ALL-ROUND sportsman Eric Fitzsimons, a former player and coach at Oldham RLFC, has died in Springfield Park Nursing Home, Rochdale after a long battle with dementia. He was 69.
A local man, he played football, rugby league and basketball to professional or semi-professional level and he was also well known in this area as a local schoolteacher.
The Rev Tony Ford, Oldham RLFC chaplain, said:
“Lots of local people, particularly those who were involved in sport when they were young, owe a great deal to Eric for the help he gave them as mentor and teacher. I know. I was one of them.
“He was more like a mate than a schoolteacher. He was a top sportsman, a top teacher and a friend to scores of young people.
“He would help anybody — a true gentleman, too.”
In 1986 Eric and two other local teachers, Iain MacCorquodale and the late Fred Laughton, took a party of Oldham schoolboys to the other side of the world on an ambitious rugby league tour of New South Wales and Queensland.
As a promising young soccer player he was courted by Everton. His Goodison Park dream never materialised, but he went on to play for Oldham Athletic, Bury, Hyde United and Bradford (Park Avenue), who were then still in the Football League.
When they were voted out of the League he was at a sporting crossroads and two other local schoolteachers who were Oldham RLFC players at Watersheddings, Phil Larder and Dave Fricker, suggested he should test himself at rugby league.
Said Rev Tony:
“It suited Eric because rugby league in Oldham schools was big in those days and he felt a knowledge of the game would be hugely beneficial to him as a local PE teacher.”
Eric took his boots to Watersheddings, learned how to kick an oval ball as opposed to a round ball and the rest, as they say, is history.
He became an established rugby league winger and goalkicker, landing 127 goals and scoring 11 tries for Oldham in his 46 senior games between 1979 and 1981.
He later played at Hunslet, but it was when he returned to his home-town club as coach a few years later that he really made his name in rugby league.
As head coach at Watersheddings in 1987-88, with Iain MacCorquodale and Mal Graham as his assistants, he led Roughyeds to the Second Division championship and then guided them to Division Two premiership success at Old Trafford.
Picking up their second trophy that season, the squad coached by Fitzsimons beat Featherstone Rovers 28-26 in a thriller at the Theatre of Dreams.
They lost only four of their 28 league games to finish top, ahead of Featherstone and Wakefield Trinity.
They also reached the semi-final of the John Player Trophy, beating Fulham, Bradford Northern, Batley and Warrington before losing 18-8 to St Helens in the semi at Wigan.
That was forgotten by the time they lifted the Second Division crown at Old Trafford thanks to a late try by winger Kevin Meadows.
That was the pinnacle of Eric’s coaching career and he achieved it with this line-up: Burke; Round, Foy, McAlister, Meadows; Walsh, Ford; Sherratt, Sanderson, Waddell, Hawkyard, Graham, Flanagan. Subs: Irving, Warnecke.
Sincere condolences from everyone at Oldham RLFC.