Old, was in theory, the necessary attribute for these rugby fellows; for entrance into veterans rugby was deemed as being a minimum of 35 years of age, which at the time was seen as being too old to play serious senior rugby. The team was formed in 1975 by Peter Harper senior along with Hayden Bowen; quickly earning a reputation for being a team that was very hard to beat. Many a junior second team would be in dread, after drawing Macclesfield Vets in the Pool fixtures and returning home with their-tales-between-their-legs after a sound thrashing at the hands of a bunch of old players.
The picture here was posted online by President Peter Harper with the question: “Who are these players and when and where was it taken”. Amazingly it featured an embarrassing picture of himself, aged 14 along, with his Dad, at an away game against Lymm. Two years later the team morphed into Macclesfield Veterans with a rich rugby history lying ahead. The team was bolstered by some quality players including a number of teachers: Tis Bevan, Derek Parry, Alan Cope, Mark Harborn, Mick Betteridge, and Will Montgomery (only 31). They played a quality brand of rugby and were hardly ever beaten.
In 1985 Wilkey was tempted out of early retirement to team up with Betteridge in the Centre spots, joined a few years later by Cheshire Building Society Deputy CEO David Whatmuff, Whatty was a rugby playing enigma. His extra long navy shorts were more at home in an on-stage slap-stick comedy and on the rugby field. Opposition back row forwards would drool at the prospect of knocking this little lanky lad into the middle of next week. But Whatty’s nifty footwork and perfectly timed body swerve would leave his would-be aggressors grasping at straws. Full Back Clive Kirkham recalls: “In one particular game against a very hard Legh side Whatty was making the opposition back row look silly, until two of them came at him, flat out, from either side, there was an enormous impact as the three collided, we feared the worst, but as the dust settled, like in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, Whatty got up, unscathed and ran off with the ball, leaving the Legh lads in a pile on the ground.
The Vets were full of characters, none more so than current Chairman Stephen Branch, aptly nicknamed at the time Captain Chaos, ex-Army Captain and Captain of the team. Whilst his leadership qualities were never in question, prior to kick-off was always chaotic: 17 players on the pitch, no props, no ball, etc, etc. Another character and captain was Kevin Wright, Kevin from Northern Ireland had played a very good standard of rugby and it showed. Scrum Half Prof. David Spendlove said: “The first words you would hear in the changing room were always: Is Kevin playing? if the answer was yes, we invariably won”. Kevin took us to Letterkenny on tour, one of the three times that the Vets toured Ireland, each has tales in their own right – well the ones that can be retold! One involves Hooker John Corry in Cork; our opposition was entertaining us at a nightclub in Cork when we suggested “how about a dancing competition for the next round of drinks”. They duly obliged and pushed forward their top guy who produced a mix of disco and Irish dance, not bad. John Corry sheepishly stepped forward before leaping in the air to produce a jaw-dropping Irish dance extravaganza. They were not to know that Corry had beaten their own Michael Flatley in the Junior World Championships – nice to get one over the Irish.
Vets Rugby Tours were always the highlight of the season as we conquered Europe: Eu, Amsterdam, Ireland, Venice and Verona, Marbella and Seville, Antibes, Copenhagen and Malmo, Prague, Toulon, the list goes on as now the fourth team organises an annual continental tour.
At one time Macclesfield fielded three Vets teams on a Saturday: The Vets, The Stags (ex third team players that got too old), and Peter Harper’s invincible Dream Team. When Peter Harpers Dream Team had had their day he rejoined The Vets after a 35-year absence. Peter’s company Clapham Landscapes sponsored a Vets League and Trophy, which naturally we won on several occasions (now in the trophy cabinet).
As local opposition diminished the Vets team was forced to join a league to get regular games, which in itself was not a problem. However when other teams were put under pressure to field teams, selection cascaded down which on five occasions in the season games had to be cancelled due to a shortage of players. The league hierarchy threw the Vets out of the league for not fulfilling fixtures and that was the end of Vets rugby at Macclesfield – rugby bureaucracy has gone mad. Chairman Stephen Branch has in the past few seasons been working with the RFU to try and re-establish social rugby – with some success; the story continues …