RUGBY league has been in Tony Barrow’s blood ever since he first picked up a ball on the Vine Field in Nutgrove as a six-year-old and 70 years later he remains as passionate as ever for the 13-man code.

A long chat with Tony is enlightening – not simply because he can reminisce with crystal clarity about times past, but he draws on that wealth of experience and knowledge to give his understanding of the modern game, its players and a pathway for the future.

Tony had a long career in the game as a player with Saints and then Leigh, where he was part of the Wembley winning team in 1971, before coaching at the Hilton Park club, Huyton, Warrington, Oldham and a number of jobs at Swinton.

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Tony Barow on the Saints bench at Wembley in 1966

Often modern-day observers and pundits make the mistake of seeing the game as something that happened post Super League’s start in 1996, while some old school die-hards do the exact reverse.

Although Tony’s best years in the game as both player and coach were before the full time era, he does not put a wall between the eras and exudes a positive outlook that gives plenty of food for thought.

Tony’s family pedigree in the game is as strong as anyone’s in the game with brothers Frank and Billy also playing first team up at Saints.

That record of three brothers donning the Saints first team jersey is a distinction the Barrows share with the Karalius, Cunningham and Creevey families.

The Barrows early skills were taught and honed on the playing fields of the Thatto Heath/Nutgrove area.

Although born in 1944 and growing up when the country was going through post-war austerity, all he and his pals needed was a ball and a patch of grass.

Tony said: “In the old days we had nothing else - I was brought up on it and all we did was play rugby, from being 6 and 7 we went out to play the game.

“We used to play on the Vine Field/Brown Edge field at the top and we learned how to catch a ball, pick it up on the run and all the little bits of skill.

“In a lot of ways you were self-taught because we played it that much.

“Every time we were off school we were on the Vine field playing rugby.

“On a Sunday afternoon, when the pubs emptied out at 2.30, all the blokes used to spill on the Vine Field to play rugby – me and our Frank, used to join in.

“We were tackling grown men when we were aged 12 and 13 – and that is where we learned how to play the game.

“There was nothing to the tackling – we adopted the old adage, the bigger they come the harder they fall.”

The three Barrows were schooled at the famous rugby league nursery of St Austin’s in Thatto Heath, and Tony rattled off the rugby league alumni Austin Rhodes, Alex Murphy, Jimmy Swift, Tommy Finn and later on Salford’s Billy Sheffield.

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Almost 70 years on, Tony still recalls his first competitive game for the school – even the inauspicious start as an eight-year-old.

“St Austin’s had reached the final against Parr Central, and it was a big game being played at Pilks Recs City Road ground and our Frank, who was a year older, was in the team.

“On the morning of the match, headmaster Gerry Landers, a real task master who Murph talks quite a lot about, called me over and told me, ‘Go home and get your kit. Tommy Clarey is ill and can’t play so you are playing centre’.

“I had never played a competitive game and had never been on a big field, so I was frightened to death.

“I dropped the first ball – but after that I was all right, even though we got beat 10-6.

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Frank Barrow - Wembley 1966

“Murph was playing for Lancashire at under 15s, he was scrum half and Jackie Edwards was stand off – our game was the curtain raiser and there was a massive crowd on.

“We were just brought up with rugby – if you didn’t play rugby there was something wrong with you,” he said.

There was a natural progression for those with a natural talent and work ethic from here with Tony following in Frank’s footsteps in playing for the St Helens Schoolboys team.

From there they joined the St Helens C amateur team which played against teams like Blackbrook and Bold, but was run by Saints.

Tony took a slightly different route – but he soon got back on the familiar path.

“After playing for St Helens schools I was persuaded to play at Moss Lane but I only lasted four months – I’d had enough and didn’t like rugby union so I came back to league with the Saints C team,” Tony said.

Saints scrutinised the C Team closely and would sign the best players – but not all of them.

“When the Saints Chairman signed our Frank he gave him £150 with £350 coming after six first team games.

“Then you would get a blazer after 10 first team games and that was your contract.

“When I came along, they said, ‘You will get exactly the same as your brother,’ You take it because all you wanted to do was play for Saints.

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Billy Barrow with Saints B

“Our Bill came along five years after – and we had all signed for Saints – and then later on we all ended up at Leigh.

“Bill was a cracking hooker and was like lightning with his feet and that was the old days when you had to hook the ball. Unfortunately, he had a bad accident at work and that finished him,” he said.

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Frank is working at Gavin Murrays with former Saints' hooker Dave Harrison

Whereas Frank had established himself as the rock solid full back, Tony’s versatility meant he slotted into a number of positions across the three-quarter line in his 112 appearances in the red vee.

He scored on his Saints debut against Featherstone in April 1963, one of 38 he would score for the Saints.

Among those other scores was a touchdown in the 1966 Championship Final win over Halifax which came the week after being non-playing sub in Saints Wembley win over Wigan.

Tony left Saints for Leigh in 1970, where he partnered player-coach Alex Murphy in the halves when the minnows pulled off a Wembley shock against Leeds in 1971.

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Tony Barrow, to the left of Alex Murphy, in the centre of the picture in 1971.

In the rebuilding job that followed Murphy’s departure to Warrington and subsequent sale of some key players, the three brothers were re-united at Hilton Park with veteran Frank joining from Saints.

With Tony and Frank in the side, Leigh went and won the 1972 BBC2 Floodlit Final against Widnes – collecting the only medal that eluded the eldest Barrow from his time at Saints.

“I was going great in that 72/73 season and I was in the shadow squad for Great Britain and – picked in the training squad and was loving playing loose forward then.

“I played against Saints at Knowsley Road in the top eight play-offs in April 1973 and I broke my leg and that was it.

“Saints had kicked off and I was running the ball in when Jeff Heaton tackled me around the legs. Someone came over the top of me and I saw them coming so I turned.

“Unfortunately, my studs stuck in the ground and I spun a 360 degree turn and basically my leg dropped off at the knee.

“I had dislocated my lower leg and all the knee ligaments were snapped. I never played again.

“Luckily, they fixed me up good enough so that I could coach, but in this day and age I’d have probably been able to play again.

“I was 29 then and playing the best rugby of my career – but it is one of those things that just happen – that’s rugby.

“I went out that day and there was nobody as happy as me, everything was going well for me and then it was gone in one tackle,” he said.

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He was in a cast for eight months and when he finally recovered, two years later, Tony went as assistant coach to Les Pearce at Leigh, and then under Eddie Cheetham where his duties involved running the A Team.

When that job ended, he went to assist Geoff Fletcher at the Alt Park home of perennial strugglers Huyton.

But then in 1978 he got the A team job with Billy Benyon at Warrington, with whom he had worked with as a joiner in the real world. He was at Wilderspool for 10 years alongside Benyon, Kevin Ashcroft and Reg Bowden before becoming head coach between 1986-88, a period he describes as “great fun”.

From there stints at Oldham and Swinton took him into the new millennium, combining his rugby with his job as a site manager. Fittingly, he was heavily involved in the work building Saints’ Langtree Park stadium.

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He had kept involved with Saints in the modern game, being involved as the MC in the restaurant on match days in the final years of Knowsley Road and when on the road at Widnes. He also grabbed the first ever interview with then new signing Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook on his first visit to the club in 2010.

Although he can dip into the past and tell tales of the old days, Tony transfers that knowledge and experience into the modern era – and has plenty still to say about the game he loves.

The subject of giving young players early opportunities – like Lewis Dodd and Jack Welsby at Saints – comes up.  A pair who have bucked the trend of coaches being very conservative at pitching in the youth at senior level.

“I made my first team debut at 18, but our Frank was 17. Murph toured Australia with Great Britain at 18.

“Now you hear folk saying Player X is only a young lad when he’s 21 or 22!

“You wanted to be regular first team at 22,” he said.

“I signed Tommy Martyn at Oldham when he was only 17 and when I played him in the Second Division Premiership Final against Hull KR at Old Trafford in 1990 people said, ‘You are taking there, aren’t you?’

“And I said no, because he’s talented.

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Tommy Martyn

“Tommy had a favourite trick of chipping over the head to run around and collect. I told him, ‘If you think you can do it, then do it’.

“I am only using Tommy as one example here – but I did not buy any player to change the way that they play. I bought them BECAUSE of the way they play.

“The game is very structured nowadays and not as off-the-cuff,” he said.

Although he does adhere to the adage of ‘if you are good enough, you are old enough’, he does have his own thoughts on the modern scholarship system which brings youth into the club system from a young age.

And his main concern with that is what happens to those later developers, who face rejection and then hang up their boots before they have even left school.

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“In this day and age they are bringing them in from ages 12-13, but I don’t see where that is good and think they should stay with their junior sides and then at 16 if they are good enough, then sign them.

“I say leave them at their junior clubs and let them enjoy the game.

“We lose a lot of young players by being disheartened. A pal of mine has a grandson who was playing at Warrington for five years – and at 16 was dumped.

“His response was to say ‘that’s it – I am not playing again,’ and he is out of rugby league and lost to the game.

“We end up losing players to the game under this system.

“If they had left him with his junior side then he’d have carried on playing and there’s such a thing as a late developer. You don’t see clubs now signing lads over 18.

“Johnny Walsh, one of the best centres Saints have ever had, only signed for Saints from Moss Bank amateurs when he was 21 and he was a late developer.

“When I coached at Swinton, and they played out of Bury Football Club at Gigg Lane, you saw that football is different again and they are getting the kids in at six and seven years of age and ditching them at 10. Young lads coming out of the ground crying their eyes out, well I don’t see where that helps,” he said.

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Tony still enjoys the game - even though he longs for better marketing and media coverage. And on the field would like to see the rucks cleared up and those who bend the rules to slow it down sorted out.

"I like the six again rule - but when they are infringing on play one, they should add the six tackles on to the end. If they made it 12 tackles to defend they would soon clean up their act," he said.

But on the whole he remains as committed to the game as he has ever been. 

"It is the best thing in the world," he said.

"You learn your discipline and everything about it is only good I would encourage everybody to get their kids playing any sport, but especially rugby league."