evening News reported that “Davies made one or two daring saves that at once made him popular… [though] he was helpless with Meredith’s scoring shot”.
As he guarded the Bolton goal, Davies must have had a clear awareness of the contrast in the size of the respective sports’ premier events. The crowd at Crystal Palace was in excess of 61,000. Moreover, whereas the 1900 Challenge Cup had been presented to the winners by the wife of the President of the Northern Union, the guest of honour at the football showpiece was none other than the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour.
It was also in 1904 that Dai Davies became a soccer international, playing for Wales against Scotland and Ireland in the British Championships. He followed this up with an appearance against England at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham in 1908. The circumstances of the last of these were highly unusual for the time, as Davies, having only attended the match as a spectator, came on as a half-time substitute. The Welsh goalkeeper Leigh Roose was injured in the first half and Davies was allowed to fill in with the home side 0-4 down; the final score was 1-7. The Manchester Courier reported that, although he was beaten three times, he “brought off some capital saves”.
The soccer databases reveal that Davies played 123 times for Bolton Wanderers between 1902 and 1909: contemporary reports state that he was a “tough individual” who had an “indifference to cuts and bruises”. During this period, Bolton were the archetypal “yo-yo” side: promoted back to the First Division in 1905, relegated in 1908, promoted as Second Division champions in 1909. By the time of the next relegation in 1910, Davies had reverted back to rugby league, having re-signed for Swinton. He re-entered the team in a 0-16 defeat at home to Wigan on New Year’s Day.
Davies had represented his adopted county of Lancashire three times in 1900-01 and his return to rugby league brought him further honours. In December 1910 – playing with his brother and Swinton club colleague, Dan – he scored a try for the Wales side that lost to England by 13-39 in Coventry. (The England-Wales fixture was an regular event in the pre-First World War period, the former winning 7 of the 9 fixtures between 1908 and 1914). In the same month, Davies captained Swinton in their first Lancashire Cup final, when they were narrowly beaten by Oldham in Broughton.
The 1901 Census of England and Wales formally records the 20 year-old David Davies as a “fitter’s labourer” resident as a boarder in a house in Swinton. However, for the corresponding entry 10 years later, his sporting prowess was given full rein: a “publican and professional footballer” living in Salford with his wife Annie, younger brother Garfield and 8 year-old son, also Garfield.
In September 1913, Davies was transferred on a player exchange to Leigh for whom he made his debut (again against Wigan) that month in a game that, according to the Leigh Chronicle and Weekly District Advertiser, “provided a series of sensations which kept 9,000 spectators at fever pitch”. (An aside. The newspaper also provided a report on the reciprocal ‘A’-team match between Wigan and Leigh, where the attendance was no less than 3,000).
Although Wigan – with “a very strong Colonial and South Wales element in their team” (i.e. 4 New Zealanders and 5 Welshmen) – won the match 25-14, the Leigh Chronicle was clearly impressed with the local side’s new acquisition. Davies was “…a master of strategy… not only does he pass beautifully, but he has a tremendous kick with him”. Interestingly, the match report also referred to Davies’s build – which was sizeable for a half-back at 5 ft 11 ins and 13 stone – as being “very useful”.
Unfortunately, Davies’s career was brought to an end by injury not long afterwards. By the time of its end of season review in April 1914, the local newspaper had revised its opinion of the early-season player exchange: “Dai Davies… only played in about five matches. Leigh had the worst of the bargain by a long way”.
Davies remained in Lancashire in later life. He died in Salford in June 1944 at the age of 64, two months after the death of his wife. They are buried in Swinton Cemetery.
Dai Davies was not only a dual international in rugby league and soccer, but also a participant in the two major Cup Finals in these sports. His was a unique and extraordinary sporting career, the high-level versatility of which – arguably – approaches those of his near-contemporaries Andrew Stoddart (1863-1915) and CB Fry (1872-1956).
Today, it is Stoddart and Fry who are much better known. Their attainments were indeed mightily impressive – the former a dual captain of England at cricket and rugby (before the Great Split of 1895); the latter variously England cricketer and footballer, FA Cup runner-up with Southampton FC (in 1902, two years before Davies’s appearance in the final) and one-time world record holder for the long jump – and, unlike Davies, they duly have their column inches in the voluminous Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Of course, Dai Davies was operating in a different social milieu. By definition, his was not the world of the “Amateur” or the “Gentleman”, but the hard-nosed professional. It is clear that, in terms of national recognition for sporting achievement in that environment, the bar was deemed to have been set much higher.
The details of Dai Davies’s exploits are not lost, however. Some of the information presented here – rugby as well as football – comes from Gareth Davies and Ian Garland’s excellent Who’s Who of Welsh International Soccer Players (1991) and this has been supplemented by useful data sources such as Michael Joyce’s Football League Players Records, 1988 to 1939 (2004) and the splendid website of the Swinton Lions Supporters Trust (www.swintonlionsrlc.co.uk).
It is something of a detective exercise to put the complete picture together, however. Dai Davies’s is a remarkable story of sporting achievement and it deserves to be better known.