Like many another Hunslet youngster of his day, Frank Watson could no doubt recite the names of the Terrible Six long before he had mastered his ‘twelve times’. And why all the fuss about Alfred and a few burnt cakes, and 1066 and all that? Real history had started in 1908 with the winning of all four Cups!
Born on 6th January 1923, and given his nickname at Hunslet National whilst being introduced to the mysteries of scrum-half play by schoolmaster Raymond ‘Plum’ Hill, ‘Shanks’ went on to make his mark with Hunslet Schools’ R.L. and Hunslet Supporters, dreaming all the while of the day when he would cut loose down the blind-side in the coveted chocolate and white jersey, to a deafening Parkside crescendo of ‘We’ve swept the seas before boys’.
No idle dreamer! Nor was he reluctant to sink his individuality in the interests of the team. Signed as a 17-year-old professional on lOth September 1940, and always a credit to the jersey he wore, regardless of the number on the back, he served the Hunslet Club with self-effacing loyalty for nine years, making 185 appearances in all, and filling every back position except wing with commendable skill and unfailing enthusiasm.
Of medals during his time at Parkside, there was to be but one, and that for coming off second-best to Halifax in the 1944 Yorkshire Cup Final; of thrills, however, he had his share and more, notably in R.L. Cup-ties. A glorious 3rd round win at Salford in ’46, followed by that sensationally dramatic semi-final against Wakefield Trinity at Headingley, with a touch judge assaulted even as winger O’Neill, deaf to the referee’s whistle, sprinted three parts the length of the field in a vain bid to save the day, then the gruelling marathon in 1948, with Wembley no more than eighty minutes away after accounting for Widnes (three matches), Dewsbury (two) and Hull, yet only to be waylaid by Bradford Northern in the Semi-Final.
A remarkably relaxed, take-things-in-your-stride character, rather than ask for time off when he was chosen for a Tour Trial in 1946, Frank worked all through Tuesday night as a conductor on the Leeds all-night buses, dashed to Central Park after a hurried breakfast, played in the match, and then raced back home in time to go on all-night duty! In the same way, disappointed as he must have been some three years later to lose his favourite scrum-half berth to up-and-coming Alf ‘Ginger’ Burnell, he merely switched to centre with his customary good-nature, and deservedly finished up playing in that position for Yorkshire against Cumberland. Some player, and the salt of the earth, to boot!
Why look further afield? Why persist in chasing the unattainable? Desperately in need of a successor to Dai Jenkins, and down in the dumps after five successive defeats, Leeds crossed the river to get their man on Thursday, 29th September 1949. The signing was out of the blue, the timing controversial. A fortnight earlier, a Hunslet side reduced to eleven heroes, and two of them crippled, had put the Loiners to shame with an incredible death-or-glory victory at Headingley. Yet, now, within a couple of days of Secretary George Richardson paying the cheque for £1,650 into the bank, there was the very player they had just transferred, in his rightful position of scrum-half, and at Parkside of all places, striking up an instant relationship with stand-off Dicky Williams, bluffing his way down the blind-side from time to time by way of variation, putting in a variety of teasing kicks as occasion demanded, and fashioning tries for Arthur Staniland, T. L. Williams and Bob Bartlett. And all done with such slippered ease! Grimly silent were the terraces, sullen the unswept seas, as the men in blue and amber ran out worthy winners with eight points to spare.
A debut to remember; a standard to maintain! Slotting in perfectly, to complete Headingley’s team-building jigsaw, Frank showed amazingly consistent form over the next two years, matching his excellent base-of-the scrum technique with shrewd tactical know-how, and constantly breathing an air of cool confidence as he strove to bring out the best in the men around him.
Likeably modest and unpretentious, a Semi-Final triumph over Warrington in 1950, or Barrow in 1951, or better still both(!), would have been no more than he deserved, especially after his experiences in 1946 and 1948, but it was not to be, the visions of Wembley melting away like a mirage in a desert of despair and desolation. Needless to say, welcome as it undoubtedly was, a Yorkshire League Championship medal offered scant consolation.
Nor was there to be another bid for Cup Final glory. Laid low by a fractured ankle, sustained at Mount Pleasant on Christmas Day 1951, by the time Frank was ready for the fray the following September, Jeff Stevenson was already making a strong bid for the No 7 jersey and certainly had outstanding talent with which to press his claims. Not that the problem was insoluble. How could it be, with ‘Shanks’? Generously going out of his way to give the ‘young pretender’ every encouragement, and more than happy to turn out in either team as and when required, irrespective of position, he gave sterling service as ‘A’ team player-coach prior to joining Batley in a similar capacity in 1957.