Second only to Eric Harris as a try-scorer; third to John Holmes and Fred Webster in respect of appearances; twenty Finals, and sixteen of them won:John’s record at Club level alone is impressive. Add twenty-six appearances for Great Britain, eleven for England in the World and European Championships, four County Championship medals from his fifteen games with Yorkshire, and his Opus 1965-82 becomes a Rugby League classic of mammoth proportions.
Nor is the source of inspiration hard to divine, the seeds being sown by a couple of courageous, diving tries from his Uncle George (Broughton) in the 1957 Semi-Final against Whitehaven at Odsal. Wembley magic did the rest, with ten-year-old John’s ambition beanstalk-high and still climbing, even as he watched the Loiners do their lap of honour. Thereafter, for all that his natural all-round athleticism embraced a wide spectrum of sporting activities at Iveson House C.P. School, West Park Secondary Modern and Moor Grange, his love of rugby remained paramount, so that but for a Rugby Union bias at the latter two schools he would doubtless have merited Leeds Schools’ R.L. honours, to set alongside those for Athletics and Boxing.
Schooldays over, three years were to elapse with Roundhay R. U. before the briefest of press announcements in May 1965 confirmed that his boyhood dreams were one stage nearer fulfilment: Yorkshire Rugby Union trialist John Atkinson signed for Leeds yesterday. Halifax and Oldham were also interested in the wing three-quarter. Not that his debut some ten months later was a low-key affair, two tries against York at Headingley reflecting his unquestioned potential as a finisher of outstanding pace. Indeed, had he been partnered from the outset by a feeding centre of the calibre of Jeff Moores his rise to fame would surely have been no less meteoric than that of Eric Harris.
As it was, he had to wait another season for a regular first team place, but quickly made up for lost time, despite a stutter of self-doubt in 1968-69. 340 tries … match-winning tries that seized on a ghost of a chance and exorcised the spectre of defeat … run-of-the-mill tries … tries of colour-laden artistry that transformed a drab backcloth of monotonous midfield mediocrity into a field of the cloth of gold … tries out of the blue … tries that reduced panting forwards, bent on mayhem, to flat-footed flounders of fractious futility … tries that only he could score … tries that throng the mind with unforgettable memories … tries that really counted … W embley … Odsal. ..Naughton Park … Fartown … Headingley … Central Park .. .
Yet the one gem above all others came early in his career, in the first half of the R.L. Cup Semi-Final clash with Wigan at Station Road in 1968 … a storming run by Bill Ramsey … a long pass to cut out a man, even as Billy Boston charged infield in vain, to make one of his bone-crushing crash-tackles … and John was away, gliding sinuously past the first wave of the cover, and then leaving full-back Colin Tyrer and the lunging Webb to collide in his wake as he strode to the line, for Bev Risman to add the goal. A try out of this world, that set the champagne corks popping and hitched his wagon to the stars.
Of the fifteen Finals contested by the Loiners between 1968 and 1975, he missed not one and scored in eight of them. As for international honours, during that same period he made four trips to Australasia and attained the unique distinction of being the only player to participate in three World Cup Competitions and a World Championship.
After eight incredibly successful years, to sustain a badly broken ankle ina League match versus Wigan at Headingley on 24th March 1976, and then a fractured wrist when his crutches slipped, was cruel luck indeed. Yet what matter the road to recovery developed into a nine-month marathon, thereby ruling him out of the only Final he ever missed (against Featherstone in the Yorkshire Cup), by Christmas, John was back in the groove and soon heading down the Wembley trail to more than earn his winner’s medal, with two 2nd Round tries versus Barrow, one in the Semi-Final versus St Helens, and another against Widnes in the Final.
Pride in personal fitness had triumphed over crippling adversity; ironically, just five months later, it was dented pride in personal performance that prompted him to announce his retirement in a moment of agonising selfreproach, following a traumatic defeat at the hands of Wigan in the 1st Round of the John Player Competition. Whatever chinks there may have been from time to time in his defensive armour, for him to have a rare off-day and concede a hat-trick to Green Vigo was no more than a seven-day sensation; whereas for Leeds, and the game in general, to have lost the services of a worldclass winger would have been a major tragedy.
Retire? Perish the thought! Before long he was ‘running a temperature’ like the rest as the Loiners set off once more down the Wembley trail … two tries in the 1st Round … a couple more, including a 75-yard thriller against Bradford Northern in the 3rd … and then, in the Final, the vital touchdown that sparked the recovery against St Helens.
Retire? Further honours made a mockery of the very idea:
1978-79 – 2nd Test v Australia at Odsal; 3rd at Headingley; Premiership winners
1979-80 – Reluctantly declined selection for the 1979 Tour; Yorkshire Cup winners.
1980-81 – 3rd Test v New Zealand at Headingley; Yorkshire Cup winners
Over the years, John had always been a one-club man, repeatedly turning a deaf ear to lucrative offers from leading clubs in Australia. All the more staggering, therefore, was the decision in 1982 to transfer his allegiance to Carlisle, with whom he was to make twenty appearances and serve as coach for three years from February 1983.