I hope regular readers will forgive me for starting this account of Bill Rainford, Cables’ post-war captain, with an anecdote first published in March 2013 in my piece on Harry Boydell. It relates to the 1947-48 season, with teenager Harry selected for a home match against Chorley.
The Cables captain in those days was the fiery full-back Bill Rainford. ‘I’ll look after you,’ he promised Harry. The young Boydell was marked by a particularly brutal Chorley full-back whose strategy for the whippersnapper Cables winger was to try to kick him headfirst over the fence and into one of the Halsall Street backyards. Harry was carried off with a badly injured leg. Sitting on the treatment table in the Prescot dressing room a short time later he was joined by Bill Rainford. Bill had been sent off, the brutal Chorley full-back carried off. Rainford winked at Harry. ‘I told you I’d look after you!’
William (‘Bill’) Rainford was born within spitting distance of the Hope Street ground at 9 Halsall Street on 4 September 1921. His parents were William Rainford and Leah nee Bridge, both of whom distinguished themselves in life. Bill Senior was, at one time, a cricket professional and while serving as a sergeant during World War One captain of the British Army football team in a match against the Belgian Army. He later appeared for Manchester United and Tranmere Rovers. His wife Leah served as a local councillor and chairman of Prescot Urban District Council.
The younger Bill Rainford attended the Board School on Warrington Road before graduating to Prescot Grammar, where he excelled in football, cricket and athletics. He won the Victor Minorum aged thirteen in 1935 and the Victor Ludorum aged fifteen in 1937. By the time he left school later the same year, he had played football for Moss United (when he was just eight years old), the Grammar School and Prescot Boys’ Club. Working as an apprentice auto-setter at BICC, he played for Prescot BI, took part in a trial match for Aston Villa and was approached by Newcastle United. In the end he signed as a part-time professional for Wigan Athletic.
World War Two came two years into Bill’s apprenticeship and fledgling career as a professional footballer. Recalling the horrors of trench warfare in World War One, his father advised him to steer clear of the army. He enlisted with the RAF and served as a PT instructor in the relative safety of RAF Warton, near Blackpool, and RAF Andreas on the Isle of Man. His son Colin has a postcard dated 25 October 1939 inviting Bill to play for Wigan Athletic against Preston North End on 28 October though it is unclear if Bill had enlisted by this date (a little over seven weeks into the conflict). His wartime football included matches for Prescot Albion in the St Helens Combination and guest appearances for Everton Reserves, Bedford Town, Bath City and an Isle of Man Representative XI that included, according to unpublished notes for Neville Walker’s book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street, Stanley Matthews, Peter Doherty, Jack Dodds and Jack Nicholson.
Bill married Kathleen Moore at Eccleston Parish Church on 10 March 1945 and the couple set up home together at 6 Duke Street, Prescot, a house still occupied by their one and only child Colin, born in 1953. Kathleen died in her late fifties in 1981. In the immediate post-war days, Bill was still in the RAF and stationed at Burtonwood. He resumed his playing career at Wigan Athletic for a short time and served briefly as captain. But it was inevitable that such an astounding Prescot man should one day play for his hometown club. (He was brought up on the nearside of Halsall Street, and it is tempting to speculate about how many matches he might have watched as a child peering from the back bedroom window of Number Nine.) He signed for Prescot Cables in January 1946, making twelve appearances during the 1945-46 season and scoring four goals. He was appointed captain for 1946-47. The following season witnessed his finest hour when he led Cables to their 1948 Lancashire Combination Cup Final victory at Lancaster. By this time he had resumed work at BICC, moving to AC Delco in Kirkby in the 1950s.
Bill’s career at Hope Street came to an end, after three eventful years, in April 1949 when he was suspended by the club ‘for disciplinary reasons’ (Walker). His son Colin puts a slightly more colourful spin on the events: ‘Bill punched a referee and was banned for life!’ Nonetheless, he soldiered on for Chorley, Runcorn and South Liverpool. He played at least one more match at Hope Street: in Bert Jelly’s benefit match on 27 April 1953. It was Jelly who replaced him as captain back in 1949, of course.
It is impossible to write about Bill Rainford without mentioning his fiery temperament. Even as a schoolboy footballer and athlete, and whether on or off the field, he was fiercely competitive. He liked to win. ‘He was forthright,’ Colin told me. ‘He spoke his mind and never backed down. But he bore no grudges.’ It may seem strange to compare a non-league footballer with a Shakespearian king, but Rainford’s temperament recalls these lines from Richard II:
…violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes.
In the heat of battle he could play the Viking and go berserk, the blood rushing to his brain, his fists flying. In a vital FA Cup tie at Rhyl in October 1948 he appeared as ‘a controversial selection at centre forward … a crucial element in a 2-1 defeat, especially as Rainford was reputed to be not fit to play’ (Walker). My brother David Williams was among the 2,000 Cables fans that travelled to the match and recalls that Bill took one look at the Rhyl team, removed his false teeth, walked purposefully to the touchline and handed them to his wife Kath for safe keeping. He suspected that an affray was imminent and didn’t want them damaged. Inevitably, he was sent off. Perhaps this was the turning point in his career at Cables. Perhaps club officials realised that his temperament was becoming a liability.
In adult life Rainford was a talented all-round sportsman, distinguishing himself not only in football and cricket but also table tennis, darts and golf. His ‘sudden storms’ erupted in whatever sport he played. His son Colin told me that he was once excluded from the otherwise peaceful surroundings of a bowling green. Harry Boydell recalls taking him as a guest to Widnes Golf Club. It was a foggy day and club rules specified that if visibility was limited players should not tee off until given the go-ahead. Impatient as ever, Bill drove off and almost hit another player. Afterwards Harry was asked politely not to bring him again.
His death from a heart attack at the age of 66 on 8 June 1988 was in total contrast to his life. Playing bowls with his old Grammar School pal and pre-war Cables star Eddie Kilshaw at the Prescot Leisure Centre, he withdrew to a nearby bench and sat motionless. Eddie and the other players thought he’d either fallen asleep or was performing one of his familiar practical jokes. But he wasn’t playing dead. He’d finally given up the fight and slipped peacefully away. His violent fires had finally burned themselves out. He is remembered with affection by all who knew him, and I have noticed a certain glint in their eyes when old friends turn the conversation to Bill Rainford.
I am indebted to Bill Rainford’s son Colin for family details, to Neville Walker for allowing me access to unpublished notes for his book ‘From Slacky Brow to Hope Street’ and to David Williams and Harry Boydell for passing on some of the many stories about the man.